During my first week at Design News, chief editor Karen Field asked if I did much in the way of hands-on work. She was pointing out a recent story by contributing writer Jon Titus in which he evaluated five wireless development kits. Sure, I told her, mentioning how the night before I'd been scrubbing dirt from under my nails.
This week I gained two new cuts on my left hand to back up the claim.
The first came while trying to separate an electrical connector for a remote trunk release I'm swapping into my project car—a pre-Bluetooth '89 Chevy Corsica with 25,000 miles on it. I got the idea here. As I pulled on the wire it suddenly released and a sharp connector prong sliced across my thumb. Three band-aids staunched the flow.
The second came from my clothes dryer, itself several years older than the Chevy. I was removing the gas igniter—something I thought I fixed months ago that's now beset with an intermittent short. By taking it out, shaking the wires, and putting it back, I can restore combustion temporarily. The knife edge—a little sheet metal bracket that supports the assembly—was my latest discovery. Its cut took only a single band-aid.
Before going into the trade-mag business I worked with some good engineers. They had practical minds. They could spin up turbines or create machines for stuffing packages full at amazing rates. For hobbies, they built everything from airplanes to fences. They knew how cars worked. They were all very hands-on—and wore the scars to prove it.
So, for me it's a pleasure to stumble upon Nial McCabe's website, where he posts plans for small piston "steam" engines that his engineering technology students build at New Jersey's County College of Morris. Why learn about 400 year old technology, McCabe asks on the site. He's trying to introduce the mechanical world to his students, many of whom, though well traveled in the cyberlands, haven't had much chance to dirty their hands. Of course, engineering technology programs have always stressed practical over the theory that rules in most pure engineering programs.
In a story that circulated earlier this year, none other than GM vice chairman Bob Lutz told an SAE Congress that "We are training our engineers to be managers, while the rest of the world trains them to be doers." Not every engineer agrees with Lutz's assessment, as this Detroit News article points out.
A lively discussion on the subject of hands-on endeavors in the engineering workplace takes place on the eng-tips website.There, a reader inquires about whether mechanical or electrical engineering would be the better choice for an engineer wishing to work with his hands.
And here at Design News, a recent Buzz column described Mark Newby's strategy for encouraging hands-on learning in high schools and colleges. His strategy is to give students of technology access to the actual parts they'll be working with once they graduate, through his GEAR-IDS design kits.
I'm curious to hear what Design News readers think. Are hands-on skills important for engineers today or not? If you can't find me at my keyboard, look under the car. Just follow the trail of blood.
Reach Paul at email@example.com.