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The Engineer In The Museum: Helping Engineering Students Experience Technology As An Art

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.456.1 - 1.456.6

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Kathryn A. Neeley

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

1 Session 3261

THE ENGINEER IN THE MUSEUM: Helping Engineering Students Experience Technology as an Art

Kathryn A. Neeley TCC/School of Engineering & Applied Science/University of Virginia

In Getting Sued and Other Tales of the Engineering Life, Richard Meehan describes the process of design and the satisfactions of being a designer:

I learned the pleasure in it, in this design, the satisfaction in making a clay bowl or a painting or writing a sentence or a symphony. First the concept, the trial efforts, the crude shape of a good solution, the refinements, balance, and polish until the final arrangement sings with deceiving simplicity and stuns with accuracy of effect. . ..1 was able to experience technology not as the stepchild of science (which is, after all, impotent) but as an art. 1

The experience Meehan describes is clearly aesthetic, characterized by pleasure and the perception of elegance. From an engineering educator’s perspective, it is both noteworthy and regrettable that Meehan first experiences technology as an art not during his four years of undergraduate education in civil engineering at M.I.T. or even on his first job, but only after many years as a practicing engineer.

Many engineering students fail to recognize the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of engineering. As one such student put it, “There is no aesthetic dimension to engineering. This is an engineering school, not an architecture school.” Yet numerous scholars from a variety of backgrounds have identified the important role that creativity and aesthetics play in engineering design.2’3’4’5’G Qualities variously referred to as elegance, sweetness, and simplicity are used as criteria for accepting or rejecting models and hypotheses and in predicting the acceptability and performance of possible designs.7’8’9 The problem, then, is not to establish the common ground of creativity shared by art and engineering or to identifi the role that aesthetic responses and criteria play in the design, evaluation, and appreciation of the products of engineering. Rather, the problem is one of overcoming the biases of culture and of engineering education that lead students to overlook the aesthetic dimension of engineering; the need is to make the aesthetic dimension real and to make it relevant to engineering students.

This paper describes a set of experiences designed to help engineering students experience technology as an art. The heart of the strategy is an innovative approach to using art museums as a context for exploring the aesthetic dimensions of engineering. Two interactive tours of an art museum at the University of Virginia are combined with preparatory and follow-up activities to help students experience and appreciate the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of engineering. The tours and related activities, which form the core of a study entitled “The Engineer as Designer,” are part of a fourth-year required engineering course entitled “The Engineer in Society.”

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Neeley, K. A. (1996, June), The Engineer In The Museum: Helping Engineering Students Experience Technology As An Art Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia.

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