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Deconstructing Engineering Design

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Integrating H&SS in Engineering I

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.392.1 - 10.392.8



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Paper Authors

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Steven VanderLeest

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Deconstructing Engineering Design Steven H. VanderLeest Department of Engineering, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI

1 Abstract Postmodernism has swept through disciplines from literature to philosophy, from politics to sociology. But what does postmodernism have to do with engineering or more specifically, engineering education? Postmodernism may be the cure to several common ills, such as students becoming overly reliant on engineering models or computer simulations, lack of diversity (both in design teams and in the designs themselves), and lack of accountability due to a belief that technology is ethically neutral. However, postmodernism also presents some thorny philosophical challenges to the engineer. In a world of relativism where all is interpretation and there are no absolute truths, what is the status of engineering knowledge? Can engineering education be deconstructed until there is no longer any meaningful definition of reality? While science and technology are the centerpieces of modernity, many point to computer technology in particular as a harbinger of postmodernity. It is important for engineering students to understand how our technological products have thoroughly altered the society around us and continue to do so. This paper explores some pedagogical approaches that can be incorporated into existing courses, suggests some structural changes that may be warranted in the curriculum, and emphasizes the necessity of an engineering education founded on the liberal arts.

2 Introduction If modernism was founded on concrete, scientific reality; postmodernism has been built on contingent, divergent interpretation. Postmodernism has swept through disciplines from literature to philosophy, from politics to sociology. Lyotard defines the modern as dependence on grand or meta-narrative, i.e., some overarching or foundational truth. He then defines postmodernism as “an incredulity towards metanarratives.”1 Shawver summarizes: “In other words, it is a skepticism towards all grand theories that think they have the last word. The moderns, Lyotard tells us, believed in metanarratives. They were always thinking that they had found the final and correct theory, but postmoderns are more incredulous.”2 But what does postmodernism have to do with engineering or more specifically, engineering education? Engineering thought of as simply direct application of science to produce technology has little to do with postmodernism. For example, Shearer sees the two as nearly polar opposites: “There is, however, a curious dichotomy that pertains to engineering and the civilization it has improved; indeed, an ironic split. For, while engineering has to be a discipline that is linear to the core, the civilization itself — Western civilization, for now — has become postmodern, and postmodernism is least of all linear.”3 In contrast to Shearer, engineering conceived as a discipline founded on creativity and trade-offs, as divergent thinking to select amongst multiple alternatives, as an interpretation of human needs and desires embodied in design, has much to do with postmodernism. Engineering has been defined by some as the ultimate postmodern activity. Yet engineering education does not sufficiently recognize the interdependent nature of the currents in engineering and the winds of

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

VanderLeest, S. (2005, June), Deconstructing Engineering Design Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--15287

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