Reflecting on Engineering Practice

Civil engineers are the builders of the world.  To be effective as builders, we need to define our role as broadly as possible.  In the broadest sense, civil engineers are serving people.  It is the branch of engineering closest to the public and their government.  In the transportation engineering profession – the part with which I am most familiar- we have defined our role as promoting the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.  Everything we do must be measured against that standard.  We have to be involved in more than just signs, signals, and pavement markings.  We need to be involved in a broad range of activities not traditionally associated with engineering (public relations, budgeting, and more).

Engineers like to handle things, touch them, put them in order, get them organized so they work right, count them, and stack them up (make sure they are all there), and to do all of this efficiently.  All of this is good in itself, and vital to our success as an engineer — but these valuable characteristics and abilities should come with a broad viewpoint so that the objective does not become too narrow.  The skills required to be a successful engineer to beyond engineering analysis.  Skills in communication and knowledge of politics, psychology, management, and salesmanship are also required.  The successful engineer must develop professional artistry.  

In his book The Reflective Practitioner Donald Schon examines five professions – engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy, and town planning – to show that most professionals ”know more than they can say”; that to meet the unpredictable situations of their daily work, professionals rely less on formulas leaned in graduate school than  a kind of improvisation learned in practice.

This improvisation, or professional artistry, that Schon is talking about is akin to what baseball pitchers call “finding the groove”, and jazz musicians call “getting a feel” for the music.  The improvisation, or professional artistry, that Schon is talking about is akin to what baseball pitchers call “finding the groove”, and jazz musicians call “getting a feel” for the music. We are accustomed to thinking of professionals, especially engineers and other science-based ones, as holders of technical skills and specific knowledge. Schon indicates that the essence of professional knowledge is the ability to, as he puts it, “reflect in action”.

Just as a skilled tennis player learns to plan the next shot in the split second between exchanges, so, too, do professionals constantly reflect as they act in their daily work. Schon’s point is that this creative ability is vital to the individual’s professional success and their collective value to society. Moreover, it is a definable process that can and should be taught and encouraged in schools, business, and government settings – something that happens only rarely now.

This kind of reflection, wherein professionals evaluate and readjust their frame of reference and their view of a problem, is for the most part ignored in university study if favor of stressing technical skills. Yet this ability is needed more than ever in the professional world. Engineers, for example, are today confronted with an unprecedented “requirement for adaptability, sustainability, and resilience”. The dilemma of the professional today lies in the fact that both ends of the gaps he is expected to bridge with his profession are changing rapidly; the body of knowledge he must use and the expectations of the society he must serve.

Civil engineers and transportation engineers need to define their objectives as broadly as possible and strive to develop professional artistry. Some call this “engineering judgment”.