Who We Are: Some Musings on the Nature of Science and Engineering


In the minds of many, engineering is often confused with science. The confusion arises because engineering requires a thorough knowledge of scientific principles, students preparing to become engineers study science extensively, and engineers may conduct scientific experiments as a part of their engineering activity. To confuse matters further, scientists may adopt engineering methods to develop new experimental apparatus, individuals educated as scientists may spend their professional lives as engineers, and those educated as engineers may spend their professional lives as scientists. Success in both requires intense, creative intellectual effort. The fly on the wall observing the work day of a scientist and an engineer might often have difficulty telling which was which.

Nevertheless, engineering and science are separate and distinct activities with separate and distinct goals. The difference is well expressed in a statement ascribed to the great aerodynamicist, Theodore von Karman, who achieved distinction, both as a scientist and as an engineer.

"The scientist seeks to understand what is; the engineer seeks to create what never was."

The goal of scientific activity is knowledge, an understanding of the physical universe in which we live. The goal of engineering is to create a device, system, or process that will satisfy a human need. The engineer may make extensive calculations based on scientific principles, but the purpose of these calculations is not to gain a better understanding of the principles; it is to obtain information on which to base a decision. In the absence of adequate theory, the engineer may conduct experiments with a model or prototype of the device or system under development, but the purpose of these experiments is not to increase scientific understanding; it is to develop confidence that the device or system will function as desired under expected conditions of use.

The principal ethical constraints on the scientist are those of intellectual honesty demanded of any scholar: not to falsify the results of an investigation, not to claim credit for the work or ideas of others, and not to advocate a conclusion that is not supported by the available evidence. The ethical constraints on the engineer are far broader: the device, system, or process developed by the engineer must be economically feasible, not subject its operators or the public to significant danger, function reliably, be aesthetically pleasing, be environmentally benign, and not produce a negative social impact. Simultaneous satisfaction of these constraints will always require tradeoffs and the application of professional judgment to assess the relative importance of competing "goods".

The engineer shares with the scientist the excitement of discovery, and with the artist and writer the satisfaction and frustration that can arise from both the creative act and its result. But there is an essential difference in the way these creative acts are performed. Artistic and literary creation are almost always individual acts, while, with rare exception, the engineering creation requires a team effort. Thus, success as an engineer requires not only scientific competence and creative problem-solving skills, but the ability to mesh one's own contributions with those of the other team members. As a rule, our educational system has not been particularly effective in developing the teamwork skills required for engineering success. Beginning in the first grade of school, students are rewarded for individual effort and often penalized for cooperation - we call it cheating - and yet, the first day on the job the young engineer will discover that his or her success depends as much on the ability to work effectively as a member of a team as on individual technical competence. Most engineering faculty are just now beginning to recognize the importance of providing more opportunities for their students to develop and practice teamwork skills as a significant part of their educational experiences.

As engineering educators, let us not become so engrossed in "doing" that we forget who we are. And let us keep in mind that our task is not only to give our students strong mathematical and scientific understanding; we must also equip them to create the "never was."

- John W. Prados

(C) 1997 by the American Society for Engineering Education, Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 86, No. 1, pp.1