Science and technology in society professor explores global emergence of engineering

BLACKSBURG, Va., Jan. 24, 2006 – Gary Downey, a professor science and technology in society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has been awarded a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation.

One grant will support research on the emergence of the engineering profession in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States. As principal investigator for the $172,000 award, Downey has been charged to complete a book manuscript with former Virginia Tech graduate student Juan Lucena, who is now an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

The project “Engineers and the Metrics of Progress,” will be based on ethnographic interviews, participant observation, and extensive collection of primary and secondary documents to map engineering education in reverse chronology and ideas of progress in chronological order.

Engineers in France “have valued mathematical knowledge and sought to work for the state where they have constituted the country’s highest ranked occupation,” said Downey. “Whereas engineers in the United Kingdom have valued practical knowledge and worked primarily in the private sector, where they have constituted a relatively low-ranked occupation. In Germany the status of engineering rose after unification in 1870 when precision techniks came to be seen as a new way of achieving progress by emancipating the German spirit.”

By following how engineers have responded to different ideas of progress, Downey and Lucena seek to show that engineers have been key figures in promoting the idea of the nation around the world. Understanding the relationship between engineering and nations helps to explain the struggles of engineers today to redefine engineering education in the context of globalization. Downey and Lucena first began this research in order to provide material for students in their popular Engineering Cultures course.

The second grant for $18,000 will support “Locating Engineers: Education, Knowledge, Desire,” the first of three annual international research workshops under the auspices of the International Network for Engineering Studies (INES). Reform in engineering education has become an object of intense interest and desire in countries throughout the world. This Department of Science and Technology in Society workshop, to be held at Virginia Tech in September 2006, will bring together researchers in the history, social and cultural studies, and philosophy of engineering education to address what is at stake in the contents of engineering education.

Hayden Griffin, chair of the Department of Engineering Education, and Joseph Pitt, chair of the Department of Philosophy, are co-principal investigators with Department of Science and Technology in Society Ph.D. student Sharon Ruff serving as the graduate student coordinator. The workshop will also receive support from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the College of Engineering, and Research Division.

Information on the forthcoming workshop may be found here.

The International Network for Engineering Studies was established in August 2004 in Paris, and currently has more than 200 members. The organization advances research in historical, social, cultural, and philosophical studies of engineers and engineering; builds a visible international community of researchers interested in engineering studies; and draws upon research in engineering studies to contribute to public discussions and debates about engineering education and policy. Downey is co-founder of the network along with Maria Paula Diogo, associate professor of history at the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, and Chyuan Yuan Wu, director of the Institute of Sociology and Science and Technology in Society Program at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

Downey, an affiliated member of the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, received two bachelor’s degrees from Lehigh University, and a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He serves as the 2005-2006 Boeing Company Senior Fellow in Engineering Education at the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He has recently given featured plenary presentations on engineering education at the National Academy of Engineering’s 2005 Miller Symposium in Indianapolis, Indiana, and the 8th Annual Colloquium on International Engineering Education at Georgia Tech.