Teaching engineering: then and now

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By John Bartlit

Public discourse is a strange thing. It clanks, whirrs and blows steam. As it hacks and grinds away, making an assembly line of ideas to choose from.

     Discourse operates this way on any topic worth our time. Take for example the discipline of engineering.

     Engineering does things to the air and water, some for better and some for worse. Practices have changed in recent decades. At the same time, the old principles apply even more in new situations.

     An insight can be found in an old work problem assigned to student engineers in the years before clean water was valued.

     My bookshelf still holds chemical engineering books I used at Purdue, Class of ’56. My senior year I took the course “Process Engineering Economics,” using a textbook of the same name.

     Flipping to the table of contents, I see that Section 7-4 explains the fine points of “Nonproductive Investments and Taxes.” An accompanying example (pp. 184-87) illustrates how engineers were trained in the 1950s.

     The sample problem is laid out: “A new food processing plant ... is so located that a waste disposal system is not necessary at the present time but might be desirable for esthetic reasons.”

     The step-by-step analysis proceeds to calculate payout times for an investment in a waste disposal system. It finds: “Both the economic and capitalized payout times for the capital investment without the waste disposal system are seen to be lower than with the addition.”

     The student exercise concludes: “The preceding illustrates the rather important principle of the use of valuable capital (with a 25 percent return) for a purpose which is nonproductive.”

     Keen engineers go forth and practice the principles: Forget the waste disposal system. It doesn’t earn money for food processors.

     Lessons to be drawn from the 1955 textbook differ as widely as the mindsets we can choose from. All together we get alphabet soup:

A) The text confirms that technologists and corporations get mired in concern for economic return.

B) The textbooks today are amazingly different from 50 years ago.

C) The old text confirms that citizen action and government rules are essential. What else would change the old norm of neglecting the land, air and water?

D) Applying principles of engineering economics yields a solid return on corporate investment. Some of this return provides the billions of dollars that make the air and water cleaner.

E) Some of this return goes into permanent foundations that give corporate and family money to aid citizen action that pushes a cleaner environment.

F) Applying engineering principles produces equipment that makes the air and water cleaner.

G) Applying principles of engineering economics yields a solid return for pollution control companies. These profits increase employment in the pollution control industry.

H) Times change ... in fits, starts and random increments. Words adjust to the change. “Nonproductive” and “not necessary” apply in new ways.

I) The studious neglect of the environment is the old school.

J) Beyond government rules, self-initiated cleanup has gained currency.

K) Fewer rules, with less bureaucracy and paperwork, would leave money for better cleanup.

L) Relying on self-initiative hurts good companies. Bad guys gain by abusing the freedom.

M) Most people have investments or pension plans to boost their well being. Most people and their pension plans seek to invest in companies that give the highest return on investment, to gain the most for their later years.

N) My old textbook taught process engineering economics, so companies might achieve the highest return on investment. That aim coincides with people’s aims for their later years.

O) Every mindset leaves out much more than it includes. The result is that some precious values are lost sight of; efficiency is one, sustainability is another.

     All these mindsets are equally relevant to cleaning the air and water. Each of them is as true as the next one. Scan them all into your database.

     Ultimately, A through O feed into public decisions via the democratic process. The means is slow, messy and cranky. Yet it goes forward, we can hope.

     The best ideas employ all valid pieces ­— A through O. The list of 15 stout truths helps spread this thought and keep it fresh in mind.

     So much the better for public discourse.