Is Engineering in Trouble?

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In the insightful article “Why Human Systems Integration Fails (And the University is the Problem),” cognitive scientist Donald Norman asserts that engineering is in trouble because of its reluctance to include the human aspects of a problem into design.

Dr. Norman is an emeritus professor at Northwestern, with a BS degree in EE from MIT and an MS degree in EE and a PhD in Psychology from Pennsylvania.   He is the author of the interesting and influential book The Design of Everyday Things.

The following is an except from the article cited above.


Engineering is in trouble. Engineering has played an important role in the development of the world whether in ancient Rome or China, brilliant innovators developed sophisticated technology for bringing water, food, and the necessities of life to their expanding nations. As this experience grew, the formal field of engineering emerged. Today, engineers are taught science, mathematics, and the increasingly specialized components of their chosen field.

But this specialization leads to three difficulties.

First: Real projects require broad, generalized thinking. Universities train deep specialists, and so in the world of practical accomplishments, engineers are often ill-trained to work with other disciplines, or even to know what knowledge they need from these disciplines.

Second, engineers are taught how to solve problems, but where do the problems come from? In the world of education problems are well-formed, with well-defined solutions. In the real world, problems are fuzzy, ill-defined, where it is often not even apparent that thee is a problem, or even when it is agreed that a problem exists, neither the approach nor the solution is known, nor recognizable at first. Designers and economists call these “wicked” problems. Wicked problems require creative, right brain thinking, not the logical, systematic left-brain thinking so prized by engineers.

And Third, much of what engineers develop goes into systems meant to be used by people. Yet the scientific study of people takes place in the social sciences, not the engineering sciences. To many engineers, people are a nuisance (“if it weren’t for people,” I have heard engineers complain, “our systems would work much better”).

The solution is to rethink engineering education. As Julio Ottino, Dean of engineering at Northwestern likes to stress, we need whole-brain thinkers, not just left- or right-brain. Yes, we need logical, deep-thinking specialists, but we also need broad, creative thinking generalists. We need people who can solve the “wicked” problems of real life, who can work in broadly based, multidisciplinary teams with engineers, social scientists, economists, and business people.

Design, the discipline, is ideally suited to help solve these problems. Modern designers are problem solvers, relishing complex, wicked problems, developing creative, original solutions. They are broadly trained, experienced in a wide variety of disciplines. But these virtues come at a price: designers lack the necessary depth in each area. Combine designers and engineers, engineering training and design training, and we can create the people needed to solve the problems of the 21st century. Systems problems, integrating across disciplines, constrained by cost and existing solutions, psychology, sociology, and culture, political differences, and business needs. This is the real world: we need to rethink education to address it.

What are the techniques needed? Emphasize teamwork. Introduce design projects to all engineers in the Freshman year (as is done at Northwestern and KAIST, to chose the two universities I am associated with). Have multiple project courses. Be less concerned with covering al the essential material and more concerned with teaching students how to think and how to learn on their own. Studies at MIT and elsewhere indicate that even the best students do not retain much of what they have been taught in their classes. The best students, however, are capable of learning the material when they need it: So emphasize just-in-time learning, the complexity of real problems, the need to integrate across all disciplines, including non-engineering ones, and teamwork. …

Universities need to change. Not only are they too narrow, but they keep disciplinary walls that inhibit cross-fertilization. Professors lack practical experience and usually feel that such experience is inferior in value to theoretical and research skills. So practice is not rewarded. Only publications in refereed, research-based journals are recognized.

The separation of the social and behavioral sciences from engineering is most unfortunate: they need one another. But the social and behavioral sciences shun applications except to proclaim in incredible naiveté the fanciful applications of their work, but without actually trying to do the applications. And the engineering disciplines ignore the human factor, even though, in theory, engineering builds and designs for human use and benefit. (Of course, given the theoretical bent of modern engineering, it seldom actually builds anything.) Of all the engineering disciplines, only Computer Science (note how they don’t like to call themselves engineers) is willing to take the step, allowing HCI into their midst. But HCI is only allowed in reluctantly, as minor appendages to some department’s offerings. Although the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, ASME, does have a design section, it is difficult to find a Mechanical Engineering department that includes this, except perhaps as a tiny addition to their product design offering, which itself is barely tolerated in modern Mechanical Engineering. …

What can we do to break down the walls between academic disciplines to better educate engineers and computer scientists for the design problems that will face them in the workplace?

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