Posted in Academic Issues

The Problem with "Going Dark" in the Technical Literature

When starting out on a major research project in science or engineering, the first thing to do is to go through “the literature” (which usually means the peer-reviewed body of articles and published books, although internet stuff is becoming increasingly important) and try to figure out the current “state of the science” (we used to say “state of the art” but people are less inclined to use that expression than they used to be).  From here we proceed to do new things which will hopefully advance the state of whatever field of endeavour we are operating in.  As I stated in my master’s thesis:

In any investigation such as this the ideal goal is to come up with something truly novel, and many of such works emphasize their novelty to the denigration of those who have gone on before. While in some fields of endeavour this might be appropriate, in this case such sweeping novelty cannot be claimed. This work fits the mould as outlined by Pascal above: it takes the work that has been done before, advances it a step while realizing that there are many more steps before “perfection” is achieved.

But stepping back to those who have “gone before”, the scientific and engineering literature isn’t as transparent as one would like.  In recent years fraud and misrepresentation of results has required any researcher to be careful as to what he or she believes.  There are also situations where stuff that looks really good at one point in time get abandoned later for various reasons; we have to make sure our research takes a long sweep in time as well as topic.  We also have the problem of “non-novel” papers, which are really rehashes of stuff figured out a long time ago but put back into the literature to give glory to someone else.  These don’t do much for the originality reputation of their writers but, sometimes, can be useful, putting back into currency things which have “gotten lost in the shuffle” over the years.

But one serious problem that deserves some attention–and one that doesn’t get a lot of press–is the matter of “going dark” in the literature.  An overview of the pattern of scientific and engineering advance is in order.

Generally speaking, in any given field there are “seminal papers” (usually more than one), which is where the field was kicked off.  From there we have what comes after, which usually refers back to the seminal paper.  In my field of pile dynamics, we have one paper that gets cited in just about everything written on the subject.  From here the science and technology are developed and things advance.  And then, without much fanfare, the literature “goes dark”.

That doesn’t mean that people stop publishing anything on a given topic.  Far from it; however, it’s like a line from Hogan’s Heroes, when Gestapo Col. Hochtstetter tells Klink that he can make Hogan talk.  Klink’s reply was, “You can make him talk.  He just doesn’t say anything”.  A lot of the literature is little better than fluff or promotion of a new idea without substantive detail on how these “new” improvements really work.  The obvious question is why.

One reason is that the material is classified for military or national security purposes.  Generally speaking, however, that literature doesn’t go dark as much as it’s dark to start with and it’s only later when things come to light.

Another reason is that the field has become inactive, usually temporarily.  There are a number of reasons this happens.  In my field, wave propagation in driven piles was discovered in the early 1930’s in Australia, and the English carried out some research later in the decade.  (The Americans got into a food fight on the subject).  But things went dark for a very big reason: World War II, which focused the participants on other matters, such as rational soil classifications and nuclear weapons.  After that conflagration, things resumed and progressed to the current state.

In my experience, however, the biggest reason the technical literature goes dark is because of commercialisation.  In the early stages, the research is the “property” of academic institutions, individuals and the government (especially since World War II) which funds it.  In these conditions there is a relatively free exchange of ideas and expression of these ideas in articles and books.  However, when technologies are commercialised (especially when it’s done by a relatively small number of organisations) things start getting proprietary, and then things start getting secret.  Although it’s possible to have patents and copyrights to protect oneself in some cases, it’s not possible to copyright an idea; it’s easier to simply use trade secrets, even if those trade secrets are derivative from research from more “open” sources.

The fact that a technology can be commercialised is a good thing in that it shows that it works and is useful.  Over time, however, it happens that organisations use institutional inertia and human habit–to say nothing of our tort system, which stifles innovation by punishing experimentation which can go wrong–to make their proprietary method a “standard” and keep its true nature under wraps to discourage its replacement or even improvement.  In time this slows the advance of science and technology in ways that are not obvious to most people.

