Hold paramount

I always start with a relevant image, but I was unable to find an openly licensed photo of one of the Boeing 737 Max crash sites and I refuse to show a photo of an intact Max 737.

What’s new?

The Guardian reports that the US Federal Aviation Administration has fined Boeing $2.5 billion for its behavior, including fraud and conspiracy, concerning safety issues of the 737 Max airliner.

What does it mean?

Crashes of Max 737 planes in October 2018 in Ethiopia and in March 2019 in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people. As explained in this 2019 article from Vox, Boeing made the business decision to try to avoid a lengthy recertification process by redesigning an existing plane rather than design a new plane. “But because the new engines wouldn’t fit under the old wings, the new plane wound up having different aerodynamic properties than the old plane. And because the aerodynamics were different, the flight control systems were also different. But treating the whole thing as a fundamentally different plane would have undermined the whole point. So the FAA and Boeing agreed to sort of fudge it.” An attempt to fix the problem through software was never incorporated sufficiently into pilot training. “That let Boeing get the planes into customers’ hands quickly and cheaply, but evidently at the cost of increasing the possibility of pilots not really knowing how to handle the planes, with dire consequences for everyone involved.” People died.

What does it mean for you?

In 2015, when news broke about VW’s use of software to defeat the ability of EPA tests to accurately measure emissions from VW diesels, I met my engineering class of about 20 juniors, seniors, and graduate students. I intended to briefly comment about the VW actions, lament the ethical lapses, reinforce the importance of ethics and safety, and then turn to our scheduled topic for the class. The engineering faculty had long agreed on the importance of highlighting news events related to engineering. However, much to my shock, some of the students pushed back: everyone lies, it’s part of the game, and that’s just business.

I argued back and a lively discussion ensued. In fact, I yelled at them. At the next meeting of our departmental advisory board (made up of representatives from local companies that hire our graduates), I recounted this story; the members of the board told me I was correct in yelling at the students. They said that ethical lapses were fireable offences.

A failure in learning by a wide group of students generally indicates a failure in teaching, so a few class sessions later, I spent some time reviewing the stance of the engineering profession regarding ethics and safety, material we cover in the first year introduction to engineering course. I started with the first Fundamental Canon in the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Code of Ethics for Engineers, which forms the basis for the codes of ethics of all engineering societies in the US: “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Next I described that ABET, which accredits all engineering programs in the US, requires programs to include as a desired outcome that graduates have “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.” The achievement of that outcome must be assessed and evaluated, and that evaluation must be used for continuous improvement of the program. In addition, any safety lapse during ABET’s review of a program that is not immediately fixed, will lead to a negative review, involving a “show cause” decision in which the institution must argue why the program should not lose its accreditation.

I reminded the students that, as seniors, they would be invited to be inducted into the Order of the Engineer, by reciting the obligation (including the statement that “my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good”), and wearing a ring that reminds them of their obligation.

When I present this material to first year students in engineering, I tell them, that, if they are not ready to take on these ethical obligations, they should not become engineers. I invite them to leave.

I recently had a very bad experience with a national company (which left us for 5 days without propane) and a very good experience with a local company (Flow Right Plumbing, Heating and Cooling) that got our furnace and water heater running again after we got propane. When I complimented the local company, the repair person went on at length about the training they get – the first training he mentioned was ethics. I repeat: the first training he mentioned was ethics.

The fact that Boeing (and VW) did not receive the death penalty for their actions is an example of privileging the “lives” of corporations over the actual lives of living beings. If you are not prioritizing ethics, if you cannot make ethics and safety part of your business plan, if you do not make sure that every employee behaves ethically, then your business should not exist.

Where can you learn more?

Excellent material abounds for teaching engineering ethics, especially using case studies: for example, here, here, and here.

I am less familiar with such material for teaching business ethics, but an Internet search turned up similar business case studies here, here, and here. I cannot find that the standards of the leading business school accreditation body, AACSB, include a requirement that student outcomes include any knowledge or skill about ethical behavior, but I might have missed such a statement.  

An Internet search for “teaching ethics to employees” turned up many web pages with helpful material and many companies that offer such training or advice on how to train employees. I like this article from Training Magazine and this one from Strategic Finance Magazine.

Engineering culture constantly reinforces attention to safety and ethics, and every organization can do the same. Some companies start every meeting with a safety review. The pinky ring from the Order of the Engineer is designed to be a constant reminder of the obligation of the engineer to the public. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County; every meeting has a report from our safety committee about how we are keeping kids safe. You can think of ways to make ethics constantly at the forefront of the minds of those in your organization.


What’s new

Three articles came together for me this week.

  1. New Scientist magazine reported on an ambitious project to use artificial intelligence (AI) to speak with animals.
  2. New Scientist also reported on the astounding amount of code in old programming languages still present in financial processing software.
  3. A friend who writes and teaches about Celtic paganism and horse goddesses posted a link to a 2017 article arguing that Joseph Campbell got a lot wrong in his work on mythology.

What does it mean?

The first article states “AI is good at language,” and describes a current project to decode the sounds made by sperm whales using AI to look for categories in massive databases. The technique “is great at detecting patterns and can neatly sort whale calls, say, into piles based on their acoustic properties, but often can’t tell you what those piles relate to.” The researchers realize they need to correlate the whale’s clicking vocalizations, called codas, with whale behavior and conclude “This is still a long way from deciphering meaning.” The article falls, I fear, into a long, long pattern of hype about AI, with the headline “Dr Dolittle machines: How AI is helping us talk to the animals” belied by the actual content of the article.

