Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 436.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2003 07:20:13 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: education of engineers
Two interesting and relevant items for us, both on the education of engineers.
(1) Rosalind Williams, "Education for the Profession formerly known as
Engineering", in the Chronicle of Higher Education 49.20, 24 January 2003,
p. B12, which is adapted from her recent book, Retooling: A Historian
Confronts Technological Change (MIT Press, 2002).
In this article Professor Williams reviews the changes in engineering
driven by "interaction in interdisciplinary projects where the projects,
not the disciplines, define the terms of engagement". Many of these, she
notes, involve "the science that is now most dynamic -- biology", as a
result of which "the relationship between science and engineering... no
longer summarized in a set of reliable equations... now includes all the
complexities of evolving life forms". Williams invokes historian of science
Peter Galison's "trading zone" metaphor to describe the combinations and
recombinations across the disciplinary boundaries which now largely define
the engineer's working life.
"A major factor in the success of this trading zone..." she comments, "is
the role of information technology in providing a common, readily
transferable language" -- so much so that "[m]ost engineering departments
are becoming, to a greater or lesser extent, departments of
applied-information technology." Williams describes the radical changes in
departments of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the growth
of new theoretical departments in engineering schools.
At the same time, she notes, there is a very strong "back to practice"
movement within engineering that she identifies with the growing
market-orientated forces. The consulting practice that once bridged
university labs with businesses has been drastically weakened as companies
realize that they "can get the benefit of good research ideas by investing
in and eventually buying up small companies, which pay more attention to
marketability, timeliness, and productivity than university labs."
Under this pressure, combined with the sea-change in which IT is so
intimately involved, engineers "seek to reclaim a distinctive identity for
engineering: to proclaim that here is something engineers do that
scientists and businessmen do not do. In the end, however, the reclamation
efforts only underscore engineering's loss of identity. In both design and
systems work, many people other than engineers are in on the act. In design
today, engineering, programming, science, language, and art converge. In
dealing with technological systems, it is even more obvious that engineers
have to collaborate with political scientists, economists, lawyers, and
managers, just for starters. In fact, the constant dilemma for engineers at
MIT and other universities is whether to hire these collaborators as
faculty members or to try to get other departments and schools to hire them."
"As a result, engineering education today is, as we say in the humanities,
contested terrain -- a site where different strategic goals collide." One
reaction is to pile ever more into the curriculum, hence the "curricular
logjam". "Everyone concerned with engineering education yearns for
dynamite, if only they could agree on where to set the charge."
To summon a very Canadian image, we in humanities computing are, at least
at the moment, much more like beavers than those lumberjacks.
(2) Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind's Eye (Cambridge MA: MIT
Press, 2001), which is a most welcome enlargement of his very fine article,
"The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology", Science 197 (4306, for
26 August 1977): 827-36. My attention was originally directed to the
article, hence to the book, by Michael Mahoney's article, "The History of
Computing in the History of Technology", online from
http://www.princeton.edu/~mike/computing.html. See the description of
Ferguson's book e.g. at http://www.asme.org/history/e_ferguson.html.
Mahoney explains clearly enough the significance of Ferguson's work for a
deeper understanding of software and what we're doing with it.
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org
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