Engineering, Technology and Innovation Approached as Art (in Educational Travel)


This paper presents the actual crisis and the tendencies of unitarily approaching the basic cores of technology, engineering and artistic professions and education, generated by the present demand of creative skills in the current fast innovating world. As a particular informal educational proposal, it is taking into consideration a synergy between travel and the model of (Romanian) folk art schools, for creating the proper atmosphere of emulative artistic creation and mutual learning opportunities, extended for teaching and even professing (the principles of) engineering and innovation.


The Context of the Engineering and Art Professions in the Current Fast Innovating World
Creativity in Engineering and Innovation
The Artistic Approach on Industrial Arts Can be extended to Engineering Also
The Folk Art Schools – an Emulative Artistic and Informal Learning Atmosphere
George Santayana about Tourists: a Creative, Self-Reflexive Approach
Our Educational Travel Approach

The Context of the Engineering and Art Professions in the Current Fast Innovating World

There is a relatively recent trend at engineering and technology universities around the world to emphasize on the creativity problem. This is as a response to the accelerated innovation demand of the economic and work environments, and to the systemic fail of nurturing the majority of graduates with such skills.

Faste R., from Stanford University, presents in [1] the historic and cultural roots of this crisis:

Before the turn of the century, engineering was an exciting creative field, perhaps too exciting. In the late nineteenth century bridges were falling down weekly and steel mills were blowing up left and right. Scientific thinking began to replace what were then largely intuitive methods. In terms of the art and science of engineering, the art portion was seen as a problem.

As scientific approaches were successfully applied, new engineering conventions evolved to insure the safety of the public. Engineering has become a largely conservative profession with a large body of knowledge to pass on to new members. As a result, engineering education has no time to pay attention to the ways in which famous inventors scientists really worked and got their idea.

In the West, we have a more fundamental philosophical reason for a general devaluing of aesthetic understanding. We are cursed with Descartes’ erroneous conclusion: “Cogito ergo sum” or, “I think, therefore I am”. At the time this was a creative breakthrough that strengthened the scientific and political changes of the past two hundred years. But it also had the effect of making the working of the body subservient to the brain. Ignoring our body and our feelings, this point of view also valued content over form. Today we are faced with a world that needs to be more integrated. We have technology that seems to have a life of its own, which many feel is not benefiting mankind. When engineering is seen as having to do with the application of science to meet human needs, then aesthetics plays a more central role.

As highlighted by Solomon Marcus too [2] (a Romanian mathematician and academician of Jewish origin), this seems to be a more profound crisis of the present (western) civilization and its educational system, which is based on huge information from separated disciplines, not integrated and not centered on the human being and its profound aspirations.

According OECD [3], arts education is a means of developing critical and creative thinking. It has also been argued that it can be used to develop skills that enhance performance in non-arts academic subjects such as mathematics, science, reading and writing, and to strengthen students’ academic motivation, self-confidence, and ability to communicate and cooperate effectively. Thus, arts education has been often assumed to have a positive impact on the three subsets of skills that we define as “skills for innovation”: technical skills, included in some non-arts subjects; skills in thinking and creativity; and behavioral and social skills (or character).

A NESTA (The UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) project [4] investigated the work practices of fine arts graduates and their serious impact on innovation. Uniquely for such a study, long-term changes were evaluated by using a 50-year period, while examining the extent to which those changes provided a deeper understanding of the way fine artists and their skills have been transferred into the wider society and economy, and the role that this process plays in stimulating innovation.

Despite these, few universities are offering arts & engineering mixed programs. At Lehigh University [5] for instance, arts-engineers fulfill all the requirements for the professional engineering degree for which they are working. However, the first three years of science and engineering courses are spread out over four years and, during this time, the arts-engineer is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science major program.

Other efforts in US can be cited, to integrate art-making and the arts in research universities. [6]

Creativity in Engineering and Innovation

On a fundamental level, engineering — like art or any other discipline — is creative and integrative. In practical terms, there’s no engineering project that’s only solved with a purely engineering solution. You apply engineering methodology, tools, and rigor, but that process is informed by creative interpretation and thinking, as well as a whole host of other skills across the humanities and other technical fields. The degree to which engineers can think more like artists and vice versa enriches the experience of each discipline, and ultimately results in greater innovation and more successful projects. [7]

Engineers ought to understand their work as creative even if it is not always artistic. Creative work requires choices. If there is more than one way to do something, creativity comes into play. The creative process has three stages. An idea is generated: and exists in the imagination only. It is expressed in language: drawing, words, mathematics. Only then can it be judged: through thought, feeling and discussion. The creative process becomes an artistic process when expression is intended to evoke an emotional response. Understood in this way, Engineering, Mathematics, the Arts, the Humanities and the Sciences need not vie for superiority. They are all creative endeavors, each with distinct intentions. [8]

The key to the innovation creative process model is a simple distinction, the principle that creativity doesn’t start by looking for solutions, it starts by creating the problem that is to be solved. Vision is the key enabler of creative genius, the ability, or willingness, or indeed the compulsion to see things not only for what they are, but for what they could be.

