What Calculator is Best for Engineering?

Short answer:  Look here.

Details follow. . .

Five years ago a common question that I would get about this time of year was, “What computer is best for Engineering?” The question usually came from parents who intended to give a computer to their recent high-school graduate who was headed to Dordt for an engineering major. Amazingly, after five years my recommendations made back then are still up-to-date! Don’t believe me? There is a link at the end of this article so that you can see for yourself.

Now I’ll try to give a timeless answer to the similar question, “What calculator is best for Engineering?”

Really fancy “graphing” calculators are available.   I have one, an HP 28S.  The TI-83 and TI-89 are more popular and excellent calculators too.  But the interesting thing is that you will not be allowed to use those calculators on some important tests.  “What tests?” you might ask.  Just the Fundamentals of Engineering and the Principles and Practice of Engineering tests, which you might need to get your professional license!  Oh. . .  also the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) which you might need to get into graduate school.

Dordt College has no control over the policies regarding calculators on the tests just mentioned, but we want our graduates to do well on these tests.  These policies have been getting stricter as time goes by.  It can be quite a distraction to have to deal with an unfamiliar non-graphing calculator while working on one of these tests if all you used in college was a graphing calculator.  Therefore the Dordt College Engineering Department has adopted a new policy regarding calculators.  Beginning in the fall of 2012 only calculators permitted at the NCEES engineering exams will be permitted at tests in the EGR100 (freshman) and EGR200 (sophomore) level engineering courses at Dordt College.  Beginning in the fall of EGR 2013 the policy will apply to all engineering tests at Dordt College.

You might wonder if requiring these inexpensive non-graphing calculators would impair the educational experience.  To the contrary.  They will enhance the educational experience for at least two reasons.  First, calculators that can do many fancy things also have a learning curve associated with using the advanced features to advantage.  We occasionally grade papers where it is obvious that an advanced feature (for example symbolic algebra) was used by a student who really did not understand the feature or the method.  Then the outcome of the calculation is unrecognized bogosity, which is of course not good for education.  Second, when graphs or other advanced features are really needed, computers are a better way to do it.  Learning to do these tasks on a computer is much better than doing them on a calculator with a small low-resolution screen and a unique style of programming that translates to nothing else.  Learning about computer programs like Labview, Mathcad, Matlab, and Sage is much more worthwhile than learning how to use a graphing calculator.

The non-graphing calculators that the department will be requiring for tests (you can use whatever you want for homework) are not stripped-down four-function items.  These calculators support all kinds of trig, exponential, logarithmic, power and root, statistical, polar, and many other functions.  (Some also support complex number calculations.)  They are easier to use well and rapidly than a graphing calculator. (Unless you never use the graphing features!)  And, they cost much less.  When the faculty discussed these matters at a department meeting prior to adopting this new policy, we unanimously agreed that these calculators are actually more appropriate to a quality education than the graphing calculators that are banned from the professional and graduate exams.  There are good reasons why the national organizations ban graphing calculators.

My favorite?  For what it is worth, I’m hooked on HP calculators because I used to work there.  The retro-styled HP 35s is the way to go IMHO.  You can get a used one in perfect condition if you look around on the Web.  The engineers who use them one time on an NCEES test sometimes sell them cheap.  (Ahh…, but you won’t get mine!)  Don’t take my word for it though.  Look around and you will find some so-so reports on that HP model.  It is just not a perfect imitation of some earlier HP calculators.  And it is not really worth the money either in comparison to the other calculators on the NCEES list, unless of course you prefer HP for some reason!

Here is another way to look at it.  All the calculators in this list are very similar.  The main features that distinguish one of these calculators from another are a multi-line display (HP has it!) and complex number support (HP has that too!).  Those are features you can use in your work at Dordt and on the tests.  At these low prices, why not look for both of those features in one calculator?  That’s probably about one third of the calculators on the NCEES list.

