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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationSEPTEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 1 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
What Price Security? - By THOMAS K. GROSE
Team Player - ALVIN P. SANOFF
A Network of a Different Stripe - By DON BOROUGHS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
Refractions: Confusing Calendars - By Henry Petroski
ASEE TODAY
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Why Not Here? BY CAROLYN WILLIAMS

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Click. Build. Learn. Digital K-12 engineering courses expand with stress on quality, fun. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The ‘Random Madness’ of Work - BY JAMES TREVELYAN
ON THE SHELF: Chindia Rising - BY ROBIN TATU


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TEACHING TOOLBOX: JEE SELECTS: The ‘Random Madness’ of Work - BY JAMES TREVELYAN  

Engineers spend more time talking than doing. Success requires social skills as much as expertise.

It is astonishing that at the start of the 21st century we still only have a tiny handful of systematically researched accounts of engineering practice beyond a few glamorous aspects of design. What do engineers and technologists really do in their work? How does engineering really happen?

CHOOSE JEEThe pattern emerging from our research is that engineering is as much a social discipline as a technical one. Whether it is writing software for a mobile phone or planning more efficient maintenance schedules, engineering work has little intrinsic value until it has passed through the hands of many other people. Yet this reality seems to be almost invisible in our current engineering education curricula.

Since 2004, my colleagues and I have interviewed more than 120 engineers—mainly in Australia but also in other countries—and followed those with field observations and rigorous qualitative analysis. I noticed engineers doing lots of coordination in which hard technical knowledge is inextricably bound up with “soft skills” and understanding of human behavior. It is time-consuming, and most don’t see it as engineering work. After countless phone calls chasing up suppliers, contractors, colleagues and clients, an engineer would often say something like, “Now I can get down to some real engineering work at last!” Yet this coordination is essential to get results. Here’s a sample response to what a typical day or working week involves: “Wednesdays were our meeting day on site…The rest would be just random madness, really.”

Technical coordination is working with and influencing other people so they willingly and conscientiously perform some necessary work to an agreed schedule. It may simply be asking a colleague to search for data, persuading a client to sign off on design specifications or chasing up a contractor to supply some component samples. Technical coordination usually starts by negotiating what has to be done and when, mostly without any formal authority.

Most of the effort goes into following up, preferably face to face, to see if the work is turning out as expected and spotting misunderstandings early enough for corrections to be made. Time constraints will often force compromises, and choosing where and how to compromise relies on accurately predicting the social, technical and commercial consequences. Choosing appropriate follow-up intervals is critical. At the end, careful checking is needed to make sure no further work or rectification is needed.

The big surprise was that technical coordination seems to be the most prominent aspect of engineering practice. Next came formal engineering processes like project management, followed by tasks such as inspection, testing, checking and review. Creative technical work, design and calculations were fourth, followed by procurement, business development and personal career development.

My colleagues and I are all “insiders” with extensive engineering work experience. This makes it easier to comprehend the language and the invisible currency of engineering: technical knowledge and understanding. Much of that is tacit, unwritten, passed on verbally and through practice from one generation of engineers to another—that magic stuff called “experience.”

This research has been incredibly rewarding for my teaching. Gaining detailed knowledge of engineering practice through systematic research provides much greater credibility when explaining the relevance of course material to students. My students use a reduced version of our research interviews to help them learn about engineering practice.

Technical coordination does not seem to come naturally to many students, and poor team project performance may be associated with this weakness. We have observed similar weaknesses in many areas of engineering practice. Although project work provides a useful setting for students to learn effective coordination skills, it is not sufficient. Formal instruction and performance monitoring is needed as well.

Soft skills are often taught separately from technical course work. This research suggests that soft skills have to be combined with technical expertise for effective coordination.

Professor James Trevelyan, discipline chair for mechatronics at the University of Western Australia, teaches sustainability and professional engineering skills. Adapted from July 2007 JEE article Technical Coordination in Engineering Practice.

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American Society for Engineering Education