Researchers who set out to try to advance methods in areas which have “gone dark”–assuming they can get funding for their work in the first place–face a number of obstacles.  First they must realise that beyond the dark literature are doubtless some improvements the nature of which are obscure.  They may find themselves “reinventing the wheel” in an unavoidable way.  If they get past that, they find that they lack the benefit of the learning curve which those who actually use the existing method.  The road to advancement can be a perilous one under these circumstances.

But advancement is what science and engineering is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

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Posted in Academic Issues

Mirroring Our Creator

Not too long ago, while grading homework for a course I was teaching, I saw a “better than usual” performance from one of my students.  I noted that, if she would consistently concentrate on what she was doing, she was capable of very good work.   The response I got to this was as follows:

I just stumbled across the feedback you gave me…Thank you for that. It’s nice to hear those things once in a while, and especially from a professor of your calibre.

My response to this was as follows:

At the beginning of his poem Paradiso, Dante wrote the following:

The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe, and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth.

Our first task in life is to point the mirror in the right direction.

I’m sure that it’s the rare professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science that would quote Dante in a communication with a student, but doing so brings up some things that need to be said.

Today the concept of “equality” is endlessly paraded before us.  In practice, however, equality is a tricky concept.  It’s one thing to pass some legislation and give each other the high-five that we’ve moved towards a more just society. It’s another to achieve real equality.  To do that would require either that we accept that everyone have the same outcome (which was a goal of Communism) or abolish any kind of reward for performance, and frankly we’re not near either one.

No where is that more evident than in education.  In spite of the levelling efforts of the last fifty years, we still don’t have real equality, not only among the students and faculty but among differing institutions.  There are many reasons for this but the most important one is that people are not the same; thus, inequality is built into the system from the start.

A teacher is presented with a varied lot each time class assembles.  In addition to differing levels of intelligence, there are other things that vary.  Students learn differently one from another.  Some take too many courses in one semester.  Some work full-time jobs and/or have a family.  Some do both, which can be a real disaster.  Some experience personal tragedy, either going into their studies or during them.

It’s tempting for an academic to focus on their “best” students.  Having worked in industry first, I am aware that there is more to life than academic performance, and I’ve seen in class that the “smart” students aren’t always the ones who come up with the best solutions, especially on projects.  That tells me that, as one of my own professors observed, testing may not be the best was to gauge performance, but it’s the best we’ve got.  We need to understand its limitations, along with those of the whole academic system.

Getting back to Dante, he lived in a world where inequality was accepted as a fact of life.  But he also lived in a Christian world where each and every human being had worth to his or her Creator.  Each of those creatures should reflect whatever glory their creator put in them; if they did so, they fulfilled their purpose, and found their value in doing so.

Today our obsession with “equality” leads us to try to do all and be all.  But our God doesn’t expect that, and neither do I.  As a professor, what I want to see from my students is their best, to bring out that which their God and their creator has endowed them with.  If I get that, I’ve succeeded and they’ve succeeded.

That is what I meant by my comment: our first task is to direct ourselves in such a way as to reflect the glory of our Creator best, and that first is towards Him.  But that leads to another point of the Paradiso: we get to the point where we realise we cannot achieve our true goal without God’s help and presence in our lives.  To fully reflect the glory of our Creator and to fulfil his purpose for us requires that step, and for that the provision is his, not ours.

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Posted in Academic Issues

Is the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam a Barrier Against Women?

The intrepid Toni Airaksinen at Campus Reform has written an article highlighting the research of Drs. Julia Keen & Anna Salvatorelli on this subject.  The statistics are interesting and so are their recommendations for further research:

This study focused on pass rate, and the resultant disparity is only the first step. Additional research should be conducted to identify why women are not passing the PE exam at an equal percentage rate as men. This research should include:

  • Identifying biases in the exam itself

  • Examining the timing of administration of the exam in an engineer’s career progression

  • Exploring the likelihood of women to retake the exam compared to men after failing since the number of attempts was not recorded within the data collected

  • Identify factors that may contribute to higher pass rate for women in some states compared to others.

