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From Problem Solvers to Problem Seekers: The Necessary Role of Tension in Engineering Education

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

The Philosophy of Engineering and Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

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Paper Authors


Alan Cheville Bucknell University

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Alan Cheville studied optoelectronics and ultrafast optics at Rice University, followed by 14 years as a faculty member at Oklahoma State University working on terahertz frequencies and engineering education. While at Oklahoma State, he developed courses in photonics and engineering design. After serving for two and a half years as a program director in engineering education at the National Science Foundation, he took a chair position in electrical engineering at Bucknell University. He is currently interested in engineering design education, engineering education policy, and the philosophy of engineering education.

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John Heywood Trinity CollegeDublin, The University of Dublin

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John Heywood is professorial Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin- The University of Dublin. He is a Fellow of ASEE and Life Sen. Member of IEEE. he has special interest in education for the professions and the role of professions in society. He is author of Engineering Education. Research and Development in Curriculum and Instruction (Wiley/IEEE),and The Assessment ofLlearning in Engineering Education: Practice and Policy.

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In this talk it is proposed that the current focus on problems in engineering education and technological literacy may be more constructively reframed by focusing on tensions. Priyan Dias claims engineering has an identity crisis that arises from tensions inherent in: 1) the influence of the profession on society, 2) the role engineers play, and 3) what constitutes valid knowledge in engineering. These are ethical, ontological, and epistemological tensions respectively, which Dias frames as a tension between identities of homo sapiens and homo faber. Beyond the tensions in engineering there are additional tensions that arise for engineering educators that impinge on identity, but derive from educators’ beliefs about the aims of education and beliefs about teaching. With respect to the aims of engineering education the tension arises between utilitarian and humanistic aims and plays out through debates about the importance of diversity (inclusion vs. professionalization), discussion of which courses should be included in a curriculum, and the long simmering debate on four year vs. five year engineering degrees in the United States. Tensions that arise from beliefs about teaching are seen in the discussions on the relative merits of summative vs. formative assessment, student- vs. instructor-centered learning, and the relative merits of inquiry-based and active learning. Given that one aspect of the identity of an engineering education is being a problem solver, faculty may perceive these tensions as a problem or conflict to be solved. An alternative view is to see tensions as both necessary and generative. Tensions are necessary since they are a natural part of human affairs and generative in that tensions highlight dialectics from which new truths or perspectives emerge. From this perspective a key element of faculty development is developing a defensible personal philosophy that both lets one navigate and learn from the inevitable tensions that will arise in practice and contribute to larger dialogs from which new systems and forms of education emerge.

Cheville, A., & Heywood, J. (2016, June), From Problem Solvers to Problem Seekers: The Necessary Role of Tension in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26976

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