“Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains; engineering is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff…” – Henry Petroski, IEEE Spectrum
Engineers build amazing and beautiful things that bring the benefits of science and discovery into people’s lives. From the amazing International Space Station to the ingenious little staples that pediatricians use to repair the scalps of kids who fall off bikes, engineers invent and develop new and better ways of doing things.
Engineers also play a vital role in allowing scientists and practitioners to work together. For example, you don’t what a nuclear physicist building nuclear power plants. A scientist will have no idea how to do this; that isn’t the scientist’s job. A nuclear power engineer does know how to apply the principles of the science to build something that generates electricity. If a power plant melts down, it’s not because the science was wrong, but because the science wasn’t applied very well. One position is not more important than the other, there are just two jobs with two fairly different sets of skills.
Along the same lines, you don’t want either a scientist or an engineer actually operating a nuclear power plant. That job requires a third set of skills that deal with the practical, day-to-day matters of people and procedures. The only way a nuclear power plant runs safely is to have these three parties working together and leveraging the strengths and skills of each.
What does that mean for education and learning?
The education profession needs learning engineers. The field of education has been dominated by scientists and practitioners, without the benefit of engineering in the middle. On the one hand, scientists like psychologists and neurologists have been making leaps and bounds in our understanding of how people learn. We have come to understand much more about how the mind works and the brain behaves. And when something new is discovered, teachers and instructors everywhere jump to adopt these new principles into their instruction. Applying these new ideas to the day-to-day operations of instruction is not easy. There is a disconnect of skills in this process. Most learning scientists have few instructional skills, and most instructors have few scientific skills. The learning engineer, however, is the person with enough understanding of science and enough understanding of instruction to bridge that gap. It is the role of the learning engineer to take the principles discovered in the science of learning to build tools and learning environments that makes the day-to-day instruction better.
In the field of medicine, a similar revolution is taking place in translational science. Doctors were becoming increasingly frustrated with the difficulty of bringing the amazing discoveries of the biological and medical sciences into their clinics and hospitals. Important discoveries weren’t becoming important treatments. The field realized that there was a growing disconnect between the doctors working at the lab bench and the doctors working at the clinic bedside. A new field of translational science and clinical research is being developed to bridge that gap between the science side and the practical side of things.
After computer programming became complex enough that it couldn’t be done by a single person who was both scientist and practitioner, the field encountered the software crisis. Practically all software projects were running over budget and over schedule, but as software became critical parts of everything we use, the problems became equally critical. For example, three people had been killed by a software bug in a radiation treatment machine. The rise of the Internet only made things worse. The solution was, of course, software engineering, or adding engineers to the process of learning about how software works and how software is created and used. Software engineers now work with computer scientists and computer programmers to build software tools and environments that work.