If you are already familiar with a TI calculator, you might prefer a TI-36X Pro model.   Check that.

There you go!  Paying attention to what you need to do, rather than all the things you could do, is more important than the hardware.  Oh yeh. . .  I said that in so many words more than five years ago here!

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Christian Progress

My last post was titled, American Progress.  I posted it for your consideration when I stumbled upon Gast’s painting and could not help but remember the Apple “silhouette” series of advertisements.  What might Christian Progress be?  What might that mean for an engineer?  It is the freedom to make progress in the Christian sense of the word here at Dordt that gets me excited as I teach!

In answer to these questions I offer first a reference to a favorite book of mine, The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires.  You can read an outline of the book online.  Or better yet, get the book (purchase or from a library) and read it.  (It is unrelated to Blamires’ book, but there is also a famous sermon from 1853 by John Angell James titled, Christian Progress.)

We live in a world of conflict between good and bad.  We depend completely on Christ’s mercy to provide salvation from the bad and knowledge of the good.  That even includes provision of a sense of living a meaningful life every day.  It motivates us to do work in which we strive to glorify God.  Figuratively, Christians desire to work to create vessels that take people through time toward their final home with God.  (Blameries, p73).  Our work, and our entire being, has a religious orientation.  Contrast that to “American Progress,”  as you might find taught in a state university.  There you find a self-sufficient world.  All that matters or ever will matter is what we experience, what we humans can sense.   American progress elevates people to the roles of gods and final judges over everything that is.  Ironically, then there is no final authority of even purpose for life.

All things were created by God and and are under Christ’s rule.  (Hebrews 2:8, Psalm 8:6, 1 Corinthians 15:27)  Although everything we do and design is bound for obsolescence and death, what we do for the Lord will matter.  “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  (1 Corinthians 14:54)  Think of the salvation and purpose we find in Christ!  That’s Christian progress.

The photo of the crosses is from http://christianbackgrounds.info/the-cross-sunshine/. The image of the dancer is a frame captured from an Apple ipod video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwq12bL_GPQ.)


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American Progress

The painting above, by John Gast, dates from 1872. Here Colombia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers.  She holds a school book and she is stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west.  The different stages of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation. Native Americans and animals flee in terror.  Note that Colombia is bringing light, as witnessed on the eastern side of the painting as she travels towards the darkened westward side.

(The text is adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny.  The photo of the painting is from http://japanfocus.org/-Bruce-Cumings/3687.  The image of the dancer is a frame captured from an Apple ipod video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwq12bL_GPQ.)


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How To Design A Bullet-Proof Vest

The old-fashioned way to test a bullet-proof vest.

This circuit board is too complicated to test the old fashioned way.

It used to be that you could just build something and try it to see if it worked.  That is, of course, the ultimate test.  Unfortunately, the consequences of failure are getting pretty serious these days!  Do you think the scene above was the first test performed on the bullet-proof vest?  What tests might have preceded the scene above?

Two things recently reminded me of the changing role of “quality assurance” testing.  Although we care about quality as much as we ever did, the way quality is achieved is changing.  I was reminded of this recently by an article in the Chicago Tribune and by our experience on a recent senior design project.   A senior design project I advised this spring produced a working prototype on the first try.  The first, “ultimate test” was a success.  Working first prototypes are getting more common because we are taking different pathways to quality than we did in the past.

The senior project was an “Improved 8VSB Demodulator.” The project was sponsored by Sencore.  You don’t need to know what an “8VSB Demodulator” is if you can just appreciate that the circuit board is complex.  (I do not have a photograph of the “Improved 8VSB Demodulator” board to publish, but it looks similar any circuit board and is about the size of the one shown above.)  These days the ultimate test—try it and see if it works—is really only good for public relations purposes. That’s probably also what the “ultimate test” of the bullet-proof vest was about too.  Real engineering testing is usually preceded by a lot of analysis and simulation.

