|Henry Petroski has a new book out, titled The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems. One of the themes in the book is that scientists are interested in understanding—that is, knowing things about—nature. In contrast, engineers are interested in creatively doing things in new ways. It is commonly held by many people that engineering is an applied science, but Petroski disagrees. He writes that science does not, “precede engineering in the creative process.” Without doing engineering, scientists would not have the tools and instruments necessary for their work. I fully agree with this perspective.|
Today I was reviewing some material that I will use in Dordt’s EGR 104 Introduction to Engineering Design class in a few weeks and was again reminded of the central theme of Petroski’s new book. The material I was reviewing was a clip from the PBS program, “Nova: Science Now” on the topic of fuel-cell powered automobiles. This clip is really about engineering, but as seems to be the typical stereotype, it is described in the clip as, “science.” Even the title of the program would lead you to believe that this is all about science, when really it is all about engineering. Maybe you say that the science is foundational. After all, without the knowledge of chemistry, where would we be with fuel cell technology? True, engineers need to know science, but false, science is not foundational. Without engineering—without a desire to creatively reduce pollution with a new fuel—who would think about designing a fuel cell? Science is important, but it does not deserve to be seen as foundational to engineering.
Here is another example. Many people think of the 1969 lunar landing as a triumph of science. For example, a web site called interestingly enough, Science Monster, offers a lunar lander game. I judge that most people would say this game is related to science. But, planning for a lunar landing, designing the spacecraft, and operating the spacecraft were all activities performed primarily by engineers. To wit, Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, is an engineer.
Consider heart disease research. Is that science? Yes, partly. It is also engineering, maybe mainly engineering. There is even a branch of engineering called biomedical engineering. Is the inventor of the heart pacemaker a scientist? No, Earl Bakken is an engineer.
If you wonder what it is about being an engineer that excites me, it is planning for and doing things that solve technical problems and help people!