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Aren't Units Part of the Problem?

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Industrial Engineering Technical Session

Tagged Division

Industrial Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.197.1 - 24.197.14



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Paper Authors


Matthew A Carr USN U.S. Naval Academy

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CAPT Matthew Carr is a Permanent Military Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the US Naval Academy, a nulcear-trained submarine officer, and a registered Professional Engineer.

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Aren’t Units Part of the Problem?AbstractThe purpose of this paper is to address the connection between proficiency in unit analysis andproblem solving skills. The double entendre of the title is intentional. Continuing feedback fromAmerican industry, as regularly reported in ASEE literature and at ASEE conferences, indicatesa perceived weakness in the critical thinking and problem solving skills of our engineeringgraduates. Most of our graduates enter industry and must not only assimilate to the demands ofthe new work environment, but also must develop proficiency in the unit systems used by theirnew employers. In spite of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, large portions of Americanindustry and commerce have resisted shifting to metric units. Personnel re-training costs, fear ofexpensive mishaps during transitions, the large preponderance of legacy systems and equipmentutilizing customary units on their gages and other instruments, and the intransigence of theAmerican people all contribute to maintaining traditional unit systems. On the other hand, oureducation system from the secondary level up through the university level has adopted SystemeInternational (SI) units in the science and engineering curricula. The SI system is often muchsimpler to use and students can often arrive at the correct numerical answer to a problem withoutconsidering dimensional homogeneity concepts. And SI is the specified language of ouracademics when publishing their work. More recently written engineering textbooks continuethis pattern. This has created a bilingual unit system challenge for our graduates that essentiallyshift mastering the customary units of their new employers to the workplace – they needproficiency in traditional units, but have mainly been exercised in SI. In light of industryfeedback, are we engineering educators doing a disservice to our students by neglecting orunderexposing them to how to perform engineering analyses in the units that are customary totheir prospective employers? Would those hiring our graduates be better served if we exercisedour students more in traditional unit systems? This paper explores these questions and providesmultiple examples of a systematic methodology that is proven in developing student competencein practical problem solving.

Carr, M. A. (2014, June), Aren't Units Part of the Problem? Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20088

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