Among the many social problems made even more visible by the corona virus pandemic, attempts to provide financial aid to people found that some computer systems were overwhelmed “with the flood of people applying for welfare benefits – and hardly anyone around knew how to fix things,” as stated in the second article. These welfare processing systems, it turns out, still have massive amounts of code written in COBOL and other old programming languages. Ageing programmers, like the COBOL Cowboys, were called into service to try to fix the situation. But it often turns out that you don’t just need an experienced COBOL programmer, you need the COBOL programmer who wrote the original code. “Opaque turns of phrase, plus coding conventions that can vary significantly between domains or even organisations, make deciphering a specific bit of software difficult for an outsider.”

While Campbell’s views shifted across his many works, he is best known for arguing for the similarity of myths across many cultures. His thesis is summarized in the title of one his books, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which, according to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, “Campbell formulated the dual schemas of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through all of humanity’s mythic traditions, and of the Cosmogonic Cycle, the stories of world-creation and -dissolution that have marked cultures around the world and across the centuries.” To the contrary, the 2017 article by Jeana Jorgensen quotes Sara Cleto as writing: “By saying `all these stories are the same,’ we lose what stories mean in different contexts and, especially, what they can mean to people that come from cultures that are not our own.”

What does it mean for you?

Humans look for and see patterns, perhaps due to evolution, since pattern recognition can help us survive. The theme I see in these three articles is that problems can arise through overuse of categories or patterns. It is more than just the difference between lumpers and splitters in taxonomy, it is more than whether patterns or categories help or hinder our thinking, the issue is our overuse of the general at the expense of the particular and our failure to respect the meaning an individual puts on an experience.

I can give more examples.

  • What some cite as Freud’s belief in universal symbols in dreams is better described as the need to interpret symbols in the individual’s context.
  • New Scientist also recently reported on efforts to use AI to identify emotions from facial expressions, but Lisa Feldman Barrett is quoted as questioning the fundamentals of the approach because “the use of various expressions varies noticeably between cultures.”
  • Again, from New Scientist, the Y2K bug lingers because the specific local ways in which the fix was implemented have caused other problems.

Local customs and cultures matter. Individuals matter.

In my interactions with people, I am constantly on the watch for indications that my interpretation of a situation is not the same as the other people I am working with. I can’t assume that the pattern, the categories, or the meaning I see is the same as what others see. I am listening for the implicit statement “That’s not how I see it.”

In my specific area of creating probability models, one person may say to another “wait, what is the sample space you are using?” which means that we are not thinking about the situation in the same way. We need to back up and reexamine our different interpretations of the situation.

In our quest for shared meaning, in our quest to establish an organizational culture, and in our quest to communicate clearly, we can use the amazing human skill of creating categories and of looking for patterns, but we must always be carefully alert for and we must always respect the particular, the local, and the individual.  

Where can you learn more?

In support of the recognition of the particular over the general, I urge you to watch your life over the next days and recognize those situations where another person interprets an event differently than you do. I think of them as Rashomon moments. For me, Facebook is a rich source of amazing and sometimes shocking cases where consensus is disrupted by someone who just views the whole situation in a different light. Wow, I say to myself.

I am adamant about using images that are in the public domain and about giving credit to the creator of the image, but I was stymied in this case by my inability to find an open use image of the sled Rosebud from the movie Citizen Kane, a powerful image, I think, of the particular nature of symbols. I substituted a rosebud photo. Did you get the reference? Or was it too particular to me?


Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2017707731/, Dinosaur Garage sign, Dinosaur, Colorado, from the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, which states that there are no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a document titled Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap, which describes “a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage. “

What does it mean?

The DOE program states goals for a 90% reduction from 2020 baseline costs in the cost of energy storage for long-duration stationary applications by 2030 and a 44% reduction from the current cost to manufacture a battery pack for a 300-mile range electric vehicle, again by 2030. Various tracks in the program focus on reducing the cost of operation as well as the cost to manufacture energy storage devices.

The report outlines six Use Cases describing ways in which improved energy storage will improve lives:

  1. facilitating an evolving grid (with improved resilience and reduced emissions),
  2. serving remote communities (with “clean, resilient, and cost-effective storage and flexibility solutions”),
  3. electrified mobility (to “facilitate a large-scale adoption of electric vehicles while maximizing beneficial coordination with the power grid”),
  4. interdependent network infrastructure (including reducing the need for peaking plants that run on fossil fuels),
  5. critical services (providing for continuity of power during disaster-related and other outages), and
  6. flexibility (for commercial and residential buildings and for energy-intensive facilities).

The technical and social changes needed to meet these goals are large, including safety (for example, to reduce the tendency of Lithium-ion batteries to overheat), cybersecurity, and the ethical sourcing of critical materials in these storage devices. Arguably, the resulting program, when successful, will be as significant as the initial electrification of this country.

What does it mean for you?

Denver-based journal Allen Best publishes a newsletter called Big Pivots, about the changes in Colorado use of water, energy, land, and other natural resources – and especially about climate change. Those who refer to the vast middle of the US as flyover country have seen the huge crop circles irrigated by a center well, through a large irrigation tube that pivots around that center.

