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Missing the Link

Engineering is key to predicting technological progress.

HENRY PETROSKI Last winter, the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, an education policy advocacy group, initiated a writing competition for seventh graders in the city’s public schools.

The contest’s single essay question was introduced with a description of conditions 50 years ago, involving the use of typewriters and paper to write essays and snail mail to send letters. Potential contestants were reminded that the Internet did not exist, and it took a whole room to house a single computer.

The essay question was: “Fifty years from now, how do you think the world will have changed as a result of science and technology?” Students were advised that they could write about future developments in any area that interested them, telling “what scientists today think may be possible in the future” and using imagination and creativity.

In the page and a half of rules, judging criteria, and description of awards, there was oddly not a single use of the words “engineer” or “engineering.” But what else will provide the essential link between science and technology, and produce the devices and systems that will change the world?

It is impossible to judge solely from the internal evidence of a press release or a set of contest rules whether C2ST, as the council’s name is abbreviated, intends the term “science” or “technology” to include engineering — or whether it even occurred to the council that engineering might have something to do with scientific and technological change.

When a group wishing to promote “scientific literacy” is so careless with words, they can appear to be dismissive of the importance of engineering. The essay contest presented an opportunity to educate students and teachers alike on the important role that engineering plays in the world of science and technology.

C2ST’s founder and president is a chemist by training and a former director of Argonne National Laboratory, located in Chicago’s western suburbs. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his achievements in chemistry and chemical engineering, and so his career could provide a model for illuminating the similarities and differences between science and engineering.

The student essays were to be judged by “scientists at Argonne.” I was once a member of that laboratory’s staff, and I recall clear distinctions between “scientists” and “engineers.” Not only did our job titles explicitly label us one or the other, but also the nature of our work plans and our budget proposals were quite different.

Scientists were typically engaged in basic research, in which objectives and milestones were not sharply defined. Most of the work of engineers was classified as applied, with specific objectives and milestones. To base an essay contest on what concrete products of technology scientists think the future may hold thus introduces an odd reversal of roles.

What scientists think may be possible is not always what engineers will find practical. Scientific possibility may be a necessary condition, but it is hardly a sufficient condition for what future technology will look like. In fact, scientists have at times been dead wrong about what is and is not possible.

In the early 19th century, some scientists held that it was impossible for a ship to carry enough fuel to make a trans-Atlantic crossing under steam alone. The conventional scientific wisdom was that the energy needed to power larger ships would grow faster than their coal-carrying capacity. Actual ships designed by engineers provided counter-examples to the scientific hypothesis.

An essay contest on what scientists think the future holds — with scientists judging the entries — may fail to teach students how science, engineering, and technology actually work together and relate to one another.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.




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