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Edison lecture recognizes engineers as artists

Anna Boarini | Friday, September 9, 2011

Engineers aren’t just scientists, they are also artists, a former NASA administrator said in a lecture Thursday.

Dr. Michael Griffin, who is also the incoming president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, talked about the dynamic role of engineers at the Edison Lecture.

“Engineers and systems engineers are not just scientists,” he said. “They are designers who synthesize knowledge to create new artifacts.”

In his speech, “System Engineering: What it is; What it is not,” Griffin said undergraduate engineers do not receive much vital background in design. Rather, the focus is solely on engineering science.

“The world we live in is designed, and we as engineers are helping to design it,” Griffin said.

Although he said art is the basis of the engineering field, Griffin said science has helped it accelerate as a discipline.

Griffin also said the roots of what is now modern system engineering are planted in the Cold War era. The 1950s were a time of large engineering projects, including the creation of new weapons.

“If the Cold War was a tax on humanity, it has had at least a few consequences that involved good,” Griffin said.

Griffin said the aftermath of the Cold War wasn’t completely negative as it caused systems engineering to become more complex.

To deal with the accomplishment of new and complex systems, engineers working in this field need to be prepared and welcome failure, Griffin said.

“The system engineer must strive to anticipate ways the design will fail,” Griffin said.

When working with these complex systems, failure can occur when something is not actually wrong. The system can perform a function or action that was not anticipated by the designer, he said.

“Systems fail because something happens that is unanticipated,” he said.

However, failure is nothing new for systems engineers. Reducing unintended interactions is the goal of a systems engineer, Griffin said, and creating the right design prevents further failures.

Griffin said his position causes him to continually analyze how the field has changed.

“Whatever stature and prominence I have enjoyed as an aerospace engineer, it has caused me to reflect upon engineering as a discipline here in America, particularly in aerospace,” he said.