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Engineering: The nature of problems
Engineering: The nature of problems

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Engineering: The nature of problems


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 provides a sample of level 2 study in Engineering [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .