Project: Context in Engineering

Rethinking Context in Engineering

Working title for the project group: Issues in Engineering Studies

Publisher: Springer

To be published in the Springer series: Philosophy of Engineering & Technology

Responsible editor and project coordinator: Steen Hyldgaard Christensen

Co-editors: Bernard Delahousse, Gary Downey, Andrew Jamison, Martin Meganck, Carl Mitcham

Approach: A combination of the approach used in: Christensen, Steen Hyldgaard, Delahousse, Bernard, Meganck, Martin (eds) (2009). Engineering in Context. Academica, Aarhus and the approach used in Gary Downey and Kasey Beddoe (eds.) (2010). What is Global Engineering For: The Making of International Educators. Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

Length of the volume: 600 pages

Short description of the Springer project: The aim of this project is to gain a better understanding of the contexts in which engineering activities are situated within the larger realm of human activities. In dealing with context it immediately becomes clear that context is an inherently dialectical concept, since contextualizing in itself is dependent on definitions of what is perceived to be the relevant boundaries regarding both the education and the practice of engineering. Contextualizing thus unfolds its inherent dialectics in the terrain between what “is” and “ought”. In this way the quest for a re-contextualizing of engineering education and practice put forward in this volume inevitably is a value-laden enterprise and therefore not without a certain degree of controversy. It is concerned with both what engineering “is” and what it “ought” to be. Ultimately a greater awareness and understanding of context should result in better preparation of engineers to render those contexts visible in their work, and consequently enable engineers to contribute to more socially robust and responsible endeavors. Engineering practices have to often been characterized by absence of self-criticism, and liberal arts practices by reverence for isolated critical virtuosity. To burst these boundaries in a collaborative effort is a main purpose of the project. Using ”context” and two simply stated but complex questions “What is engineering for? and, What are engineers for?”  as bridges the project sets out to juxtapose important cases of critical participation within engineering with sophisticated scholarly reflection on both opportunities and discontents.

Provisional structure of the volume containing 30 chapters (600 pages).


General Introduction

Section 1 (Introduction + 6 chapters): Contextualizing Engineering

Section 2 (Introduction + 6 chapters): Institutional Contexts of Engineering Education

Section 3 (Introduction + 6 chapters): Context in Engineering Curricula

Section 4 (Introduction + 6 chapters): Context in Engineering Design

Section 5 (Introduction + 6 chapters): Ethics and Values in Engineering

Author Biographies


Short description of the main content of the five sections

Section 1: Contextualizing Engineering

The issue of context in engineering is no doubt one of the most central and controversial topics in the studies of engineering and technology. On the one hand, context is an old issue if one views engineering as an activity adapting technical objects and projects to particular material and social conditions. On the other hand, it is a current issue if one considers the context to be at the heart of contemporary philosophical, historical and social reflections upon technology. Whatever the viewpoint, any attempt to characterize engineering as a core activity of the ‘technology-in-society’ must, as far as possible, choose a position on what can be termed ‘the question of context’. Section 1 is thus meant to serve as a philosophical, historical, and social reflection of the various meanings of “Context” in engineering and technology.

Section 2: Institutional Contexts of Engineering Education

Engineering education takes place at different levels, in different types of institutions embedded in different national systems of higher education. Systems of higher education are not stable entities but are exposed to structural change over time due to institutional and structural dynamics. Examples of typical structural dynamics are academic drift in engineering colleges and vocational drift in universities. Such dynamics work to transform educational systems and to blur the boundaries between the different types of institutions. The aim of this section is to investigate the historical record of a number of ideal typical institutions of engineering education in the United States, Europa, and China and the historical transformation they have gone through. As ideal typical cases The United Kingdom, France, Germany and China represent four historical reference models of higher education – the Oxbridge, the Napoleonic, the Humboldtian, and the Marxist. These reference models constitute the historical initial conditions for the shaping of engineering education and the different status and roles attributed to engineers in the four countries. In section 2 these issues will be scrutinized.

