Old-timers, let alone prospective engineers, can sometimes get lost in the buzzwords that the industry throws at them. And then there are those skills that are hugely useful, but not adequately covered within an engineering curriculum. Critical thinking is both a buzzword and an intangible, soft, but incredibly handy skill.
But what is critical thinking? The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking in 1987 fashioned a definition:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
Critical thinking then, is the kind of skill an engineer should be equipped with before moving forward into an engineering career. The question is: Can critical thinking be taught? Educational institutions are attempting to impart this illusive skill before students even reach the tertiary education level.
How institutions are doing it today
Many educators providing subjects which a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are using various initiatives to inspire critical thinking and problem solving. Examples of these are school clubs for robotics’ enthusiasts, electric circuit board projects, and general engineering weeks. Students who are involved get to physically tamper with actual, tangible engineering elements during class; to nut out solutions, to nurture and discipline their creativity streaks. Some schools are hosting STEM-camps that provide children the opportunity to problem solve and tap into their more advanced levels of cognition.
Critical thinking and problem solving are encouraged within STEM-focused subjects, but some institutions reckon that to ably facilitate students to adopt these skills something is being left out.
Hence the rise of STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Educators have begun adding subjects usually relegated to the Arts to inspire and improve analytical thought from students preconditioned to mastering STEM-focused subjects. For critical thinking to occur self-awareness and emotional intelligence are useful and these skills are ignored or may get lost, through a lack of nurturing, when students focus on STEM alone. There is a shift occurring: subject matter from the Humanities Faculty is entering engineering curriculums.
Engineers might have their institutions of education to thank for the careers they have today; many schools during the last few decades have utilized the psychological framework of Benjamin Bloom.
Bloom was an American educational psychologist who contributed to the theory of mastery learning in the 50s. Some of his systems are used by schools and universities to this day. Many of his findings, on the levels of learning, are undeniably useful for the teaching of engineering. For exams, assignments, and general engineering projects, his six levels of learning can help an engineer improve both their knowledge and their efficiency and boost their critical thinking skills simultaneously:
1. Knowledge - count, define, describe, draw, find, identify, label, list, match, name, quote, recall, recite write
2. Comprehension - conclude, demonstrate, discuss explain, generalize, identify, illustrate, interpret, paraphrase, predict, report, restate, review, summarize, tell
3. Application - apply, change, choose, compute, prepare, produce, role-play, select, show, transfer, use
4. Analysis - analyze, characterize, classify, compare, contrast, debate, deduce, diagram differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, outline, relate, research, separate
5. Synthesis - compose, construct, create, design, develop, integrate, invent, make, organize, perform, plan, produce, propose, rewrite
6. Evaluation - appraise, argue, assess, choose, conclude, criticize, decide, evaluate, judge, justify, predict, prioritize, prove, rank, rate, select.
Through Bloom’s Taxonomy, designs and calculations can undergo levels of variance that can improve an engineer’s approach to projects and strengthen his/her ability to think critically.
Graduates need critical thinking - it’ll get them the job
Ersnt and Young, the multinational professional services company, believes critical thinking can set you apart as a graduate.
“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door. Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.”
And as Einstein claimed: “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Defining Critical Thinking. Web. 29 Aug. 2017.
Bloom, Benjamin Samuel. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. N.Y.: Longmans, Green, 1956. Print.