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Engineering: The nature of problems

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Engineering is about extending the horizons of society by solving technical problems, ranging from the meeting of basic human needs for food and shelter to the generation of wealth by trade. In this free course, Engineering: The nature of problems, we learn that engineers see the problems more as challenges and opportunities than as difficulties. What they appear to be doing is solving problems, but in fact they are busy creating solutions, an altogether more imaginative activity.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • view solutions as belonging to particular categories, broadly classified as: innovation by context; innovation by practice; routine
  • see how external factors affect engineering projects, and appreciate the range of engineering involved in meeting the basic needs of our society
  • recognise and apply a range of problem-solving techniques from each stage of the engineering design cycle, to include the following: physical modelling; mathematical modelling; iteration; use of reference data; refining an engineering specification
  • identify when models are likely to be useful and when they are no longer valid
  • recognise and distinguish between the following technical terms: differential equation; simultaneous equation; boundary condition; constraint; finite element analysis (FEA); mathematical model; physical model; prototype; demonstrator; anthropometric; ergonomic; product specification; functional specification.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 40 hours
  • Updated Wednesday 23rd March 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under Engineering
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Engineering: The nature of problems


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The optimistic approach to a problem is to view it as a challenge and an opportunity – a chance to make progress. In this course, the nature of problems is explored by looking at the way they are used as a stimulus for finding solutions. It is presumed from the start that you want to be involved in the process of finding solutions and that you are not expecting simply to be given the answers.

One example that is investigated in this course concerns how to devise lighter bicycle frames, and the way to assess the merits of alternative materials from which to make them. There is no single way to move from a problem like this to possible solutions. In fact there are often several ways to set about finding several solutions, but there are a few general factors that are important to the search.

First it is important to appreciate the needs from which a problem arises. For the bicycle frame it's not just a lighter material that is required, but rather it is one that can be deployed to bear specific loads imposed on a fully functional frame.

Next it is valuable to understand the challenge well enough to be able to specify the nature of solutions, perhaps using the formal languages of engineering, mathematics, science and problem solving. For example, it is unwise to take part in a discussion on 'the best materials for bike frames' without a technical appreciation of both the job a frame has to do and the relevant attributes of the candidate materials. Establishing what you don't yet know usually starts by recognising how effectively you can tell someone else where the challenges arise. You must be able to communicate with a wide range of people, sometimes 'calling a spade a spade', and at other times describing precisely what the word 'spade' actually means.

In passing from a problem towards possible solutions it is essential to be able to evaluate and quantify the technical aspects. Another general factor in the search for solutions is the use of algebra and numbers to compare options and to inform choices. Some calculations are simple evaluations that can be done directly with or without an electronic calculator. Others need a line or two of algebraic analysis. Yet others are too tedious or too complicated to tackle without a computer-based approach using spreadsheets or more sophisticated software.

In the end, the best motivation for learning comes from simply requiring the knowledge in order to make progress.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course T207 Engineering: mechanics, materials, design [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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