As someone who has taught civil engineering for more than a decade at the undergraduate level, this has more than a passing interest.  For me, it was also an interesting moment, because I saw this just after I had returned from the dedication of the new headquarters for Division 2 of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, where most of my students who work there are female.

Let me first set forth their “bottom line” cumulative statistics (I strongly urge those of you who can get access to their paper to do so):

  1. About 20% of the people who take the “Principles and Practices” exam are women.  That tracks pretty well with the number of women in my classes.
  2. 51.5% of the women pass the test on the first try, while 63.1% of the men do.

With that out of the way, I’d like to make some observations.

  1. My female students tend to be a very diligent and competent group.  In many ways an engineering curriculum is more of an endurance match than anything else; the women “tough it out” at least as well as the men.
  2. I’ve never noticed women having more difficulty with tests than men in my classes.  That’s saying a lot because my tests tend to be bizarre, as my students will attest.
  3. Women in civil engineering have some built-in advantages because of the diffuse structure of the system by which structures get built and their socialization skills, as I explain this 2014 post.  Because of the nature of our society, engineers tend to get stuck in the caboose on the train of respectability; I think that women are a significant part of the key to change that situation.

Especially considering #2, I find it hard to believe that the test is intrinsically biased against women.  So why is this disparity so?  Our researchers give us four options, and my gut tells me that the second one is the most likely.

My reasoning is simple.  Generally speaking, most engineering students take their first exam (the FE exam) while they’re in undergraduate school.  After they they acquire four years of experience, they can apply for the privilege of taking the P&P exam.  If they pass it and meet other requirements, they obtain their Professional Engineers license.  For most people, that means that the critical moment takes place in their mid- to late twenties.  Millennials aren’t as “progressive” on sorting out tasks between spouses or partners as some might have you believe.  That time in life is also the same time when many marry, have children, etc., and the work associated with those events falls harder on women.  Thus the first opportunity to take the exam takes place at a point in life which is less opportune for women than it is for men.

So what is to be done?  Do we need a special accommodation?  The answer is “no.”  Since venting pet peeves seems to be the thing on this site these days, let me vent one of mine: there is no cogent reason why we should force people to wait several years out from their academic studies to take the P&P exam.  This exam is supposed to reflect experience, but a reality check is in order: it’s just another academic exercise like just most any other test.  Fortunately change is in the wind, as this statement from the National Society of Professional Engineers indicates:

Until relatively recently, candidates for licensure as a professional engineer have needed to gain four years of approved work experience before taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam. In recent years, however, attitudes within the profession toward the early taking of the PE exam have begun to shift. In 2013, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) removed from its Model Law the requirement that candidates earn four years of experience before taking the exam. Separating the experience requirement from eligibility for taking the PE exam is sometimes called decoupling. For the National Society of Professional Engineers, as stated in Position Statement No. 1778,

“Licensing boards and governing jurisdictions are encouraged to provide the option of taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam as soon as an applicant for licensure believes they are prepared to take the exam. The applicant would not be eligible for licensure until meeting all requirements for licensure— 4-year Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology/Engineering Accreditation Commission accredited degree, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, and 4 years of progressive engineering experience.”

The NSPE would have us think that this concept is a novelty, but that’s not really the case.  When I was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University in the 1970’s, Texas allowed people to take both exams before graduation; our own NSPE student chapter strongly encouraged that, and I did it myself.  Taking the P&P exam not only gets the exam away from major life events in early adulthood, it also eliminates a good deal of remedial work trying to remember things one learned in school but had forgotten in the years before the exam.

I think that, if we do not obscure our thinking with trendy concepts and look at things realistically, we can solve this disparity by making a change that will benefit both men and women and improve our profession.  If this disparity provides motivation to move the process of “decoupling” forward, then so be it.  It’s a change that’s overdue.