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by Debbie Chachra

How Not to Think Like an Engineer

Today’s complex challenges require a more subtle approach.

Open-ended problem solving shows students that in practice, as in life, there is rarely just one  right answer. We engineers have a specific way of thinking. As my friend Larisa Mann, a DJ, scholar, and activist, puts it, “If you tell Deb about a problem you have, she will immediately suggest ways of solving it. It’s what she does.” The engineering science mind-set – approach things rationally and analytically, proceed step by step, and come to a single, closed-ended solution – is phenomenally successful at solving problems.

Our professional training is often the lens by which we view the world. But engineering science education has traditionally been very focused on conveying a set of content and skills, with very little consideration given to how the pedagogies used affect the learner’s way of thinking or the approach to questions that they foster. Engineering education typically excludes problems that involve people, and trains young engineers to be most comfortable with questions that have a single correct answer. At the most extreme – and thankfully rare – edge of this mind-set lies the disturbing overrepresentation of engineers among terrorist groups.

But the types of problems we expect engineering graduates to be able to address, such as the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges, involve complex interactions of technology, systems, and society. How do we help our graduates develop the ways of thinking they’ll need in order to address these types of problems?

One place to start is with a greater emphasis on design, particularly design that involves interacting with users. This semester, I watched my first-year engineering design students struggle with the transition from doing coursework that had a clear, algorithmic progression­ – follow these steps and you will get an A – to engaging with a design process that didn’t have right answers, that required trade-offs, and that needed them to be reflective and self-aware. Open-ended problem solving, in general, allows students to get comfortable with the idea that in engineering practice, as in life, there is rarely one right answer.

Another way to develop these higher-level cognitive skills is with self-directed learning, which gives students a chance to figure out what questions they want to ask, and why. And finally, of course, we can ask students to consider explicitly the social, political, or historical context of their work.

It’s not just engineers who are influenced by their professional education. Astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson makes the case that the American public might not be well served by the overrepresentation of lawyers in the U.S. Congress, as legal training focuses on constructing and delivering the best argument, rather than on what is correct or best reflects reality. Are lawyers, for instance, the ones best equipped to make decisions about complex technical and scientific issues, from stem cell research to Internet commerce?

Law school and engineering education are both nominally concerned with delivering a corpus of knowledge, but they both also foster specific ways of thinking. As engineering educators, we’ve historically focused on the content and skills, and we certainly don’t want to lose that. But it’s time for us to also start giving some thought to not just what our students think about, but how they think.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.




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