In case of a failure, the “ultimate test” usually yields poor-quality information and at great cost.  Computer analysis and simulation tools have become so good that the results they give are full of useful detail and can be preformed faster and at less cost that the “ultimate test.”

Does this matter?  It matters because “hands on” engineering is moving into a virtual world.  Engineers get great satisfaction when things work, and especially when they work the first time.  This leads us to a preference for “using our hands” to build and test things.  Our first instinct and desire is to fire up the the milling machine and welder and make something to test.  That’s what I mean by, “hands-on” engineering.  There will always be a place for that kind of work.  But more and more, doing this in the real world is becoming the slow and expensive way to the satisfaction of a well-designed, reliable, and successful engineering result.  It is more important than ever to work holistically by not neglecting the mathematical and numerical aspects of a project. A virtual world can bring out some other aspects as compared to the real world.  A holistic approach to engineering requires attention to the simulations and analysis that can be done in a virtual world.  As computers become more capable, simulated environments also become more important, less expensive, and more like “hands on” engineering.

In the case of the 8VSB Demodulator project the students simulated the circuit, created a 3-D computer model of the circuit board to check for parts placement and fit, did various computerized design rule checks to look for poorly placed circuit-board traces, and so forth.  These virtual world aspects of the project can be credited with the success of the “ultimate test” of the 8VSB circuit board.  Although the 8VSB Demodulator project was an electrical engineering project, the same need for good analysis and simulation is true in other fields of engineering too.  For example, this Chicago Tribune article about designing  automobiles.

Photo credits:

Testing Bulletproof vest.jpg, U.S. Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007009504/

Circuit Board Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sbus_cards.jpg

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Enterprise Software—No Savior

This afternoon some of us here at Dordt had a spirited discussion of the advantages of Groupwise’s calendar feature.  Clearly, many of us love it, but for some of us it is more of a love/hate relationship.

Groupwise Calendar is software that allows you to post your work schedule in a way that is useful to others in your organization.  One of the most popular features of the software is something called “busy search.”  This allows anyone who has appropriate permissions to discover when you are not scheduled. There are many other software packages that compete, Microsoft Outlook for one example.  What I’m writing about here applies equally to any of them since it is not the software that I have a problem with but rather our attitudes to this type of software.  This type of software is “Enterprise Management” software. (Well, not a very extensive example, but it fits some of the multiple definitions of Enterprise Management Software.)  Groupwise offers advantages and disadvantages to it’s users that are characteristic of all “Enterprise Management” software.  The “Calendar” feature in Groupwise simply gives me one concrete example from which to discuss this matter.

I have no objections to using Groupwise Calendar, but I do object to the kind of faith in technology that the software seems to inspire.  This misplaced faith leads to unnecessary frustration with people who, from the prospective of a one user of the software, think that others are not using the software properly and thus make it difficult for everyone.  “If only so-and-so would keep this-or-that up to date.”  And so forth.  It is a practical impossiblity for everyone to keep every feature of such software up-to-date with respect to everyone’s potential expectations.  It would be a ball-and-chain on productivity if everyone even attempted this.  It would also be bad if everyone dismissed the software on grounds of it being needlessly complex and tedious, because if used correctly it should not be that way.  In fact there is no single “proper” way for “everyone” to use this type of software. 

“Busy search” purportedly allows the person setting up a meeting to choose a non-conflicting time for the meeting.  I say “purportedly” because the software is only an assistant in this task and not necessarily an effective one at that.  For obvious reasons of confidentiality, Groupwise’s calendar cannot actually show the calender of one person to another person.  Instead it shows times when something is scheduled—when people are “busy.” (Do you suppose they are not busy at other times?)  The “not busy” times are then prime times for scheduling new meetings or activities.

