ECM Faculty Focus
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Problem solving requires thinking and engineering problem solving requires engineering thinking: a few thoughts from Dr. Carl Reidsema and Associate Professor Roger Hadgraft.
We can all pretty much agree that engineering is a thinking person's game. We love to think about engineering problems! In fact we pretty much devote our entire life to thinking about problems, solving them and publishing what we've found out. Don't you just hate it when someone reduces your life to just a few sentences?
However, we don't spend a great deal of time thinking about the front end of the phrase "thinking about engineering problems". Isn't that curious? We love the problem part but really aren't all that interested in the thinking part. So why would we need to think about thinking? Let me explain.
First let's address the most common question whenever anyone starts promoting the idea that we need to improve our teaching and learning practice: if it ain't broke, don't fix it! Here are a few observations to support our hypothesis that it actually is broke. With regard to how we teach, what company, organisation or civilisation do you know that does the exact same thing it has done for 100 years? If your great grandparents walked into one of our classrooms they would feel quite at home. From a systems view this would be fine if the external environment was invariant but it obviously is not.
Ah! But you say, all the essential technical fundamentals haven't changed much and with less time in each session and more things to teach the students, we can't even keep up! This is absolutely true, but for an engineer this is an important indicator of a system not functioning to specification. And as we stand still, the relative distance between what we do and what society needs increases.
When we ask practising engineers what they need from graduates, they say: graduates who can think, show initiative, are adaptable, are good communicators, forward thinkers, proactive, personally resilient, open minded, networkers, influencers, good at teamwork, broad minded and are self motivated, as well as many other similar attributes. If these are the graduates they need what are the fundamentals?
A recent book by Sheri Sheppard et al, commissioned and published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the US, makes the following point:.
The new environment for engineering is forcing the formulation of problems and interactive design of solutions to the center of professional activity. ... towards "complex systems" that are so "heterogeneous that interdisciplinary interactive groups sharing perspectives and information are needed to create and control them"(Hughes 2004, p78; Sheppard, Macatangay et al. 2008, p4)
If these are the needs of engineers in our 21st century society, what kind of education do they need? Is a thorough grounding in Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics sufficient for the complex world we find ourselves in?
Coming back to engineering thinking, there are essentially two fundamental ways in which engineers think about problems. They synthesise or create solutions in a divergent manner and they evaluate and analyse the emerging solutions in a convergent manner.
Engineers need to be able to do both and do them both well. But we don't offer our students much opportunity to practice divergent thinking. We lump the divergent stuff into the design units and focus on the convergent stuff in almost everything else we teach. But tomorrow's engineers will need divergence as much as convergence and we will need to find a way to incorporate this into our traditional engineering science units. Yes, students need to know how to do the basics. In fact, it would be really helpful if they could do the basics better than we could when we were students. But students now need to know more than we ever did. How is that going to be possible?
In researching this article, the authors had the opportunity to visit a new university, created to make the most of what we've learned about high performing teams with access to powerful information technology. This is an excerpt from the visit report:
The School of Engineering at the University of New Start is built on a vision of itself as a flexible, learning organisation devoted to the improvement of engineering practice through the transfer of existing knowledge and the development of new knowledge. The School maintains an active research program to support state of the art course content and research opportunities for undergraduates, postgraduates, staff and industry partners.
"Teaching" is built around studios that are inherently integrative, allowing students to learn technical skills and knowledge in a design context, while developing interpersonal, communication, teamwork and other thinking and behavioural skills (the process skills):
Many of these teaching problems or projects are developed from strong links with industry with a clear sustainability focus, while other projects contribute to numerous research programs within the School. It is not at all unusual for students to be co-authors of several technical papers and design reports by the time they finish their undergraduate studies.
Considerable effort has been devoted to the development of Internet-accessible course materials (interactive tutorials, software, etc) to complement the projects. This has been done in collaboration with other progressive institutions around the world. These resources have largely removed the need for staff to spend their time delivering traditional lectures, and staff and student time is now spent more productively talking with each other about the projects.
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