Energy storage is driven by and is driving electrification, which, in turn, enables increased use of renewably generated energy to replace fossil fuels. Best wrote two days ago about the interplay among transportation, tourism, and the Colorado economy in the installation of a new high-speed charging station in Dinosaur, Colorado. He quotes Jim Heneghan, chief power supply officer for Delta-Montrose Electric Association, about the new imperative to have such a station: “If we don’t have the infrastructure in place now, it will be like the place that didn’t have WiFi. We don’t want to be that place.”

To state my now obvious punch line: don’t be a dinosaur. You should be looking at the sources and uses of energy in your organization now and moving, through beneficial electrification, to reducing your dependence on fossil fuels.

I just had personal experience with Use Case #2 about remote communities when my propane company failed to deliver, leaving me with an empty propane tank for five days and pushing me to accelerate my plans to install a heat pump. My local electric coop, San Isabel Electric Association, is giving me advice on how to electrify our water heating.

The present and the future in commercial energy includes using electricity to heat and cool spaces for humans, adopting electric transportation such as electric forklifts, and powering industrial operations from renewably generated electricity. In my home town, Pueblo’s historic 1881 steel mill will become the first in North America to rely on solar power; it already sources its input from recycled material.

Where can you learn more?

This August 2020 article from Deloitte provides an overview of the imperatives driving electrification in industrial companies. ACEEE, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, has a page focusing on industrial changes.

The website of the Energy Storage Association is a good place to start to learn about energy storage, including this overview of energy storage and  this description of the five basic types of energy storage: batteries, thermal, mechanical, storage, and pumped water. This page focuses on how energy storage can benefit a company. “Behind the meter” is a phrase used by the electrical industry to refer to devices and actions that are taken by the customer (who is behind the meter from the viewpoint of the electricity provider).

Selection of energy reduction strategies, including on site energy storage, requires understanding how you are charged for electricity, that is, your electricity tariff. This page from The Energy Detective explains the basics of fixed rates, tiers, time of use rates, demand charges, and other rates.

The Office of Electricity in the US Department of Energy is also a good source of information on technology being developed to create a secure, resilient, and reliable national grid. An overview of their work is here and various reports are here.

The US Energy Information Administration’s web page on electricity also has valuable information, so much that it can be overwhelming. This page has information on the consumption of energy in manufacturing.

What’s on your dashboard?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

What’s new?

Michael Taylor, a mechanical engineer and project manager with the Manufacturing Extension program at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology, wrote in a blog posting that digital applications are becoming frequent in manufacturing. While implementation of such techniques may be daunting for small enterprises, due to initial purchase price and training costs, he recommends five applications: digital performance management; predictive maintenance; yield, energy, and throughput analysis; automation and robotics; and digital quality management.

What does it mean?

The article briefly describes each application:

  1. Define important performance metrics, devise ways to collect the metrics in real time, and display them in a digital dashboard. Start with machine operating data or production output, as examples.
  2. Predictive maintenance uses equipment condition, often monitored by sensors, to detect the need to perform maintenance before machine failure.
  3. What is your yield for each step and for the entire process? How much energy are you using? How can each step in your process be improved? Digital applications can help you answer these questions.
  4. Automation and robotics are becoming more common, with turn-key solutions more available. The NIST article advises starting with applications such as low-speed material handling.
  5. Take the performance metrics identified in the first application and tie them directly and automatically to decision making.

What does it mean for you?

Three key ideas underlie the NIST suggestions: industrial engineering, vendors, and data.  

The author of the NIST article is a mechanical engineer. My field, industrial engineering, has historical roots in mechanical engineering, but adds considerations of efficiency, quality, and safety to the design of mechanical – and electrical – devices and systems, especially in manufacturing enterprises. Many of the manufacturing trends of the last decades are central to industrial engineering, including performance and productivity measures, preventive and now predictive maintenance, process improvement and optimization, automation and robotics to improve the operations of a manufacturing system, and automatic, data-based decision making. Your organization will have an easier time implementing the applications suggested in the NIST article if you have industrial engineers to help you.

You can get industrial engineering help by hiring an industrial engineer, of course, but often vendors can be your friends. Yes, a vendor is trying to sell you some technology, hardware, or software, but a good vendor wants to make sure your organization is successful in implementation. Many companies use engineers, often industrial engineers, in technical sales positions. Even if the sales person is not an engineer, a good vendor will provide training opportunities for your staff, access to web resources, and someone on their staff to help you install and operate the new application. If the vendor isn’t offering such support, try another vendor. Always remember that you aren’t just purchasing a physical device; you are also purchasing the support and service that comes with it.

Quality guru Deming is well known for saying; “In God we trust; all others bring data,” and I am much less well known for saying: “I love data.” Deming also said “Measure, measure, measure.”  Data are your messages from the real world. Using data requires that you choose what to measure, design a system to collect and report those data (collect from where? with what devices? measured and reported at what intervals?), and, most importantly, use that data to make better decisions.

I cannot shout this final point loudly enough: data are useful because they help you make better decisions. While this point is explicit in the fifth suggestion from NIST, it is implicit in all of the suggestions. And this point has many implications. You probably shouldn’t bother to collect some data if they won’t be used to make decisions. Using data to make better decisions involves a lot of work to understand the relationships among the data, the real world system they were collected from, and the decisions your organization makes that affect that system. You need a good model of those relationships.

The NIST articles rightly focuses on getting started. For all organizations, collecting data and learning to use them to make better decisions is the path to quality improvement and to better decision making.

