The Importance of Context in Engineering


People who know me understand how strongly I feel about experiential learning. I have often talked about how valuable I believe my own personal experiences are and how I feel they impact the way I see and approach problems. I even wrote a blog post talking about how challenging it can be to work with bright but inexperienced people.

Recently, a couple of things happened that brought this whole idea of context and experiential learning back to my mind.

First, I was talking to the parent of one of our interns who just finished his first year at UNL as a Computer Engineering undergraduate. As with many students entering engineering study, the first year can be quite challenging. While he made it through, I think there were times during the year when he got a little discouraged. After the first few weeks of his internship, he expressed to his father that working on projects here has already given him a great perspective on what a software engineer really does and why the education is important. Essentially, he is learning the applied side of his academic education.

Second, I was reading Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” and came across a section that discussed the importance of having knowledge and experience in order to gain knowledge and experience…

“This paradox – it takes knowledge to gain knowledge – is captured in a study in which researchers wrote up a detailed description of a half inning of baseball and gave it to a group of baseball fanatics…and a group of less avid fans to read. Afterward, they tested how well their subjects could recall the half inning. The baseball fanatics structured their recollections around important game-related events, like runners advancing and scoring. They were able to reconstruct the half inning in sharp detail. One almost got the impression they were reading off an internal scorecard.

“The less avid fans remembered fewer important facts about the game and were more likely to recount superficial details like the weather. Because they lacked a detailed internal representation of the game, they couldn’t process the information they were taking in. They didn’t know what was important and what was trivial. They couldn’t remember what mattered. Without a conceptual framework in which to embed what they were learning, they were effectively amnesiacs.” (Foer 2011, p.208)

Both of these events reminded me of how important it is to have context and personal experience to be able to minimize errors in judgment. This is why I have stressed to underclassmen (and even high school seniors) that the time to start getting internships and real experience is not when they are juniors and seniors but when they are high school graduates and college freshmen. Any and all real-world experience will help provide the framework for “embedding what they are learning” in the academic environment and, what’s more, the absence of these experiences will diminish the value of their educational efforts.

Our educational systems can help with this as well. I can think of two examples in our figurative backyard that are moving in the right direction.

The first is the Design Studio program at the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

The second is the upcoming Software Engineering undergraduate degree at (UNL) which will be launching in the fall of 2016 and will likely focus on the knowledge, activities, and behaviors that are important for anyone pursuing a career in software development. This program will include two years of capstone experience similar to the Design Studio in the Raikes School.

Now, if we can only get the Nebraska State Board of Education to recognize how critical it is for all kids to be exposed to computer programming as part of their required curriculum. But that is a topic for another day…

Ultimately, I want to see more and more emphasis placed upon applied learning and more hands-on design and development of real-world systems in the classroom setting. Imagine what would happen if we re-engineered our educational systems that are developing engineers to focus more on experiential learning (which is how we used to train engineers before the computer age).

If you are interested in reading more about the nature of engineering and design, I recommend this article by Eugene Ferguson from 1977 or, better yet, the book he wrote as a follow-up to the article. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the development of engineering knowledge and the making of an engineer.



This post was originally published on the Don’t Panic Labs blog.