Scientists vs. Engineers

As if Pepsigate wasn't enough to get people riled up, this could be even move apocalyptic!

H. Steven Wiley takes a close look at the real Two Cultures, Scientists vs. Engineers!

In the past, I have heard there was conflict between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities. I don't see a lot of evidence for that type of conflict today, mostly because my scientific friends all are big fans of the arts and literature. However, the two cultures that I do see a great deal of conflict between are those of science and engineering.


At one extreme, you have basic scientists, who seek to discover entirely new processes and knowledge. At the other extreme, you have applied engineers who use the knowledge to build useful devices.

When working with these multidisciplinary groups, I have observed a definite cultural difference between scientists and engineers. Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty. Of course, there is a continuum between these extremes with respect to specific technical fields as well as the people who work in them. However, there is a definite difference in the comfort zone of people who identify themselves as scientists or engineers.

Of course, the article deals mostly with generalizations and stereotypes, but as with many of those, there is often enough truth in them to make it worthwhile to pay at least a little attention.

My library serves mostly scientists with only a very small number of engineers in the student body.

I was wondering -- those of you whose libraries serve large numbers of both science and engineering students, do you see a difference in the kinds of questions they ask, the kinds of services they take advantage of or the kinds of collections they need?

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Canadian Engineering Education Association Inaugural Conference recap

First of all, the conference program is here. All the paper versions of the presentations will eventually be deposited in Queen's IR, QSpace, but don't seem to be there yet. I posted about my presentation here: Using a Blog to Engage Students in Literature Search Skills Sessions.

Now, If there can be said to be a theme to a conference which has no official theme, then the CEEA conference's theme was nicely summed up by a question from the audience during one of the sessions:

"How do you teach humbleness?"

Again and again it came up -- the challenge of teaching young, confident and accomplished engineering students to stop and think. To see social context, the big picture, to see their own blindspots, to engage lifelong learning, to focus on the uncertainties rather than certainties. Most of all, to be humble and open minded when set the talk of solving hard technical problems.

Perhaps it was my own selection of sessions to attend that gave this theme its shape and other's wouldn't see it the same way. Perhaps it was the shadow of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But I don't think so, basically due to the selection of keynote speakers. Of course, many of the presentations were of a purely technical nature, talking about the best way to get across hard core engineering information to students, so it's completely possible that another attendee would have a different view.

In any case, since the papers will be posted eventually, I'm not going to go into a detailed summary of the presentations. However, I will try and draw a "humbleness" line, however tenuous, through many of the various talks I attended.

It started with the Graduate Attribute Assessment Workshop on Monday morning where a lot of the talk was about the place of lifelong learning into the CEAB's set of graduate attributes. And it continued with Queen's librarian Michael White's talk Back to the Future: Teaching Students How to Search Patent Databases which was basically about teaching students to search as widely as possible and as thoroughly as possible -- basically to use the esp@cenet tool instead of some of the more commonly used ones.

Queen's librarian Nasser Saleh and David Strong's Students' Conceptions of Life-Long Learning: An exploratory study was also very strongly about engendering strong communications stills, humbleness and intellectual curiously among engineering students.

Doug Reeve, Greg Evans and Annie Simpson's The Leader-Engineer - Capabilities, Competencies, and Attributes brought leadership into the equation. Leadership is something that can be taught and that every engineer must do at some point.

Next up was plenary speaker, former local politician Sean Conway was basically about engineering getting beyond the stereotypical image of "The Iron Ring Crowd" who talk down to and at non-technical people and engaging more authentically and honestly as peers with the people that are affected by technical decisions.

I'll now mention a few presentations together: Medhat Moussa and William David Lubitz' Enhanced transfer of Design skills using Professor of the Loop structured Meetings, Medhat Moussa, William David Lubitz and Antony Savich's Publishing undergraduate engineering designs, a case study and Margaret Hundleby, Medhat Moussa, William David Lubitz and Peggy A. Pritchard's A Writing Kit for Engineering Design Reports. These papers described an amazing University of Guelph program of mentoring and guiding students through all the phases of design projects with intense involvement of professors, writing instructors and librarians.

Kadra Branker, Jacqueline Corbett, Jane Webster, Koray Sayili, Ivana Zelenika-Zovko and Joshua Pearce's Engineering Service Learning with Green Information Technology and Systems Projects described a project to involve engineering students in real-world sustainability projects.

The Tuesday evening keynote was by George Roter, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Engineers Without Borders Canada. In a truly wonderful talk, Roter really emphasized the value of uncertainty and humbleness when teaching engineers -- teaching them about what they don't know as much as about what they do know.

John Phillips, Christian Giroux and Warren Stiver's The Collaboration of Fine Art & Engineering at the University of Guelph described a really amazing collaboration between the engineering labs and fine arts students -- expanding the horizons of both. Vicki Remenda's The Great Debate: A Vehicle for Inquiry and Critical Assessment of Knowledge was about using formal public debates as a way of showing students the reality of different sides of an issue, that there's passion on all sides and a validity to exploring that.

Overall, it was a terrific conference. The size was just right, with a total attendance of around 125 or so. It was very intimate, with a real community feeling. It was great to reconnect with several library colleagues (Sharon Murphy, Nasser Saleh, Morag Coyne, Michael White, Randy Reichardt) and meet a few new ones too (Tara Mawhinney, Leanne Morrow) as well as getting a chance to meet and talk to a number of engineering faculty. As it happens, there were only two of us from York, the Associate Dean for Engineering Spiros Pagiatakis and me, and I was the only one presenting.

I continue to think that it's incredibly important for us as librarians to get out of the library conference rut and start going to the intellectual spaces where our patrons -- faculty, staff and students -- live and work. Get to know them and we get to know ourselves, to understand what we should be doing. Similarly, if they get to know us and what we can offer, it just makes our lives easier. Attending an engineering education conference is part of that.

One thing that was a bit unfortunate was all but one of the the librarian presentations (and there were six in total) were segregated into two Information Research and Management sessions. Pretty well all our presentations could have easily fit into one of the other categories. As a result, the two sessions were mostly other librarians and a few brave faculty souls; from the comments I heard from those faculty that did attend the librarian sessions (both about my presentation and about the others), I think all our sessions had a broader interest and both we and the conference as a whole would have benefited from a slightly different setup. But that's just a quibble.

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Friday Fun: Mars Rover Beginning To Hate Mars

May 07 2010 Published by under friday fun, yorku

Ah, The Onion. A true repository of snark and snideitude

But as the winter lingered, Spirit began producing thousands of pages of sometimes rambling and dubious data, ranging from complaints that the Martian surface was made up almost entirely of the same basalt, to long-winded rants questioning the exorbitant cost and scientific relevance of the mission.
Project leaders receive data from the Mars rover Spirit.

"Granted, Spirit has been extraordinarily useful to our work," Callas said. "Last week, however, we received three straight days of images of the same rock with the message 'HAPPY NOW?'"


"Hopefully these malfunctions will straighten themselves out," Callas said. "In the meantime, we'll simply have to try to glean what usable data we can from 'OVERPRICED SPACE-ROOMBA AWAITING MORE BULLSHIT ORDERS.'"

NASA remains optimistic that the rover will remain at least partially operational for the foreseeable future. However, because of the Spirit's recent proclivity toward ramming into boulders at full speed, scientists have remotely disabled its 1.5-pound rock-abrasion tool so the rover is unable to terminate the mission prematurely.

I find this particularly amusing given my institutions prominent role in the Mars-Phoenix project.

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