måndag 28 september 2009

Death and Rebirth of the Computing Engineer 1

This is the first post in a series directed to science and engineering students with the hope of encouraging to independent search for knowledge and know-how using the tools of modern information society.

The traditional sign of an engineer is the slide ruler showing that the job of an engineer is to compute. To build a skyscraper, bridge, car, airplane, boat, TV..., an engineer first has to make a design and by computation secure that it will work. Trial and error when building a bridge is not feasible.

For that purpose the design is modeled mathematically typically as systems of differential equations expressing basic laws of physics and mechanics, and the equations then have to be solved with some input data to obtain a solution carrying information of interest for the design, like the force in the cable of a cable-bridge, or engine power required for take-off of a jumbojet.

The civil engineering education I started in 1963 was based on  
  • analytical computations with mathematical symbols by pencil and paper
  • numerical computations by slide ruler or mechanical calculator
  • tables and diagrams of solutions of basic differential equations
  • handbook formulas.
In the basic subject of structural mechanics I was taught how to use these tools to design
basic construction elements like beams and constructions assembled from basic elements like the frame of a building or a bridge.  

However, at the end of my education in 1968 my basic training had become obsolete: A revolution had occurred, the famous 68 revolution introducing the new era of the finite element method:  The idea was simple and powerful: Solve the differential equations using a computer instead of tables and slide ruler. This was done by decomposing the structure to be analyzed into many small elements with known simple behavior, which the computer could assemble in computational simulation of the assembly.

Genial! By the finite element method you can solve any differential equation in any field of engineering! This puts a turbo to mathematics, physics and mechanics in the hands of the able engineer. This is how weather predictions are made, for example, as well as the simulations of global climate hiding the future of mankind in its digits.

As an engineering student of course you expect that you will learn to use this powerful tool during your basic education, right? But no! Engineering education has not changed much
since 1963 and the 68 revolution has had no impact on the basic education in mathematics and mechanics! It is the same today as 50 years ago in 1959, the year Ingemar Johansson took the heavy weight world title from Floyd Paterson, which people like me still remember!

Yes, there is a change since 1963: The handbook and slide ruler are no longer used, but the computer with its finite elements is still waiting to get introduced in basic training. The result is an engineering education which no longer teaches the engineering skills needed in research and industry. The result is an eroded empty education which no longer attracts the students. The result is decreasing interest from school teachers and high school students in mathematics and science. 

If you anyway want to pursue an engineering education, you can balance the traditional education you will meet by opening a window to the new world of computer simulation or simulation technology with the double meaning of
  • technology for simulation: how make computer simulations
  • technology with simulation: how to learn and use technology by computer simulation.
You can do that by browsing My Book of Knols as a general introduction to science and mathematics, starting with 
then taking a look at 
and ending your first encounter by understanding with the help of computational simulation
This is a real showcase for computational simulation, since traditional science missed the true mechanism of flight. Read and think and do not accept as a truth everything that is written in a book, in particular not if it is a flight mechanics book!

I will soon be back with more suggestions how to learn about the new world of simulation of 68... Students aiming at KTH may be interested in the proposed new program in Simulation Technology. 

In our new information society each student must take an active part in the education already from start, to search information and to learn. This is of particular importance in engineering education since it is so old-fashioned. The massproduced slide ruler engineer is dead, but the new age of simulation has not yet entered basic education, and so you as a student will have to take responsability for a rebirth of the engineer...the computing simulating multidisciplinary engineer of the information society...Is this clear? 

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