Where can you learn more?

Yes, “data” is a plural noun.

I used the word “dashboard” in the title of this post because many use that phrase to describe the types of applications recommended in the NIST article. An Internet search on the phrase “manufacturing dashboard” yields much good advice. See, for example, 6 Manufacturing Dashboards for Visualizing Production.

Here comes the sun

Source: author

What’s new?

A recent article at Our World in Data, by Max Roser, presents evidence that “In most places in the world power from new renewables is now cheaper than power from new fossil fuels.”

What does it mean?

Almost always, first iteration of a new technology is expensive to make and barely functional, but, over time, it improves. All of us have experienced the amazing progress in consumer electronics, including computers and cell phones. Engineering efforts improve both the product itself and the manufacturing process for the product, resulting often in dramatic drops in cost and dramatic increases in performance.

In the case of renewable energy, Roser writes of the array of improvements that have reduced costs: “larger, more efficient factories are producing the modules; R&D efforts increase; technological advances increase the efficiency of the panels; engineering advances improve the production processes of the silicon ingots and wafers; the mining and processing of the raw materials increases in scale and becomes cheaper; operational experience accumulates; the modules are more durable and live longer; market competition ensures that profits are low; and capital costs for the production decline. It is a myriad of small improvements across a large collective process that drives this continuous price decline.”

Simply put, we learn.

Two concepts, the learning curve and the positive feedback loop, describe the effects of learning in reducing the prices of new technologies. The learning curve is an empirical finding that increased production volume of a manufactured item reliably leads to reduction in the cost of the item, in a way that can be described and then predicted mathematically. A positive feedback loop is the more general model of a situation where more of something creates even more of that thing; population growth is the classic example.

I have written before about negative feedback loops, in which more of something creates less of it; a thermostat keeps temperature in a desired range by using a high temperature as a signal to trigger cooling (to reduce the temperature) and low temperature as a signal to trigger heating (to increase the temperature).

In a positive feedback loop, more is a signal that triggers even more. Roser uses the diagram shown below to explain how a positive feedback loop underlies the learning curve for renewable energy technologies.  More reduction in price causes increased use, thus increased demand, thus increased deployment, and finally even more reduction in price.

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

What does it mean for you?

The article makes the strong case against the continued use of fossil fuels, based on the harm they cause today in air pollution and the long term effects on the planet. “A world run on fossil fuels is not sustainable.” The argument that we must use fossil fuels because they are cheaper is no longer valid.

Positive feedback loops are sometimes called, as Roser does, a virtuous cycle, since more of a good thing causes even more of that good thing. How can you use positive feedback loops in your organization to create a virtuous cycle? Affirmative inquiry is a process of identifying what is going right in an organization in order to promote it, as explained here. As an engineering teacher, I learned that a student’s success in solving simple problems involving a difficult new concept can lead to positive feelings that support the desire to learn more and to try harder problems involving that concept; note that I am not motivating the learning by praise, but rather by success. A positive feedback loop can work in other areas, but must be carefully nurtured. A manager who says criticism is welcomed must, in fact, act in a way that welcomes criticism in order to support a virtuous cycle in which criticism is openly made and used. How can you create the environment in which more of what is desired causes even more?

Where can you learn more?

This article was sent to me by a friend. Now that I know about the web page Our World in Data (“The goal of our work is to make the knowledge on the big problems accessible and understandable”), I will be checking their web page regularly.

Learning curves, or experiences curves, involve plotting the cost of an item (on a log scale) as a function of the cumulative numbers of items produced (also on a log scale). The Our World in Data article contains several such plots, including this one:

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

 This 1964 article in Harvard Business Review explains the history behind the learning curve in industrial production. This article describes that people improve at their task, that the productive process itself is improved, and the product is also improved; all contribute to the decline in cost with increasing production volume. The mathematics of the learning curve can also be applied to an individual worker’s improvement in performing a repetitive task.

Be careful to note that the word “positive” in “positive feedback” means that an increase causes an increase and that the word “negative” in “negative feedback” means that an increase causes a decrease. The words do not mean that the effect is desirable or undesirable; positive and negative feedback can cause good and bad effects. You should be aware, of course, that more is not always better. For example, when a microphone picks up sound from a loudspeaker transmitting the microphone’s own signal, the microphone amplifies the sound in a positive feedback loop resulting in the extremely annoying – and very negative – sound.  Positive feedback loops can lead to runaway situations in bad effects, such as can occur in global warming, in which warming causes some effects that cause even more warming. NASA discusses the positive and negative feedback loops operating in climate change here. This article argues that wealth inequality is a dangerous runaway situation.

Also, the meaning of “positive feedback” in systems thinking is not the same as the meaning of “positive feedback” in leaving a positive review about a product or giving praise to someone who has done a good job. The positive review or the praise expresses a positive opinion, but we don’t know what the systemic effect will be of that opinion.

Time for progress

Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain

What’s new?

A recent article in Additive Manufacturing describes how materials and measurement are important factors in the increasing use of additive manufacturing to make medical implants.

What does it mean?

Additive manufacturing is an ever expanding collection of materials and manufacturing methods, all united by the underlying concept of building up an object, usually layer by layer, rather than the traditional manufacturing approach of starting from a large piece of material and removing portions. Additive, not subtractive. The interplay of materials and methods in additive manufacturing is creating a push for new types of products and the urge to use additive manufacturing in different applications is exerting a pull on the research. The result is an explosion of new ideas, including new ideas involving implants in medical applications.