For one example of how frustration arises, suppose that on Friday morning “Joe” wants to schedule a meeting of six people.  He uses “busy search” and finds out that 8 AM on Monday is free for everyone on his list.  He then sends out a notice that is essentially a special form of e-mail announcing the mechanical details of the meeting (when, where, who, what) and asking the recipient to “Accept” or “Decline” the meeting.  The form e-mail also allows Joe to add a description of the meeting in text.  On Monday at 8 AM he comes back to find out that “Jane,” who he expected to be at the meeting, is out-of-town on a conference and has not even looked at her Groupwise Calendar.  Joe gets frustrated with “Jane” for not putting the conference on her Groupwise Calendar in the first place and for not keeping up with her messages in the second place.  When Jane finds out about this she gets frustrated with “Joe” since “Everyone Knows that the Big Conference is held at this time.”  She also wonders why should she be expected to keep up with that calendar program when she is fully committed elsewhere and most of her contacts cannot use it (because let’s say, they don’t and should not have the permissions to use it)?

Or frustration could work another way around.  Suppose when Jane wants to schedule a meeting and does a “busy search” she finds out that there are conflicts beyond the entire next week and she therefore schedules the meeting for 10 days from now to avoid the conflicts.  Later on she finds out that “Joe” had blocked out 3 hours on Monday morning for an “Appointment with Dr. Suess.” which is his code to schedule some undisturbed time in the office.  Had Joe only known of Jane’s need for an early meeting date he would have gladly rescheduled his “Appointment with Dr. Suess.”

In each case, the software was not effective at negotiating expectations and priorities.  That’s the main problem with all Enterprise Management software.  It’s great at handling the widely-understood expectations of routine business within an organization.  This is where it shines and should be used.  But it enforces a silly kind of prioritization whenever things are not so universally understood or routine.  There are times when something ad-hoc works better or even much better.

In the examples above when Joe and Jane were scheduling meetings each of them had key opportunities to bypass the “system” and get immediate results.  For example, when on Friday morning Joe scheduled the meeting, by Friday afternoon he should have realized that Jane did not accept the appointment.  Then he should have resorted to other means, such as a phone call to Jane or Jane’s secretary, etc.  He had faith that Groupwise would take care of something he should have been working at.  Likewise when Jane could not find a good meeting time, she should not have trusted Groupwise and given up on a timely meeting schedule.  She should have called or talked to people to find out what was really going on.  OK, we all see that!  So if Joe and Jane were not so smart, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that all of us have a bit of Joe and Jane’s DNA!  We really do get frustrated when we think someone is not correctly using the Groupwise Calendar program (or any enterprise management type program).  We shouldn’t.  Life functions as a complicated whole.  No computer program is ever going to sort out all our priorties and take away the tedium of scheduling (or anything creative).  That’s because the act of scheduling is an act of bugeting time and setting priorities.  It is not always a mechanical matter.

So yes, in some offices and situations, those where mutual expectations are widely understood and there is some basic routine, a program like Groupwise Calendar will often be an effective assistant.  But even in this situation, there will be times when Groupwise by itself will be inadequate.  Especially when, in a larger organization where Groupwise is effective within a department or division, assuming that it will work as effectively in some other context within the organization is risky.

Thus we should reduce our expectations of “Enterprise Management” software like Groupwise Calendar, especially when we are doing something new that crosses boundaries (departmental, divisional) or that is not routine.  If new patterns or activities become routine we will find ways to apply software to make the work flow more efficiently.  But the software is only a mediator of social structures and priorities that are established by people.  Enterprise management software is no savior.

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IEEE Field Trip to Chicagoland

The control room for Fermilab’s Tevetron proton-antiproton collider

In late January Dordt’s IEEE branch took a field trip to visit various electrical-engineering and physics related industries and places.  We left Dordt in two vans on a Thursday morning at 6 AM and traveled to Cedar Rapids where we spent the early afternoon at Rockwell Collins, where they design and manufacture avionics.  We visited their commercial avionics division.  We had a chance to operate a flight simulator, we saw how engineers there are planning new cockpit layouts, looked at their semiconductor designs of some chips used to receive GPS signals for navigation, and of course much more than can be summarized!  From there we drove on to our hotel in Aurora Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.  We enjoyed to pool and got a good night’s sleep too.  (Yep, we really did!)