Section 3: Context in Engineering Curricula

The importance of incorporating contextual issues and developing socio-technical competencies in engineering education has been widely acknowledged in the engineering education community in Australia, Europe and the United States. High quality engineering design requires understanding of how the engineered artifact interacts with individuals, society, and  the environment, both natural and manmade. In the US, the ABET EC 2000 criteria ( for accrediting engineering programs incorporate context in two out of eleven program outcomes (a-k) under criterion 3. The two context-related outcomes to be achieved by first-cycle engineering students are (c) “an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability”, and (h) “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, and societal context”. In the European EUR-ACE accreditation framework (Document A1-en Final 17 November, 2005), context is incorporated as one outcome out of five under the heading “Transferable Skills”.First-cycle engineering students are expected to “demonstrate awareness of the health, safety and legal issues and responsibilities of engineering practice, the impact of engineering solutions in a societal and environmental context, and commit to professional ethics, responsibilities and norms of engineering practice”. The aim of this section is to investigate whether and if so to what extent, confronted with which obstacles and how socio-technical integration has been tackled and implemented in a number of exemplary engineering education institutions and their curricula.

Section 4: Context in Engineering Design

Engineering design may be seen as the core of engineering. In this section, we will focus on the major structural differences between science and engineering. When embarking on a com­parison of science and engineering from a general perspective, the initial problem one faces is: what to compare? It may be argued that, at a general level, scholars of modern technology of whatever philosophical bent they may be seem to agree that technology can be distinguished from science in three closely related areas: 1. Centre and purpose of activity, 2. Normative foundation, 3. Epistemo­logical breadth and complexity. As engineering design is embedded in a larger context – a “social world” – both at a micro, meso and macro level, the design process can be conceived as a social process as well. A complete design is not in the hands of a single individual. To proceed, engineers have to take into consideration legal restrictions and standards, performance requirements set by customers, they have to negotiate with others in the company etc. Different worlds intersect generating work, which is fundamentally social and process. No overriding instrumental strategy is at hand to reconcile and synthesize the diverse design interests. At the beginning of the design process the performance requirements set by the customer is the basis of the layout of performance specifications, but even these requirements are subject to change. It is impossible to uphold these specifications within an ongoing process of modification, clarification, negotiation and joint interpretation. In this way specifications, which seem clear at the outset are challenged by the very design process. The design process is thus a process of discovery to uncover ambiguities, confusions and contradictions. The aim of this section is to scrutinize engineering design methodology, knowledge components and the role of context in the engineering design process ranging from small scale design of technical devices to large scale socio-technical system design.

Section 5: Ethics and Values in Engineering

Project Start:  Beginning of May 2012

Duration: 2 years, ending 1 December 2014

Kick-off workshop at MIT 4 and 5 May 2012: a 2 days kick-off workshop will be held Friday 4 and Saturday 5 May 2012 in the Conference room at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge in the United States. This has been arranged by Larry Bucciarelli. STS at MIT has offered to host a reception for our gathering on Friday evening. Wine, beer, cheese and crackers will be supplied by the program. 10 faculty members from within MIT will be invited to attend this event. The purpose of the workshop is:

  1. to get to know each other
  2. to give a presentation of the project by the editors
  3. to present publishing editor at Springer Ties Nijssen and project facilities Springer can offer
  4. to create a team spirit
  5. to fine tune the structure of the volume
  6. to discuss in groups interpretations of section titles regarding scope and content of sections
  7. to create an overview of possible chapter titles and their distributions across the seven sections
  8. to agree on deadlines
  9. to listen to a limited number of presentations

Workshop expenditures, travel, meals and accommodation: As there would be no project funding all cost are to be funded by participants via their institutions

Project communication, template and standards (including the system of referencing) for the chapters:

  1. Web site
  2. List of e-mail addresses
  3. Template to be used in the writing of chapters.

Deadlines and milestones:

  1. Delivery of titles, abstracts and names of authors and possible co-authors for and of chapters
  2. Writing of the Preface of the volume by the editors immediately after the kick off workshop
  3. Delivery of individual author biographies for the author biography of the volume at the beginning of the project
  4. Appointment of authors and co-authors of section introductions
  5. Delivery of proofread first drafts of chapters
  6. Review of chapters
  7. Delivery of revised chapters according to the recommendations given in the reviews
  8. Proofreading and copy-editing of chapters by native English speaking participants
  9. Indexing of chapters by the authors
  10. Delivery of final versions of chapters in each section to the authors of section introductions
  11. Writing the General Introduction by the editors and the respective section introductions
  12. Submission to Springer

