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The Mathematical Disposition of Structural Engineers

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The Mathematical Disposition of

Structural Engineers

Julie Gainsburg

California State University, Northridge

Mathematics educators recognize the impact of students attitudes, beliefs, and views

about mathematics on their learning and use of mathematics. A reform goal is for

students to develop a productive mathematical disposition, one that reflects the dispo-

sition of professional mathematicians. This may not be the most appropriate model

for most students, and other mathematical dispositions may be possible and produc-

tive. This ethnographic study investigated the mathematical disposition of engineers.

Structural engineers in two firms were observed in everyday practice. Observation and

interview data were analyzed to elucidate the role of mathematics in solving engi-

neering problems and the engineers perceptions of the status of mathematics rela-

tive to other resources and constraints. The phenomenon of engineering judgment

was found to shape the role of mathematics in engineering work and render the engi-

neers mathematical dispositionof skeptical reverencedistinct from the dispo-

sition currently developed in schools.

Key words: Attitudes, Ethnography, Mathematical modeling, Problem solving, Social

factors

Theres an allure to the completeness and the detailed level of [our analysis]. But at

some point, we always have to rise above the math stuff. The math, on some levels, is

very much a means to an end. Engineering is very, kind of, un-pure math. Its very expe-

diency-driven math. So were always having to step beyond that to say, well, what does

it mean, what does it mean?

Ray, structural engineer

Newer theoretical perspectives of classrooms as distinct cultures, and of student

and teacher behavior as practices situated within those cultures, have made students

views on the nature of the enterprise of doing mathematics a central object of study

and target for instructional innovation. Mathematics education scholars (e.g.,

Boaler, 1997; Burton, 2004; Povey & Burton, 2004; Schoenfeld, 1992) recognize

that the mathematical dispositions of adults and children can be as influential on

their mathematical behavior and learning as is their mastery of content. Reflecting

the interpretations of these scholars, I use mathematical disposition to mean a

This study is based on dissertation research that was made possible by a Stanford

Graduate Fellowship. The author is indebted to James Greeno and Diane Bailey,

who were invaluable advisors, and to the engineers who volunteered to participate.

She also thanks Judith Zawojewski, Megan Staples, Ivan Cheng, and the anony-

mous reviewers for their thoughtful editing advice.

Copyright 2007 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.

This material may not be copied or distributed electroncally or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

personal point of view on mathematics that includes what mathematics is about;

what it can and should be used for; who does it; and the role it plays, or should play,

in ones activities and subcultures.

Traditional instructional practices have been blamed for engendering counter-

productive mathematical dispositions in students. Students come to see mathematics

as a rule-driven, linear, solitary, school-only activity, in which problems have one

correct solution that should be quickly evident, and true understanding requires

special talent (Lampert, 1990; Schoenfeld, 1992). This view, which is still perva-

sive in schools, can intimidate, discourage, and filter out students (Boaler, 1997;

Burton, 1999a; Cockcroft, 1982), a critical situation in this time of intensified

national efforts to increase the number of students in the mathematics-science-tech-

nology pipeline. This view also poorly characterizes the actual nature of professional

mathematics, which is now understood to be nonlinear, social, sometimes chaotic,

and fallible (Burton, 1999b; Davis & Hersh, 1981; Ernest, 2004; Lakatos, 1976).

In response, mathematics education reform has made a productive mathematical

disposition a deliberate goal of instruction (NCTM, 1991; National Research

Council, 2001). It is one expected outcome of a reform innovation whereby teachers

establish classroom practices and discourse patterns that apprentice students

into the culture of professional mathematicians (Lave, Smith, & Butler, 1988;

Schoenfeld, 1987). Several researchers have described successful efforts to import

authentic mathematical practices into the classroom and instill a view that osten-

sibly reflects that of the professional mathematician: that mathematics is about

understanding, sense-making, communicating, and discovering patterns; that math-

ematics is collaborative; and that people with differing backgrounds, talents, and

perspectivesincluding childrencan and should participate in it (Ball, 1993;

Boaler, 1997; Greeno & Middle School Mathematics Through Applications Project

[MMAP] Group, 1997; Lampert, 1990; McClain & Cobb, 2001; Schoenfeld, 1987).

There is no evidence, however, that this mathematicians disposition was

specifically derived from empirical knowledge about the perspectives of prac-

ticing mathematicians. In fact, Moschkovich (2002) found no ethnographic studies

of mathematicians; what we know of their day-to-day practice and views comes

mainly from autobiographical reports, with some historical and philosophical

contributions, and these depictions are contested. The apprentice model draws

largely from Schoenfelds (1985) cognitive analysis of his own problem-solving

strategies and those of his college students. An obvious discrepancy, for example,

is that many mathematicians do not hold the view that every child can and should

participate in authentic mathematical activity. Instead, the mathematicians dispo-

sition aimed for in the apprentice model, to the degree that it is designed, is based

primarily on pedagogy and psychology (Popkewitz, 2004), comprising attitudes and

views for students that educators believe will maximize their mathematical engage-

ment (Greeno & MMAP, 1997). In other words, the productive mathematical

disposition targeted by reformers is one known to be productive for learning; it does

not necessarily represent the dispositions that enhance productivity in adult commu-

nities of mathematical practice.

478 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

Central to mathematical disposition is a view of how mathematics relates to ones

life and the communities to which one belongs, that is, of the role of mathematics

in ones out-of-school activities and problem solving. Despite their significant

differences, traditional and apprentice classrooms inculcate similar views on this

issue. Traditionally taught students see almost no connection between school math-

ematics and their lives outside school (Boaler, 1999). Traditional efforts to demon-

strate mathematics real-world utility take the form of word problems that thinly

disguise mathematical exercises in real contexts; these contrived problems do little

to disturb students view of mathematics as a school-only activity. The apprentice

model frames mathematics as an activity for its own sakea set of practices and

form of discourse that live in schools and university mathematics departments,

whose value is intrinsic and cultural (Lave et al., 1988). The apprentice model may

succeed in broadening students notions of the nature of mathematics and convince

more students that they can participate in scholastic mathematics, but it is fairly silent

about the purpose of mathematics and how it might relate to the rest of a students

current and future life.

What mathematical dispositions, then, would be productive with respect to the

world outside of school? Seminal studies by Lave (1988) and colleagues exam-

ined the everyday mathematical practices of just plan folks (JPFs) and exploded

the once-dominant paradigm that people apply general school-taught mathematics

techniques when solving real problems in nonschool settings. This research also

sheds light on the mathematical dispositions of JPFs. Despite their avoidance of

formal mathematics, JPFs subscribe to cultural claims about the hegemony of

school-taught math over everyday practice (Lave, 1988, p. 168)the idea that

the formal, general, algorithmic mathematics taught in schools should structure

the way people resolve all quantitative problems, because it is superior to the irra-

tional, situation-specific mathematics that people naturally invent and use. Davis

and Hersh (1981) similarly noted the popular view of mathematics as quasi-

divine. As a consequence, JPFs fail to recognize their problem-solving compe-

tence and feel inadequate, even guilty, for not using real math (school-taught

procedures). The JPF dispositionthat formal mathematics plays a negligible

role in ones everyday activity and that one should feel ashamed about itis

certainly neither productive nor one that mathematics educators would choose to

instill.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. This research targeted JPFs with no

special mathematical training in fairly unmathematized settings: the grocery store

(Lave, 1988), the dairy factory (Scribner, 1984), and the home kitchen (de la

Rocha, 1985). It did not distinguish between more and less successful participants

in these settings; indeed, virtually all JPFs successfully resolved their everyday quan-

titative dilemmas without errorand without formal, school mathematics, although

some JPFs used formal mathematics post hoc to rationalize their solutions. But

Lave (1988) recognized the possibility of variation, across settings and time, in the

proportional contribution or relative salience of mathematics with respect to

other resources and concerns:

479 Julie Gainsburg

The degree to which ongoing activity is organized in terms of mathematical concerns

varies in the supermarket and other everyday situations. On some occasions it is the

main ongoing activity, while perhaps more often it is not. Observed in situ, it is possible

to examine the effects of differential salience on the ways or levels at which activity is

organized, and thus on the varied character of arithmetic procedures in different situ-

ations. (p. 70, italics in original)

Thus, formal mathematics may have a greater role and higher salience in everyday

activity in settings other than the ones studied by Lave (Zevenbergen, 2000). The

most obvious case would be professional mathematics, where, by definition, formal

mathematics structures activity and must be used. Moreover, people might be

expected to possess a different disposition toward mathematics in settings where

mathematics has greater salience. Note that I am tying dispositions more closely

to settings than to individuals. No one is solely a shopper or engineer or dieter or

studentone can be all of these things and more, and my presumption is that an

individuals view of the role of mathematics varies with respect to settings.