On Friday we toured the Caterpillar plant in Aurora, one of the largest assembly plants in the world.  We walked for about three miles inside the plant on this tour.  Along the way we saw the assembly of one of the largest wheeled dozers made in the world.  We also saw how electronic systems are now used in the control of most aspects of such heavy machinery and in the automation of the welding of such equipment.

After lunch we visited Fermilab which is nearby to Caterpillar.   There we had a tour of various accelerators including a tour of the main building, the first-stage accelerator, and the building where the collision detectors are located.  From the observation area at the top of the main building we were also able to see the layout of the Tevetron accelerator, the second-largest such accelerator in the world.  It is 3.9 miles in circumference and is located underground, but we could see the moat of cooling water and other service buildings that are constructed over top of the accelerator.

We visited Giordanos Pizza for dinner that evening and then stayed overnight at a hotel on the lakefront.  Saturday we visited the Museum of Science and Industry during the day.  We left Chicago at about 3 PM and arrived back at Dordt College at about Midnight.

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An Engineering Approach to Every Square Inch

Times Square

Every college, country, city, company, church and so forth has some jargon that goes with it.  There are some words or phrases that have some special local connotations or importance.  “Everyone” knows about Times Square (pictured above).  “Times Square” is jargon for, “the area around the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York.”  That was easy to explain!

Here at Dordt College for some reason most of our jargon has to do with theology, and it is not so easy to explain.  Some of the jargon at Dordt includes phrases such as, “cultural mandate,” “serviceable insight,” and “creation—fall—redemption.”  A phrase on the ascendancy lately at Dordt is, “every square inch.”  Of course these phrases, now overused, get used too lightly sometimes.   After a while, maybe I even get sick of hearing such jargon.  But let me take it seriously for a moment and show why these phrases have become part of the jargon here at Dordt College, and what this means for me, an engineer.

So here’s the origin of one of our bits of jargon, a quotation from Abraham Kuyper:  “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”*

I love that picture of Times Square above.  It makes it easy to see that no, “single piece of our mental world” can be “sealed off.”  The thought of Times Square brings to mind a whole raft of other thoughts with no logical connections between them.  What does the photo above bring to mind for you?  I am reminded of hamburgers, the Beatles and Abby Road, the subway, light-emitting diodes (as what make the billboards glow), potholes in the road, chicken (red and white stripes, trademark of KFC), stop-and-go-traffic, Friday’s (more red and white strips), New Year’s eve, newspapers, etc.  And that huge variety of all things created (by God or man) all belongs to God.   And it is all supposed to glorify God.  This is the world we do our engineering in.

So the first thing about an Engineering Approach to “Every Square Inch” is that it all (and “all” is a huge variety of everything) belongs to God and is supposed to glorify God.

A second thing is that this variety of all that exists stands in a historical continuum.   God created it all and initially the creation was all good.  Then Adam and Eve sinned and the creation (all of it) now suffers from sin.  Christ offers salvation and he will return to redeem (or restore to goodness) all of creation.  This is the over-arching theme of the Bible, and we summarize it with the jargon-phrase, “Creation—fall—redemption.”  My engineering work is done in the context of this theme, or at least that is what I strive for.  Thus, the fruit of our engineering work belongs to God, is to glorify God, and should in some sense restore the creation closer to goodness.  Being human and sinful, we cannot, by ourselves, bring about true goodness, but that is what we should be doing.  But we can’t do it because we are sinful.  What a mess!  My engineering work ends up just like the jumble of stuff, good and bad, you see around Times Square—or maybe worse.

