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The Engineer: A Tree Or A Product?

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Capstone Design Pedagogy I

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1229.1 - 15.1229.12



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Paper Authors


Andrew Trivett University of Prince Edward Island

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Dr. Trivett is a graduated with a Doctor of Science Degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint program in Oceanographic Engineering and a bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree from Dalhousie University. His research has ranged from development of new ocean sensors for monitoring flow and turbulence in the ocean, to the design of numerous environmental technologies for small technology business in Atlantic Canada. He is currently an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island where his primary focus is teaching engineering students in the early years of their accredited degree program. Dr. Trivett is father of three children, engages in the restoration of wooden boats, and keeps fit through bicycle racing and skiing.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Engineering Paradigm: a Tree or a System?


This paper offers a new metaphor for the engineering graduate, and links this metaphor to the design and implementation of engineering education. The paper discusses current practice in Canadian engineering schools of teaching a range of Engineering Science and Engineering Design courses each as distinct stand-alone topics, and refers to existing literature on engineering education likened to a manufacturing process or network.

In the contemporary models of engineering education, each step in the education of an engineer is illustrated as flow through boxes in a process diagram. The students are thus likened to “raw material” passing through the system. The boxes are relatively static. In this view, the “design” expertise has traditionally taken a minor role compared with the engineering science expertise. The author proposes that this is not the only way to view the “product” of an engineering educational system.

The proposed metaphor presents the individual student as a whole entity, and compares each unique graduate professional to a tree in a forest. In this metaphor, an engineer “tree” can have an infinite variety of branches and leaves, while still retaining a core trunk of design and project management expertise which distinguishes them as an engineer. While the paradigm may sound fanciful, the author uses an example course plan from the Canadian experience to illustrate how this different paradigm can be more receptive to student interests, and to industry needs yet still support the foundations of the profession. The proposed paradigm shows that, in accordance with the role of engineers in industry, the ability of design, project management and teamwork are central, while the specific technical specialities are supporting “branches”.


It is an ongoing enterprise to continue to improve teaching models for young engineers, and to adapt those models to best fit the demographics of our students. All faculty teaching in the first few years of an engineering program understand how important it is to speak in terms that the students understand, and to encourage them. Its always a struggle for faculty, especially those of us the same age as our students parents, to keep our examples, and our language relevant to our teenage students. Thus, we need to continue to update. However, have we successfully updated the model in which we work? In effect, have we been thinking of our students in the same way that our own professors thought of us. Perhaps we need to look at a view of what we do, and the conceptual framework between us, our students, and our system differently.

A research study by Scott and Yates 1 identified a number of successful young engineers in Australia, as defined by their supervisors in industry. Many of these graduates were interviewed, and a collection of over 40 factors related to their successful work performance were identified.

Trivett, A. (2010, June), The Engineer: A Tree Or A Product? Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16129

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