One of my professors at university used to say that almost all process are already optimized and the challenge of engineers now is to create new ways to do things. The problem is, as education is done today, how prepared are people to create?
Since I started my course, I have studied much more theory than practice. Even my little practice time is full of instructions. The feeling I had is that I cannot try things without a strong theoretical base and if I do, it will fail for sure.
However, I am very interested in Innovation and the more I learn about it, the more I know I was wrong. My university in Brazil offered an Innovation subject for engineers for the first time last year and I was there. We were supposed to build a spaghetti tower that could support an eraser piece in a few minutes. After the activity, we were told that our tallest tower was much shorter than the ones built by children in primary school and much taller than the ones built by PhD students. That is why: Because children did not know anything about theory, they just tried until it worked, and they always got something. The PhD people usually try to use their knowledge to foresee the best tower and when they start trying, it is already too late.
I am doing a course for first year students in Australia. It consists in the following: You have to choose a project between all the ones offered by many engineering faculties. Join a group and you have the semester to finish the project. What kind of project? Bionic hands, elevator moved by solar energy, bridges made of paper, mines in Mars and things like that. Impossible? The subject’s professors say that they have in average 99% of success. How is it possible? The students have some theoretical support from their supervisor, because these things are more important and difficult than a spaghetti tower. But, again, their knowledge in first year is so few that they can only try and try and try until find the right path.
Let me make things clear: I do not want to finish all theoretical classes because they are also important. Everything humanity have found out until now is what makes the world all the good and bad we see now, thus, it is clear that we should not ignore it. I just would like a bit of freedom to try new things. More subjects that ask us to make impossible things. More goals and fewer instructions. Less study and more engineering!
Finally, I leave you with a quote from my class. I hope it makes you think as it made me:
“Science seeks to understand the world as it is; only engineers can change it. Full scientific understanding may not be necessary for technological advancement: Steam engines preceded thermodynamics, the Wright brothers flew before aerodynamics, transatlantic telegraph preceded electrical engineering and coal-fired ships crossed the Atlantic when science said it could not be done.”
Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist. By Henry Petroski, Washington Post Sunday, January 25, 2009