Thursday, April 12, 2007

Engineering vs. Engineering Science

I'm listening to a screaming baby. Just how many times will I have to teach Finn to sleep by himself before he turns two?

He's down. And now on to other things namely the difference between engineering and engineering science.

Several years ago I was taking a course on information sources for scientists and engineers. The class involved a number of guest speakers, one of whom was a researcher from the engineering faculty. The information world that he described seemed very different from my workaday experience as an engineer in the real world. I realized that he was describing the world of engineering science.

Engineering science is also academic engineering. It inherits a great deal from scientific method. It is about conducting experiments and creating models. The experiments, however, seem to differ considerably from those put forward in science. Engineering scientists don't test hypotheses, they document limits. They determine just how much a certain material can be torqued or how materials can be transformed into new ones--or how they can't. Whereas the scientist is out to establish truth, the engineering scientist documents limits. I find it telling that I never learned about some of the very basic scientific tools when I was in engineering school. We learned a great deal about probability theory but I never learned about inferential statistics.

The engineer has very different aims from the engineering scientist. The engineer wants to attain an objective. For the earliest engineers, the objective was generally breaching a defensive bastion in the most expeditious manner. The modern engineer has different objectives: designing a foundation that will withstand a load, redesigning an industrial process, or creating a mechanical linkage with very particular constraints and dimensions. The limits established by the engineering scientist are only part of obtaining these objectives. In certain ways, the documented limits define an envelope within which design is most expeditious. These limits, for example, become reified into both building codes and standardized building material. By staying within the codes and using standard materials the engineer is sure to attain the objective in the most efficient manner. But there may be objectives that force the engineer to innovate beyond the limits by creating new structural forms or establishing new processes. The limits of the engineering scientist are only heuristics for the attaining the objectives of the engineer.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home