Additive manufacturing is not just resulting in better ways to manufacture medical implants; it is also allowing the redesign of these implants. Objects that are difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods are possible to manufacture additively. But even more, the ongoing development of additive manufacturing materials and methods is moving capabilities further and further.

Most obviously, if you are manufacturing by removing material, it is difficult to get inside an object and remove what is not wanted, but if you are manufacturing by adding material, the outside is created last, leaving the interior exposed and able to be created in ways that were impossible in the past.

For example, this September 2020 article from Additive Manufacturing describes a new process  of powder bed fusion using a titanium-nickel alloy called nitinol to create stents. Because the new additive manufacturing process opened new possibilities, the stents were redesigned to be more effective, and the stents can now be printed for individual use in a specific patient. This interplay of materials, methods, and redesign is happening again and again in additive manufacturing, not just in medical manufacturing, but in many other areas of application. The article in Additive Manufacturing also points out that measurement and the accurate reproduction of those measurements are other key ideas behind the customization enabled by additive manufacturing.

What does it mean for you?

I am very excited to watch the ongoing developments in additive manufacturing. The one concept – create objects by adding rather than subtracting material – is so simple, yet has so many variations, based on different materials and methods.

This process of exploring, inventing, and applying additive technology is being pushed by different materials and methods and pulled by different uses. Depending on your viewpoint, the development is occurring rapidly, with Wikipedia giving 1971 as the date of the first patent related to 3D printing, or it is occurring slowly – that patent is almost 50 years old now. I recall that in the 1980s and early 1990s attention was given to the issue that despite the growth in use of information technology (IT), such use had not led to increases in productivity – some called it the productivity paradox and I even directed a Master’s thesis on the topic. See, for example, this article. That particular productive paradox gets much less attention now, I believe because IT is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to attribute productivity growth or lack of it to IT. We cannot imagine living without IT now.

I believe that additive technology is on its way to becoming similarly ubiquitous and similarly enabling. Additive technology is still the new kid on the block – notice that I have compared it to traditional manufacturing technology – but soon it will be part of the range of manufacturing processes routinely considered by engineers; soon it will be traditional.

The lesson for you is, I think, that a new concept, relentlessly pursued, can have deep and wide effects, but only with hard work and with some time. The development of a new concept is caused by the push of that concept but also by the pull of application. Give it time but also give it attention.

Where can you learn more?

My favorite source for information on developments in additive manufacturing is the online magazine named simply Additive Manufacturing. You can get a print subscription here or the email newsletter here.  Gardner Business Media also publishes Modern Machine Shop Online, another favorite for me. Gardner’s full range of publications is described here.

Engineering for all

The egg drop competition, STEM Day at Colorado State University-Pueblo for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County, 2011. Source: author.

What’s new?

Early this month, the research group Advancing Excellence in P-12 Engineering Education (AE3) released a report on precollege engineering education, Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning. The vision is to promote engineering literacy for all, from preschool through high school, to be achieved through learning engineering habits of mind, engineering practices, and engineering knowledge.

What does it mean?

A continued fear of a shortage of STEM graduates and a continued belief that all students need education in STEM fields have led many organizations to develop programs to start STEM education, including engineering education, in high school and even lower grades. For example, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) states: “Since 1997, we have grown from a high school engineering program to offering comprehensive PreK-12 pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.”  The trend continues. In 2017, IEEE (the professional organization for electrical engineers) developed TryEngineering Together.

Many assumptions underlie this trend, some of them questionable. The shortage of STEM graduates may not be real and often is really shorthand for the desire to allow the admission to the US of more immigrants with computer programming skills or as a gateway to offshoring the work. This 2015 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that STEM is not a monolith and concludes “Across all the different disciplines, yes, there is a STEM crisis, and no, there is no STEM crisis. It depends on how and where you look.” The trend to focus college and now school education on career preparation can be lamented for its lack of focus on a broader education. The real issue in STEM education may be the need for STEM graduates to keep up with new developments in their field. Regardless of the truth about these issues, I support the US Department of Education argument that STEM education should provide STEM literacy and opportunities for all: “A child’s zip code should not determine their STEM fluency.”

But what is STEM fluency and how should it be developed?

My childhood included playing with kits from Edmund Scientific and with equipment my father brought home from his job as an engineer at Bell Labs:  lenses, magnets, batteries, wires, and lightbulbs. I had an Erector Set to build things, I made a generator, I put together my father’s overhead saw, I made a model of a river lock and another of the hanging gardens of Babylon, I grew salt crystals in a jar in the refrigerator, I spent one summer in a science exploration program looking at everything in a microscope, in high school in 1964 I learned to program in Fortran in a class run a local company, I was fascinated by the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio, and I took calculus in high school. I knew that I could get out of trouble by saying “But Mom, it’s a scientific experiment!” Note that very few of those memories relate to in-school activities. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged my STEM interests, especially my fascination with math.

In my role as chair of the Department of Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo for 21 years, I was involved in many outreach activities to promote engineering education, especially through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County. I know that I changed lives.

