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The Role Of The Humanities In Distinguishing Science From Engineering Design In The Minds Of Engineering Students

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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

2.425.1 - 2.425.2



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Charles C. Adams

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

Session 2261

The Role of the Humanities in Distinguishing Science from Engineering Design in the Minds of Engineering Students Charles C. Adams Dordt College


Engineering problems differ from scientific problems. Therefore the proper identification, formulation, and solving of engineering problems require an understanding of the distinction between engineering and science. In this paper it is argued that the humanities and social sciences (H&SS) play a major role both in the distinction between engineering and science, and in clarifying that distinction in the minds of engineering students.

Modern engineering is a human cultural activity that involves an interplay between theory, experiment, and imagination, in which human beings form and transform nature, for practical ends and purposes, with the aid of tools and procedures.1 Those “practical ends and purposes” involve human society in all its multifaceted complexity. Thus engineering design requires a holistic and integrated perspective on reality before engineering problems can be properly formulated and solved. The first two sections of this paper discuss that distinction between engineering (or technology) and science, and examine the difficulties that ensue when that distinction is not made. To demonstrate the integrative character of engineering design, the next section looks at the kind of expertise required by a design team that sets out to solve the problem of transporting humans over long distances. Then four basic principles for guiding curricular and pedagogical reform are identified and discussed. Finally, a number of specific examples of integration of the H&SS in the engineering classroom are considered. Throughout, an attempt is made to show that (i) the identification, formulation, and solving of engineering problems demand a holistic perspective that considers far more than just the narrow, “technical,” dimensions of a problem, and (ii) the H&SS can play a major role in developing that holistic perspective in the minds of engineering students, even–and perhaps especially–in the engineering classroom.

If engineering design requires a holistic and integrated perspective on reality, why is it that the tendency in modern technology seems to be in the opposite direction? That is, why is it easy for engineers to have their perspectives so narrowed that important aspects of design problems are overlooked? Dams that disrupt the ecological balance of a region, VCRs that are too difficult for the average person to program, and the addressing of age old medical problems with genetic engineering solutions that raise even greater ethical problems are just three kinds of design failures that result from what has been called the narrowness tendency in design (Van Poolen, 1987, p. 785). Schuurman (1980) blames this narrowness on the confusion of technology with science and the tendency for the methodology of science to be employed in situations where what is needed is not science but technology.

It may be argued that the two-cultures problem2 in undergraduate engineering (UE) education is an inherited one. That is, the original two-cultures problem, as articulated by C.P. Snow (1964), is between the culture of science and the culture of the humanities (literature in Snow’s

1 This definition is informed by the definition of technology given in Monsma (1986, p. 19) and by the definition of engineering given in Dordt College (1993, p. I-13). 2 The two-culture problem is exemplified by the general antipathy of engineering students for the H&SS.

Adams, C. C. (1997, June), The Role Of The Humanities In Distinguishing Science From Engineering Design In The Minds Of Engineering Students Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6771

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