In the quest for a productive adult mathematical disposition that schools might

aim to instill, then, it would make sense to look in settings in which formal math-

ematics is expected to be highly salient and at people who are productive there. One

choice would be academic mathematicians, and such research would probably be

informative for education. But the disposition of the academic mathematicianhis

or her ideas about what mathematics is, who should do it, and whenmay not be

appropriate for the vast majority of students, who will never join this profession.

And if, as Moschkovich (2002) writes, when faced with a problematic situation,

academic mathematicians tend to bring in as much mathematical power and as many

mathematical tools as possible to understand it (p. 5), then the disposition of math-

ematicians may very well enforce the traditional, damaging, hegemonic view of

mathematics.

Recently, there have been calls to examine the mathematical practices of nonmath-

ematicians who make heavy use of mathematicsengineers, scientists, and other

technical professionalsfor the sake of informing mathematics curricula (Hall,

1999; RAND, 2003). The technology sector constitutes a tremendous portion of the

workforce (engineering alone is the most populous profession except for teaching

[Grigg, 2000]), and these calls are motivated partly by a national shortage of

workers and students in these fields (Committee for Economic Development,

2003). The discussion here points to the importance of investigating the mathe-

matical dispositions of technical workers, not only their mathematical practices.

Examining the mathematics in any technical work is problematic for researchers

because the mathematics has been transformed, recontextualized, anchored in the

artifacts and discourses of the practice (Noss, Hoyles, & Pozzi, 2002) (just as in

the grocery store and kitchen), and embedded in technological tools. This trans-

formation can render formal mathematics invisible in everyday practice, to

researchers and to the workers themselves, who generally downplay or deny their

use of mathematics (Hoyles, Noss, & Pozzi, 2001; Smith, 2002). Beyond this

mathematical blindness, or perhaps because of it, empirical knowledge about the

480 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

mathematical dispositions of technical workers is scarce. The study reported in this

article helps fill the gap by exploring the mathematical disposition of engineers.

STUDYING ENGINEERS

Conventional wisdom tells us engineering is a very different enterprise, mathe-

matically, from grocery shopping and home cooking. Engineering is thoroughly

quantified and mathematized, as a glance at any of the artifacts of the trade (jour-

nals, codebooks, software tools, drawings, calculations documents) reveals, and

engineering methods and tools evince a well-developed body of mathematical

theory. The engineering community considers mathematical skill fundamental for

individual practitioners, and engineering education makes theoretical mathemat-

ical training central. (Accordingly, colleges use mathematical talent, not design or

mechanical abilities, to screen and recruit engineering students.) In the broader acad-

emic community, too, engineering is seen as highly mathematical, and applied math-

ematics courses are often subsumed within engineering departments. In sum, the

prevailing societal assumption is that engineering depends heavily on formal math-

ematics. If true, it would be reasonable to expect formal mathematics to be highly

salient in engineering settings and that engineers would view mathematics as hege-

monic over their work.

Recent studies, however, have highlighted the social and negotiated nature of engi-

neering work (Bucciarelli, 1994; Hall, 1999; Stevens & Hall, 1998); the importance

of tacit, experiential, and visual knowledge and the limits of science and rationality

in determining designs (Bucciarelli, 1994; Ferguson, 1992; Henderson, 1999;

Petroski, 1994); and the mismatch between the mathematics-oriented version of

engineering design promulgated by schools and textbooks and design as practiced

in the field (Bissell & Dillon, 2000; Bucciarelli & Kuhn, 1997). These reports chal-

lenge the primacy of mathematical theory in the everyday practice of individual engi-

neers and caution against assuming that the overt mathematization of the profes-

sion automatically bestows upon mathematics hegemonic status. Of course, unlike

in academic mathematics, the everyday problems facing engineers are nonmathe-

matical in purpose; developing mathematical methods is not the main activity. A

typical structural-engineering problem is to decide how to connect a particular beam

to a column. Whether mathematics is used in the solving is irrelevant, per se, to the

engineer and client; what matters are the quality, safety, speed, and cost of the

product.

Thus, questions remain about the role of mathematics in engineering work and

the engineers disposition toward it: What is the salience of formal mathematics

engineers everyday problem-solving activity? To what degree do engineers trust

mathematics as the overarching authority for their decisions? Do engineers ever rele-

gate mathematics to a post hoc, justificatory role, as do JPFs? And if engineers

disposition toward mathematics (as it relates to their work) differs from current

scholastic views, traditional or reform, is it a view that might be productive for

students to adopt?

481 Julie Gainsburg

METHODS

This study was part of a larger project to characterize the mathematical activity

of structural engineers at work (Gainsburg, 2003), for which I spent 70 hours in the

offices of two structural engineering firms, Advanced Structural Technologies

(ASTec) and Seismic Research and Development (SRD),

1

conducting ethnographic

observations of engineers going about the everyday work of designing buildings.

I took the stance that cognitive activity is situated (Greeno & MMAP, 1997), that

is, shaped by and inextricably grounded in the contexts that surround it, and that

to fully understand activity, its contexts must be considered. The mathematical

activity of engineers is embedded in multiple contextual layers, including the over-

arching purposes and problems that motivate it, the background knowledge that

supports it, the technologies that facilitate (or impede) it, and various cultural and

political processes and norms. To increase my ability to detect and understand these

contexts, I organized my observations and analyses around four extended work tasks,

two per firm. The tasks spanned from 2 to 8 days each, presented a wide range of

quantitative problems, required the use of various technological tools, and involved

multiple engineers, novice and expert. I followed nine engineers most extensively:

the five junior-level engineers primarily assigned to the tasks and the four senior

engineers who supervised them;

2

I observed other colleagues as they naturally

collaborated with my primary subjects. Data collected included field notes, audio-

tape transcripts of nearly all dialogue among engineers or between engineers and

me, copies of artifacts generated in practice (drawings, documents, calculation

sheets, spreadsheets, etc.), the engineers written and oral answers to my follow-

up questions, and 24 hours of interviews. Aware of prior research findings that the

mathematics used in work can be invisible to practitioners, even engineers, I took

a primarily etic perspective in interpreting what counted as mathematical behavior

and how to categorize it, although I relied heavily on the engineers explanations

of their work and thinking, in the moment and afterward. In investigating the engi-

neers beliefs about mathematics and their work, my perspective was mainly emic.

My analytic process involved multiple interpretive passes through the data. Early

passes aimed mainly at generating accurate descriptions of the engineers mathe-

matical steps and building my understanding of the nature of structural engineering

problems and their solutions. In the most time-consuming pass, I worked through

every quantitative problem the engineers solved, trying to recreate their steps and

use of tools and to identify their information sources, to understand the kinds of

reasoning and the actual mathematics they used. From these fine-grained descrip-

tions, I also developed four holistic story lines, for a bigger picture of each

overall task and how its subproblems interconnected and contributed to major

design solutions.

These earlier analytic steps enabled me to construct four cases: coherent, narra-

tive accounts of the engineers problem-solving activity in each major task that

482 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

1

All names of engineers, projects, and clients in this article are pseudonyms.

2

I use one-syllable names for junior-level engineers and two-syllable names for their supervisors.

captured the social, cognitive, and resource contexts. I used these cases as the

primary data form for focused coding (Charmaz, 1983), in which I distilled themes

and patterns relevant to discussions about academic and everyday mathematical

practices. I used qualitative analysis software to develop categories to represent the

kind of mathematics the engineers used and to code each case in terms of these cate-

gories. I derived larger themes and patterns of activity through repeated and compar-

ative readings of the cases (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and through a close analysis

of the major problem-solving episodes in each task. The cases also served as a

primary form of validation: member checks (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). The main

engineers read their case narrative; then, in person and via e-mail, they confirmed

or corrected my understanding of events, particularly their problem-solving

approaches and steps and their reasons for taking them.