But I also worried – and still worry – that many programs can portray engineering in a cartoon version, similar to tinkering. For example, several times I showed a project by our engineering seniors to middle school students. Our engineering students had developed a prosthetic hand, including sophisticated controls. Imagine my dismay when (not just once) some middle school students told me: “We did that already!” They had, of course, tinkered with moveable parts and rubber bands, but lacked the knowledge to see the difference in what they did and what the seniors did. Also, I must note, what our seniors did was not the same as prosthetic hands developed by industry.

In this new report, AE3 has done an excellent job of laying out what engineers know, including the technical knowledge and their way of thinking. They have also incorporated guard rails against cartoon versions of engineering, including the need to strive for authenticity to engineering (page 15): “While engineering concepts, habits, and practices can and should be leveraged, when appropriate, as a context for teaching and learning a variety of subjects, it is important that engineering learning is aligned to engineering as a unique discipline. Therefore, it is necessary to continually evaluate whether engineering-related instructional activities are accurately depicted to children in a manner that is authentic to engineering. If not, we may expose children to something called engineering, which they dislike and therefore never explore the actual field. Concurrently, we may mislead or underprepare them by providing activities that they do enjoy but which have little relation to authentic engineering practice.”

I am torn. A balance needs to be achieved between providing experiences that are authentic engineering and that enhance excitement. I am a big fan of the educational theories of John Dewey who argues that a well designed series of experiences is the key in education. Tinkering is great and a lot of what I did as a child was certainly in that category. But education in principles must also be present.

The AE3 report has taken important steps toward creating the needed balance. The report argues that general learning objectives such as “apply the engineering design process to solve a problem,” must be replaced with much more specific content objectives. On page 13, for example, the report gives performance goals for high school students who may be engaged in projects such as the egg drop competition (design a package to keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height) or in design tasks of constructing bridges or other structures from everyday objects such as popsicle sticks. One of the key ideas in such design is to understand the properties of the materials and the AE3 goals include the achievement by students of increasing levels of knowledge in the physical properties of materials, material deflections, material deformations, and column and beam analysis. If you are going to have students build, then make sure they are learning concepts (in structural analysis, statics, and project management), and that they are not just tinkering.

A series of structured activities is needed, the report argues, to build from P through 12. For example, from page 16, “Starting in the early grades, students could be provided with structured design problems, which will inherently be inauthentic, that allow them to build upon playful and experimental approaches to designing and problem solving.”

What does it mean for you?

I strongly suggest you read this report. I am having trouble not quoting from every page, because it is packed full with knowledge of education and engineering: the Engineering Habits of Thinking (including my favorite, Systems Thinking), Engineering Practices, and Engineering Knowledge (pages 25-26 and Appendix A, starting on page 63), the connection between science and engineering (page 20), the engineering literate student (page 32), engineering knowledge domains (pages 35-38), specific strategies for equity, diversity, and inclusion (pages 40-51), and a lesson plan template (Appendix B, pages 85-86). You will learn about engineering, about education, and about engineering education. You will be better prepared to help support teachers, schools, and other organizations in providing excellent education in STEM. You will also gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for engineering.

Where can you learn more?

The AE3 report builds upon the 2014 British report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system.

Good job

Cedar Knolls Fire Department building, 1964, Cedar Knolls, New Jersey.
In 1957, the author attended school on the second floor of this building.
Source: author.

What’s new?

The Hechinger Report recently described a study in which more than 1500 teachers were asked to evaluate whether a hand written essay showed writing at second grade level. Half of the teachers evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Dashawn,” while the other half evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Conner.” Otherwise the essays were identical. About 30 percent marked the first version at grade level work or better, while 35 percent marked the second one at grade level or better. White teachers were 8 percent more likely to grade the Conner version as at grade level; females were 7 percent more likely to do so. Teachers of color rated the versions about the same. Tests of the teachers’ implicit and explicit bias did not relate to the differences in grading.

When teachers were “given explicit criteria for how to judge the student work” the ratings for the Dashawn and Conner versions did not differ; about 37 percent of teachers rated the two versions as at or above grade level.

What does it mean?

The researchers interpret the results as indicating that the two names, one stereotypically black and one stereotypically white, influenced the ratings. The author of the Hechinger Report article, Jill Barshay, commented: “Small injustices early in life can have consequences. If young children of color get discouraged by unfair grades at the beginning of their schooling, they may never progress very far in their education. We’re losing talent early on and this is one problem for which we may have a solution.”

What does it mean for you?

First let me tell you what it means to me. I know what it feels like to feel different and to wonder if I am being judged fairly. In 1971, I was the first woman PhD student in my engineering program at the University of California at Berkeley. During much of my career, I was the only woman in the department where I worked, and often the only woman in the room during meetings.  I could do pages and pages of examples of microaggressions. The most annoying for me are the ones that assume I will do the secretarial work; for a long time I told people I would be the secretary of an organization “only after the revolution.” Then there are the times everyone in the room but me would be addressed as Dr.  I know the situation has improved for women in engineering, but I hang out at reddit and I hear the stories there from young women; I try to help them.

However, the article on evaluating second graders reported only a small difference in grading. Some may say: microaggressions are just micro, get over it, and stop being annoyed. My literal nightmare during graduate school was the one where I was running a race and had to finish it by crawling through mud. I did finish my PhD, but, even with the highest GPA in the grad program of any student before me, I was plagued with self-doubts. I am concentrating on differences in the treatment of people based on gender because of my personal experience, but the same ideas apply to differences in treatment based on other categories. Racism is baked into the United States; we all need to work hard to overcome the system.