From the beginning—from creation—God intended for us to develop the world.  That’s the “cultural mandate.”  Think of all that stuff in Times Square.  Or just think about the stuff immediately around you.  That’s a lot of engineered stuff.  (The fabric of your clothing, the building you are in, the electricity used to read this blog or charge your laptop’s battery, etc—lots of stuff, all engineered.)  All that stuff started out as just dirt or water or air.  Then the ore was mined from the dirt, refined, and eventually engineered into stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Lots of engineering—and manufacturing and marketing, etc.  Engineering work is not the only aspect of the cultural mandate, but it is one of them.  And because we are sinners, we can’t get the engineering just right.  It is all tainted by our sinfulness.

Christians believe that a relationship with Christ, founded on the Bible, and with respect for the knowledge of God that nature reveals (Psalm 19, Acts 14:17, Romans 1:20), helps to direct our lives (and thus the fruit of our work) toward goodness.  We believe that the creation has within it the potential for development, and that we are supposed to be developing it.  In this development, we are subject also to limitations imposed on us.  We call these limitations “laws of nature.”  But in other aspects, we are given freedom to glorify God or not.  (What glory to God could there be if there was no freedom?)

So for example I’m free in some sense to drive at 120 MPH on the interstate.  But I cannot make the car fly no matter how fast I go due to the shape of the car and generally, the laws of nature.  Although I might drive at 120 MPH, if I crash at that speed we all know that I cannot avoid the consequences.   So there are “laws of nature” (which are really theories made by people about the way God’s creation acts) and there are “normative laws.”  Normative laws are those rules or ideas we have in which we have choice.  I don’t have to love my wife.  That a husband should love his wife is a normative law (a theory made by people about the way we should act).  It is through our faith-beliefs that we come to postulate normative laws for ourselves and expectations for others.  These normative laws then motivate certain actions.  These actions cause cultural development.  This process of discovering and forming normative laws is always, for any person, deeply rooted in faith.  That is because normative laws cannot be proven.  You can argue about them, and certain denominations and religions try to codify them, but you cannot prove to anyone that one of these normative laws is “right.”

The law-structure (natural and normative laws) of the creation has been described in great detail by Protestant Calvinistic philosophers.  Kuyper sees the laws as the boundary between God and creation (including us).  God is above the law, the creator.  The creation is under the law.  Since we (and the whole creation) exist to glorify God, meaning and a sense of fulfillment and purpose in our lives come from understanding God (as best we can), his creation, and the laws (natural and normative, as best we can).

A “modality structure” has been proposed to help us think about the law-character of creation.  The fifteen modal aspects are in an ordered list.

Psychic (feelings)
Kinematic (motion)

Each aspect in the list above depends upon and builds upon the aspects below it.  Upon consideration, you will realize that the higher aspects have associated with them mainly normative laws whereas the lower aspects, mainly natural laws.  (The last six are especially strongly associated with natural laws.) 

Kuyper proposed that all objects (and plants, animals, and people) in the world respond in all aspects.  But every object has leading functions and object functions.  For example, a car is for transportation.  It has a kinematic object function.  But, some cars might make me more noticeable than others.  A fancy or special car might help me meet people.  After all, why do I need transportation?  So the car has a social leading function.  (Social–that’s one of the modal aspects.)

Thus for an engineer, Kuyper’s theories, and similar neo-calvinist theories, form an organizational structure for thought and design which gives meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to our work.

Well, that’s the short and dirty of a big topic.  There are many different names for the modal aspects and other variations of the language regarding this world-view.  But my faith which has lead me to this Christian worldview is the primary reason that I’m at Dordt.  To study this and become a better engineer—an engineer who’s work and life give praise to God.

