The 'Why' of Engineering
Thu Nov 08, 2018 · 2013 words

Start with the ‘Why’

I want to start off with a simple yet strong idea.

Why you do something is more important than what you do

The first time I heard this was in a TED talk by Simon Sinek. He speaks about a common pattern in all the great inspirers. They all started with “why” they did what they did. At first, I thought this was just another leadership talk that you find on the internet. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And even though the Simon Sinek speaks about it from a leadership perspective, I found it even more basic than that. The idea is fundamental to how human beings take action.

Consider a situation. You’re in your room enjoying Eminem’s brand new rap album on your speakers. And then your mom comes in with an annoyed tone and says, “turn off the music”. There is a good chance that you are very unhappy with your mother’s order. After all, it is your right to listen to music. Why does she want you to stop ? Does she think rap is not real music ? In the end, you may or may not do what your mother asked you to do.

Now consider the same situation again with a small addition to what your mom says. She says “turn off the music, I’ve been having a migraine since morning”. Most of you in this situation, I hope, would turn off the music or plug in your earphones. Even though in both scenarios your mother’s request is the same, your response has changed. So what happened here ? The difference is, in the second scenario, you were provided with a legitimate “why”. The reason she asks you to turn off the music is because her migraine is worsened by the loud sound. The “why” has been established. And curiously enough once the “why” was clear you had multiple “how”s before you. You could turn off the music like your mother asked you to, or you can plug in your headset, turn down the volume or even try switching from rap to a more soothing instrumental music.

Even the law takes “why” into account. Manslaughter and murder are considered as two different crimes. Even though both involves the death of a person at the hands of other, the intention behind each crime decides which is which.

“Start with the why” principle or “The Golden Circle” shown below is not just about inspiring other people. Understanding why you do something is necessary for you to do the right things.

The Golden Circle (Source: Thunda Fund)

The Engineering Angle

Great. But what does all this have to do with engineering ? Simple, do you know the “why” of engineering ? I’m not asking if you know why you chose (if you did) engineering but why does engineering as a discipline exist ?

But before we answer that let’s start with the “why” of science. In the case of science, the “why” is to understand. Physics tries to understand the universe. Chemistry tries to understand the interaction of molecules, biology tries to understand life. Every field of science has some aspect of the world that it is trying to understand. And “how” does science achieve this ? By doing experiments and making observations. In the end, “what” does science produce ? Scientific theories. For eg. the theory of gravitational forces was “what” Newton did, trying to understand the falling of apple on his head is “why” he did it.

In India, it is a requirement that you must have taken science stream in class 12 to apply for engineering. Essentially this means every aspiring engineer is a science student. But when a student does get into an engineering college there is a fundamental paradigm shift that happens without their knowledge. To understand that, one must now apply the golden circle principle to engineering.

The why of engineering is to solve problems. Technology backed by science and other technology solves problems. Period. Everything else is secondary. The science and technology are just the “how” and “what” combined. For example, invention of the steam engine solved the problem of labour. Given enough fuel, factories could now have unlimited labour. Similarly, invention of the telegraph solved the problem of long-distance communication. And yet it is not the knowledge of electric signals or the properties of expanding steam that made these inventions remarkable. It is the problems that were solved using this knowledge. Solving problems the heart of engineering. This is the skill that differentiates engineers from every other profession. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that only engineers can solve problems. But to engineers, that is the primary objective of their profession.

Being an engineer is not about knowing things. It is a reflex to start designing solutions to every problem you encounter.

This country produces a staggering 1.5 million engineers every year and yet 80% of them are unemploybale according to certain sources.

This happens because many universities miss out on the “why” of engineering. As a result the examinations they put out miss the point as well. And if exams miss the point, students are definitely not getting it. I went through the initial phase of my B.Tech course thinking that if I learn my curriculum well, that I’d become a great engineer. But nobody taught me to solve problems, hell nobody even tells you that you should know it.

The Problem of Abstraction

There is a chance that what I’m about to describe may be more relevant to computer science. But let’s hold that thought for now.