THE PROBLEMS AND MATHEMATICAL PRACTICES

OF STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS

The four extended tasks evinced that structural engineers are regularly immersed

in rich problem-solving activity. Some problems were caused by unexpected snags

in what might otherwise have been routine procedures; the snags I witnessed were

technological, practical, political, or the result of human error. More often, prob-

lems arose because the complexity and uniqueness of each building precluded the

simple application of established procedures. Engineering theory and methods had

to be adapted to each new project in ways not immediately evident, and for much

of the work I observed, no established procedures were available.

A host of constraints shaped the engineers problem-solving processes. The

word constraint has a less negative connotation in engineering talk than in general

use. Constraints make engineering work possible, as they guide design and analysis

3

and narrow the range of options. The most basic constraint was nature, embodied

in the laws of physics and engineering principles that describe how gravity and other

forces operate. The engineers sometimes used these laws directly, but natural

constraints were also manifested in the various building codes and in software

embedding those codes. By presenting regulations for expected loads and how to

calculate them, the codes defined what it meant to prove that a building was struc-

turally sound. Physical laws and empirical data were also embodied in published

manuals that supplied the capacities for various construction materials. The engi-

neers were further constrained by the availability of those materials, which were

usually produced in limited sizes and types.

Another major constraint was cost. The engineers operated within a paradigm of

tradeoff between safety and expense. Generally, more and larger elements increased

safety but cost more, and expensive designs were unlikely to win the bid for the

contract and might jeopardize further projects with the architect. Related to cost was

483 Julie Gainsburg

3

Basically, design refers to decisions about what elements and structural systems to use and how to

connect them. Analysis is the quantitative evaluation of the predicted performance of particular elements

or structures.

the constraint of time. Projects were usually on a tight schedule and other parties

work hinged on the engineers results. Thus, the engineers were forced to choose

analytic methods that could be accomplished in the allotted time, and high-resolu-

tion procedures were often passed over in favor of cruder, more approximate ones.

Yet another constraint was that the engineers, of course, had to design the building

the architect had drawn. The classic tension here was the placement of columns and

walls: stereotypically, architects like open space, whereas engineers vie for as

many or as large supporting elements as they can get. The engineers were also

constrained by the limitations of the available analytic tools, methods, and theo-

ries. Finally, political and practical constraints were inevitable.

Despite this forest of constraints, final structural designs were far from predes-

tined; the combination of code, capacities, and cost never pointed inevitably to a

single solution. This openness afforded the engineers considerable control over

many areas of problem solving: how to frame the problem, which tools to use and

how, what models to develop, solving methods, safety margins, the degree of

precision to use at various stages, when and how to check or justify results, whether

to perform extra analytic steps simply for their own understanding, when to abandon

a solution path, how to organize and manage their work, and presentation formats.

In many cases, the real goal of their problem-solving efforts was to navigate the

forest of constraints and options and arrive at a rational method, as opposed to

finding specific design values. The relative importance of a justifiable and feasible

method made sense in light of the iterative nature of design tasks. Throughout the

course of a project, the engineers would solve the same problem over and over,

with different input values. Design alterations were constant and expected, as

owners or tenants changed their minds, as the engineer learned about the availability

of materials, and as modifications were made in construction. Even without these

external changes, structural engineering work is by nature iterative: The interde-

pendent cycles of design and analysis beget increasingly detailed plans and increas-

ingly precise analyses. With each project comprising multiple iterations of the same

task, most calculated quantities were understood as temporary, working values,

whose significance to the overall project was small in comparison to the methods

used to generate them.

The most intractable problems I observed stemmed from what I came to see as

the fundamental problem of structural engineering: that the phenomena at the

center of the engineers work (the structures and their behaviors) were nonexistent

or inaccessible (Gainsburg, 2006). Three of the observed tasks concerned buildings

that did not yet exist; the fourth was part of the evaluation of an existing building

to which the engineers only access, essentially, was 50-year-old drawings. This

fundamental problem distinguishes the activity of structural engineers (and other

design workers) from that of scientists, who usually have empirical data for the

phenomena they study. Structural engineering is a bootstrapping process. The

engineer makes initial rough design assumptions to get started, then design and

analysis inform each other as they converge to a final state through repeated iter-

ations. Unfortunately, an empirical test of the correctness of the design or analysis

484 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

is rarely possible (short of waiting to see if the constructed building ultimately

performs or fails; even then it may be impossible to trace failure back to a specific

design or analysis solution generated perhaps decades earlier).

The problem-solving conditions for these engineers engendered mathematical

practices that often diverged from those in traditional and reform mathematics

classes. Popular in reform instruction is the practice of generalizing (Radford,

2000; Schoenfeld, 1994), that is, detecting patterns in data and expressing them as

mathematical rules or formulas. I never observed engineers engaged in this prac-

tice. Generally, the engineers were expected to adhere to the rules of the industry,

not invent their own. When invention did become necessarythe case when estab-

lished methods were insufficient for modeling or analyzing designsno data

existed from which to generalize a rule anyway. Further, the rare method or repre-

sentation form that the engineers improvised was so situation-specific that it would

have had no life beyond the task for which it had been developed.

Students and engineers must justify their results, but their proving practices

diverge as well. In school mathematics, starting assumptions (the givens of the

problem and mathematical axioms and postulates) are accepted as truethe student

need not establish their accuracyand the real challenge is to construct a chain of

logic linking them to the desired end statement. For the engineers, many of the

starting assumptionssimplifications of the design and environmental condi-

tionswere not established, and identifying appropriate ones and justifying their

accuracy were typically the main challenges. Once the assumptions were set,

proving that the design was structurally sound was usually mathematically trivial,

requiring little more than performing a calculation whose steps appeared in a code-

book or had been memorized, or activating the solve function of a computer

program. Also, the engineers practiced other forms of justification besides mathe-

matical proof. That a design satisfied a deductive argument for structural sound-

ness was insufficient rationale for building it. It also had to be justifiable on the bases

of feasibility, available materials, labor capacity, budget, and time, as well as on

the less tangible but arguably more crucial grounds that the design solution and the

method that yielded it made sense and felt good to the engineer.

Underlying these and other mathematical practices I observed was a phenomenon

that the engineers referred to as engineering judgment, which they found hard to

articulate even though they all seemed to know it when they saw or used it. In my

analysis, engineering judgment comprised the decisions engineers made about

resources and methods and their relative statuses. The engineers admired engi-

neering judgment, recognizing it as a commodity hard-won over years on the job.

In some sense, the engineers equated engineering with the exercise of engineering

judgment; at least, what inspired engineers to identify colleagues as expert had more

to do with the ability to make judgments than to apply and perform mathematics.

Engineering judgment covered more than the use of mathematics, but it subsumed

decisions about mathematical methods and results. Therefore, understanding the

mathematical disposition of engineers first requires an analysis of the broader

phenomenon of engineering judgment.

485 Julie Gainsburg

ENGINEERING JUDGMENT

The term engineering judgment is ubiquitous in professional and research

literature across engineering disciplines,

4

but it is rarely defined and essentially unex-

plored as a research topic (Graham, Wescott, & Kluck, 2001; Vick, 2002). Petroski

(1994) offered this description:

The first and most indispensable design tool is judgment. It is engineering and design

judgment that not only gets projects started in the right direction but also keeps a crit-

ical eye on their progress and execution. Engineering judgment, by whatever name it

may be called, is what from the very beginning of a conceptual design identifies the

key elements that go to make up an analytical or experimental model for exploration

and development. It is judgment that separates the significant from the insignificant

details, and it is judgment that catches analysis from going astray. Engineering judg-

ment is the quality factor among those countless quantities that have come to dominate

design in our postcomputer age. (p. 121)

Vick (2002) summed up engineering judgment as a sense of what is important

(p. 100) that comprises a diagnostic character in problem definition, an inductive

character in combination of evidence, and an interpretive character in providing

meaning and context to predictive conclusions (p. 83). As did the engineers I

observed, Vick concluded that engineering judgment was virtually synonymous with

expertise.

