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Journal Article

Beyond problem solving: Engineering and the public good in the 21st century


Hedemann,  Christopher
Director’s Research Group OES, The Ocean in the Earth System, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;
IMPRS on Earth System Modelling, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;

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El-Zein, A., & Hedemann, C. (2016). Beyond problem solving: Engineering and the public good in the 21st century. Journal of Cleaner Production, 137, 692-700. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.07.129.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-B668-2
Problem solving is upheld as a defining feature of engineering identity, and the ability to solve problems is built into engineering curricula as a learning outcome and a graduate attribute. The notion that problem solving is a desirable and defining attribute of engineering education and practice is hardly ever examined critically. The goal of the paper is to explore the extent to which the focus by engineers on problem solving, and the professional ethos of which it is part, determines their mode of engagement with the world and limits their ability to tackle root causes of social and environmental issues in technologically advanced societies. The paper's contribution to the literature is twofold. First, it argues that a focus on problem solving, brings with it epistemological and political biases which limit the ability of engineers to reflect on their knowledge acquisition and problem definition processes, and therefore to tackle problems effectively. Second, it is proposed here that the profession's attempts to maintain relevance in the 21st century will falter unless engineers clearly enunciate the “public good” that they are mandated to build, reinforce or protect. The nature of this mandate will have far-reaching implications for engineering institutions, disciplines and educational programs. This point is investigated by translating one particular formulation of the public good of engineering into a new set of disciplinary boundaries and curricular subject matter. A survey of academic and teaching staff at the School of Civil Engineering of the University of Sydney is conducted to assess the extent to which the paper's arguments about the public interest of engineering are likely to be accepted by engineering educators. © 2016 Elsevier Ltd