Expanding Human Factors

I’ve recently landed in a position teaching Engineering and technical Communication to Engineering and Science students. This is a really enjoyable position and has allowed me to uniquely combine my background in Computer Science with my English research. Furthermore, there are a number of unique and effective pedagogical methods that I’ve learned in Engineering Communication that seem to really resonate with students. I’m convinced that English Departments, particularly the more traditional ones, could gain a lot from seeing how Engineering is developing language and critical thinking education.

In our program we teach from the perspective that the design process — the way in which Engineers turn a problem or challenge into a science or math-based solution — shares a number of parallels with the critical thinking process. So as we teach the design process, and the writing and communication that goes with it, we are also teaching elements of critical thinking: the ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives, to write using neutral and bias-free language, to generate multiple possible solutions, to form arguments to defend one’s solution, and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of those solutions.

As I continue to teach in this department I am trying to assess what forms of critical thinking students are being taught and what some of the challenges are to teaching critical thinking in an Engineering environment. My thinking is largely influenced by theories of critical pedagogy developed by Paolo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Freire’s work is especially relevant to Engineering education, particularly as his notion of pedagogy requires that we critique ‘instrumental and technical rationality.’ In what ways does Engineering education, particularly with its heavy emphasis on technical knowledge, insist on a kind of ‘technical rationality’? In what ways can Engineering education imbue students with a sense of critical thinking and critique that challenges this instrumental form of rationality?

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” -Paolo Freire

It seems to me that there are two major roadblocks to educating our students in this manner. The first is simply a question of time. Engineering students, by and large, do not have the adequate time to engage in the necessary reflection, consideration, and self-questioning that is at the heart of critical thinking and critical engagement. They spend substantially more time in the classroom than many of their peers in other departments and they are required to spend a large amount of time cramming for exams in Calculus, Algebra, Physics, Signals, Stats, etc… Arts and Science students do engage in a lot of work but much of it encourages self-reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. Engineering education, I would argue, involves far more rote learning and mastery of technical concepts that is distinct from insightful analysis. Simply put, when engineering students’ days are filled with 7 hours of class time and 5 hours of homework, they simply do not have the time to think critically about the subject matter they are being required to work on.

Secondly, I think there is an unconsidered celebration of technological advancement and development in Engineering departments that would come under more scrutiny elsewhere. This is not to say that questions of ethics, politics and the relationship between technology and its human users are not considered. However, I argue that they are considered first-and-foremost in design terms and only secondarily in terms of their broader social implications. Technological triumphalism seems to inform a large number of student interests, projects and our teaching.

In Engineering, the broader social implications of engineering problems and design tend to fall under the category of ‘Human Factors’ — a broad term that roughly means the consideration of humans, their behaviours, organizations, and practices as an integral part of the design process. In our department we use Kim Vincente’s The Human Factor to teach this topic. Vincente’s excellent text discusses a number of human factor considerations including “Fitting the Design to the Body,” “Everyday Psychology,” “Safety-Critical Psychology” and so forth. He suggests that whereas Humanistic or Mechanistic notions of design begin from a primarily mechanical or human perspective, “Human Tech” brings the two into dialogue with one another in a manner that offers a much richer notion of engineering design.

What is marginalized within the discussions of human factors, however, is an analysis of the political implications of engineering design and technological advancement. Certainly there are discussions of the manner in which technology may affect political and social structures but the political implications of technological design – particularly as people would think of them in the humanities – are largely absent from the discussion. Vincente does discuss the relationship between technology and political action / change in the final two chapters of his text. He considers both “bottom-up” approach to to design, where technology is adapted from its original purpose and refitted for other means. He cites examples such as September 11th where people adapted a whole host of designs, box-cutters, airplanes, buildings, baggage check processes, in order to use them for a completely unintended function. Similarly, he discusses the use of demographic recording machines developed by IBM as their use in the Nazi camps to categorize prisoners.

Vincente also offers a notion of the political as an aspect of design. In other words, political systems set constraints that determine how a product may be designed. Clean Air legislation or safety standards are examples of such constraints.

Yet Vincente’s text, and much of the engineering pedagogy that I have considered, does not adequately address many of the human factors that Engineers need to consider. So, for instance, students consider Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drones – from the perspective of their user interfaces, ergonomics, displays, aesthetics, elegance but rarely from the perspective of the recipient of the payloads that they deliver. Students are given lectures on the importance of developing UAV systems that have failsafe systems to prevent error, dual-pilots to ensure the drone is adequately piloted, meaningful messages on the heads up display – all in the name of designing for human factors. Yet to consider these design concerns while simultaneously ignoring the fact that these designs are intended to drop bombs on humans from thousands of feet in the sky suggests an impoverished notion of human factors…


“The human helps identify if its a good guy, or a bad guy.

If its a bad guy, we take the target out…”

There are numerous possible criticisms here including the ridiculous language of good guy / bad guy, the transformation of combat and geopolitics into videogaming, and the broadly accepted notion that American power constitutes a contemporary form of global empire and not some benevolent hand of liberal democracy surveying the world from the comfort of Drone piloting terminals thousands of miles away. And I think we dismiss the argument — repeatedly made — that UAVs are not just military weapons but also have a number of civilian purposes. Yes that is true, but other examples make the same case and I would argue that the bulk of UAV development is funded for military purposes.

My concern, as I see students interested in developing and using this technology, is that they are not provided with the necessary vocabulary and political concepts to question the development and use of this technology. The celebration of technological development and working on the cutting edge of science and programming seems to take precedence over the critical questions of whether an Engineer / designer / programmer should agree to develop this technology. My point is not that this work should not occur or that it is, somehow ‘wrong’, but instead that Engineers need to be given the educational and analytic tools to offer a critical understanding of the work that they engage in and the political effects of that work.

Engineers are trained in a wide range of technical and analytic skills yet they are rarely given the necessary training to question the political and power structures that their designs will support and that enable their very design process. This is not simply about understanding geopolitics or contemporary warfare. Instead, it is about providing analytic tools to understanding and critiquing power to people who could be designing the technical apparatuses that will enforce that power. If we consider human factors as a systems-approach to understanding design and engineering, how might we extend the scope of that system to understand the implications of technology for democracy, for individual and collective freedoms, and for populations who are seemingly outside of the design process but will be affected by it.

It seems to me that new developments in Engineering education can offer the basis for a critical Engineering pedagogy that works towards an expanded notion of human factors and engineering design. Particularly as Engineering and other disciplines become increasingly cross-disciplinary, educators can use their skills and knowledge from other disciplines to problematize staid notions of what constitutes engineering and technical education. Thus critical thinking and concepts of human factors needs to extend beyond the design process but also to support forms of self-analysis and critique whereby engineers can make informed and meaningful decisions about their own work. Freire once again:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

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