Mastering Six Minds to Become a Whole New Engineer

November 21, 2014

My earlier post in “The Leadership Imperative” considered the fact that many of the challenges facing civil engineering in the 21st century are “back to the future,” in the sense that today’s civil engineer increasingly needs to combine the leadership spirit of the profession’s pioneering days in the 1800s with today’s technical and social knowledge and know-how. This situation calls on today’s civil engineers to be more broadly educated and capable than in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when a narrower kind of training and practice were the norm. Mark Somerville and I have written about this at some length in our book A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education. In particular, we spell out the 6 minds that today’s engineers need to embody to reach their full potential:

  1. Analytical mind
  2. Design mind
  3. Linguistic mind
  4. People mind
  5. Body mind
  6. Mindful mind

Let’s examine each one of these in turn.

Analytical Mind

Most engineers will have no trouble identifying with what we call analytical mind. They know (and have survived) the drill of “applying” mathematics and science, so let’s move to the others.

Design Mind

When we talk about design mind, we’re probably still within most engineers’ comfort zone, but maximizing our design capabilities has taken some hits over the years. What was called the Grinter Report in 1955 ultimately led to (a) raising the math-science content of the engineering curriculum and (b) reducing the design and practical content. Meetings in the 1960s helped redress some of the perceived harm of the Grinter changes by establishing capstone senior design courses at a number of schools. Increasing design content has been an important trend ever since.

Today, these design education efforts are going even further. Companies like IDEO integrate industrial design, engineering design, and applied anthropology so that design thinking connects human usage and conceptual design directly. A required 2nd-year class at Olin College called User-Oriented Design has students working in teams with groups of individuals (firemen, soup-kitchen operators, flight instructors, bicycle messengers, to name a few) over the course of semester. The object of the course is to come up with the conceptual design of technology that will improve the work lives of the group studied.

Linguistic Mind

When asked the question “What is the language of engineering?” it’s tempting to give the answer “mathematics,” but some simple reflection puts this to rest.

What do engineers do in a given day?

  • Engineers write emails.
  • Engineers write reports.
  • Engineers talk on the phone.
  • Engineers go to meetings.
  • Engineers prepare and make presentations.
  • Engineers prepare specifications, proposals, and contracts.

In short, engineers are constantly in language. They do not “build” much themselves – construction or manufacturing workers usually do that heavy lifting. Engineers “design” and “build” things with their computer keyboards, pencils, pens…and vocal cords. In short, it is engineers’ speech acts that result in things being built. Engineers work on design, but whether a particular design is accepted by decision makers or is implemented by those doing construction depends largely on the quality of the speech acts that engineers commit every day.

People Mind

Engineering education in the 50s, 60s, and 70s was a lonely tackling of problem set after problem set. The rising recognition of design education and the increasing team nature of engineering practice, partly in response to the rise of teamwork as part of quality and other organizational practice, has led to the growing recognition of engineering as a team sport, practiced both by and for people.

Although there is much debate on the validity of the term “emotional intelligence” and its measurements, there can be little question that the increasing importance of working with people and serving others raises the bar on the caliber of “sharp soft” skills that young engineers develop.

One way to developing these skills involves attention to the practices developed under the rubric of executive coaching, or leadership coaching. The C-suite is awash with coaches getting paid large sums of money to help CEOs, CFOs, and CTOs to develop better people-skills, but why do we wait until someone makes it to the C-suite? Why not develop better deep-soft skills in young engineers right out of the chute (or even pre-chute), and see what happens?

Body Mind

Connecting mind and body seems important to dancers or athletes, but why is it important to engineers?

First, engineers show up, as leaders and followers, as embodied human beings. The term leadership presence or simply presence captures this idea. Sometimes we trust, follow, and work better with certain individuals because of how these people “carry” themselves. What is it about them? Do they have good eye contact? Do they speak at a pace that matches the understanding of those around them? Are they in the room in a way that encourages connection and interaction? It’s hard to characterize human presence precisely, but we know it when we see it, and it is increasingly important to cultivate in young engineers.

Second, there is an increasing body of literature that suggests that effective decision making involves intuition that comes from body awareness and signals. This kind of naturalistic decision-making has been studied in first responders, the military, and in engineering circles. Old engineering professors exhorted us to develop our engineering intuition, and new science and practices may be helpful in cultivating engineering intuition systematically.

Mindful Mind

There’s also the need for engineers to have a mindful mind. Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight, has defined mindfulness as “a form of mental activity that trains the mind to become aware of awareness itself and to pay attention to one’s own intention.”

We live in times of increasing change. Noticing what is going on around us is increasingly essential, and mindfulness is one important way in. For example, the concepts from Chade-Meng Tan’s book Search Inside Yourself have been taught at Google, and the program is being promoted as a form of continuing education for professionals in the workplace.

Toward a Whole New Engineer

There has been a tendency to talk about engineering as something (a) strictly rational, (b) largely scientific, and (c) reducible to mathematics. Moreover, engineering education as practiced today continues to reinforce this view. This approach more or less worked in an age of technical specialization, but the fast pace of change, the integration of engineering with other disciplinary specialties, and the increased emphasis on the human side of engineering both as practiced and as a human service, demand that we move beyond views forged in an earlier era toward the vision of a whole new engineer.

Civil engineers played a pivotal role in the rise of the modern engineer, and they can once again join hands to rejuvenate their own discipline, and engineering, as a thriving whole. How about joining the conversation by sharing your thoughts below? How about contacting me to get involved in the movement.

David Goldberg is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-founder of the Big Beacon movement for reform in engineering education.
4 Comments
  • Nice article.
    Duly observed that Engineers lack good “soft” skills. We may have the idea but lack the pure ability to express it to non-technical people.
    Great work!

  • There is one thing ‘Missing’ in the Six Mind Hypothesis, portrayed by Mr. Goldberg. This
    entails ‘The Seventh Mind’ The seventh Chakrah, ‘The Spiritual Mind’ ,That makes up the ‘Whole Being’, starting with the 1st Chakrah, at the base of the spine!

  • I think to be a complete and successful enigineer, an engineer must focus on the ecomic and environmental issues seriously always. Money & envirornment are important aspects of our life. Striking balance among safety, economy and environment is aleways a big challenge to an engineer. A successful engineering is the one which have the above mentioned balance.

  • i totally agree! `thanks very much for sharing this.. will have my students and colleagues in the university read this too! =D

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