Lecture Ergonomical Design @ UTwente

The role of Applied Science

Posted by mschmettow on 7. February 2010

The first lecture made a big deal about how fundamental and engineering science are related. The suggestion was that applied science acts as a mediator, in that it

  1. helps to understand the problems
  2. guides solutions

One of the students suggested that applied science also is responsible for transferring empirical methods (e.g. for measurement) from fundamental to engineering. This is absolutely the case. Consider eye tracking: First used to study human visual attention, today it is found in many usability labs. Below find an updated diagram.

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4 Responses to “The role of Applied Science”

  1. P. Parker said

    1. Proposal of addition to the model:
    I suggest that Fundamental Science does something more for the engineering sciences than depicted in the graphic. Namely it aids in making sense of ‘experiences’ with technology. Consider for example the difference between real duration and perceived duration. This is typically something an engineer might not be aware of. When finding that people continue to use an old version of a program while a more time-efficient version is already available, the engineer might turn to fundamental science literature to discover that the reason is that people perceive the new program to be more time consuming. Also note, that this is a direct link from fundamental to engineering research, without Applied Science playing a role in it.
    2. Question on completeness of the model:
    In a likewise fashion I just asked myself if there isn’t a link missing between fundamental science to the solution-finding step in engineering science. To clarify my confusion, consider the following example: imagine engineers at a space program have the problem that when reentering the orbit their space shuttles get too hot due to friction. So they ask their fundamental science colleagues in the labs to come up with a fabric to solve this problem and they invent PTFE (Teflon). I don’t see how Applied Science necessarily has a role in that, as is implied by the illustration.

    3. Proposal to adapt the graphic presentation, without changing the content:
    In the lecture I found it confusing at first that the bold arrows don’t have a clear sequence. After all, although it is an ever repeating circle, there is a clear linear relation between all steps.
    As a layman one could easily misinterpret the illustration to go from logical deduction directly to approval and falsification because there is no clear ordering of the steps. I think it might be more readily understandable if instead of one big ellipse standing for the deducted statements (which is not filled by determination of the it’s truthfulness two steps further), there would be one ellipse to each side, with the content of the right one to merely be the deducted statement and the left to be the determination of the correctness of the statements (although that is difficult to depict I imagine).

    Also, it seems like making predictions and observing the real world are activities outside the field of Fundamental Science, because they lie outside the boundaries of the red square. I would suggest to exclude these activities (and their engineering science counterparts) in the squares.

    4. Proposal to change terminology:
    a) Statements deduced from theory are generally meant to be of a general kind (like “ALL swans are white”, see K.-R. Popper). While there is a clear outcome of specific predictions or not, with these general statements I think it’s a little unlucky to speak of ‘true’ ones. After all, all we know is that they hold against the observations just made. I think confirmation would be a proper word to depict in the left ellipse (see my suggestion above).
    b) Also, it might be a little unlucky to speak of observations of ‘natural reality’ in the context of fundamental science, since of the utmost critiques of fundamental experiments is that they lack the ‘natural’ context component.

    • mschmettow said

      First of all, thanks for these comments!

      Your points 1) and 2) assume that engineers go and ask fundamental science and also that fundamental scientists express their insights in a way suitable for problem solving. The general answer is: They don’t!
      In a way applied science is here defined as the occasions, when a transfer is made between fundamental and engineering science. In that sense it is more like an attitude: Engineers seeking for fundamentally new ways of approaching their problems are applied scientists in that moment, and so are fundamental scientists who express their insights suitable for problem solving, i.e. in a constructive way. For the later, it makes a difference whether you say:
      Children acquire new words by co-occurrence in texts
      OR: The mental model of users approximately follows the co-occurrence in common texts

      Your comments 3) and 4) are valid. I will for sure regard them in a later evolution of the diagram.

      • P. Parker said

        I still find this explanation of the omitted links unsatisfactory. You state yourself that at some moment engineers conduct fundamental studies and vice versa. So shouldn’t there something like an overarching, two-sided arrow from fundamental to engineering science, standing for the inspiration for researchquestions / new products in the respective other field? Consider for example the birth of cognitive psychology: people’s performance was observed to decline with time when using of a new technology (radar), from that new questions and theories on attention and human processing were formulated and a whole new field of research emerged. Seen the other way around: haven’t findings (like e.g. a new fabric) in fundamental science inspired engineers to use this in the design of a new product (this is called a technology-push)? So I think there should be a connection of whatever kind coming from the engineering field to the fundamental science field, although I am not quite sure were I would put it (technology to theory? experience to theory? experience to statements?).

        I think you do have a point, but I think the boarder between engineer and scientist isn’t that clear cut as it appears at first. Also, I am unsure whether I can agree with your statement that engineers do not ask fundamental scientists for anything. Presently having ‘interdisciplinary’ design teams is common practice, because the hope is that each professional brings the relevant knowledge of the theories in his/her own field. Isn’t this a contribution of fundamental science to the engineering process? Also, by increasing the proximity to each other and training to communicate with non-experts, it serves as a means of bridging the gap between the two, and to facilitate the communication and asking questions which you assume to be nonexistent. Wouldn’t the designteam-psychologists be the ones the designteam-engineers would turn to when usability issues arose? Here one could argue again that in doing this engineers leave the domain of engineering science and likewise a fundamental scientists engaged in the design proces isn’t much of a fundamental scientist anymore. I cannot disagree with that and think it is a valid point to be considered. But also, aside the blurring boundaries between roles, there remains some kind of influence of fundamental theories on the engineering proces, doesn’t it?

        By the way: I interpret ‘fundamental science’ to be any kind of fundamental research field, not just fundamental psychology, correct?

        The more I think about all this the more I get confused. I enjoy the discourse though…

        PS: I made an error in the second-last paragraph of my last post: it hast tp be INcluded, of course.

      • mschmettow said

        What you describe is the emerge of human factors. Origins of cognitive psychology are somewhere else and earlier.
        Please also don’t confuse engineer and practitioner. In design teams and processes you’ll typically find practitioners, not scientists.
        To my personal experience: the fact that people set up interdisciplinary research projects does not mean there is a true exchange. Often these attempts are skin-deep only.

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