The Missing Philosophers in Engineering Education

Reflecting on the challenges facing contemporary engineering education, David Goldberg takes us on a tutoring journey that connects gaps in capability with the signature activities of notable philosophers. Goldberg’s focus area is engineering design, but he urges these gaps are broadly relevant across education in general.  Calling for the inclusion of more  liberal education in engineering, he regrets that while these are the “most basic and important habits of thought known to humankind”, students often get to the end of a traditional engineering education unable to effectively exercise these skills in the practice of their chosen discipline.  These are for Goldberg the missing basics in engineering education, not maths, science, or physics.

1.  Asking Questions

Students go on the plant trip, and the first job is to learn what the project is, what has been tried, what critical sources of data and theory exist, and what vendors have been helpful in solving related problems. Unfortunately, most student teams have trouble asking cogent questions.

We call this a failure of Socrates 101 in recognition of that philosopher’s role in teaching the world to ask.

2.  Labeling technology and design challenges

Students have challenges labeling the components, assemblies, systems, and processes in their projects, as well as difficulty giving such patterns names and sticking to those names.

This is a failure of Aristotle 101 as the systematic naming and categorisation of concepts is often attributed to that philosopher (or, Alexander 101).

 3.  Modeling problems qualitatively

With sufficient coaching, students learn the names of extant components and processes and are able to give names to novel patterns, but then they have difficulty modeling design challenges qualitatively. The real difficulty here is in making lists of system elements or problem categories or in describing how things work in words.

This is a failure of Aristotle 102 or Hume 101 because of the connections of those philosophers to categorisation and causality.

4. Decomposing design problems

With some help in understanding key causal and categorical relations the student engineers regain their footing, and then they have trouble decomposing the big design problem into smaller sub-problems.

We call this a failure of Descartes 101 because of that philosopher’s discussions of the fundamental role of decomposition in the solution of problems.

5. Gathering data

With the job separated into pieces, usually a number of the pieces depend on careful data collection from the literature or from the design and execution of careful experiments. The students’ first impulses are often to model mathematically, but an efficient and effective solution often depends on simple experimentation or library work.

We call this failure to resort to empirical work or extant data a failure of Galileo or Bacon 101 because of these individual’s contribution to the creation of systematic empirical science.

6. Visualising solutions and generating ideas

Students have trouble sketching or diagramming solutions to problems, and more generally they have difficulty in brainstorming a sufficiently large number of solutions.

This is called a a failure of da Vinci 101 because of that individual’s renowned imagination and ability to visualise.

7.  Communicating solutions in written and oral form

Finally, the students have solved the problem, done the experiments, put together the analyses, and largely solved the problem, and the time has come to make a presentation or write a report …

To quote the famous line of the Captain from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”, or a failure of (Paul) Newman 101.

Source: Goldberg, D. 2010, ‘The Missing Basics and Other Philosophical Reflections for the Transformation of Engineering Education’, in Holistic Engineering Education,