4.2 Knowhow

Knowhow in the patent and intellectual property professions is used to signify private intellectual property, usually unpatented. It might include skills and experience with procedures and methodologies in a particular area. Knowhow is closely related to tacit knowledge – knowledge which an individual keeps in her head or her hands which is difficult to write down and codify but which may be hugely important to the success of a process. The possession of tacit knowledge may not even be recognised by its holder ‘Oh – I’ve always done it that way’. Knowhow is often acquired by informal learning, rather than being taught.

I believe that knowhow is very important in engineering education. Consider some of the things which we rarely, if ever, teach:

How to use a micrometer, ratchet mechanisms, worm drive, the gear box, roughness, distortion (sound and vision), elegance (in mathematics, engineering or life), the value of a human life, characteristics of materials (metals vs polymers vs ceramics for a start – density, thermal conductivity, elemental composition), how a power station works, how to set up a Facebook site, how to upload a video to YouTube, how to use a spanner or a screwdriver, the carbon cycle, single-phase lighting circuit, how to use rotary and slider controls. All these are important aspects of an engineer’s tacit armoury of skills. Should we be teaching more of them?

One action we could consider taking is to try to assess the knowledge (tacit as well as explicit) of our students as they join us. Below is a possible list of items which might be given to students in the form of questions on their day of arrival at university. They would serve the twin purposes of pointing out to the students what sorts of things we expect them to know and simultaneously revealing to the academic staff what they actually do know! We would also like our students to be able to reason, using their knowledge, and this is discussed in the next section.

A list of things it would be nice if incoming engineering students knew or were able to do

  • Units (SI) and definitionsMass, length, time; Joule, Coulomb; Density; Orders of magnitude, multipliers such as k, M, G; Plotting in Cartesian and polar coordinates; Energy – conservation, kinetic, potential, internal, free; Power/work; Stress/pressure; MomentumMathematics

    Pi; Binary arithmetic; Equations of: Straight line, circle, parabola; Area and circumference of circle; Volume and surface area of sphere; Exponentials/logarithms; Solution of quadratic equation; Differentiation; Integration of simple function; Probability; Symmetry (mirror, rotational); Approximation

    General physics, chemistry, biology and engineering

    Levers; Moments; Meaning of the terms: Tension, compression, shear, buckling; Centre of Gravity; Newton’s Laws of motion; velocity, acceleration; Gravity; acceleration due to; Ohm’s Law; Concepts of charge, resistance; capacitance, electric field; Magnetic fields, B, H; States of matter – solid, liquid, gas; Atomic structure, nucleus and electrons; Bonding; Crystals, molecules; Characteristics of major groups of materials; metals, alloys, polymers, semiconductors, natural materials; The periodic table of elements; Balance a chemical reaction

    General knowledge

    Evolution; Cellular nature of living organisms; Photosynthesis and the carbon cycle; Single-phase wiring circuits

    Orders of magnitude sizes – nucleus, atom, molecule, nanoparticle, CMOS, virus, cell, grain, hair,  wire, aggregate particle,  rebar, cylinder diameter or volume, wingspan, boat, longest bridge span, largest dam, diameter and circumference of earth

    How the following work:

    Light bulb; 4-stroke internal combustion engine; A lens; CD or DVD player; TV display; Transistor; Nuclear power station; Gears and pulleys; A worm drive; Solenoid, microphone, loudspeaker; Ball or roller bearing

    How to use:

    Word, Excel, Powerpoint; Plot a graph; A power drill; A hacksaw; A screwdriver, a hammer; A digital voltmeter; A spanner and torque wrench; A protractor; A micrometer; An instruction manual

    Distinguish between:

    A screw and a bolt; Mass and weight; Size and volume; Speed and velocity; Series and parallel; AC and DC; Reflection and refraction; Current and voltage; Noun, adjective and verb; Infer and imply; Thermoplastic and thermoset; Melting and sublimation; Heat and temperature; Rod and sheet; Plan and section; Jet and rocket; RAM and ROM; Welding, brazing and soldering; Nuclear fission and fusion; Sine and cosine; Wavelength and frequency; Conduction, convection, radiation; Lathe and mill; Cement and concrete

It is also useful to consider what makes someone an ‘expert‘. The Dreyfus brothers developed a five-stage model (see box) which goes some way to explain why it is often asserted that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to produce true expertise. We obviously cannot expect our fresh graduates to demonstrate such expertise after a degree programme which typically demands less than 5,000 hours of learning!

Dreyfus and Dreyfus [1981] called the five stages of skill development Novice; Advanced Beginner; Competent; Proficient and Expert. You can read more detail if you wish but a key point is that at Novice level students have to stick rigidly to a set of rules, because they have not yet developed sufficient understanding of the overall topic. The measure of the Expert is that they have an intuitive grasp of what is possible and what is necessary, based on tacit knowledge (see above), and are not reliant at all on rules or guidelines.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)


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