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The Best of Backscatter from IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer — Volume 1

By Sharon C. Richardson

Backscatter author Donald Christiansen has compiled some of his earliest, thought- provoking columns in a new IEEE-USA e-book, The Best of Backscatter from Today’s Engineer — Volume 1.

In Christiansen’s introduction, he reveals that most of the Backscatter column topics have no solutions, education being the first. In "ABET’s EC2000: How’re We Doin’?," Christiansen discusses the difference between the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology’s (ABET) old engineering criteria and the new criteria, EC2000, which all engineering schools must comply with. The premise is to fully prepare engineering students for the work force. The old ABET criteria, Christiansen writes “is heavily resource-based, measuring the quality and quantity of lab equipment, computers, number of faculty, etc., but the new criteria are output or outcome based, focusing on what graduates should be able to do upon graduation” — knowing where and when to apply appropriate math, for instance. He goes on to say that these students need better communication skills and the ability to work on teams. Is EC2000 working? Find out Christiansen’s answer in the Backscatter e-book. Other exciting articles in The Best of Backscatter from Today’s Engineer - Volume 1 include: Reality and the Virtual Engineer, in which Christiansen writes about the difference between the hands-on engineer of “yesteryear” and today’s virtual designers, and how to bridge the gap between the two.

In "The Engineer: Professional or Business Practitioner?" Christiansen writes that Employed engineers face a dilemma. “He/she is both a professional and an employee, owing his allegiance to both the profession and his or her employer. Engineers are by nature and training disposed to honesty and openness, gaining new knowledge and bartering information. And managers have the daunting task of allowing engineers selective autonomy on technical matters, while encouraging them to broaden their understanding of business factors. One of the byproducts that scholars see as engineers move into management is a de facto loss of expert knowledge, and a concentration on the exigencies of business. The engineer values knowledge and the manager initiative, loyalty and team effort.”

"About Working Together… or Not." Now that’s something to ponder, considering engineers have historically done their best work as individuals, not in teams, according to Christiansen. He describes engineers as “individualistic and independent, proud and protective of their own accomplishments.” There is also the competitive side to think about. If a team of engineers have worked on a successful project, who gets the credit?

According to Christiansen, some engineers go through great lengths to keep from working with anyone else on a project. However, the EC2000 curricula require that student teams do some undergraduate projects. This requirement gives the students the feel of working with a team, and also prepares them for today’s work force. In Engineers as Inventors, Christiansen notes that “the characteristics that lead to success as an engineer are largely the same as those that define inventive talent, curiosity, good observational powers and a tendency to be dissatisfied with the status quo.” But he also questions whether an engineer can be taught to be creative and innovative. “Can electrical and computer engineering curricula be designed to foster inventiveness?”

"Engineers Can’t Write? Sez Who!" Sez anyone who has tried to read a book of proceedings. Christiansen shares that the editor of the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers could not understand the articles, so as an exercise, he gave each member of the editorial board an issue to read to see if they understood it. They all agreed that it was incomprehensible. The problem, Christiansen writes, is that “Engineers write too much. They document everything.”

In "Meetings Madness," Christiansen asks the reader: "Why is it that whenever I want to talk to real people instead of sending an e-mail, they’re always in a meeting? Everyone talks about how to have better meetings. Is there a way to have fewer meetings? Could it make us more productive?” Find out in this humorous article.

In "Who's In Charge Here?" Christiansen poses the question that if engineers are take-charge people, in a team of take-charge engineers, who’s really in charge? ”With astonishingly rapid developments in technology and a diminished ability of engineers to control its applications, a more leavened approach by engineers and their professional societies to ’who’s in charge’ has evolved,” writes Christiansen.

The "Inside Peer Review" column highlights peer reviews and what they are suppose to accomplish in such subtopics as the Blind Reviews, the Job Doesn’t Pay Well, Bias and Rejection and Electronic Publishing Reviews are a Different Matter. Christiansen points out that, all-in-all, “editors, reviewers and authors respect the process for its value.”

“Why do complex systems fail when they shouldn’t? Why did the Challenger explode? Why did Columbia disintegrate? Why were large areas of the northeastern United States blackened out in 1965 — and again in 2003?” Christiansen asks these questions and more in "Accidents Waiting to Happen." Do you know the answer? Is there an answer? Christiansen notes that “the likelihood of accidents waiting to happen – and actually happening – will only increase as our systems become more complex. The burden will rest on future hardware and software designers to prove my projection wrong.

In "Designing Junk," Christiansen talks about products that were deliberately designed to have a short life, like lamps. He shares that in the 1930s, after World War II, company executives were concerned about their profitability and economic growth. And in fact, Christiansen’s research showed that “at GE, in letters to subsidiaries and licensees, instructions were given to reduce the design life of lamps, in one case from 1,000 to 750 hours, and in another from 300 to 200 hours.

"Old Dogs and New Dogs" is the last column in Volume 1. In it, Christiansen shares his thoughts about the generational gap between young engineers and old engineers. “There is no doubt some truth to the saying ’You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.’” Christiansen writes that “There’s also a bit of truth to the belief that new dogs sometimes resist learning from old dogs.”

Looking to read some thought-provoking, challenging articles, then The Best of Backscatter is for you. Download your copy today. IEEE Member cost is only $4.95.

IEEE-USA E-Books invites IEEE members and volunteers to submit queries for e-books they may want to write. If you’ve got an idea for an e-book that will educate other IEEE members on career guidance and development, e-mail your e-book queries and ideas to IEEE-USA Publishing Manager Georgia Stelluto at g.stelluto@ieee.org.

You can purchase IEEE-USA e-books — and download free ones — at www.ieeeusa.org/communications/ebooks.



Sharon Richardson is IEEE-USA’s Communications Assistant and Editorial Assistant for IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer Digest. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2008 IEEE

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