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

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.411.1 - 2.411.2



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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

Session 3261

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

Kathryn A. Neeley Technology, Culture, and Communication/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 . . . design, the satisfaction in making a clay bowl or a painting or writing a sentence or a symphony. . . .I was able to experience technology not as the stepchild of science (which is, after all, impotent) but as an art.“’ Although many scholars have joined Meehan in identifying the artistic dimensions of engineering, many engineering students have no experience or awareness of these dimensions. The problem, then, is not to establish the common ground shared by art and engineering, but rather to overcome the cultural biases and pressures within engineering education that lead students to overlook the aesthetic dimension of engineering.

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 are combined with preparatory and follow-up activities to help students experience and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of engineering. The tours and related activities form the core of a study entitled “The Engineer as Designer” and are part of a required senior engineering course entitled “The Engineer in Society.”

CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATION: Blurring the Distinction Between Engineering and Art The guiding strategy blurs the distinction between engineering and the fine arts by increasing the students’ awareness of design as common ground shared by the two. Specifically, the students are asked to: 1. Lump all products of design into the category of “artifacts” (literally, things made by art or skill) and think of all design as the process of turning ideas into reality. In this view, both the Mona Lisa and an advanced microprocessor are products of a series of design decisions in which nature, culture, and the designer furnished resources, imperatives, and constraints. 2. Think of ENGINEERING in terms of art to bring out aesthetic and creative elements. This move emphasizes the creativity required to solve complex problems; the absence of formulaic approaches to design; and the role of intuition and vision in the evaluation of engineering designs. The role of intuition is expressed in phrases such as “that looks about right.” 3. Think of ART in terms of engineering to emphasize the constraints materials impose on artists; the knowledge of technique and physical processes that artists must possess; the role of institutional and financial support; and the results artists hope to achieve through their work. 4. Use the hierarchy of invention, design, and routine application to distinguish various levels of creativity and freedom within the two general categories of technology and art. Analysis using this hierarchy reveals the varying levels of creativity, skill, and social status within each category.

Neeley, K. A. (1997, June), The Engineer In The Museum: Helping Engineering Students Experience Technology As An Art Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6536

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