Engineering appreciation

I wrote this piece because I feel that we are too often we taught narrow paths,  by teachers who themselves have a limited perspective.   There is beauty in most things,  if we can calm ourselves to look;   and there are parallels in most creations,  if we can stand back and extrapolate.

Published in the Irish Times on 29th February last….

The dispute between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the encrypted iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook in the San Bernadino (California) shootings last December is being followed with concern by the technology industry, regulatory authorities and the security services in the US and elsewhere. A recent article in the UK Guardian newspaper on the 22nd February caught my attention when it described the cultural challenges within the Apple security software engineering team in being asked to deliberately break their own software code.

The article explained the almost religious awe of some engineers in well designed software artifacts. Some engineers create astonishingly beautiful software in the eyes of their peers, and become famous in their professional communities as artists. Some accept lower paying employment so as to have the opportunity to work in a perfectionist culture rather than just mundane coding. Some would view it almost sacrilegious to deliberately break such software, as the FBI is asking Apple to do.

The extreme pride held by some engineers in something being well designed made me reflect on our approach to educating student engineers and innovators. Are our technology students trained to understand the elegance of good design?

The beauty of so much of engineering in our everyday life is inaccessible to most of the public. An electrical or electronic circuit diagram is hardly visually astounding: but the fabric of the design captured by the network of the various interconnections of component symbols may well astonish and delight a professional engineer. The schematic of an engine, generator, or turbine may appear a maze of cogs, axles and cable: but the insight of the engineer who designed it can only be appreciated by colleagues. The intricate beauty of a software creation can only be understood by those who both have been trained to read code and who themselves have struggled to build polished results.

Architecture is perhaps the only discipline in which engineering design is presented to the public, and soaring cathedrals of beautiful buildings, bridges and towers are impressive. But even then the public rarely have an appreciation of the design decisions and tradeoffs which are buried under the external skin of the construction, leading to an intellectually impressive result.

Of course art forms are also sometimes inaccessible at first sight to the untrained eye, and so unappreciated. Van Gogh committed suicide at 37, having sold just two of his 2,000 or so pieces. Vermeer was forgotten as a minor Dutch artist until two centuries after his death. Keats died of tuberculosis at 25, believing himself a failure. Writing at the time it was produced, the art critic Aretino complained that not even in a brothel would you see the lurid scenes depicted in Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’.

The genius of an artist can only be deeply appreciated when the student understands the context. Knowing what has happened before, and with a set of tools and a set of alternatives which could have been adopted, why did the artist choose this outcome over any other? As an example, you can find the first TV appearance of a young Leonard Bernstein in 1954 still available on the internet, in which he explains with reverence the different themes which Beethoven explored and then rejected whilst writing his famous Symphony No 5. BBC presenter Charles Hazlewood has more recently led a series of similar analyses of major symphonic works at our own National Concert Hall. Analysis and dissection of well loved literary, poetic and theatrical works are widely available, and studied by students of the fine arts. Indeed, our Leaving Certificate humanities examinations are replete in such questions.

Which brings me back to the way we teach our young engineering graduates and innovators design. In my experience, too frequently are our students taught the tools and norms of the trade and then asked to go away in a class exercise to design and build their own practical work from scratch. Usually assessment is made on whether the submitted exercise “works” rather than, more expansively, how well it is designed to work. The context and inspiration of what great system designers have achieved, the illuminations and illustrations, and the learning from experience are frequently absent. Inspiration and understanding seems often absent in a vacuum of case studies and exemplars. Unlike education and appreciation in the arts, rarely in the teaching of engineers and innovators is a great design identified, seldom is its structure and architecture explored, and rarely are the reasons that the creator rejected different alternative structures explained.

Innovation and design requires a combination of both left and right brain thinking: rational and imaginative; emotion and analytic; ordered and creative. Our education systems frequently present myriad tools and rules without context. Too often are our students led down long corridors without understanding the entire floor plan.

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About chrisjhorn

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One Response to Engineering appreciation

  1. I don’t think it is realistic to review the history of tech areas and dissect designs in that context at least at UG and masters level as it requires time for exploration and reflection that is not necessarily there. In part this is what CPD and apprenticeship should provide perhaps through membership of a high performing group of designers including some old lags!
    People develop roughly T-shaped skills profiles as they deepen their skills and experience over time; width representing range of skills and height representing depth and this is the work of a lifetime not a few years at the academy. Remember that the cultural legal and business contexts within which designs were conceived and developed are important to understand and few early career technologists will have broadened their skills profiles sufficiently to have achieved this so early in their careers.
    To me your points highlight the importance of quality employment environments for early stage engineers and technologists, something that frequently does not exist.

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