Vicks (2002) analysis drew on historical cases from geotechnical engineering

and psychological models of probabilistic thinking. Like other scholarly writing

about engineering judgment (e.g., Parkin, 2000; Petroski, 1994), it was not based

on ethnographic observations of engineers in practice. Therefore, I sought to derive

a description from my data. From observed incidents that the engineers explicitly

noted as instances of engineering judgment, I established a rough sense of the kinds

of decisions that comprised this phenomenon. I then searched for every incident of

engineering judgment in my data. These incidents fell into the following categories:

Determining what is a good or precise enough calculation or estimation

Making assumptions or simplifications to be the bases of mathematical models

Overriding mathematically proven results

Determining appropriate uses of technology tools

Assigning qualitative factors (e.g., soil type) and applicable conditions for

selecting formulas

Overriding official building codes

Discretizing (grouping elements to reduce the number of types to be designed)

486 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

4

The centrality and pervasiveness of engineering judgment was illustrated when the Nuclear

Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposed to restrict the use of engineering judgment with a rule that

any use of judgment about an issue not addressed by the codes would require approval from the NRC.

The hue and cry from engineers forced the NRC to abandon the proposal. Opponents contended that

judgments were made daily and to submit every one to the NRC would be unworkable; moreover,

restricting engineers use of judgment removed too much of their basic function (Siegel, 1999).

Determining what elements or conditions were typical (representative) for the

structure

Through the cyclical process of finding characteristics and examples, I developed

a more specific notion of the judgment of structural engineers. Foremost, engineering

judgment was invoked when established methods fell short or did not exist.

Engineering judgment often entailed a nonmathematical decision about a situation

that could not be adequately mathematized; that is, it sometimes replaced mathe-

matical resources, bridging unmathematizable gaps in the analytic process.

Engineering judgment and proof were in some sense opposites. Proof was mathe-

matical and deductive, and where proof was possible, judgment was unnecessary.

Of course, engineering judgment played an important role in proof by providing

underlying, unprovable starting assumptions or by assessing how realistic were a

proofs conclusions. Conversely, however, engineering judgment had no recourse

to proof; it could not be verified

5

(without, as mentioned earlier, waiting years for

the building to be constructed and to fail

6

). Finally, engineering judgment only

concerned predictions about structural behavior, environmental conditions, or other

physical phenomena. It did not cover judgments about procedural, political, manage-

rial, or organizational expediency.

7

In a way, engineering judgment was the integration of theory and practicality.

(Vick, similarly, clamed that judgment unites the pure theorist and the complete

empiricist in melding their two strategies together [2002, p. 192].) Even when math-

ematical analysis proved a design sound, the engineers used judgment to make a

final call on the reasonableness of the analysis or design. That judgment could adopt

a higher, more conservative standard than the proof or a looser one. The resources

the engineers drew on to judge the soundness of their methods, behavioral assump-

tions, and solutions could be theoretical, mathematical, physical, visual, intuitive,

social, or experiential. The judgments I observed were not always about whether or

how to use mathematics, as the list of categories makes clear. But because my focus

is mathematical disposition, I expand upon only the three categories of engineering

judgment that, more than the others, concerned decisions about mathematics.

Determining What Is a Good or Precise Enough Calculation or Estimation

Decisions about the precision of a value or the resolution level for analysis

pervaded the observed tasks. This was an unavoidable consequence of the fact that

the structures being analyzed only existed via representationsdrawings or

computer modelsthat were necessarily simplified and approximate. The

487 Julie Gainsburg

5

Indeed, Vick (2002) pointed out that engineering theory and analysis can never be verified; further,

there is no objective way to determine which of the results from different analytic methods, if any, are

true.

6

In fact, Petroski (1994) promoted the study of historical cases of engineering failure as a key

strategy for developing engineering judgment.

7

Parkin (2000), however, does include management and policy decisions in his analysis of engineering

judgment.

constraints of time and cost further militated against precision and highly articu-

lated analytical methods. At times, especially early in a project, anything beyond

a rough estimate was inappropriate and useless. Tim, a junior engineer at SRD,

described what went into his decisions about calculations:

Id say, OK, heres the load case Im going to focus on, because I know that all these

other load cases are going to be trivial or maybe theyll never occur. That kind of deci-

sion making goes on all the time. To do a set of calculations correctly and check every-

thing is really arduous. So you naturally hone in on the things you think are important,

you prioritize in your head what they are. . . . A lot is budget, too. I would love to do

really thorough calcs. . . . [Sometimes] you can do the most thorough of jobs and its

kind of fun. And you get paid for it. But thats the exception.

There were no established criteria, however, to help Tim determine the appro-

priate degree of precision, so judgment was required. When Jeff, a CAD

8

operator,

passed Tim a set of drawings on which he had shown wall-length changes requested

by the architect, Tim had to judge which changes were substantial enough to incor-

porate into his computer model of the building. As Tim examined the changes, he

made these comments:

Jeff was very precise. He marked discrepancies of inches. His comb was too fine! Almost

all these walls dont need to be changed in my model. Im only working to the half foot

in this case. Normally I work to a quarter inch in wood and a sixteenth of an inch in

steel, butpart of it is, the redundancy of the building gives us a margin for error, and

also the [analytic] method allows that, too. You can get lost in doing a too-detailed job

for your method; you have too many significant figures. If you use a method you have

a lot of confidence in, you can go to a lot of decimal places and you can feel good about

your results. But this is a rigid-diaphragm analysis and I have to consider the stiffness

of the elements. These walls receive load in proportion to their stiffness, and the

assumption I make is that the stiffness is proportional to its length. But thats not

completely true. Its also a function of how many nails and sheets of plywood.

What first sounded like a simple rulechanges over 6 inches countbecame

more complicated and subjective as Tim continued to talk. When I asked why he

had not simply explained his significance criteria to Jeff to avoid this seemingly

redundant checking procedure, Tim explained that there were discretionary

moments in his process, involving decisions that would be inappropriate for a

drafter to make.

This incident was a minor part of Tims project in terms of importance and time,

but judgments about precision can be major. The other project I observed at SRD

was a state-of-the-art seismic evaluation of a large 50-year-old building, Coolidge

Hall. No single software tool supported the evaluation at the desired level of

sophistication, so Ray and his supervisor Michael had invented a convoluted and

iterative analysis process, employing multiple tools, often in unconventional ways.

Ray had modeled the entire building in a program called ETABS (2003), which

488 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

8

Computer-Aided Design. Both firms I observed used the drawing software AutoCAD (2007). Some

firms, like SRD, employ CAD operators to produce computer drawings. At other firms, like ASTec,

the engineers produce their own computer drawings.

allowed him to push on the building with various seismic forces. ETABS returned

pictures of the buildings deflected shape (Figure 1) as well as output tables of the

forces that developed on the internal elements. Unfortunately, ETABS was

programmed to model only undamaged structures and elements, an appropriate

assumption for most design projects. But because the men wanted to predict the

behavior of Coolidge Hall during an earthquake, they had to presume damage would

occur and would need to be accounted for in the analysis. Thus, they had devel-

oped a strategy involving multiple cycles of modeling to simulate each major stage

of damage over the course of the quake, that is, to capture each episode when a main

element or group of elements became damaged and thus lost stiffness and strength.

With each run of the simulation, Ray would compare the forces ETABS reported

on every element to the strengths he had previously calculated for each element to

see if any should be remodeled as damaged (i.e., if the force exceeded its strength).

Then, in a trial-and-error procedure, he would reduce the stiffness values for each

damaged element to model its weaker condition and start pushing again, until the

model reached equilibrium (the forces on just-damaged elements exactly equaled

their strengths while the forces on undamaged elements stayed below their

strengths). All of this work led to a model of only one stage; Ray then had to repeat

the process to capture all major stages of damage until the building was presumed

to collapse. This process took several dayseach ETABS run alone took about 10

minutes to renderand the project had many other time-consuming parts. So a deci-

sion about whether to modify the model would have serious consequences in terms

of time spent and the delay of other parts of the project.

Coolidge Hall, according to the original drawings, had an odd-shaped spandrel

(major beam) at the fourth story: Two different thicknesses ran along its length. Ray

had initially modeled it with uniform thickness but was aware he would need to

489 Julie Gainsburg

Figure 1. Rays ETABS model of Coolidge Hall, showing the deflection caused by a simu-

lated earthquake. The two thick columns, or piers, near each end act as rigid spines,

governing the global deflection of the building.

revisit this decision later to determine whether that simplification was acceptable

or whether a more accurate representation would substantially alter the analysis.

Obviously, remodeling this spandrel and rerunning the multiple iterations of the

ETABS simulation would eat up many hours, so Michael and Ray deemed it

worthwhile to invest time first trying to predict the impact of the change. They hoped

to convince themselves that the impact would be small and remodeling unwarranted,

yet they knew that an imprecision in the way the spandrel was initially represented

could propagate through the stages and perhaps ultimately invalidate the modeled

behavior of the entire building.

