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Engineering and Theology: Approximations to Reality

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Presentation on theme: "Engineering and Theology: Approximations to Reality"— Presentation transcript:

1 Engineering and Theology: Approximations to Reality
William Jordan Baylor University Engineering Metaphysics Conference Tulsa

2 Importance of topic As a practicing Christian and an engineer, both my faith and my profession are important to whom I am My faith affects everything I do My engineering world view affects everything I do I need to understand how to relate them together

3 Insights gained from work on science and faith
Many people have looked at how science and Christian faith should interact We can learn from their work

4 Science and faith perspectives
They describe different worlds that do not really interact (2 spheres approach) Science is more fundamental and my faith must be consistent with my science My faith is more fundamental and my science must be consistent with my faith My faith and science are not the same, but their concerns do overlap

5 Engineering and Christian faith
I have accepted the last approach mentioned on the previous slide Engineering and Christian faith are not the same, but they do overlap in many, often complex ways. This presentation looks at one aspect of this—they both are approximations to reality

6 Outline of presentation
The nature of engineering The nature of theology Relationship between engineering and theology A common problem both face

7 A Definition of Engineering
Creating a definition is not simple There are some activities that are clearly the practice of engineering There are some activities that are clearly not the practice of engineering There are many activities in which it is not clear whether or not engineering is being performed

8 A Definition of Engineering
There are many written definitions of science and the scientific method, but fewer attempts have been made to define engineering Many definitions are attempts to define how one branch of engineering is different from another While I do not agree completely with his definition, I am indebted to the careful thinking of the nature of engineering that has been done by Dr. Billy Koen of the University of Texas

9 Dr. Koen’s Definition of Engineering
He uses the term heuristic to mean something that is an aid or direction in the solution of a problem, but cannot necessarily be justified by itself. Examples of engineering heuristics Rules of thumb Make small changes in the state-of-the-art At some point in the project, freeze the design

10 Dr. Koen’s Definition of Engineering
The engineering method is “the strategy for causing the best change in a poorly understood or uncertain situation within the available resources and the use of heuristics.” At the heart of his definition is the concept that engineering is an approximation to reality

11 A simpler definition of engineering
Last month I used the following slide to introduce engineering to high school students in Musanze, Rwanda

12 A Definition of Engineering…
Engineers turn ideas into useful systems or products.

13 Engineers use models Engineers use models of the physical world to aid in their analysis These models are not the reality itself Many students do not really understand this distinction

14 Examples of models Newtonian mechanics
Lamination theory to predict how composite materials will behave When theory and experiments do not match, most students assume the experiment was not done correctly

15 The nature of theology Theologians also create models to describe how God has acted in human history They may not use the term model Example—perspective on end times Amillenial Pre-millennial Post-millennial

16 Precision of models While these models are human abstractions concerning ultimate reality, they need to be precise enough upon which to base fundamental choices in life.

17 Importance of models If we are to experience the life God wants us to have we need to understand theology well enough to know what God expects of humans. While Newtonian mechanics is not a perfect model it is good enough for us to use as the basis for the design of a new airplane.

18 Good theology and good engineering
Not everyone agrees as to what is good theology or good engineering. Christians differ on what is the best form of church government. With respect to an engineer designing a new car, the result will be very different if it is designed for manufacturability rather than for repairability.

19 Importance of innovations
We need innovations in both theology and engineering There are limitations to these innovations What is developed must work with the reality that we have

20 Theology Innovation issues
A good theologian needs to be able to help Christians who face new issues, such as privacy and the use of technology. Too much innovation in theology can lead to models about God that do not match the experiences of Christians throughout history—leading to heresy

21 Engineering innovation issues
Engineers are rewarded for creating new designs; however, whatever they create must still work in the real world. Innovations must be sustainable in the long run if civilization is to survive Not everything that can be made should be made

22 Application of these concepts
I will look at an example where the approximate models of theology can be used to give insight into the approximate models of engineering

23 A problem faced by engineering education and theology
Relativism is being promoted as part of a good way to teach engineering Some may be doing this without realizing its significance Some may very well recognize its significance

24 Relativism and engineering education
This first came to my attention in 1990 with a paper by Culver (Engineering Education, July/August 1990) Culver applied William Perry’s model of intellectual development to engineering education Perry had nine positions or stages of development ranging from the lowest level (where all knowledge is known) to the highest level (commitment within relativism)

25 Culver’s Paper His university based their new freshman and sophomore introduction to engineering course sequence on this model They noted that a lack of a unique solution in engineering design appears to fit in well with Perry’s view that intellectual maturity involves a commitment to a relativistic world view

26 The issue continues It has moved from just being an issue about design education to an issue concerning the way engineers teach in all of our classes.

