The role of “craftsmanship” in engineering education

For a while now, I’ve been thinking a lot about craft as it relates to engineering education. “What relation?” you might ask. It’s true, at first blush it might be hard to see the line from craft to engineering education or vice versa. It probably makes sense to first start with what I mean when I use the word “craft.”

The best description I’ve encountered so far of “craft” or “craftsmanship” or “workmanship” (and I’m fine with using those three terms interchangeably) has been in David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship.” Pye was a Professor of Furniture Design at The Royal College of Art in London, and he coined this fantastic phrase, “the workmanship of risk.” The “workmanship of risk” is, according to Pye, “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works.” This is in contrast to the “workmanship of certainty” in which the process itself (not the maker) determines the quality of the outcome. Think hand carving a design into a block of wood versus loading a block of wood into a CNC router and machining that same design from a computer model.

You see, here’s the rub: the workmanship of risk (or craft, or whatever you want to call it) is positioned opposite what we traditionally think of as engineering – the rigorous application of math and science to problem-solving in pursuit of a robust, repeatable, provably correct solution. Engineered artifacts can by definition be produced reliably and repeatably by processes, technology, and tools that don’t depend critically on the skill of the operator. Set the dials and switches appropriately on the blow molding machine and you can produce 100,000 milk jugs each indistinguishable from the next. But (and this is a big but), in the practice of learning engineering, we (at least at Olin) routinely require our students to engage in the workmanship of risk. In many of our classes students build sketch models, prototypes, and one-off designs, the quality of which depends critically on the “judgment, dexterity, and care” exercised by the maker in their creation. Our brand of heavily project-based learning asks students to both learn certain concepts and skills and, at the same time, to exercise those skills and apply those concepts to solve an actual problem. These artifacts enable them to explore creative approaches to those problems that don’t admit a single solution.

Of course, this approach can sometimes lead to a messy and muddled situation in which it’s not clear to students whether a design is succeeding (or failing) because the underlying idea is flawed or the execution (the “workmanship”) is inadequate. But, even that characterization in which the success or failure of a student’s engineering design solution is attributable primarily to either incomplete conceptual/theoretical understanding or poor workmanship is inaccurate. The reality is that each informs the other, and together they offer complementary modes of thinking and ways of understanding problems. To not teach students to pay attention to details, to care for and properly use tools, and to reflection on the quality of the artifacts they produce is to deprive them of a rich toolset for approaching engineering design problems.

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