Michael and Ray spent an hour debating whether to remodel the spandrel.

Complicating the matter was its nonstandard cross-section, which confounded

efforts to apply known theories and strength formulas, all of which presumed

simpler shapes. (Rays attempts to quantify the behavior of this spandrel are

presented in the next section.) Further, the men predicted that thickening part of the

spandrel would have competing effectsthe spandrel would become stiffer and

therefore attract more force (so possibly break sooner) but would also become

stronger (so possibly break later)and it was not obvious which effect would domi-

nate. The men finally resigned themselves to redoing the model with a more precise

representation of the spandrel. As Michael told me later, We tried to talk ourselves

into not doing anything, and we couldnt do it. As an immediate consequence, both

men spent 4 more hours in the office that night, hoping to keep the project on pace.

Making Assumptions or Simplifications to be the Bases of Mathematical Models

Engineering theories, formulas, code regulations, and software models are pred-

icated on simple, regular forms: beams with rectangular cross-sections, uniformly

applied forces, completely stiff floors. Rarely in my observations were the actual

objects of design so ideal that the appropriate formulas, rules, and representations

for mathematical analysis were obvious. As a result, the engineers constantly faced

decisions about whether and how to mathematize phenomena for models.

Rays effort to analyze the behavior of the odd-shaped spandrel was perhaps the

most difficult mathematization I observed; it consumed hours of his time and

invoked multiple sense-making strategies ranging from the intuitive to highly theo-

retical. Working with Michael, Ray made an initial attack and identified the domi-

nant ways the spandrel could fail, which narrowed down the problem and permitted

some mathematical analysis. Later, Ray referred to an artifact from that meeting:

a scratch sheet with a rough sketch of a slice of the spandrel, some equally rough

graphs and force diagrams, and a few unorganized calculations (Figure 2). First,

Ray modeled the cross-section in a section-analysis program, then began a formal

calc sheet, on which he painstakingly drew an axonometric

9

view of the spandrel

490 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

9

Axonometric drawings are three-dimensional drawings in which the lines projecting from the

picture plane are parallel, rather than convergent, as in a perspective drawing. The better-known term,

isometric drawing, is a specific case of axonometric drawing in which the x-, y-, and z-axes meet at 60

angles.

(Figure 3). He plugged data from the section-analysis program and ETABS into

formulas written on earlier calc sheets, and he occasionally sketched on scrap

paper to visualize the twisting of the spandrel. But his grunts of frustration and

frequent lapses into inactive silence suggested that he was groping for a system-

atic method, as did his explanation to me:

Well, the jog Im trying to piece together here from bits and pieces and other places,

and from there Im trying to figure how strong this thing is. . . . What Im trying to figure

out is, as it sort of twists, theres a sort of little chunk of interface that needs to get

491 Julie Gainsburg

Figure 2. A portion of Ray and Michaels scrap paper.

Figure 3. Rays calculation sheet with an axonometric view of the spandrel section.

ruptured before this thing falls apart [pointing to a shaded area embedded in the span-

drel in his drawing (Figure 3)]. So Im trying to figure out, can that thing kind of with-

stand it? [Long pause] So Im trying to figure out the relationship between the [forming

the spandrel with his hands]You know, when this thing turns, it stands up on the toe,

and Im trying to figure out when it stands up on that toe, what the force on that toe is.

And trying to project it through and trying to see what the resistance. Its a little loose

here. Im trying to make sure its kind of sensible.

Later, when I asked Ray how he was able to identify the dominant forces, he

explained:

This is like the realm wherejust judgment, where experience really plays in, because

youre making leaps, because its not a closedbecause you cant just calculate. Its

not like a standard beam you can go calculate; its not in a table anywhere. . . . You have

to just visualize this big thing; you have to understand certain constituent relations. Its

not just based on looking at the stuff. Ive studied a lot of stuff about concrete microstruc-

ture and strain. Ive seen enough to where you can start creating a collage out of all the

different things you know about materials and specifically concrete behavior and

specifically seismic issues. Theres all these little things you layer in. Anybody else

solving this problem may not have drawn what I drew. They might have not drawn some-

thing I might have captured. This is the realm of, you know, six engineers will give you

seven answers for it!

To bridge the unmathematizable gaps in this ill-structured problem, Ray had to

cobble together a rational account of the spandrels behavior from various mathe-

matical tools and strategies and other cognitive resources, including established theo-

ries about simpler shapes; past experience with theoretical concepts; and actual mate-

rials, sketches, visualization, and intuition. That Ray expected other engineers to

take other routes exemplifies that engineering judgment does not lead to a single

right solution and cannot be deductively proven.

Another critical kind of judgment the engineers had to make was whether to repair

an unacceptable analytic result by modifying the design or by changing the assump-

tions underlying the mathematical model. Modifications to analytically unaccept-

able designs invariably add size, weight, and cost, so are undesirable; yet, altering

the model to yield a more favorable result risks inaccurately representing the struc-

ture and its behavior and obscuring potential failure. On many occasions, the engi-

neers tried to remedy the outcome of reported structural failure through multiple

cycles of remodeling, moving from more approximate and conservative assump-

tions toward more accurate and articulated ones. For example, when a rough model

of a concrete parking garage proved too heavy, the ASTec engineers tried adding

in the few columns that lay outside the rectangular array, which they had not both-

ered to model initially. Then the team further refined the model by subtracting the

concrete that would be cut out of the floors for cars to pass through. In this manner,

they reached an acceptable weight calculation without having to change the design.

On another day, when the team calculated that a wall in the garage would crush under

the required seismic load, they made a new assumption about the walls behavior:

Rather than modeling the resistance as being provided only by the walls ends, they

now distributed the force over the entire wall (more realistic, but more complex

492 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

mathematically). In these situations, judgment was required at several turns: in deter-

mining the appropriate initial mathematical models and their level of precision, in

determining appropriate revisions to the models (in terms of validity and again,

precision), and finally, when to give up on remodeling and deem the design itself

inadequate. Again, there were no established rules to guide these sorts of decisions,

yet they had to be made well. The consequences of poor judgment here ranged from

increased time and cost to catastrophic structural failure.

Judgment about models could be further complicated when the models were

embedded in technological tools that made the mathematical methods and assump-

tions less transparent or manipulable. Michael and Ray, in their late-evening remod-

eling session, were forced to confront the validity of their modeling process. As they

cycled through dozens of ETABS runs, a storyline of the stages of building deflec-

tion slowly emerged, and at each stage the men would try to predict the next

elements to become damaged. But at one point, Michael stepped back for a big

picture perspective, asserting that, regardless of the local behavior of the smaller

elements, the extra-wide piers (columns) on the ends of the building would act like

spines, holding rigid and forcing the whole building to tilt sideways as one solid

entity (see Figure 1). He reminded Ray that their entire evaluation rested on the

premise that the buildings global behavior would be this kind of tilting. So now

Michael wondered if they should even consider another kind of global behavior if

the ETABS model indicated it:

Whats kind of scaring us is do we change? Our whole argument is premised on

having a tilting mode and then converting to a sliding mode at this level. And then were

seeing, OK, funny stuffs happening here [pointing at some deflected elements on the

computer screen]. . . . I guess what Im getting at, we may have a wrong answer, but it

doesnt really matter. Cause you could say lets do a string of events, and it could be

that this pier yields top and then it yields bottom, and then the bottom spandrels go, and

you can have a whole totally different internal distribution of loads that constitute the

rooster tail. But at the end of the day, the big [piers] still force the tilting mode.

Michaels questionif the modeled stages failed to follow a pattern of global

tilting, would they entertain the scary proposition of rethinking the original

premise of their entire evaluationreflects the dilemma of weighing the status of

mathematical resources (embodied in ETABS and their modeling procedure)

against personal, qualitative knowledge about structural behavior. The question was

ignored for an hour, and Ray continued the modeling process.

