Problem Solvers

Moderator: Do we have any executive management from a college of engineering that would like to comment from the audience? They are noticeably quiet here.


Audience Member
: Sherra Kerns, executive management from a college of engineering.


Moderator: What school?

Sherra Kerns: Olin College. I’m very intrigued by David’s comment about engineering paradigms, and Jim’s comment about practice, and Sheri’s comment about practice.

So, one definition of engineers are society’s problem solvers. To the extent that that’s an accurate definition, our approaches to engineering education reflect our concepts of how to prepare our students to solve society’s problems. So, to what extent does the panel believe that we as engineering educators are well preparing society’s problem solvers? Looking at these paradigms, first of all we had the science approach, now we’re looking to the practice approach, and David alluded to the break in this paradigm. What’s coming next?

Moderator: Very good question.

David Radcliffe: I’d take slight issue with the first one, well not issue, but I’ll extend the problem solving. I always get upset when I hear my colleagues talk to the freshmen class saying, you’re engineers, you’re going to be problem solvers. I think that so undersells us, and don’t read my comment wrong. If you go back even to the ABET list, and it’s the same in Australia, it says problem identification, problem formulation, problem solving. The danger in looking too much at the problem-solving end of the spectrum is, we get in the commodity end, the sell-buy price, and that’s where you don’t want to be. You really want to be working with the community to work out what are the issues. We’re facing climate change, we’re facing urbanization on a category globally, we’re facing energy, water issues, we’re doing things globally that that the Victorian engineers did essentially in a bit ago.

This is the most exciting time for engineers, and to stimulate the next generation to be involved with the community. So, first of all I’d suggest we need to open it up, in terms of the paradigm, if we know anything about paradigms–you don’t know when they’re going to flip, they flip when they flip, until it happens you don’t know that it’s happened, so you can’t predict a paradigm shift by definition.

Moderator: Other comments?

Gary Gabriele: I completely agree with what David said. I don’t think I could say it better, so I won’t, and I can’t say it with an accent either, so it won’t sound as good.


To Sherra’s question, are we doing it now? And I would say, no, that we’re not. Maybe to simplify it, I think that we’re producing students that maybe can solve industry’s problems but not society’s problems. That requires a different kind of engineering education, maybe a different kind of engineer than we currently educate. I think that’s a really fertile area for discovery.

One Response to “Problem Solvers”

  1. Scott Foerster says:

    Here is what has evolved in my intro classes: “Engineers change society. Engineers create the new or unique. Engineers deal with frustrations that the rest of the world avoids or doesn’t even see.”

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