Engineering Education: Training to ProduceTechnicians or Scientists?

Devdas Menon

This article was published in the Journal of Technical Education, ISTE, Vol.23, No. 1, pp. 38-43, January2000.


Engineering professionals may be classified into two categories, Scientists and Technicians, depending on certain behavioural characteristics. Although both may possess high IQ, the Scientist is able to harness his or her energies far more creatively than the Technician is. The Scientist isintrinsically motivated, seeks to discover the true nature of physical reality, possesses a holisticoutlook, and deeply enjoys the work. On the contrary, the Technician is deficiency-motivated, lacksthe spirit of scientific enquiry, has a relatively narrow outlook, and is content with putting intoapplication what is already known. This paper attempts to explore the main ingredients (such asenquiry, enjoyment, creativity and integrity) that make up the Scientist's temperament, and suggeststhat engineering education in general suffers for want of Scientists as educators. Examples are drawnfrom the fields of structural engineering and architecture, but the inferences are generalised enoughto be extended to other engineering professions.

1. Introduction

There are, admittedly, shortcomings when it comes to classifying people (professionals, in this case)into two watertight compartments. But there are advantages in this simplification, and in this instancethe merits of binary logic outweigh the shortcomings. In this paper, professionals (engineers,architects, etc.) are classified into two simple categories: Technicians and Scientists (Zukav 1980).Technicians constitute the run-of-the-mill category, whereas Scientists constitute the category ofprofessionals of exceptionally high quality. Technicians, of course, constitute the majority; Scientists are a relatively rarer species. The behavioural differences between these two categories are markedlypronounced, and an understanding of these differences is important in the field of education.

What makes a Scientist so different from a Technician? Why are Scientists so few in number? Whatcan we do in engineering education to increase their number (assuming, of course, that it is desirableto do so!)? This paper attempts to provide some answers to these basic questions, with specificreference to two professions, viz., structural engineering and architecture. The author's backgroundas a teacher and consultant in the area of structural engineering is responsible for this limited focus.However, the observations and inferences made here are generalised enough, to be meaningful toother professions.

2. Scientist versus Technician

The terms, 'Scientist' and 'Technician', are described rather lucidly by Zukav (1980), with reference tophysicists, as follows:

"When most people say, 'Scientist', they mean 'Technician'. A Technician is a highly trained personwhose job is to apply known techniques and principles. He deals with the known. A Scientist is aperson who seeks to know the true nature of physical reality. He deals with the unknown. In short,Scientists discover, and Technicians apply."

This interesting description, aimed at categorising physicists, may well be extended to engineers,architects and other professionals. The argument that engineering is an 'applied' science is of no relevance here, because there is tremendous scope for creativity even in the application of an appliedscience. Creativity implies innovation, and innovation in engineering demands a scientific temperament. Unfortunately, most engineers and architects are found wanting in scientific temperament. They are trained to do routine things, whose significance they neither realise norquestion. They may be very intelligent, but their vision is narrow, and they fail to inject inspiration andenthusiasm in their work naturally. These are the Technicians. One can see them everywhere.

Scientists, on the other hand, are a relatively rare species, amongst engineers as well as architects. Itis their basic nature not to take things for granted. They question, probe, discover and create. Theircreativity may take physical form, or may be in the form of original concepts. They are driven by somepeculiar intrinsic motivation, which injects a dynamic dimension to all their activities. Their range ofvision is broad, generally transcending their fields of specialisation. They are able to discover, synthesise and manifest in their own lives, a harmony between Art and Science, and between theoryand practice.

3. Architect-Engineer Interaction
3.1 Technician Level

Much is said and lamented about the mutual conflicts that engage architects and structural engineersduring the course of their interaction. In the consultancy business, architects and engineers generally tend to view each other with suspicion, and, at times, with condescension. More often than not, this occurs when the engineers lack 'architectural sense', and when the architects lack 'engineeringsense'. In the eyes of the Technician-engineer, the architect is a fanciful dreamer, who likes to buildcastles in the air, and is far removed from reality. The Technician-architect, on the other hand, viewshis counterpart as being grossly unimaginative, devoid of aesthetic sense, and prone to the use ofdefensive technical jargon when he fails to deliver the goods. The result of their interaction is acompromise (invariably, more in favour of the engineer than the architect), and is arrived at after muchwrangling.

This architect-engineer conflict has been cogently expressed by the famous 'shell builder', Felix Candela, as follows (Faber 1960):

"The architect wants to maintain his preconceived ideas, but has no weapons to fight against thescientific arguments of the engineer. A dialogue is impossible between two people who speak differentlanguages. The result of the struggle is generally the same: science prevails, and the final design hasgenerally lost the eventual charm and fitness of detail dreamed by the architect."

