Ways of Knowing, Equity, and Synthesis

Engineering culture values reason, progress and rationality. The fast-paced technological environment that we work in requires a keen understanding of the empirical ideas and ways of knowing that don’t align with traditional methods of acquiring knowledge in engineering are often ignored. To treat different ways of knowing equitably, we need to consider different sources of the truth and of value as both real and consequential.

Consider the way we view time. Some people visualize time as a linear concept. Others view time as a cycle. One way to synthesize these concepts visually would be to depict time as a cyclical roller coaster:

FIG 1 – Cyclical Roller Coaster

Let’s look at another example. Consider a rock. Is a rock alive?

According to empirical knowledge, a living thing:

  • Eats
  • Breathes
  • Reproduces
  • Grows
  • Poops
  • Responds to the environment (sweats in the heat, shivers in the cold, etc.)

Based on observation, a rock doesn’t do any of these things, so according to the empirical way of knowing, a rock is not alive! Let’s say there is a body of knowledge, though, that says everything on Earth is alive, including rocks, water, and wind. According to this body of knowledge, the rock is alive.

So, is the rock really alive? Well, in the empirical definition, no! But the other way of knowing cannot be disregarded or disrespected. So according to that way of knowing, the rock is alive! To consider different ways of knowing equitably, you must acknowledge that spiritual or emotional justification, not just the empirical, is valid & valuable.

Equity & Design

To design equitably, we must synthesize the ways of knowing of all collaborators participating in a design project. Let’s consider an example of this.

Examples – Client and Engineer Perspective of Designing a Hockey Stick

Say you work for a sportswear manufacturing company, which specialized in items such as hockey and lacrosse sticks. Your manager has recently asked you to liaise with a prominent Canucks player to try and sell a custom hockey stick to him.

You have a background in materials engineering. Therefore, you are well versed in what range of elastic modulus, toughness, and strength is required of the materials you use when manufacturing the hockey sticks. You understand that the density of the material is important, and you tend to stick to density standards set out by your company. You know that you can absolutely sell a good stick to your client as long as the client can describe the technical specifications of his favorite stick(s). You set up a meeting with your client and are shocked when he describes what he needs.

Client: It can’t be too heavy since I focus on quick stick work. it needs to have some “give” but stiff for pokes. I need an extension of my body, not deadweight. It’s got to be balanced, it can’t have a bunch of extra weight in weird spots, otherwise I can’t get a fast shot off. The blade needs to be curved but not too much. It also needs to have some flex for the slap shots.

Is your way of knowing what goes into the perfect hockey stick flawed? Is your client’s? No! You both use observation and testing to determine the best hockey stick – you just need a way to translate between the ways of knowing to benefit both you and your client.

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Decolonizing the Engineering Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Wolf, Ben Harris, Nika Martinussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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