Stopping by later, Michaels concern was reignited by something he saw in the

ETABS picture, and he directed Ray to reassign the original stiffnesses to a set of

spandrels that Ray had modeled as damaged. Michael appealed to the big picture

again: No matter what they discovered about these early stages, the big piers would

ultimately dominate the global behavior, and he started a sketch to support his

suggested changeessentially an override of the model. This prompted an angry

outburst from Ray: We didnt have to spend these last 2 hours to figure this out,

cause we knew that when the spandrels drop, they drop in their load capacity while

the piers hold on, so we could have skipped all of this mumbo-jumbo! In other

493 Julie Gainsburg

words, Michaels change would lead to a result they could have predicted without

any modeling. Michael seemed to be advocating that they let their knowledge of

large-scale structural behavior guide the modeling process. This offended Rays

sense of the process as a systematic way to discover specific building behavior

that if they followed a sensible procedure, they were compelled to trust the results.

But Michael had detected an anomaly in the ETABS picture: The spine piers

were deflecting at their intersections with the spandrels, signaling that the thin span-

drels were strong enough to bend the much larger piers (Figure 4), a physical impos-

sibility. Inspired to find the cause of the anomaly, Michael now asked Ray to check

various element strengths, which ultimately led them to discover that the approx-

imate way they had modeled the aforementioned odd-shaped spandrel was insuf-

ficient.

494 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

Figure 4. Michaels sketch of the anomaly he saw in the ETABS model: a thin spandrel

causing a big pier to bend.

In this episode, Michael resorted to engineering judgment to determine his

degree of trust in the results of their mathematical modeling and what to do when

that trust was shaken. Michaels trust in his knowledge of structural behavior

apparently overrode his faith in the ETABS calculations. Yet it was not ETABS,

per se, that he mistrusted, but human ability, namely, to figure out the proper input

for the ETABS program. In fact, he placed considerable faith in ETABS when he

took the picture it produced as proof they had made a modeling error.

Overriding Mathematically Proven Results

Despite the deductive nature of mathematical proofs, the engineers did not auto-

matically assign them the power of final authority. Aware of the uncertainty of the

underlying assumptions (and the possibility of calculation error), the engineers cross-

checked mathematically derived results against other criteria, as in the previous

episode, and frequently rejected them. On occasion, they even rejected proven results

that they felt were deductively sound, because they were impractical. In these

cases, the engineers relied on judgment to convince themselves that overriding the

proof would be safe and justifiable.

Kevin, an owner of ASTec, made such an override when advising Lynn as she

designed alternative schemes for a restaurant floor. In one scheme, in the 60-inch

bay between each pair of columns, six beams were spaced 10 feet apart, whereas

another scheme had only five beams per bay, spaced at 12 feet. Kevin first advised

Lynn not to use the 12-foot-spacing scheme because a prior calculation had proven

that the special Vierendeel girder could not safely span 12 feet. As they talked,

however, Kevin realized that the owner would probably reject the scheme with 10-

foot spacing because of the cost of the extra beams, and he changed his mind:

I suppose you can probably do twelve feet with the Vierendeel girder, cause youve

got a big top and bottom chord,

10

right? [Decisively] Use 12 feet, cause I know 10s

not going to work, because it adds more pieces, right? Plus youre not going to get any

break on the size of the beam, anyway.

In a later e-mail, Kevin explained:

I was balancing in my head what I thought the probable reduction in material would be

versus the increase in cost due to the number of pieces. The choice is five beams at 84

pounds per foot versus six beams at 76 pounds per foot, or 420 pounds per foot versus

456 pounds per foot. Reducing the span and increasing the number of beams actually

increases the total weight by 8.5%.

Kevin also knew that fabrication and erection costs would rise with the additional

beams. These facts drove him to reconsider the use of the Vierendeel girder in the

12-foot scheme. His knowledge of the strength of the girders chords convinced him

that this combination would actually be safe, despite mathematical proof to the

contrary.

Down the line, if Lynns 12-foot scheme were to be chosen, a formal analysis of

the detailed design would probably be used to prove its soundness. Proof, however,

is not always possible. For example, at one point Michael and Ray were forced to

exercise judgment when no mathematical method was available. Rays modeling

process required him to compare the forces ETABS reported on each element with

the strengths he had previously calculated. Looking at some spandrels near the edges

of the building, where they met the corner piers, Ray wondered if they should be

damaged at this stage. He suspected not, because the perpendicular corner piers

would act like flanges for the spandrels and supplement their strength. But, as

he admitted to Michael, he had not calculated their strengths because the old draw-

ings did not provide enough information. The ETABS picture at this stage showed

these edge spandrels bending less than the more central ones. Michael abruptly gave

the OK to let em goignore them at this point and assume they were strong

enough not to be damaged yet.

This episode is interesting because there was no mathematically proven result to

reject. Whereas Kevin could have opted to obey the mathematics that had proved

495 Julie Gainsburg

10

Chords form the upper and lower edges of a beam and resist compression and tension when the

beam bends.

the 12-foot scheme unacceptable and seek a design alternative, Michael and Ray

had no clear alternative to letting the spandrels go without mathematical proof,

except to abandon the analysis altogether, because their process depended on iden-

tifying the exact sequence of damaged elements, which in turn depended on

knowing each elements strength. The ambiguous role of mathematics in engineering

becomes evident here. That Ray and Michael calculated element strengths and used

mathematics-based software verifies that mathematical methods were fundamental

to the analysis of Coolidge Hall. An analysis devoid of calculations and derived

solely from qualitative knowledge about structural behavior, even if informed by

engineering theory, would neither be trusted by any engineer nor satisfy the require-

ments of the industry. Nevertheless, here and at other points, Ray and Michael

confronted the limits of available mathematical methods.

How Engineering Judgments Are Made

As these episodes illustrate, structural engineering solutions serve multiple and

sometimes competing criteria. At different times in my observations, different

criteria seemed to govern the judgments the engineers made. If engineering judg-

ment was difficult for the engineers to define, articulating how they prioritized these

criteria was virtually impossible. Tim tried to explain:

I think that we tend to make some kind of a mental model, maybe. . . . Its a very compli-

cated process for me to try to explain. I dont think I know myself what the list of my

priorities would be. Code I tend to say is notits something were required to follow

and required to understand, but at the same time we know some of its limitations.

Bob, a junior engineer at ASTec, stressed visualization, as well as theory and

feel:

11

If youre looking at an analysis and your deflected shape just looks incredibly weird,

then you can tell somethings wrong with it. That you get from school and your basic

fundamentals for statics. . . . I dont know how to best explain it, but you can definitely

get a feel for an answer that you expect the code to give you, and you get a feel from

just the plain structural analysis answer will give you, and sometimes theyre the same.

. . . You always go with the sound theory, especially if it gives you an answer that the

code will allow.

Of course, citing visualization as a resource for judgments only sidesteps the

problem of identifying what knowledge the engineer is using. If not validated

through other sources, visualization would be hard to distinguish from, say,

dreaming or hallucination. A visual image can be an accessible representation of

theory, as are the weird deflected shapes cited by Bob. Visualization can also be

496 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

11

Vick (2002) also cites visualization and feel as components of engineering judgment. It is inter-

esting to note that he limits them to the diagnostic phase of problem solving, in which the problem is

defined and hypotheses formulated. That I noted visualization guiding judgments throughout the design

and analysis process may be a function of differences between the two fields. Geotechnical engineers

generally have access to observable phenomena (e.g., local soil samples) and associated data, whereas

the structural engineers I observed designed (as yet) nonexistent entities that could only be experienced

through representations.

grounded in experience with actual structures. As Michael explained,

The truth is in the ultimate behavior of the material, which I like to see. Like did it crack?

Did it flex, crack, and bend? Crack and shear? Crack and slide? Crush? . . . A big influ-

ence for us was hanging out with [a professor] and youd hear stories of this guy doing

tests. Hed get really close to the specimen, hes watching the steel yield and the bolts

bend and all this stuff going on, and his intuition is much more powerful than mine,

because hes seen all this stuff.

Because all my observations occurred in the office, I did not see the engineers

directly interacting with physical elements, and I initially underestimated the role

of experiential knowledge about structures. In later interviews, however, it emerged

that, for some engineers, personal experience with elements and lab-test photos were

powerful resources for judgments. Eric, a senior engineer at SRD, described a situ-

ation in which his experience in wood construction justified overriding a code-

proven result with a more conservative one:

Experience, just seeing, being on a job and seeing whats been built and knowing beyond

just the theoretical, you can put a bunch of nails into a two-by-four stud and the code

will let you put them in at whatever, an inch and a half on centervery tight spacing.

But in the field you know if its done, [the wood] is splitting; theres problems like that.

