Like water and oil: Merging human science insights with Natural Science (engineering) thinking … the experiential way

Ian Coxon

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Oil and water: a common expression describing two things that do not combine well. In this paper we will discuss some of the wins and losses; successes and failures in our efforts to explore the contested territory between Human Science, abductive thinking and Natural Science, logical preconceptions. Within a Danish postgraduate engineering stream, this course was designed to help young engineers to step outside their normal positivist system of thinking and to explore, embrace or at least suspend judgement on a form of emotional/meta-physical logic. Students were introduced to practical (logical) methods for developing deeper insight into specific human experiences and to apply this genuinely human-centered perspective to their 'engineered' solutions.
In the engineering world, there are various ways in which oil and water are known to combine if only temporarily. One method of combining them however 'unstably' is by shaking them vigorously i.e. taking them out of their normal stable state into one that is different for a time and where their best qualities can be realized. i.e. oil and vinegar dressing. This is one aspect of our approach in this instance; to shake our young engineers out of their comfort zones and to explore an unfamiliar topography, one that was both without and within themselves.
Alternatively, emulsifiers or surfactants are known to assist in the merging of two 'opposing' elements. In our case, the emulsifier used, was a mixture of philosophical/theoretical/practical epistemological lenses through which each student's experiential knowledge was filtered. Our goal being to help students to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the people for whom they proposed to design 'solutions'. The entire pedagogical process was intended to disrupt their preconceptions in such a way as to help them see any situation more clearly; a process of in-sight based engineering.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-148
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 05 Mar 2021


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