Episode 19 — Value

Engineers bring economic benefit to their employers. In this episode, we talk with Professor James Trevelyan about the value of engineers in the workplace.

  • While the word “value” has many meanings, Chris has an immediate desire to interpret it in terms of dollars and cents.
  • Engineers obviously provide some economic value, as employers continue handing out paychecks to their engineers.
  • Jeff has run across the Big Beacon Manifesto, which describes an idealized goal for engineering education.
  • Our guest is James Trevelyan, a professor of Mechatronics at the University of Western Australia.
  • Relatively few studies of engineering practice have been conducted, perhaps because such investigations require a merging of anthropological and technical skills.
  • Unlike medical students, most engineering students don’t get a chance to work “in the field” before receiving their degrees.
  • Tacit knowledge has been relegated to second-class status since the times of the Greek philosophers, with messy realities being considered less “pure” than Platonic forms embodied by explicit knowledge.
  • Engineering education moved from being practice-based to science-based around 1950, following World War II.
  • Since practical knowledge is no longer being handed down in large companies, much of the tacit knowledge of engineering is being lost.
  • An example of lost knowledge is the inability of the U.S. space program to recreate the Saturn V rocket.
  • Engineering students start leveraging useful skills, such as social networking, while still in school, but they consider the use of such talents as only “semi-legitimate.”
  • Jeff recalls an MIT study indicating engineers learn most of their day-to-day working skills in industry.
  • Regardless of experience or title, about 60% of an engineer’s time is spent in direct interactions with other people.
  • One explanation for why engineers exhibit such a high level of interaction may be that the engineering profession requires distributed cognition.
  • James references a book about constructing the Canal du Midi in Southern France, which required a collective effort.
  • Engineers largely succeed or fail on their ability to get individuals with needed skills and knowledge to contribute those assets at the right time, and in the proper manner.
  • James wrote a paper on engineering collaboration, titled “Technical Coordination in Engineering Practice” (pdf), in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education (vol. 96, no.3, pp. 191–204).
  • Engineers spend approximately 30% of their time coordinating the activities of others.
  • Engineers have shorthand methods of communicating technical ideas, as depicted in the book, Designing Engineers, authored by MIT professor Louis L. Bucciarelli.
  • James refers to a paper he recently presented at the Frontiers in Education 2012 Conference, held in Seattle, Washington. It is titled “Understandings of Value in Engineering Practice,” and should soon be available to those with a subscription to IEEE Xplore.
  • German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe identified that as we think about something, our ideas representing that thing shift and move. In his book Scientific Studies, Goethe writes, “How difficult it is…to refrain from replacing the thing with its sign, to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with the word.”
  • We need to be aware that others, especially those from other disciplines, may assign entirely different meanings to words and phrases. Even across related engineering fields, similar words may elicit concepts that diverge in crucial respects.
  • Engineers are typically unaware of the economic value they bring to an enterprise.
  • Engineers produce significant value by reducing the project risk perceived by financial investors.
  • In her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, American philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes the case that today’s college education has become overly focused on economic opportunities, at the expense of critical and empathetic thinking.
  • A framework for understanding why individual investors perceive similar conditions as presenting differing levels of risk is expectancy value theory.
  • Chris mentions Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which suggests that people are strongly motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery, but not so much by economic gain.
  • In Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being, authors George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton discuss how social identity influences economic decision-making.
  • When possible, it is beneficial to talk to both customers and end-users.
  • James suggests that listening is a very important skill for engineers, and one that can be learned.
  • The first chapter of People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts, by Robert Bolton, contains useful instruction on learning to listen.
  • Mobile phones have been an engineering success in many developing countries.
  • Management skills are an important part of engineering work. However, most managerial training offers only an abstract introduction to the practical capabilities needed in industrial practice.
  • As we discover more about how individuals learn, we may need to rebuild the intellectual foundations of engineering, so as to allow a broader distribution of engineering knowledge, and a deeper understanding of engineering methods.
  • James Trevelyan can be reached via the email address listed on his website.

Thanks to peasap for the photo titled “George is Keeping an Eye On You!” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

3 thoughts on “Episode 19 — Value”

  1. It seems like there’s more material than I could digest during the hour. I was interested in how engineering could reduce poverty, why low-cost regions can be high-cost, and if we re-evalute what are the real foundations of engineering education what would the foundations include?

    I agree that communication is very important. It’s important in theory to bring producers and consumers together, but I have an unfair negative bias toward sales. It seems like sales people think that the real work is bringing people together and the elements they’re bringing together are interchangeable pieces on a chess board. Engineers think making stuff and getting it working right is real work, and sales is just an afterthought. I never want “manager” or “president” or “officer” on my card if I can help it. Those names just conjure up my negative stereotypes. If we followed Trevelyan’s suggestion of ending the idea that when you become a manager you are no longer an engineer, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way.
    His comments made me realize my aversion to being anything like a “manager” is a symptom of the problem he describes.

  2. I was a bit surprised when a discussion of how the engineering curriculum became more like the sciences curriculum, and how that may have hurt engineers. My surprise comes from the fact my Chemistry degrees were heavily based on the following…


    1. Lab work. In every Chem class there was an associated lab session. A prelab where the class would discuss the purpose, and how it tied in with the class. Disciss all the equipment needed and any safety concerns. We also had to write up a Prelab report with your lab partner before the lab so both would understand what to do. There would be a post lab report to get graded.

    2. Independent research projects also in most classes. Actually several in one class. We worked on them sometimes with other classmates and then needed to present our research to the rest of the class for a grade.

    3. We were expected to tutor lower classmen as we moved on, this reinforced the topics and learned interact with other students.

    4. A year long project that was research and lab work that needed to be presented to the entire department (professors and students). This was every year with the biggest senior year.

    5. I also tutored at a local community college, non science majors weekly in my junior and senior year.

    6. Worked for the department helping set up the weekly labs for my professors other lab sections. Set up the Chemicals, prepare and test any instrumentation used. Run through the lab to make sure it was ready for the full class. Be on hand in case the professor needed any help. Clean up afterward.

    7. I also set up a new instrument purchased by the department and incorporated it into my professors curriculum. This included creating the lab documents and instructions on how to use the instrument and being on hand to train the students and the professor on its use. I actually took the class later that year as well.

    Graduate School (Masters Degree)

    8. Much the same as above. Just More of it.

    9. We were required to teach two lab sections per semester. Teach the prelab, proctor the lab session. Grade lab reports for some 20 students. A tough job. We needed to set up our own labs and prepare everything ouselves.

    10. Independent research on a unique topic. Present our progress to our advisory team of professors at the middle and end of each semester. Then present the final project in front of the entire department before graduation.

    I am sure I am leaving a bunch of stuff out. Oh yeah, like presenting at regional conferences say 100 miles away on our research topic.

    To even suggest a science education is all theory is absurd. Yes there is a lot of math and theory, but it is also grounded by hands on work. That hands on requires the use of a dozen or more unique pieces of test gear and instrumentation. Along with the usual glassware and bunson burners. How to handle dangerous chemical and their proper storage. I could go on for another page.

    Sorry for the rant, but I want people to know how it really is.


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