Engineers Aren't in a Vacuum

"There's a balance--between overlooking important and preventable modes of failure, and taking so long to evaluate every possible chain of events leading to failure that technological progress is halted. But where do you draw the line, especially when people's lives are involved?"

"How do you deal with people passing memos around, ignoring problems even when they are red-flagged, and pushing through to deadlines even when something is potentially unsafe?"

"Do we strive for immortality? How will far will technology go to this end? How does that affect our idea of self? What does it mean to be human?"

These issues came up in my classes just today.

I love that Olin doesn't just claim to teach engineering in a broader
context, it actually does. We had a great discussion in Failure
Analysis and Prevention today, which was combined with the History of
Technology class for an hour so that we could share perspectives. In
Biology, weekly 'media discussions' always spark interesting
conversations centered around recent articles in the media.

While
sometimes I simply enjoy the change of pace, I also appreciate the
awareness I am developing of the 'big picture.' In Sustainable Design,
we have a mantra: "There are no sustainable products, only sustainable
systems." Even if you design something to use all-recycled materials,
its impact will still be high unless you ensure that the product will
be recycled at the end of its life. And that requires understanding the
system into which the product goes when it leaves the manufacturer.

It
sounds like common sense, doesn't it? But I'm constantly surprised at
how little consideration seems to have been given to some of the
systems around me. I'm glad that Olin's curriculum is known as the
"Olin Triangle," one side for science & engineering fundamentals,
one side for liberal arts, and one side for entrepreneurship.We're
reminded often that engineering and design extend beyond the technical
solution to a given problem. We need to ask if we're solving the right
problem. We need to anticipate the ways in which our designs might fail
and prepare for those. We, above all, cannot make the mistaken
assumption that we function within a vacuum, unaffected by and unaware
of the context of our work.

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