I also observed social knowledge driving engineering judgment. Finding a

discrepancy between his own calculation of a posts capacity and the published value

in the vendors manual, Tim performed several calculations and some online

research to try to figure out why they differed. Tim ultimately gave up and told me

the vendors value was probably right. He attributed his trust in the vendor to a

conversation about an earlier project, when the vendor had taught Tim about

bearing factors. As a result, Tim had come to appreciate the vendors knowledge

of wood specifications.

SKEPTICAL REVERENCE, OR THE MATHEMATICAL

DISPOSITION OF STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS

Solving structural engineering problems is shaped by multiple (and sometimes

competing) resources, including engineering theory; physical experience; past

project experience; social knowledge; and mathematical methods that can be

precise or approximate, technology-supported or by-hand. The concept of engi-

neering judgment reifies the process of prioritizing and selecting among these

resources, task by task, and I contend that engineering judgment, rather than math-

ematics, is hegemonic over the practice of structural engineering. How, then, do

engineers perceive the role of mathematics in structural engineering; in other

words, what is their mathematical disposition?

Like the everyday activities studied by others, structural engineering has a

purpose other than solving mathematics problems or creating new mathematics: The

engineer must arrive at an acceptable design, where acceptable subsumes many

nonmathematical criteria. Yet the industry requirements to represent designs

497 Julie Gainsburg

symbolically and to justify them with formal calculations mean that, although

doing mathematics may not be the main activity for engineering work, at times it

takes precedence. Mathematics, in the form of analytic calculations and the theo-

ries that ground them, is all-important. Buildings could neither be approved nor built

without it, and in this sense engineering is all about applying mathematical resources.

Even so, mathematics is an insufficient resource for determining design.

Mathematics enables analysis, but analysis can only be retrospective. Mathematical

theories and methods do not point to particular designs or best methods of analysis

and so cannot serve as the ultimate authority for engineering work; theories and

methods must be subordinated to judgment about their use. Thus, mathematics has

a dual status in structural engineering, simultaneously essential and inadequate. The

structural engineers mathematical point of view appears to be one of skeptical rever-

encemathematics is a powerful and necessary tool that must be used judiciously

and skeptically.

It would be an error to characterize the role of mathematics in structural engi-

neering as simply another one of several resources competing for status. Engineering

activity must be interpreted within the context of a profession in which mathematics

is the mandatory language for design and analysis and mathematical proof the

industry standard for final justification. The end products of structural work are a

symbolically expressed design and a story about how that design came to be. That

story, told through calculations and mathematical proof, is a dramatically revised

history of the design process, one that erases nearly all traces of iterations, missteps,

and rejected methods, many of the modeling assumptions, and some instances of

engineering judgment. Ray and Michaels battle with the odd-shaped spandrel and

the multiple ETABS runs are lost to posterity and may soon be forgotten by the engi-

neers themselves. The new, official story presented to building officials, owners,

and contractors is straightforward, linear, and rational, aimed to create the impres-

sion that the design solution was the inevitable consequence of the constraints and

the theory, that the analysis took the only logical route, and that the process

unfolded unimpeded, step by predictable step.

Revisionism may be denounced by historians, but it is key to the successful

accomplishment of engineers work. The information they convey in calculation

packages and presentations enables external communication, evaluation, future

changes, and accountability, where a truer rendition of the process would merely

obfuscate. This final, clean, mathematical rationale is usually generated after the

fact and, as such, recalls the JPFs post hoc mathematical rationalization as well as

a related phenomenon among academic mathematicians, who consider the formal,

polished, linear argumenttheir finished productto be the real math, whereas

the informal, subjective, messy process that generated it goes unacknowledged and

undocumented (Davis & Hersh, 1981).

Kevin described a parallel prejudice: the industrys veneration for sophisticated,

computerized analysis, which he worried would replace engineering understanding:

The methods prior to computer were very interesting, because it was nothing but

approximations. Everything in the building was approximations and thats how the

498 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

Empire State Building was designed, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the

Bay Bridge. . . . And then we got computers in the 70s and everybody decided they

could do such wonderful stuff because they could get really precise solutions of all these

simultaneous equations. Of course, the problem is that back in the old days, you had

to have a vision of where you were headed. You had to understand the behavior of the

structure, and then you had to figure out how you could actually characterize that

behavior, understand the forces in the members, etc.

Kevin claimed he could analyze todays projects entirely with these approximate

methods, but industry norms oblige him to use computers. He admitted to using

computerized analyses, post hoc, to justify solutions he had attained using clas-

sical (approximate) methods:

Practically speaking, could I get it through a city building department? No. . . . Could

I get it through a peer reviewer? No. Everyone in the industry believes in computers.

So the issue for me, the challenge, is to make the computer come up with the right

answer. I use all the classical methods to figure out what the answer ought to be, and

then I use that to figure out exactly how Im going to arrange my model.

(According to Vick [2002], Kevins ability to jump to an obvious solution and use

formal analysis later to confirm it is a hallmark of engineering expertise.)

Of course, the process of rationalizing design decisions is far more crucial to engi-

neering than to the less mathematized occupations in prior studies, and mathemat-

ical justifications carry more authority for engineers than for JPFs. In fact, despite

his skepticism, Kevin championed high-end analysis software and strove to keep

on the technological cutting edge. The fact that the classical methods he privileges

over computer programs are also mathematical, just more approximate, further

complicates his view of the status of mathematics.

12

Indeed, characterizing the role of mathematics in everyday structural engineering

work is complicated. When directly asked how they viewed the role of mathematics

in their work, the engineers repeatedly invoked the metaphor of a tool. For them,

mathematics, like other tools of their trade, was necessary but not sufficient; their

work required it, but its use, in turn, required judgment. The ambiguous status of

mathematics was the naturally ambiguous status of any essential tool. One cannot

build a house without a hammer, so the hammer is eminent, but it would be ludi-

crous to equate house-building with hammer-using and equally inaccurate to equate

structural engineering with mathematics-using. Drawing on the tool metaphor,

Ray articulated the ambiguous status of mathematics in his worklimited and

subordinate, yet essential:

With experience, and I think as a natural result of progression of understanding of all

this stuff, [mathematics] becomes more and more secondary to the final outcomes. It

becomes a language or tool that has limited ability to articulate and describe the

phenomena youre trying to capture. So I think that over-reliance on a mathematical

499 Julie Gainsburg

12

Engineers and other workers frequently hold a narrower view of mathematics than everyday-math-

ematics researchers (Harris, 1991; Smith, 2002). To illustrate his contention that he often avoided using

mathematics, Kevin related an incident when an engineering problem required him to find the area under

a curve, and he approximated it with a right triangular region rather than using calculus.

process actually obscures the fundamental nature of the behavior youre trying to

describe. . . . [Mathematics plays] sort of a secondary role, because, insofar as its expe-

dient for the evaluation, its useful and you use it. But in my mind, its always subor-

dinate to the decisions about whether a particular method is justified based on deeper

understanding, which is ultimately built on initial mathematical understanding of

beams working and all that. And then extension and internalization of those processes

into something that you can sort of visualize and see, and you try to grab the math to

wrap around it and kind give you a language. Give you an ability to sort of be quanti-

tative about what you ultimately can predict qualitatively.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATION

The structural engineers view of the role of mathematics in her work and a math-

ematical disposition of skeptical reverence seems relevant to many scientific and

technical fields. The physicist, according to Davis and Hersh (1981), does not bother

with questions about the truth of the mathematics he uses,

because all scientific work of every kind is of a provisional nature. The question should

be not how true [mathematics] is but how good it is. . . . The best one can hope for is a

model which is a partial truth. (p. 46)

Managers in high-tech industries complain that some of the masters- and PhD-level

mathematicians they employ have tunnel vision, caring little about the real envi-

ronment and wanting mainly to prove theorems or continue their investigations

endlessly when approximations would be more appropriate (Society for Industrial

and Applied Mathematics, 1998). Even JPFs in ordinary settings must make deci-

sions about the use of formal calculations in relation to other considerations and

available resources. A disposition of skeptical reverence should be a productive one

for schools to promote.