27 Engineering Educational Reform
Increased recognition that traditional lecture methods were not working with many of our students Need to try something different A variety of strategies that go under the names of active learning or collaborative learning are being adapted for the engineering class room.

28 Engineering Educational Reform
Active learning concepts are not new Have been around College of Education circles for some time Have been around Engineering circles for some time under a different name We called them labs What is new to many engineering faculty is incorporating these concepts into a typical lecture class

29 Active learning examples
Doing experiments within a traditional lecture class. Use the experiments to teach the material (rather than having the experiment support the lecture) After a brief lecture, break the class into small groups and have them solve a problem based on the new content Have groups report on what they have studied at the next class period (in place of a traditional homework assignment)

30 Many Active Learning Techniques are based on a Constructivist Approach
Bodner and Klobuchar, in a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education, write “Traditional theories assume that our minds contain images that somehow represent reality as if they were copies or pictures. If one accepts this assumption, knowledge can be judged as “true” or “false.” Constructivist theories of knowledge are based on a fundamentally different assumption: Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner…From the perspective of the constructivist…knowledge should no longer be judged in terms of whether or not it is true or false, but in terms of whether it works. The only thing that matters is whether the knowledge we construct functions satisfactorily in the context in which it arises.”

31 Constructivism in Engineering Education
This perspective on knowledge appeals to some engineers, who are used to only being concerned with “what works” However, what works in a class setting (such as getting an answer your group can agree on and feeling good about your answer) may not work at all in an actual engineering design

32 Dangers of Constructivist Thinking
As a Christian and an engineer I believe that there are some things that are true about our world As a Christian and an engineer I believe that there are some things that are not true about our world Students may construct a reality that is not true Students may firmly believe that their false reality is as good as the true reality

33 Example of student created reality
Two papers at the 2012 ASEE conference earlier this week reported that 75% of engineering students use on-line solution manuals to solve homework problems. A majority of the students claim they have never cheated They have constructed their own definition of cheating which is not consistent with the professor’s definition

34 A Good Aspect of Constructivist Thinking
This is how many engineers and scientists actually do research We create models to explain our experimental results Education faculty would say we are constructing our own reality

35 Using active learning safely
When using active learning, we need to emphasize to the students: While we will not tell you the answer while your group is struggling to understand the problem, a true or real answer does exist.

36 The true or real answer For many engineering calculations, there is only one correct answer, and everything else is incorrect. Students need to recognize that they do not have the right to construct an alternate reality that does not fit the reality of the world we live in

37 Several true or real answers
We still have a problem with design, in that there is no single right or true answer to a design problem This does not mean that any answer is acceptable, while there are several right answers, there are also many wrong answers

38 Design example If the question was to design a chair, there are many possible good designs There are also many possible unacceptable designs If the chair breaks when someone sits in it, it is unacceptable If the chair tips over when someone sits in it, it is unacceptable

39 Using Techniques that Work
Many active learning techniques appear to work very well Yet many of them are based on a questionable “constructivist approach” Should Christians use things that work, even if their philosophical basis is poor?

40 Are there other sources for Active Learning?
Is there a Biblical support for active learning techniques in the ministry of Jesus? If so, the fact that this approach has been rediscovered by modern constructivists should not be a problem

41 Old Testament Example of Active Learning
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (Dt 6:6-9). Grand Rapids: Zondervan. This shows teaching should be part of ordinary, daily life. This involves physical illustrations as well as casual conversations between a parent and child

42 New Testament Example of Active Learning
Using common things So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (Lk 20:21-25). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

43 New Testament Example of Active Learning
Using questions and answers One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (Lk 20:1-8). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

44 Additional Biblical Examples of Active Learning
Teaching by active participation in a symbolic event Passover Communion Baptism

45 Example conclusions There are professors who are trying to introduce relativistic thinking into engineering education through: Engineering design Use of active learning Things like this will inevitably happen since engineering is always an approximation and people will have new ideas on how to do it

46 Example conclusions Even though theology is also an approximation, we can use to it help make judgments concerning engineering Active learning techniques are not inherently based on a bad philosophical basis, for many of them were used by Jesus

47 Conclusions Both theology and engineering are approximations to ultimate reality, not ultimate reality itself. They can become good enough approximations so that you can reliably use both of them to guide your life.

48 You can contact Dr. Jordan at
Any Questions? You can contact Dr. Jordan at

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