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Journal for Research in Mathematics Education

2007, Vol. 38, No. 5, 477506

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
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. 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
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
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.
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
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
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),
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;
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
All names of engineers, projects, and clients in this article are pseudonyms.
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 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
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
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
The term engineering judgment is ubiquitous in professional and research
literature across engineering disciplines,
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
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
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
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
(without, as mentioned earlier, waiting years for
the building to be constructed and to fail
). 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.
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
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
In fact, Petroski (1994) promoted the study of historical cases of engineering failure as a key
strategy for developing engineering judgment.
Parkin (2000), however, does include management and policy decisions in his analysis of engineering
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
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
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
view of the spandrel
490 Mathematical Disposition of Engineers
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
(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
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-
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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Julie Gainsburg, Department of Secondary Education, California State University, Northridge, 18111
Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330;
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