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The Engineering Way of Thinking – An Introduction

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Monday, January 29, 2018, 3:05 pm– 3:55 pm

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Environmental Engineering Graduate Seminar


Dr. William Bulleit, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Michigan Tech



Anecdotal evidence, both spoken and written, supports the hypothesis that engineers, in general, think differently from everyone else.  Although there are certainly significant similarities between other disciplines and engineering, something seems to distinguish engineers.

Engineering has been defined in many ways, most commonly as problem solving and/or applied science.  Such definitions capture only a portion of what engineering encompasses and certainly do not adequately delineate the engineering way of thinking.  For instance, if engineering is primarily problem solving, then the engineering way of thinking is how engineers go about solving problems:  What knowledge and tools do we use?  How do we decide which knowledge and tools to use in a given instance?  How do we select new knowledge and tools as problems change?  The answers to these and other questions are what differentiate engineering from other human endeavors.

Engineers recognize that there is a wide range of knowledge and tools that may prove necessary in the design of any engineered artifact.  These include heuristics, visualization, teamwork, interaction with community members, interactions with clients, simple mathematical equations, complicated software, written communication, and so on.  As we move forward, where our systems become more complex, all of the previous tools will be needed, as well as others, such as agent-based modeling, artificial neural networks, genetic algorithms, quantum computing, and tools that we know little or nothing about today.

The engineering way of thinking has evolved over many thousands of years and continues to do so.  This paper will be an effort to describe this ‘engineering way of thinking’ and what distinguishes it from alternatives.

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  • Angela Keranen

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