It has recently transpired that I will be teaching (and before that, designing and constructing) a brand new ethics module in the large introduction to engineering class at my university that all the freshman who are majoring in any of the multitude of engineering disciplines must take. I’m jazzed, of course, that the College of Engineering thinks that it’s worth cultivating in their students the idea that ethics is an integral part of being a good engineer (and a good engineering student), so much so that they are devoting two weeks in the fifteen week term to this. And, I want to do a good job pitching the material to the audience.
I have some experience teaching to frosh. But it occurs to me that I’m a little fuzzy in understanding just what makes an engineer an engineer.
I was chatting about this with a colleague of mine (who does philosophy of technology and has quite a lot of experience working with engineers). He was looking at my preliminary outlines for the four class meetings I’ve been allotted, and suggested that I ground the initial motivation of why ethics should matter to them in the activity of building stuff rather than in the activity of building knowledge.
I noted that that seemed reasonable. What scientists, even the theoretical scientists, have in mind by “knowledge” is undoubtedly messier than what epistemologists seem to be describing. Knowledge is surely important to engineers, too, and is part of what they make, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that knowledge had a more “practical” flavor to it.
“I guess I’m not sure how I’d know it if I woke up one day as an engineer,” I said. “It’s not quite like waking to find yourself a cockroach. Would I be able to tell that I was looking at the world through an engineer’s eyes rather than a scientist’s?”
“I think you’d notice,” he assured me. “I think it would be like waking up and suddenly finding yourself in the Punjab.”
“In that case,” I replied, “I need to find a way to get ahold of a map and a menu.”
So, all you engineering types, can you help me understand how the world looks to an engineer, and how engineering is different from science?