I have worked to avoid microaggressions against others, but I still have to monitor myself daily. And I work very hard to evaluate people fairly. I don’t concentrate on changing my beliefs or feelings (as is done in training designed to reduce bias); I concentrate on changing my behavior, because I know my beliefs or feelings follow, not lead, my behavior.

The most important lesson from the article is that rubrics eliminated the bias. When I was teaching, I often used rubrics for grading because (1) they make grading easier and (2) they help me be consistent. Especially on tests, I worked hard to be consistent, grading all students on the same problem while having the pages of the tests turned so I could not see the names. I would lay out in front of me all the answers with errors and compare them to ensure my consistency.

The use of rubrics in the study also increased the overall grades. I think we all have a tendency to notice what is wrong and to overlook the good. I know that when I am doing evaluations for engineering accreditation I find that early in the process I am often annoyed with everything the program is doing wrong and I have learned that I have to go back again and again to the written criteria and keep myself honest in the evaluation. I always end up reminding myself of everything they are doing right – and also that I may not like something they are doing but the issue is NOT addressed in the criteria so I cannot let my dislike affect my evaluation.

What does this mean for you? Only you can answer that question. I hope that it means you will redouble your efforts to evaluate people fairly by creating a system of evaluation that ensures that ratings are based on the actual performance of the task. For example, the use of a curtain to hide the musician from the jury had a significant effect in increasing the number of women in symphony orchestras from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

Where can you learn more?

The original article by David M Quinn of the University of Southern California was published in Education Next.

Susan M Brookhart defines a rubric as “a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.” She also provides a great deal of guidance on designing and using rubrics in education. Rubrics for hiring and job evaluation are also used and some believe they can mitigate bias. The amusing rubric for evaluating Superman has many versions and has circulated for many years. I like this one.

The existence of implicit bias is widely accepted but its measurement is controversial.  It is also unclear whether programs designed to reduce implicit bias have the desired effect.

This article makes a strong case that in evaluating people we need to learn to distinguish between confidence and competence.

“And then?”

A spork
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Textured_spork.png
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

What’s new?

Several tech columns (for example, this article at INSIDEVS) have commented recently on Tesla’s approach to batteries in which the battery forms part of the structure of the vehicle: a structural battery. Chanan Bos at CleanTechnica likens the approach to the change from fuel tanks in aircraft wings to aircraft wings that are fuel tanks. The wing doesn’t contain the fuel tank; the wing is the fuel tank. Others point out (for example, this article at Wired) that a structural battery is not a new concept. See, for example, this article from 2012.

What does it mean?

A battery stores energy. A structure supports mechanical load. A structural battery does both.

My favorite element, carbon, has properties that may make it useful for structural batteries, as explained in this 2012 article in Smithsonian Magazine about research by Leif Asp. In this 2019 review article, Asp and his co-authors discuss design issues, including selection of materials for different parts of the battery. They note that electrification of transportation depends on better design for batteries and that eventually this research could lead to electric airplanes. Their batteries are not just an assembly of components each with one function, but rather batteries in which every component has multiple functions.

What does it mean for you?

The Institute of General Semantics says “General semantics is the renowned, practical discipline that applies modern scientific thinking and language strategies to solve problems in everyday life.” More definitions are here, including this one from Catherine Minteer: “General semantics provides a method of studying the part language plays in human affairs. It emphasizes the effectiveness of human communication in (1) the awareness of the all-pervasive character of language in daily affairs, (2) the habit of looking to language as a possible clue to some of our misunderstandings and conflicts, and (3) an appreciation of the scientific method and a consideration of applying it to language.”  General semantics is an annoying and useful field of study. Often the statements are simultaneously obvious — even trite – and deep and insightful.

One of my favorite sayings is from Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics: “the map is not the territory,” or, as I often say to engineering students, “it’s only a model.” Do not mistake a map or a model for the real world. The map or the model may lead you to some result, but you need to make sure the result is actually true about the real world. Or in the 1929 art of Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which means “this is not a pipe” and is written on his painting of a pipe, titled “The Treachery of Images.”

D. David Bourland Jr took seriously a suggestion from Korzybski to eschew all forms of the verb “to be” in the interests of clarity. He recommended the use of E-Prime, English without that verb. I tried to do so in this blog, but failed: I couldn’t, for example, quote Korzybski in the previous paragraph without using the word “is.”

I am a fan of Edward MacNeal for his work on applying general semantics in decision making. In a 1986 article titled “When does Consciousness of Abstracting Matter the Most?”, Mr MacNeal cited Korzybski’s critique of elementalism, which means “our splitting verbally what cannot otherwise be split, … a serious structural flaw in language.” In that article, MacNeal deplored the linguistic split between “action” and “consequences” because this split lets us think about action without considering the consequences. He adopted the word “alternaquence” (combining “alternative” with “consequence”) and commented “If you ask me what my alternaquences are, that sticks me with the responsibility for what follows, doesn’t it? ‘Well, Ed, what are your alternaquences?’ Do you hear it? There’s no place to hide.” He stressed that decision making about alternaquences requires one to develop powers of forecasting simply by asking “and then?” One of my specialties, decision analysis, involves the use of decision trees to describe a decision situation, looking forward into time with decision nodes and chance nodes. Creating a decision tree requires exactly that outlook and exactly that question: “and then?”