This is not to agree with Freudenthals (1978) contention that the main

objective of mathematical education is to shake the popular faith in mathe-

matics (p. 155). Mathematics is fundamental to solving structural engineering

problems; the questions are which mathematical tools, what starting assumptions,

what level of precision, and (on rare occasions) when to override a proven value

or to invent an assumption. Structural engineers (and many other technologists

and scientists) never stray from the math path for long, but there are many

possible paths to choose from (a choice often bound by nonmathematical consid-

erations), and there are cracks and hurdles and roadblocks that require other

resources to circumvent. The point is not for schools to soften the message that

mathematics is important; rather, it is to present a more realistic view of the role

of mathematics in everyday occupations and to counter the damaging percep-

tion of mathematics as quasi-divine. People may be more inclined to use math-

ematics, and in more effective ways, in everyday life and work if their school

training acknowledged that doing everyday math largely means deciding how,

when, and when not to use mathematics, and if they were offered opportunities

to make and reflect on such decisions.

500 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

Efforts to show students the social and subjective sides of pure mathematics, such

as the apprentice model discussed earlier, may help to dethrone and humanize math-

ematics. The idea of mathematics as a fallible discipline, however, may be too

esoteric and inaccessible for students (and many teachers) and difficult to exem-

plify within K12 topics. The greatest mathematical minds of the early 20th century

struggled to grasp and accept the notion of an uncertain, foundationless, fallible

mathematics. Even with the advantage of history, the high school mathematics

teacher interviewed by Davis and Hersh (1981) probably spoke for most teachers

today when he claimed mathematics is nice and clean. Its beautiful clarity is

striking. There are no ambiguities (p. 273). Thus, it may not be reasonable to expect

children to understand in what sense the discipline of mathematics is fallible nor

is it clear how this knowledge would be useful to them.

In contrast, the fallibility of mathematics to explain real phenomena is quite acces-

sible. For students to investigate this kind of fallibility, classroom projects must have

the overt purpose of solving a nonmathematical, real-world problem, rather than

doing or learning mathematics per se. Such is the premise of the activities in the

Middle School Mathematics Through Applications Project (Greeno & MMAP,

1997) and the model-eliciting activities developed by Lesh and his colleagues

(e.g., Lesh & Doerr, 2003). Still, the MMAP designers considered the continual

challenge of their activities to be to uncover the mathematical contents (Greeno

& MMAP, 1997, p. 112, italics original). To develop a disposition of skeptical rever-

ence, such classroom activities must problematize those mathematical contents and

engage students in weighing their value for solving the problem at hand.

Others have delineated shortcomings of learning mathematics from real-world

contexts, whether in school or out: Mathematics learned in one context may be too

situation-specific for students to apply in other contexts (Brown, Collins, & Duguid,

1989); many real contexts are not mathematically rich (Zevenbergen, 2000) or mean-

ingful to certain students (Carraher & Schliemann, 2002); most teachers have little

experience using mathematics in nonschool workplaces (Forman & Steen, 2000);

and, relevant to this study, authentic problems from high-tech professions are

usually inappropriate for the classroom, for practical reasons and because students

lack the domain knowledge to make judgments about the use of mathematics and

other resources. For the purpose of developing a disposition of skeptical reverence,

however, these shortcomings become less significant. For this purpose, the point

is not so much to learn mathematics concepts (in context) as it is to see how math-

ematics and other tools can be used in solving real problems. The authenticity of

the problem may be less crucial, as the following example illustrates.

I recently visited a ninth-grade algebra class during an activity intended to

deepen the concept of linear relationships through a realistic, hands-on experience.

Small groups of students were each given a few rulers and Styrofoam cups and asked

to predict how many cups would form a stack that reached the ceiling. A worksheet

cued the students to measure the height of a stack of one, two, three cups, and so

on; tabulate and plot the results; and ultimately write an equation. The two groups

I observed ran aground on the same conceptual dilemma. Their perceived obliga-

501 Julie Gainsburg

tion to use the mathematics that had been presented in recent lessonsstraight lines,

slope, y-interceptled them to expect each cup to add a consistent increment to

the stacks height. But in their actual measuring, each new cup added a slightly

different amount. Both groups became embroiled in arguments about which resource

to trust: the linear pattern they had proposed or the actual data. The unarticulated

question was this: Were their measurements faulty approximations of a true math-

ematical relationship or was the mathematical model a faulty approximation of true

real-world measurements? This question could have provoked a rich discussion for

the entire class, but it was not taken up by the teacher nor was there any provision

or expectation by the activity developer for students to devise a correction to the

obvious (linear) model or invent another model. (In fact, the teacher deliberately

ended one groups argument by advising the students not to trust their eyes and by

suggesting that small deviations were because of measurement error or fallible

eyesight.)

When the goal of school mathematics is the learning and/or application of partic-

ular mathematical procedures or concepts, the object of contextualized classroom

activities is for students to rise above the context, abstract the mathematics, and

ignore mismatches between the real situation and the expected model. The teacher

in the cup-stacking activity as well as its designers acted appropriately, given their

aim of helping students understand slope and linear equations. But had their aim

been to instill a disposition of skeptical reverence, they would have tasked the

students with judging the appropriateness of the linear model and figuring out how

to make it work better, if at all. Should this be a linear model? What is it about these

cups that justifies a linear model, or does not? How precise should we be if we want

to predict the number of cups to reach the ceiling? Reach the moon? How do we

get that precision? That some students spontaneously began this kind of discussion

suggests that this is a natural line of inquiry for adolescents, one that would

empower them in the meaningful use of mathematics.

A disposition of skeptical reverence may also be developed by analyzing how

others have mathematized. In English classes, students learn to spell and write gram-

matical sentences while analyzing and critiquing the products of literary masters.

They move from the ends inward, from what they can do toward what they cannot

yet do: apply the mechanics of writing to produce masterpieces. A worthy challenge

for mathematics educators is to make the mathematical products of professional

engineers and scientists accessible to students for analysis, even if students are inca-

pable of producing such works themselves. Davis (1988) called essentially for this

when he recommended that students examine mathematizations of social phenomena:

Since we are all consumers of mathematics, and since we are both beneficiaries as well

as victims, all mathematizations ought to be opened up in the public forums where ideas

are debated. These debates ought to begin in secondary school. . . . It is ill-advised to

allow the practice [of mathematizing] to proceed blindly by mindless market forces

or as the result of private decisions of a cadre of experts. Mathematical education must

find a proper vocabulary of description and interpretation so that we are enabled to live

in a mathematized world and to contribute to this world with intelligence. (pp. 144146)

502 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

Gutstein (2003) and Frankenstein (1997) have implemented this idea by having

students investigate the ways that some social mathematizations advantage or

empower certain groups, such as the setting of real estate values and world map

projections. Here, the message to students is that mathematics may be purposely

or unconsciously distorted for personal or group gain. But developing critical

consumers of mathematics need not only be motivated by the specter of social injus-

tice, although that is an important aspect to explore. Structural engineers exemplify

that people make subjective decisions about how and what mathematics to use with

socially constructive aims, for example, to design buildings that maximize safety

and cost. Students can dissect social mathematizations, such as insurance rates and

speed limits (Davis, 1988), drug safety regulations, and electoral systems, and debate

their advantages and disadvantages for various segments of society. Davis proposed

that such analyses would be valuable even if the technical aspects of the math-

ematization were beyond the proficiency of students.

A recent debate in the mathematics education community concerns the equitability

of teaching mathematics concepts through real contexts. Lubienski (2000) found

that children from low-income households are less able to access the contextual-

ized mathematics in a reform curriculum, and Cooper and Dunne (1998) showed

that low-income students score more poorly on contextualized assessment questions.

Both studies concluded that the context presented a distraction that higher income

students knew to ignore. Boaler (2002) rebutted that curricula grounded in real

contexts can be effective for low-income students but that significant support from

the teacher must accompany their use. Boaler noted that it is not the context per se

that hobbles students but the requirement to peel away the context and uncover the

school mathematics problem.

13

Making problems more realistic, rather than less,

and allowing students to reason with and about elements of the context throughout

the solving process have thus been hypothesized as ways to narrow the achieve-

ment gap between more and less school-savvy students. The study described in this

article contributes evidence of the importance of contextualized learning for more

than its potential to strengthen the development of mathematics concepts

(Lubienskis focus). The attention low-income students pay to context may disad-

vantage them in current school settings, but it is an approach to mathematics that

comes closer than that of their higher-income counterparts to the mathematical

disposition of engineers.

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Author

Julie Gainsburg, Department of Secondary Education, California State University, Northridge, 18111

Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330; julie.gainsburg@csun.edu

506 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers

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