Target groups:

  1. Scholars of engineering studies and STS
  2. Engineering educators at all levels
  3. Instructors, researchers and practitioners in engineering
  4. Policy makers, accreditation agencies, professional engineering societies
  5. Engineering students

List of participants:

Byron Newberry, Baylor University, Texas (Byron­

Wayne Ambler, University of Colorado, Boulder (

Jen Schneider, Colorado School of Mines (

Juan Lucena, Colorado School of Mines (

Carl Mitcham, Colorado School of Mines (

Louis L. Bucciarelli, MIT (llbjr@MIT.EDU)

Bruce Seely, Michigan Technological University, United States (

Joe Pitt, Virginia Tech (

Matt Wisnioski, Virginia tech (

Gary Downey, Virginia Tech (

Michael Dyrenfurth, Purdue University (

Brent Jesiek, Purdue University (

Erik Fisher, Arizona State University (

Joe Herkert, Arizona State University (

Javier Cañavate, Technical University of Catalonia, Spain (

José Manuel Lis, Technical University of Catalonia, Spain (

Martin Meganck, KaHo, Sint-Lieven, Belgium (

Bernard Delahousse, IUT “A” Lille, France (

Steen Hyldgaard Christensen, Aarhus University, Denmark (

Michael Evan Goodsite, Aarhus University, Denmark (

Matthias Heymann, Aarhus University, Denmark (

Anders Buch, Technical University of Denmark (

Andrew Jamison, Aalborg University, Denmark (

Stig Andur Pedersen, Roskilde University Center (RUC), Denmark (

Fernand Doridot, ICAM Lille, France (doridot (

Sylvain Lavelle, ICAM Lille, France (

Christelle Didier, The Catholic University of Lille, France (

Peter Kroes, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands (

Pieter Vermaas, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands (

Wilhelm Bomke, Fachhochschule Regensburg, Germany (

Mike Murphy, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland (

William (Bill) Grimson, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland (

Li Bocong, The Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (

Additional authors:

If needed additional authors may be invited after the workshop in May 2012 at MIT.

Books: Engineering Ethics

Christelle Didier, Les ingénieurs et l’éthique : pour un regard sociologique, London, Hermes, 2008

« L’éthique est devenue un grand sujet de préoccupation dans de nombreux secteurs tels que la médecine, l’économie, le journalisme, le travail social mais aussi celui des sciences et des techniques. Les ingénieurs et l’éthique s’interroge sur les valeurs et l’identité d’une profession en prise avec d’importantes questions actuelles comme la pollution, les risques techniques et les inégalités sociales. Présentant les résultats d’une enquête sociologique réalisée sur près de 4 000 diplômés français, ce livre permet de mieux cerner le regard que portent les ingénieurs sur les sciences, les techniques et la société. Cet ouvrage offre une meilleure connaissance de l’univers des représentations d’un groupe social en pleine mutation. »


Christelle Didier, Penser l’éthique des ingénieurs, Paris, PUF, « Questions d’éthique », 2008

« Cet ouvrage propose des pistes pour interroger les enjeux éthiques de la technique à partir de l’un de ses principaux acteurs, l’ingénieur. Aux professionnels, il propose une réflexion sur leurs responsabilités individuelles et collectives. A ceux qui les forment, il indique des éléments pour aborder ces questions en cours. Aux spécialistes en sciences humaines et sociales, il dévoile un pan méconnu des recherches protant sur les professions techniques. Il offre à tous la possibilité de mieux connaître certains aspects de notre monde technique à travers celles et ceux qui y contribuent. »


About the Author

Christelle Didier is Associate Professor in the Ethics Department of the Lille Catholic University and Head of Engineering Ethics. She co-authored Éthique industrielle (Bruxelles, 1998) and contributes to the European Journal of Engineering Education