All posts by Jeff Shelton

Episode 17 — DIY

How are the DIY and engineering communities meshing as prototyping and anlysis tools become more widely available? Chris and Jeff discuss the issue with a well-known inventor in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • Since many engineering fields don’t require a license, there are few barriers to interested individuals learning and applying engineering theory.
  • Our guest for this episode is Steve Hoefer, a prolific inventor and maker, whose work is documented on the Grathio Labs website.
  • Steve was raised on a farm, so he learned problem-solving skills from an early age.
  • Although having a desire to write science-fiction, Steve minored in computer science while in college.
  • Steve’s first computer was a Texas Instruments TI-99, while Jeff was introduced to home computing on a Tandy TRS-80, nicknamed the “Trash-80.”
  • After deciding that the college scene wasn’t meeting his needs, Steve moved out to San Francisco to find a job building web sites.
  • Steve started freelancing in 1996, and hasn’t looked back since. His inventions include the secret knock gumball machine, and a sonar glove.
  • Clients turn to Steve’s problem-solving skills when they’re uncertain as to whether a solution actually exists.
  • Being a generalist has provided Steve with useful “cross-pollination” skills and insights.
  • Steve references a chart about knowing what you know.
  • Makers can be limited by issues they don’t know that they don’t know.
  • On the other hand, engineers may be limited by a lack of application knowledge that makers possess.
  • Steve is of the opinion that the maker movement may produce more engineering jobs, rather than decreasing the need for traditionally trained engineers.
  • Portfolios are important in conveying your skills and excitement to others.
  • Steve finds Stack Overflow a useful resource for finding answers and discovering possible collaborators.
  • Listeners can follow Steve on Twitter as @grathio, or contact him by email via steve

Thanks to Steve Hoefer for permission to use his photo of a “Quick And Dirty IR Camera Remote.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 16 — Critical Thinking

Is it possible to accurately perceive the world around us? Are engineers any more or less rational than the general public? Chris and Jeff discuss these issues with Jeff Ellis on this episode of The Engineering Commons.

  • It’s challenging to accurately perceive reality from within the confines of the human mind.
  • One approach to overcoming such limitations is called critical thinking.
  • Our guest for this episode is Jeff Ellis, who writes about critical thinking on his website, The Thinker Blog.
  • Critical thinking has been defined by Tim Van Gelder as “the art of being right.” This means adjusting one’s opinion willingly to the most defensible and rational viewpoint.
  • Jeff Ellis is an aerospace engineer who currently works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He became interested in critical thinking as a means for avoiding and mitigating project failures.
  • Our guest believes that critical thinking is “the most important skill a person can have.”
  • Overestimating one’s own abilities is a common cause for turning away valuable advice and information.
  • The principle of reciprocity states that we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree.
  • Critical thinking requires that we attempt to overcome the limitations of our human nature.
  • We have emotional attachments to our opinions, which makes it difficult for us to shift our viewpoint.
  • Common human biases include the confirmation bias and hindsight bias, as well as political biases.
  • There are many cognitive biases that are part of the human condition.
  • We still don’t know if some brains are pre-wired for engineering, or if engineering education develops what we recognize as stereotypical engineering attitudes.
  • Chris really likes the blog post titled Critical Thinking for Engineers.
  • Young engineers tend to transition too quickly from problem definition to solution generation, since creating things is the “fun” part of engineering.
  • Along a similar vein, young engineers can become too enamored with their first solution.
  • Some people take advice about critical thinking well, while others are offended that their opinion is being challenged.
  • Jeff Ellis wishes critical thinking skills were taught in college, as opposed to being left for workplace training. He also feels that the nation’s top liberal arts schools produce excellent critical thinkers.
  • Real world complexity means that there is rarely a single clear “textbook” answer. Thus, rational evaluation is needed.
  • Dealing with “alpha-geeks” can be a challenge, as Jeff Ellis outlined in his post, Castles and Tents.
  • Being able to handle disagreement in a congenial manner is an important skill when working in a team environment.
  • Civility is an important component of critical thinking.
  • Resources for learning more about critical thinking can be found at
  • Jeff Ellis has the handle @twiticalthinker on Twitter, and an email address of jeffellis1

Thanks to Mary Harrsch for the photo of Rodin’s bronze, titled “The Thinker.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

Episode 15 — Talent

Are engineers born or made? In this episode, Chris and Jeff discuss how engineers acquire their talents.

  • A top-notch engineer is skilled in both the theoretical and practical realms. So how are these talents acquired?
  • Exposure to engineering operations seems to be an important component in creating an outstanding engineer.
  • In this episode, we reference Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code.
  • Mr. Coyle suggests that world-class skills can be acquired through substantial deep-practice, continued passion, and knowledgeable coaching.
  • Practice causes additional insulation, called myelin, to form around neural pathways, allowing neural signals to pass more quickly and with greater strength.
  • Deep practice consists of focused concentration and repetition of a particular skill that is not yet refined. Such sessions are said to be mentally and physically exhausting.
  • Several books reference 10,000 hours of deep practice being required to become a first-class practitioner. This “rule” is based on a paper titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.
  • Repeated practice is difficult for engineers, as they are often asked to carry out new tasks that have little in common with prior assignments.
  • Deliberate practice requires problems to be “chunked up” into understandable blocks of content that can be internalized.
  • Processes need to be slowed down, and frequently repeated, for solid learning to occur.
  • Jeri Ellsworth taught herself electronics by trying tons of things, and accepting that failures will occur.
  • People who have to “grind” on a solution often understand the problem better than those who get a solution on the first attempt.
  • Engineers often rely on their own passions to drive educational and career advancement.
  • Typical career paths take engineers away from technical operations just about the time that they reach the 10,000 hour mark.
  • Apprenticeships were often used in the past to convey skills from one generation to the next. Chris makes the case for reviving engineering apprenticeships.
  • Great teachers have outstanding task-specific knowledge.
  • Good instructors are frequently gifted with a strong theory of mind, and can perceive a student’s difficulties.
  • Honest feedback from mentors is needed for improved performance, and must be provided in a timely manner.

Thanks to Bjornmeansbear for the rocket photo, titled “It’s not Rocket Surgery.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson