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Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium (1994)

Chapter: HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION

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Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
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HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION

Billy V. Koen

The University of Texas at Austin

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you. I must admit I was a little disconcerted when I first heard the title you proposed for my presentation for several reasons. First, as an “academic” you realize, of course, that I am obliged to speak on any subject for exactly fifty minutes. You have only given me thirty minutes and I will be severely handicapped. Second, the word “academic” has traditionally implied that the speaker knows something about the topic he has been assigned. After the poor performance in the recent presidential election where “academics” appeared on every TV show to hold forth on all sorts of topics with little respect for the truth of the matter, if I am billed as an “academic,” I run the risk of being chased off of the stage. And finally, for me to presume to speak for the “academic community as a whole ” is a tall order, but I will do my best.

With these fears in mind, I have chosen a slightly different approach. Instead of simply giving a catalog of continuing education programs or considering difficulties that might be encountered, we will examine the theoretical foundation of engineering design with an end to discovering the nature of the “continuing education” we should be promoting. Then I will give a few very brief answers to the practical aspects of the problem of continuing education and close with the uncharacteristic stance for a professor of leaving you with more questions than we started.

Definition of Engineering

The essence of engineering is design. If we are concerned with the nature of continuing education in engineering, we are forced to consider how we should continue to learn how to effectively design products that the public needs.

One widely accepted definition of the engineering method is the use ofengineering heuristics to cause the best change in a poorly understood situation within

Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
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the available resources.1

This definition, the result of over 20 years of research, does not simply make the claim that engineers use heuristics from time to time. Instead, it insists on an absolute identity between engineering design and the use of engineering heuristics. This research has resulted in many invited lectures and publications including the American Society for Engineering Education monograph, Definition of the Engineering Method, now in its fifth printing.2 It has been cited in numerous articles, appeared in anthologies, 3 and is quoted in the most popular introductory textbooks in engineering design.4,5

This definition has three important elements worthy of our consideration today. In it we will consider the engineers notions of best, resources, and heuristic.

Engineer’s Notion of Best

Best for an engineer is not the same as best for the layman. This difference has caused confusion and at time outright hostility towards the engineer and the public. If you ask the layman whether the Mercedes or the Mustang is the better automobile, you will always get the answer, “The Mercedes, of course.” On the other hand, if you ask the engineer the same question, he or she will most often reply, “You can not compare them. Each automobile, is presumably, a best solution

1

Koen, Billy V., “Towards a Definition of the Engineering Method,” Proceedings of the ASEE-IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Oct. 1984, Phila, Pa., pp. 544-549. (Reprinted in: ENGINEERING EDUCATION, December, 1984, pp. 151-155, THE BENT OF TAU BETA PI, Spring, 1985, and European Journal of Engineering Education, 13, No. 3, 1988.)

2

Koen, Billy V, DEFINITION OF THE ENGINEERING METHOD, ASEE Monograph, Summer, 1985, ISBN 0-87823-101-3 (pbk.), (Available from ASEE Headquarters, Suite 200, Eleven Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. 20036)

3

Durbin, Paul T. ed, Critical Perspectives on Nonacademic Science and Engineering, Research in Technology Studies, Volume 4, Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, 1991, pp. 33-59.

4

Beakley, George and Leach, H.W., Engineering: An Introduction to a Creative Profession, 4th Edition, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1982.

5

Wankat, Phillip and Oreovicz, Frank, Teaching Engineering, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993.

Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×

to a different design problem. If you were to have tried to design a Mercedes when you were given the design specifications for the Mustang, you would have been a very poor engineer.” The non-engineer thinks of best in terms of an absolute, Platonian best; the engineer, in terms of an optimum or best relative to the project given.

Engineer’s Dependency on Resources

An engineering answer depends on the resources that can be dedicated to the problem. Once again, a simple question will demonstrate the difference in the engineer and the layman. Look around the room in which you are sitting. How many ping-pong balls could you put into it? Typically, the non-engineer does not give an answer. The engineer, on the other hand, will always give an answer appropriate to the resources (in this case, the time) allowed. If fifty seconds are given for the answer, he will give a back-of-the-envelop estimate. If more time is given, he will measure the room and calculate the answer. I suppose if we were given a week and we really needed the answer, we should fill the room with ping-pong balls and count them.

I have given this example before many audiences of engineers, students, and, yes, even Rotarians, in many countries. Once I chanced on an expert in construction engineering like some of you. Down the hall after the presentation, he gave me his answer and insisted that it was very accurate--too accurate to be believed from my point of view. He then explained that the room we were in was a standard building. It had concrete pillars spaced according to the rule of thumb for pillars in this kind of building and the ceiling was of standard height. Finally, he insisted that the ceiling used standard acoustical tiles and that he had counted them. The only uncertainty in the calculation was how many ping-pong balls could be put in a cubic foot. Then he asked me if I want the ping-pong balls close packed or not! The basic point is that an engineering answer, an absolutely correct engineering answer, depends on the resources we are willing to dedicate to the problem. We also see that this engineer was using rules of thumb to solve his problem. This brings us to the next important concept.

Engineer’s Use of Heuristics

The third and most important element of the definition of engineering for consideration is the heuristic.

An heuristic is defined as anything that provides a plausible aid or direction in the solution of a problem but is in the final analysis unjustified, incapable of justification, and potentially fallible. A convenient, informal near-synonym for the

Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×

heuristic is the engineering concept of a rule-of-thumb. Another way to explain the concept is that it is “your best bet” in a given situation.

As engineers interested in construction you might know the following heuristic. It is taught to civil engineers at the Naval Academy. If you need to estimate the cost of a building, simply estimate its size and weight in concrete and multiply by the cost of hamburger meat. In the U.S. economy, it is a good rule of thumb (or, technically, a good heuristic) to consider that the cost of a building rises and falls as does ground meat. If there is a lot of electrical work in the building, you should use “sirloin meat” instead.

This is, of course, a simple heuristic, but they can become very complex and sophisticated. In a presentation as keynote speaker at a National Science Foundation Design Theory Workshop1, Dr. Barry Bebb, Vice President of Xerox, made the following points:

By the middle 1970s Xerox was in trouble with respect to its competitiveness with Japan in the copying field; by the late 1970s, we were aware of it. To produce a comparable copying machine the Japanese needed one half as many people; one half the cost; and one half the time.

In his presentation, Dr. Bebb outlined the steps Xerox took to regain its preeminence in the field. The strategy was to recognize differences in the way the Japanese and American companies designed copying equipment and to make changes at Xerox--in the words of his presentation, they changed heuristics.

Other examples abound. The current interest in TQM (total quality methods), KAIZEN (giving higher priority to continuous incremental improvements than innovation), and “Just In Time” management of storage are sophisticated heuristics that have allowed the Japanese industry to produce products that are highly competitive with ours.

But there are other heuristics that are harder to assimilate. Consider, for example, the fact that in Japan the employees stay with the same company for life while in the U.S. we change jobs on an average of three times. If you were in the business of investing in the continuing education of your workers in each of these situations, which would you prefer? In Japan, many engineers speak English. Important technical heuristics are encoded in language. American engineers do not study Japanese in school. If you were in the business of hiring an engineer to do

1

Bebb, H. Barry, “Quality Design Engineering: The Missing Link in U.S. Competitiveness, ” National Science Foundation Design Theory Workshop at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in June, 1989.

Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×

a job, would you prefer one who could make use of the technical literature in a variety of languages or only one?

Practical Aspects of Continuing Education

When we began, I promised to get to the practical aspects of continuing education, the aspects I suspect you expected when you invited me to be with you. I certainly could tell you that if you are interested in continuing education you should become associated with the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) division of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), and as Vice President of ASEE, perhaps that is what I should do. I certainly could tell you to attend the tremendously successful conference this division holds each February, the College-Industry Educational Conference (CIEC), and perhaps I should do that also. And if you are looking for delivery systems, why should not I mention the National Technological University (NTU) of Dr. Baldwin in Colorado that uses high technology satellites to beam specialized continuing education class work around the country? You want continuing education in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Integrated Circuits, Composites, etc. My university can develop courses to teach almost any subject you want to learn. We, as with all large universities, have a special department dedicated to continuing education and they stand ready and eager to teach. But somehow, these practical aspects that you probably expected me to discuss when you invited me to be with you do not worry me. I can solve those problems and stand ready to help you with them this afternoon.

Conclusion

We have been examining a widely accepted definition of engineering. What we have found is that engineering practice can be explained in terms of a new concept called the heuristic. We might call some of these heuristics simple content heuristics. An engineer needs to know the second law of thermodynamics or how to calculate the heat transfer coefficient. An engineer might want to learn a new area of knowledge needed in his work. This kind of heuristic is typically the focus of a continuing education program.

What has been suggested here is that there are other, more sophisticated heuristics that have even a larger potential for improving engineering design. The continuing education program at Xerox did not need to teach one more class in modern xerography, but one in these more subtle heuristics. How are we going to discover and continue to teach these really sophisticated heuristics--the ones that really matter, the ones that really make a difference? My problem is that I am left with more questions than answers--an embarrassing position for an “academic.”

Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×
Page 20
Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×
Page 21
Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×
Page 22
Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×
Page 23
Suggested Citation:"HOW THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY VIEWS CONTINUING EDUCATION." National Research Council. 1994. Continuing Education for Construction Professionals: Summary of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9138.
×
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