3.2 Scientist Level

It is only the Scientist-engineer who can share the dream of the Scientist-architect, and so succeed inaccomplishing it. Both are conscious and appreciative of the importance of teamwork and symbioticactivity. They are aware of the limitations in vision imposed by their respective areas of specialisation,and hence realise the complementary nature of their activities. Unlike the Technician-engineer, theScientist-engineer is inwardly grateful to the architect for the challenges posed by him. The challengeis viewed not as a threat, but as a welcome opportunity. Similarly, unlike the Technician-architect, theScientist-architect looks forward to his interaction with the engineer as a means towards improvinghis design. Such an architect has a relatively open mind, realises the significance of structure inarchitecture (Salvadori 1986), and seeks to capitalise on the creative skills of his counterpart. Indeed,many an architectural masterpiece is also a structural one; the structure is one with the architecture.

In short, architects and engineers may seem to be poles apart, but fundamentally, they have much incommon in terms of their basic mentality. They are either Technicians or Scientists, and Techniciansand Scientists are the ones who can be said to be poles apart!

4. Mediocrity in Technical Education

What makes an architect or an engineer? A technical qualification in the form of a degree certificate.It is tacitly assumed that the four or five years of academic experience in a technical institute do theneedful in preparing a student in architecture and engineering. The underlying assumption is thatpassing examinations in various subjects is an adequate measure of one's professional competence.

Hence, success in examinations is viewed as a necessary and sufficient condition for recruitment tovarious positions, particularly in the Government service.

The examination system, therefore, assumes awesome importance in society as a whole, particularlyin today's highly competitive 'rat race' set-up. Students, teachers, parents, the Government -all areapparently overpowered and brainwashed by its import. Hence, it is but natural that the process oflearning and teaching in many educational institutions becomes geared mainly towards exam-orientedinstruction.

The ensuing result is a vast and overwhelming ocean of mediocrity -mediocrity in instruction,mediocrity in research, mediocrity in planning and design, and mediocrity in execution. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality; on Technicians, not Scientists. This problem is particularly severe indeveloping countries, which are struggling to keep abreast of the more developed nations.

The problem gets magnified over the years by the rapidly increasing 'information explosion', whichresults in an overloading of the curriculum to accommodate more and more information. As thepressure on the student builds up, survival demands that he be more selective and more exam-oriented in his learning, in order to beat the system. The student thus ends up becoming more mediocre. It's a vicious circle!

Nevertheless, there are exceptional individuals, who, by virtue of their intrinsic nature, do not fall intothe rut of mediocrity. These are the budding Scientists, who are able to transcend the pitfalls of thesocio-educational system. But the vast majority of students not only lack the qualities to reactpositively against mediocrity, but are, in fact, quite content to swim with the current. These are theTechnicians -a self-propagating species.

Technicians have their place in any profession, no doubt. But it does not speak well of the health ofany profession, if Technicians masquerade as Scientists and occupy key positions for which theybasically lack competence. This is unfortunately the situation in many organisations, especially theones in the public sector. Most thinking people cannot help but be conscious of this problem; but onlya few of them are sensitive enough to do something about it in their own organisations.

Scientists alone are capable of perpetuating their unique culture. Under their inspiring influence, evenTechnicians undergo some transformation and are able to awaken and discover 'Scientist' faculties that lie latent in them. Every Scientist, therefore, is a born teacher. His teaching may not be deliberate;it operates as an invisible, but powerful, influence.

The scientific temperament is potentially latent in every intelligent individual, and can be awakened ina conducive environment. It is evidently the function of the educational system to provide and nurturesuch an environment; but this is sadly lacking in most educational institutions, which inadvertently encourage mediocrity. Unless otherwise inspired, the student is bound to be cast in the Technicianmould, and to transmit this conditioning to his profession and to the environment.

To achieve excellence in technical education, and to avoid mediocrity, we obviously need Scientists as teachers. The so-called 'teacher-training' programmes operate under the assumption that existingTechnician-teachers can be trained to improve their performance. Perhaps, they can; but not to suchan extent as to transform themselves into Scientist-teachers. The scientific temperament needs to beawakened early in life; this cannot be done late in life.

5. Awakening the Scientific Temperament

The peculiarity of the scientific temperament is that it cannot be forcibly induced; it requires to bespontaneously activated. Hence, the verb 'awakening' is appropriate here, rather than 'cultivating' or'attaining'. The individual must discover an aptitude for a profession that he has either consciouslychosen, or which somehow has been thrust on him. Aptitude implies (i) a basic liking, plus (ii) aninherent ability. If either of these two components is missing, then the process of education becomes burdensome. If both components are missing, then it can be quite a torture! Faced with the lattersituation, the sensible course of action would be to quit, and find an alternative occupation -ideally,for which one has a natural calling. As the Nobel Laureate, Isidor Rabi puts it: "It's too hard, and life