Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Problem solving vs. problematizing

"Engineers solve problems."

After all these years of drive-by exposure to Critical Theory, Post Modernism, and the Poor Man's Post Modernism (aka Constructivism) that passes for Theory in certain education school departments, I found it wonderfully refreshing to hear this line ring through of the Dean of Engineering's speech at the freshman orientation my oldest son and I attended several weeks ago.

Engineers solve problems, hard problems, while all too many of their armchair counterparts in the humanities problematize (their term; not mine) simple pseudo-problems.

As college students wise up to the job market, and perhaps also to Post Modernism's ravaging of core knowledge in the humanities, more and more are choosing the problem solving route. Every other kid I know wants to be an engineer or computer scientist.

I view this as a great development, and I say this as someone whose major was in the humanities, and who has great respect for what the humanities can potentially offer even today's debt-burdened, job-prospect-impaired student. The big picture of how humanity got where it is now; a foundation for current events; insights (both cognitive and literary) into the human mind; enhancement of empathy with all types of people (real and fictional; local and at great remove); opportunities to engage with major ethical puzzlers--to name just a few things. And all of this in the typical humanities' course setting: small group discussions, where one learns to engage in a civil fashion with multiple view points and to fine tune and communicate back one's own. (Yes, for all my loathing of K12 group work, the college humanities seminar is something completely different, where all these good things actually do happen).

But given today's options, engineering is the best choice for many undergraduates--as more and more people are realizing.

Many, however, still tar engineering, and engineers, as (among other things) lacking in creativity. Doesn't engineering amount to simple rule-following and analytical reasoning: the rather straightforward application of math, physics, and chemistry to the world as we know it, as opposed to broadening this knowledge with novel discoveries and concepts?

Every so often, even in the popular press, an article comes along that debunks this. This Monday a wonderful example appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer--one worth remembering the next time someone invokes the engineering stereotype. Here's the opener:

When a wet dog shakes himself dry, he does something amazing. He hits just the right rhythm to maximize the drying effect with minimal effort.
The seemingly casual jiggle imparts enough centrifugal force to expel 70 percent of the water in his coat in a fraction of a second.
This fact comes courtesy of experiments by David Hu, a professor of mechanical engineering and biology at Georgia Tech. He and his students found that the highly tuned drying ability is shared by 30 other furry mammals.
Hu thinks engineers can learn from some of the remarkable features that evolution has built into living things. He envisions harnessing this ability for devices that can dry or clean themselves, something like a Mars rover programmed to jiggle the dust off its solar panels.
Hu's inspiration? "a toy poodle named Jerry, who was a gift to his current fiancee from her former boyfriend."

How's that for a problematization of the engineering stereotype?


FedUpMom said...

I am not sanguine about employment opportunities for these budding engineers. In the recent past, everyone was being encouraged to get their teaching certificates, on the grounds that that was the hot new employment opportunity; now we've got a glut of teachers in many states. I can see the same thing happening with engineers.

Low employment is a very deep problem that won't be solved by kids choosing the "right" major.

Shannon Severance said...

Difference between having an BS in Computer Science (BSCS) and having a BA in Philosophy?

The one with the BSCS can be unemployed and read in the press about how the United States is not turning out enough BSCS graduates and businesses need more H-1B visas to bring in cheaper foreign labor.

The one with the philosophy degree can just be unemployed.

Been that way more or less since '95.

Note: a CS degree by itself doesn't mean a whole lot. Lots of degree holders can't code their way out of a paper bag. But the employed often includes lots of people who are not recent graduates, have put in the time to gain experience and insight that isn't taught at university, and are still unwanted by those businesses eager for foreign labor.

Also, I have nothing foreign labor. But I do not like the H-1B program. H-1B visas are for one person at one employer. They are limited in looking for better opportunities once here. Few companies will sponsor a new H-1B visa for someone here on an H-1B visa. After all the point of sponsoring an H-1B visa is cheap talent. I'd like a system that allows that foreign labor to treat US companies with all the loyalty and compassion that US companies show to workers, native and foreign born.

Interesting factoid, we hear the stories about college kids who start up a company in their dorm room and make it big. Facebook & Micheal Dell are two examples. One here on a student visa can "start" and own a company, but can do no work for it. Even the unpaid work that many founders do at the start. How many US based employers are we missing because of that?

Katharine Beals said...

Hmm. At both the orientation at this school, and at the other orientation I attended (both of them highly ranked engineering schools), we were presented with very sanguine employment prospects for graduates (employment within the field of engineering). The statistics (90+% employed within the field within a few months of graduation) strike me probably much, much better than those for, say, comparative lit meajors.
I'm guessing that the engineering grads also come away with more skills transferable to other fields than many people graduating from today's college humanities departments.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely speaking, the employment opportunities for budding engineers are far from certain.

Relatively speaking, it's a better bet than most other majors.

Engineering is just figuring out new problems, and being ready to use math if you need to (in the real world, you could go through a fifty-year engineering career without using math once). Engineering is a great choice for college. So is liberal arts. Both together are twice as good. Engineering - especially if backed up by solid liberal arts (i.e. writing) skills - prepares you for many different professions, including those not yet invented.

My PhD is in Comparative Literature (you wound me, Katharine), but my career was in engineering. I was employed by a large engineering company for a comfortable salary before I even defended my dissertation. Jobs in Comp. Lit. itself weren't quite so plentiful. On the other hand, my liberal arts background gave me the magical ability to translate Engineer into English (not to mention Portuguese and Spanish), and the ability to learn the necessary science and engineering on the job.

If my boy wants to go to college for Engineering, I'll be happy and remind him to do lots of writing-heavy classes too. If he wants to go to college for liberal arts, I'll be happy and encourage him to minor in something on the science side of the fence and keep up his math chops. Either way, actually working in engineering for more than a decade gave me a new appreciation for the field.