Interestingly, if you compare Dordt’s engineering curriculum to that of a state university, you will find much more emphasis on the lower modal aspects in the engineering curriculum at state universities.   Those aspects are less controversial since they are dominated by the natural laws.  But, if the neo-calvinists are right—if everything functions in all aspects—then an engineering education at a state university is lopsided in its heavy emphasis on natural laws.  It only takes a little taste of real life to understand that having a certain design that “works” in the sense of consistency with natural laws is not good enough.  An engineer also has to engender the confidence of others in order to get the design into production and into the world.  Engineering is a multifaceted task.

So in summary, good engineering work needs to consider “every square inch.”  The modal aspects provide one possible organizational motif for considering “every square inch.”  It has worked for me in the sense that it helps me evaluate the goodness or quality of an engineering design.  Designs that seem to follow normative laws in each aspect provide me with a sense of having done something worthwhile, something that the Lord would find pleasing.  Without striving to please the Lord in my engineering work, that work would become just. . . work.  With this perspective, my engineering activity becomes an extension of worship, a expression of my love of for the Lord that also gives me a sense of fulfilment.   

*Kuyper, Abraham (1998). “Sphere Sovereignty”. in Bratt, James D.. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 488

**Photo of Times Square from Stock.xchng

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Freedom of Worship?

Liberty Window at Christ Church, PhillidelphiaThe photo above depicts the “Liberty Window” at Christ Church in Philadelphia.  The window is an artist’s rendering of the opening prayer at the First Continental Congress.  I include it here as a reminder of the vibrancy of religious life in the public square here in the United States.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have recently been using the phrase, “freedom of worship,” rather than the more robust phrase, “freedom of religion.”   This represents a very narrow view of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So what’s the big deal?  Isn’t the freedom to worship the same as the freedom of religion?  No.  Religion is more than worship.  The founders of our constitution realized this by considering freedom of religion right up there with freedom to assemble, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition.

What does this have to do with engineering you might ask?  Well, if you are a Christian and an engineer, then your engineering will be motivated by the things you care deeply about, your “issues of the heart.”  That certainly includes your ethics, rooted  in your Christianity, your sense of aesthetics, again rooted in your Christianity, your sense of economics (distribution of wealth) rooted in your Christianity, your sense of care for the environment, rooted in your Christianity, and so forth.  In fact, you find that your faith is the (only) foundation for your engineering.  Likewise, non-christian engineers root their work in their issues of the heart and ultimately in their faith, or lack thereof.  (They must believe something, even if they believe there is no god.)

Now if President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would like to admit that all of life is worship, then I’m OK with the phrase, “freedom of worship.”  Certainly there are moments when I see intricacies in engineering work that inspire me to worship my Creator.  But I’m sure it’s not so.  Clearly, Obama and Clinton are referring to a very narrow sense of worship as that which is done for about one hour per week in a “house of worship.”  I want a lot more freedom than that in my engineering and in my life.

What President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are thinking of when they say, “freedom of worship,” is not what we stand for at Dordt College, a Christan college! (Not specifically a house of worship.)

Want to dig deeper?  Here are some more general stories on this topic.

Chuck Colson
George Weigel
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

And, interestingly, the “freedom of worship” concept is one of the arguments being used in France to restrict the wearing of a burqa.  Some argue that the burqa is not worship, thus it can be restricted, others disagree.   The burqa, Tariq Ramadan and French Values

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Engineers Do It, Scientists Know It

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.   The Essential Engineer

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!

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ABCD, ABCD, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

I had an interesting experience today after my “Introduction to Microprocessors and Digital Circuits” class (EGR 204) ended. Professor Ploegstra, who teaches biology in the next hour walked in to prepare the room for his class.  After taking a look at my whiteboard markings he remarked something like, “ABCD, ABCD, blah, blah, blah, bhah.”  I had a whole bunch of Boolean algebra (more than above) on the whiteboard with lots of repetitions of the letters ABCD along with expressions like (A + B + C + D), which is what provoked his remark.  I responded that you can make a lot out of just four letters of the alphabet.  Genetic codes are often given using four letters such as ACGT or ACGU.  We had a good laugh!

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