Is Engineering an Art or Science?
We all know it’s both, but we don’t teach it that way.
In 1942, at the height of World War II, a German economist named Joseph Schumpeter popularized an oxymoronic neologism called “creative destruction” to describe the process of technological and economic innovation.
Schumpeter new term drew attention to what I call the Irony of Innovation, which was something that earlier scholars understood, too. It is the realization that every creative act puts the status quo at risk. That is, innovation is both the birth of something new, and risking the death of something old.
Given the risks of innovation, it behooves us to test our creative ideas in conversations because it is only by experimenting with them that can we obtain the real feedback necessary to improve them, and perhaps understand the broader ethical and systemic consequences. I wrote about the importance of this experimental innovation process in How Do you Know You Have a Good Idea?, and Pretotype, Prototype, and Protoproduct… . The whole premise for this “design thinking” approach is to create new knowledge that can be embodied in products, services, and technologies that solve important problems customers didn’t necessarily know they even had.
For this knowledge-generating process to succeed, we have to become expert at giving and receiving feedback. In arts, humanities, and design communities, this process is called critique and I teach it to my engineering students in Critique vs Criticism: How to Give Good Feedback and Still benefit From Bad. In that lesson, I use movie clips like this one to illustrate elements of criticism vs. critique, and defensive vs. curious responses.
We just finished our first unit on peer review, and I’m working on improving the quality of feedback my Engineering Business Practices students are able to give one another. I sent them this letter, written by my grader.
Everyone seemed to understand the spirit of the Critique vs Criticism lesson. No one lapsed into destructive or personal criticism. Nonetheless, good feedback is not just about what NOT to do… it is also about what TO do, and in that spirit, here’s some feedback about how to improve your critiques:
Share more specific, creative suggestions and ideas — Recommendations should be specific and actionable so that the person on the receiving end of the feedback gets a better idea of how to make their creation better. For example, “Add more information to your profile” was a popular a suggestion in the LinkedIn profile crits, but it came without any further explanation. This does not provide a clear pathway to improvement. “Add more information regarding your previous professional experience to the summary section of your profile” is a helpful suggestion because it provides a more specific recommendation.
Offer explanation of why a change might be an improvement— Suggestions are most salient when their purpose is made clear. Providing an explanation of how your suggested change will improve the work is important because it allows the person on the receiving end of the critique to assess whether your advice aligns with their goals. For example, “Use a profile picture with a blank background because your audience will perceive you as more professional” is a more useful recommendation than “Use a profile picture with a blank background.”
Add more examples to your critique — The third question on the LinkedIn Crit asked you to “Find a YouTube movie clip that illustrates elements of both critique and criticism, and/or open and defensive responses.” Many students provided clips that showed argument or conflict, which isn’t the same as criticism and critique (although it might elicit a similar emotional response). Others provided clips that showed criticism and/or critique, but not defensive or curious responses. Additionally, some students linked to informational YouTube videos which explained the difference between critique and criticism rather than actual movie clips. Here’s an examples of a movie clip that illustrates criticism, critique, and (an almost exclusively) defensive response:
The performance of my engineering students is typical, because it is their first experience with critique. Art, design, and architecture students have studio classes in which they practice critique over and over again. They’re more accustomed to the idea of seeking, giving, and accepting feedback that allows them to improve their creative work. But engineers are not taught usually taught this way.
Engineering students are taught that there are right and wrong answers, so it’s no wonder that they are unskilled in anything but checking their work against an answer key. But that’s not how design and innovation work.
In design, there may be thousands of right answers and millions of wrong, and no basis for sorting out among all the possibilities. In fact, there is no right or wrong, there is only better or worse, and sometimes even that’s not clear — which is why we experiment.
Which bring us up against another oxymoron popularized in the 1950's:
Science fiction is an oxymoron.
Science is about describing the world the way it is, and yet fiction is about describing the world the way it could be. Engineers have the privilege — the obligation — to navigate between these two worlds.
Engineers must master science because the physical realities (e.g., thermodynamics) of the way the world is constrains what can be accomplished in remaking the world the way we want it to be. And engineers must learn mathematics, because mathematics is how we construct inexpensive models of both worlds.
Rarely do engineering students appreciate science and mathematics as techniques for improving their creativity in the same that art and design students appreciate sketching, drawing, painting, or sculpting classes. Nevertheless,
The word technology means “the study of technique,” and it is the necessity of mastering technique that both engineering and art students have in common.
The role of science fiction in innovation has become almost legendary, given that so many of the ubiquitous computing products we take for granted today first appeared in television shows , comic strips, and movies.
- Star Trek communicators were the inspiration for mobile phones.
- Dick Tracy was using a smart watch in the Sunday funnnies long before Apple offered one for sale.
- According to Upstarts (Brad Stone, 2017) the screen interface for the Uber app was inspired by a fictional tracking device displayed in a James Bond movie.
The principal utility of science fiction is that it stimulates the conversations, the pretotypes, and feedback processes that allow artists, designers, and engineers — i.e, technologists — to come to a better understanding of what they value, how they feel, and how to improve an idea long before they go through the expense of protyping a working model.
Steve Jobs was a famous advocate for integration of the arts and engineering. Yet, Greg Dickens called the integration of technology and art The Most Ignored Advice From Steve Jobs in his 2018 article of that name published by The Startup. Part of the reason that Jobs’ Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) approach has not caught on is because of the way that students are still educated in the tree-like disciplinary structures of the University.
They never have the opportunity to even learn how to talk to one another, much less share similar techniques. Innovation requires collaboration on a deeper level than the transactional, app-driven gig economy might lead us to believe.
That collaboration must begin long before my students graduate into the workplace, which is why we use movie clips to study engineering, we integrate ethics education and finance into the same course, and we adapt pedagogical strategies from the arts (such as improvisational theater, critique, and serious play) to advance their development as engineers.