Consider the two questions

  1. I bought some groceries worth 225 rupees and paid the shopkeeper a Rs.500 note. How much should I get in return ?
  2. I have a sum total of 90 marks in one of my semester exams. I had scored 33 in my internal exams, how much marks did I score for my external exams ?

The answers are quite obvious, 275 and 57. Note that these two problems are quite different in real life. But when you answered these questions you basically did the same thing; subtraction. Question 1 became 225 - 120 and question 2 became 90 - 33. And yet nowhere in the questions do I ask you to subtract two numbers. You saw two concrete problems (pages and marks) and yet mapped it into the same abstract concept called subtraction. This mapping from concrete problems to abstract ideas is key to solving problems. If you read the above problem but couldn’t make the connection, it doesn’t matter how well you know how to subtract two numbers, you will not solve the problem.

Now, consider the following problem

The answer is binary search. The thing is, there is little difference between the subtraction problems and this one. Here too, a concrete situation (the game) is mapped to an abstract idea (searching an ordered collection). Here’s the problem. I have never encountered a question like that in my university exams during my 4 years of examinations. Throughout school, you have “word problems” in math or “application level” problems in science subjects. In fact, the word problems that we learned in school and the real world problems are the reason why we are able to map simple arithmetic problems easily. But right when it makes the most sense, in engineering, the curriculum drops it. Just like that. No more application problems.

The current evaluation system

If you teach a person to make a lightbulb, what is the best way to evaluate his skills of making a lightbulb. Do you ask him to write down the steps involed in manufacturing a lightbulb ? Or do you ask him to make lightbulb, plug the bulb into socket and turn on the power. And if there is enough light in the room I’d say he passes the test. In software testing this is called as functional unit testing. You take a piece of program code and feed it some inputs, if it produces the right output, it passes the test. What goes on within the program is irrelevant for the purpose of testing. In short the test checks if the objective (the “why”) of the code is fulfiled and is agnostic about the “how”. Similarly the first priority of evaluating an engineer should be to check if they can solve the problem. The efficiency of their solution is secondary. Yes, if you compare two equally good problem solvers, the person with more knowledge probably will come up with a more elegant solution. But knowledge itself is not proof that he/she can solve problems.

Test the why first, how is secondary, and it can vary.

A case for open book examinations

I don’t know if the people who vehemently disagrees with open book exams are aware of what it tries to achieve and how it executes it. I think people have this idea, that during the exam there’ll be a question paper with the questions, a book with the answers and the student simply cherry picks the solution from it. I can assure you that that is now how it works (it shouldn’t be).

Considering the subtraction problems again for a moment. In that case, the question paper will contain the questions, but the “open book” will contain the steps to do basic arithmetic operations. If a student can identify that the given problem is a subtraction problem, he can use the information in the book to solve it. The student cannot simply copy the solution, he has to be able to design it first. The information in the book is just there to help the student implement the solution. This is precisely what engineering demands.

The objective is to utilize information, not be a container for it.

The architecture school model

I honestly don’t know much about this, but I thought I’ll put this here anyway. Architecture schools have a very unique evaluation system. They do not have written exams (not to my knowledge). At the end of every semester students submit a project that demonstrates the skills they have acquired over the semester. The project is then judged by a jury. In engineering terms that would one mini project every semester and nothing else (imagine that 😍). Again, I do not know for sure how this actually works, but it sure seems like the right direction.

Lastly…is it really a priority ?

Quality education is always priority. But I’d like to offer a couple of other reasons as well.

Firstly, technology is the public face of science. The general public does not care about science. Only when science has been refined and packaged into a technology that improves a common man’s life do they appreciate both technology and science. Simply put, better technology equals better public scientific awareness.

Secondly, as I said earlier, being an engineer means being a trained problem solver. And India is a country that produces as many engineers as the population of Switzerland every year. Imagine if every single one of them were true problem solvers. There are a truckload of problems, not just technological, but social and political, that are begging to be solved. Even if half the engineering population had great problem solving skills, the impact it would create on the society will not be small.

Any solution that improves education, especially engineering for the reasons mentioned just now, is a recursive solution. It, in turn will cause the generation of better solutions.


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