Whatever happened to critical thinking?

New engineers are brilliant and stupid at the same time.

By Peter D. Zak, PE, Graef-USA Inc., Milwaukee May 17, 2012

As my friends know, I have lots of opinions about our industry today. After 33 years in this business, it is hard not to. I wanted to make sure these concerns were not just my own perceptions, so I polled several of my senior-level peers for input. After much harrumphing, hand-waving, and a few colorful words, we all arrived at a central theme: Critical thinking ability is missing in today’s younger engineers. By critical thinking I mean the ability not to just analyze a single problem and provide a solution, but to understand the underlying dynamics and peripheral interactions with other components. In other words, remove the blinders.

Technology of building design is moving forward at lightning speed, which is breeding a generation of highly specialized computer-savvy engineers who seem complacent to throw information into a computer program and blindly accept the data as gospel.

This type of software decision-making became apparent to me recently. My daughter sent me a text message and picture of her new puppy. I replied with “What a cutie.” The spell checker substituted cutie with “currie.” I replaced currie with cutie, and again it was replaced with currie. I then replied “What a nice dog.” My cell phone now resides in Lake Michigan.

Now I understand this function can be turned off, but my point is had I not read what I typed and just blindly accepted the software’s corrections, my daughter would think I’m nuts. I occasionally face this frustration while proofreading reports, specifications, and proposals that are submitted assuming that the computer spelling and grammar corrections are absolute.

Like everything in life, I evolved to this point in my career surrounded by mentors who took the time to explain the nuances of design and problem-solving, not only by using textbooks and calculators, but also by explaining how things work and interact in the real world.

A little background on how I had this epiphany is required. While in high school I was content to just get by. I did that very well, but without any self-motivation to do anything but to enjoy the moment (it was the late 1960s). I found myself a high school graduate without the grades for college, and this little event called the Vietnam War was going on; there was a very high probability that I would be drafted. My first real proactive decision was to enlist in the U.S. Navy; at least I had some control of my destiny. I served four years on a ballistic missile submarine.

This was the beginning of my critical thinking lesson. A requirement of submarine life is to become qualified. To accomplish this, you must have a complete and thorough understanding of every operational and safety component onboard, including things like reactor operation, environmental systems, and weapons systems. You must understand not just a specific component, but how it interacts with everything else on the ship. So not only should you understand how a specific hydraulic valve operates, you need to know where the power came from, what electrical panel serves that unit, what motor generator provided the power, and so on.

The inability to understand and properly react to an emergency situation several hundred feet underwater produces undesirable results, so you become very motivated. The process takes a year and involves batteries of tests and interviews before you are designated as “qualified in submarines” and receive silver dolphins. I did it in three months; it seems I was a natural and was fascinated with the understanding of connecting the dots. Four years went by and I realized that this was not a desired career path for me, so I applied for and was accepted into an architectural engineering program.

Although my specific expertise is in HVAC systems, college taught all the other elements and integration of building construction such as structural, civil, and electrical engineering. After college and four years of using critical thinking in the U.S. Navy, I now had the complete package, which by all accounts made me dangerous.

For the first two years, we had to use slide rules. Those of you familiar with these devices will remember that you had to have some sense of where you were going with the calculations, and when you had completed the calculations there was a gut check of the results, also known as critical thinking.

Moving forward to the present, we now have computers and software that can perform calculations a thousand times faster than a slide rule. These devices also can perform mistakes a thousand times faster.

This, I believe, is the problem we are presented with today. I’m not sure if it is the schools or software providers that are the driving force or the cause of this issue. I do know that our new engineers believe without question that everything can be answered or resolved by inputting some data into a software program. What I see as an unfortunate result is that they do not review or challenge the solution. After all, this is highly sophisticated software, the sales representative assured us that this is the latest, greatest, and most accurate problem-solving software out there. My response to that is: Why there are upgrades and patches? Remember the acronym “GIGO”, meaning garbage in, garbage out. In other words, the data coming out is only as good as the data put in.

I challenged a new graduate engineer on the performance of a desiccant system; I plotted the points and process on a psychrometric chart and discovered a large disparity between his projected performance and mine. His response was that his calculations were computer generated and that my manual calculation was subject to human error. Ouch!!

This seems to be more the norm rather than the exception as we rely more and more on the new technologies. I think we are forgetting that these are tools, not an all-knowing, all-seeing crystal ball.

A new technology that really concerns me is BIM. The potential is immense, but is it removing or eliminating the thinking process? In the old days, the design team would meet to discuss things like general design and ceiling plenum management. This was to determine which space was assigned to the various disciplines. BIM has the ability to do clash detection for the engineers. While this does work well, I think it removes the spatial thinking required by the engineer as the design moves forward. It also encourages sequestered design; by that I mean the disciplines are focused on their own area of expertise and have limited communication with the overall design team. Individual designs are periodically uploaded into a common file and the software is expected to identify the conflicts. That’s great, but a little up-front discussion might mitigate all the additional work to resolve the conflicts.

I was recently introduced to some of the quirks in this software. A recent design required a 90-deg elbow turning up a duct shaft—that’s how it would be built, that’s what would fit. The software would only allow a long radius elbow, which would not fit. This technician was content with this solution and did not understand my frustration (see cell phone in Lake Michigan event). Eventually this was resolved by creating a new component for the content library.

I start to wonder how many other things like this are just considered acceptable, which may necessitate a call to the lawyers and insurance company.

Those of you at a senior level may have experienced this on a project. Ask a younger design engineer to hand-sketch a section through a particular piece of equipment to discuss clearances. Chances are the engineer will get back to you after he or she produces a CAD-generated section. My question would be: If you cannot graphically depict a situation without the aid of a computer, how do you know the computer is correct?  

Is there a single source to blame for all of this? I doubt it—it seems that most of this has been created with the good intention of allowing a faster and better means of evaluating and making engineering decisions. Unfortunately, I feel that this has encouraged engineers to become complacent and not spend the required time to evaluate and challenge the data. This is also driven by the competitive nature of our business. Less income means less time to be analytical.

So what is the solution? My fellow engineers in caucus think that we, as senior staff, need to be more engaged with our new engineers. We have to take the time not only to challenge, but to explain why. Take the staff to a jobsite to see what they did, what it looks like compared to the design, and how it integrates with the other building components. I realize this takes time, and in some cases that is not an affordable luxury. But if you think this through, avoiding the dreaded errors and omissions phone call would certainly be well worth it.

Zak is a principal with Graef-USA Inc., where he manages the MEP group. He is a member of NCEES and is on the editorial advisory board of Consulting-Specifying Engineer. He was an adjunct assistant professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering for 20 years and is a registered professional engineer in 24 states. He really misses his slide rule.