Battery. Structure. Elementalism means we engineers long ago created those two separate concepts and we use the two words to keep their functions separate. “Structural battery” removes the split, a simple yet profound linguistic change. It makes me smile.

What words in the language that you use keep separate concepts that can, and maybe should, be combined?

Where can you learn more?

General semantics was first described in the book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933, by Alfred Korzybski. Other significant roots include S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Action, 1941 (the 1995 version is titled Language in Thought and Action), the linguistic theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf (the structure of a language affects how the speakers of that language think), and work in cognitive science and linguistics by George Lakoff (our metaphors and framing affect our thinking). The Institute of General Semantics publishes a quarterly journal, ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, but first redesign

“Woman’s clothing being modeled at the spring fashion show of the National Retail Garment Association in the Hotel Commodore, New York City,” 1921. Source: Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95501716/. This photograph has no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new?

The collar on one of my partner’s favorite shirts was wearing out, so I recovered the collar with similar fabric and it looks quite nice. The popular European fashion store H&M has created its first in-store center that shreds old clothing to create yarn, then fabric, and finally new clothing. The fashion industry has been cited as being second after the oil industry for creating pollution. Also noted is that “we as consumers can impact the environment by making smart decisions on how and where we shop.” Tech Crunch reports that Thousand Fell is one of several shoe manufacturers “that are experimenting with various strategies to incorporate reuse into the life cycle of their products.” They also note that several companies offer recycling of denim clothing.

One of my favorite tech web sites, Modern Machine Shop Online, has a new post on “The Circular Economy, Sustainability, and Recycling.”

What does it mean?

Probably arising about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” reminds consumers of three strategies for reducing waste and reducing environmental harm.  The first strategy is, of course, to reduce consumption: just don’t buy more clothing. Several bloggers have written about a year with no new clothes (“or at least no `new-new’ clothes”): here, here, and here (two years!). Lessons learned: take care of your clothes and they will last longer, not buying clothes becomes easier over time, and it is easy to do if you start off the year owning a lot of clothes. Irony abounds, however, in the plethora of Earth Day clothing and other swag that you can buy.

Reuse of clothing is increasingly chic with many sites that will give you ideas for upcycling clothing yourself (here, here, and here, for examples) or other sites that will sell you upcycled clothes. I never knew my father’s father, who was a tailor, but I learned to sew early and still enjoying doing so. The maker movement supports people in discovering the pleasure of making – or remaking – as an alternative to buying (but the success of stores like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and Joann’s makes clear that making involves a lot of buying). Used clothing has had a fashion resurgence with companies like thredUP.

But consumers can only do so much. Searching for and buying cotton clothing where the cotton fabric is grown in an environmentally sound way (growing cotton takes a lot of water) and then is sewn in a socially responsible way (the fashion industry is accused of being a leading exploiter of workers) leaves little leeway for considering whether one even likes the resulting clothing. Hemp fabric and clothing are arguably more environmentally friendly, but not yet as available, and also more expensive. I used hemp fabric to recover the collar of my partner’s shirt. And this whole paragraph (even the whole post) reeks of privilege: I am lucky enough to be able to implement a self-imposed ban on shopping at Walmart and Amazon because I abhor their social impacts. Buying green is often more expensive. What are real people supposed to do, Jane?

If the choices aren’t offered by the market place, what is a consumer to do? Those “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” strategies are always targeted at consumers; the EPA’s advice omits any reference to the role of manufacturers. On the other hand, pity the manufacturers who produce products that are better for the environment and can’t get people to buy them. So some go back to more sophisticated ways to motivate “the elusive green consumer” and others take on the task of persuading consumers that green products actually do work. An argument can be made that changing the behaviors of the few, extremely wealthy people would have the largest effect on reducing environmental harm.

The situation is, of course, typical of a systems approach: the best strategy is not a single strategy. It’s not “or” but rather “and.” Consumers need to reduce, reuse, and recycle; they need to purchase more wisely when they do, but manufacturers and retailers also need to do their part: stop selling environmentally disastrous products.

What does it mean for you?

The Modern Machine Shop Online article has some advice: think circular, not linear. We cannot continue to dig stuff out of the ground, use it, and throw it back in the ground; we need to reuse the stuff we dig out of the ground. The key to circularity, they argue, is the design phase. Using an example from Steelcase business office furniture, MMSOnline describes how design decisions can support a reduction in material use and an improvement in the ease of recycling. They also point out that additive manufacturing is helping make these redesigns possible. Another of my favorite technology topics, new materials, is also relevant, with panels made from recycled products (for example, ECOR) potentially capable of replacing virgin material in construction.

The circular economy is not a new idea, as this 2014 article from Industry Week makes clear.

Where can you learn more?

Modern Machine Shop Online recommends, and I agree, the resources at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They describe three principles for the circular economy: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. They cite three focus areas for textiles and clothing: new business models that increase clothing use, safe and renewable inputs, and solutions so used clothes are turned into new. They note: “To be able to capture the value of all materials once garments are no longer worn, it is necessary to ensure that design aligns with recycling processes that are available today.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the initiative Make Fashion Circular.

An article at Forbes expresses skepticism about the potential impact of such changes and, with good reason, advocates for simply less: “In the fight for our future, the fashion has to be circular but first and foremost it has to slow its growth, forecast what shoppers actually want and cut the overproduction.”

The word “circular” or the phrase “circular economy” coupled with the name of your industry sector may uncover helpful resources, as in “circular fashion.”