The vision and the way it contrasts with the current condition has, in fact, created a problem. The current condition is suddenly, obviously, and inescapably undesirable or even unacceptable, and the vision offers the solution. [9]

The Artistic Approach on Industrial Arts Can be extended to Engineering Also

Architecture is an example of art where the unity of the useful and the beautiful is still preserved, and is considered the most magnificent of them all. [10]

And it is impossible to solve the problem by supposing that in the industrial arts beauty and utility are extraneous to each other, two separable aspects, which have no intimate connection. For the fact that a bridge spans a river or that a church is a place of worship is an element in its beauty. The aesthetic meaning of the object depends upon the practical meaning. You cannot reduce the beauty of a bridge or a cathedral to such factors as mere size and fine proportions, without relation to function. No preconceived idea of the purity of beauty can undermine our intuition of the beauty of utility.

There is one more objection which may be urged against the aesthetic character of the expression of practical purpose, namely, that the appreciation of it is an affair of intellect, not of feeling. This would indeed be fatal if it were necessarily true; but all men who love their work know that they put into admiration for their tools as much of warm emotion as of mind. It must be admitted that the attitude of the average beholder towards a useful object is usually practical, not contemplative, or else purely intellectual, an effort to understand its structure, with the idea of eventual use. Most works of industrial art produce no aesthetic experience whatever. But to be a genuine and complete work of fine art, an object must be so made that it will immediately impel the spectator to regard it aesthetically.

The Folk Art Schools – an Emulative Artistic and Informal Learning Atmosphere

Like the US [11] and other countries, in Romania, since the 1950s, each county organized folk art schools [12], some of them following earlier traditions. It is a positive fact that even now, by the means of a law (292/2003), this tradition is preserved and funded by the state. Such schools have week-long and year-round afternoon classes teaching traditional and contemporary arts, including music, plastic arts, choreography, and theater.

For symbolic fees (around 10 Euro/month), they admit students starting from 5 to over 70 years old, from all professions and social categories. The study groups are composed of about 5-10 people, formed principally by age. The adult groups (over 15 years old), composed of people with different education and backgrounds, provide very stimulating learning experiences and an exchange environment allowing them to learn from each other and exceeding the specific artistic interest.

George Santayana about Tourists: a Creative, Self-Reflexive Approach [13]

All tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor. I do not think that frivolity and dissipation of mind and aversion from one’s own birthplace, or the aping of foreign manners and arts are serious diseases: they kill, but they do not kill anybody worth saving. There may be in them sometimes a sigh of regret for the impossible, a bit of pathetic homage to an ideal one is condemned to miss; but as a rule they spring not from too much familiarity with alien things but from too little: the last thing a man wishes who really tastes the savor of anything and understands its roots is to generalize or to transplant it; and the more arts and manners a good traveler has assimilated, the more depth and pleasantness he will see in the manners and arts of his own home…

The human heart is local and finite, it has roots: and if the intellect radiates from it, according to its strength, to greater and greater distances, the reports, if they are to be gathered up at all, must be gathered up at that centre. A man who knows the world cannot covet the world; and if he were not content with his lot in it (which after all has included that saving knowledge) he would be showing little respect for all those alien perfections which he professes to admire. They were all local, all finite, all cut off from being anything but what they happened to be; and if such limitation and such arbitrariness were beautiful there, he has but to dig down to the principle of his own life, and clear it of all confusion and indecision, in order to bring it too, to perfect expression after its kind: and then wise travelers will come also to his city, and praise its name.

Our Educational Travel Approach

Our educational travel approach is to create the group atmosphere, similar to a folk art school, in the travel frame inviting the participants to “dig down to the principles of their own life” – here of their engineering “artistic” profession – while criticizing and deconstructing “the alien perfections, arts, manners” that they meet in their way.

As a pleasant art-making exercise, they will ask their own questions, formulate problems, imagine solutions through their preferred artistic means (or our proposed traveling sculpture workshop) and communicate them to their group peers.

The purpose is to make them aware of the charm of the place where they feel at home, be it with their study or future unforeseen professional challenges.


[1] Faste A.R. , Stanford University, The Role of Aesthetics in Engineering, paper JSME 1995

[2] Marcus, S., Societatea Academica Romana, Educatia, un bolnav cu diagnostic controversat, (Education, a Patient with Controversial Diagnosis) paper 2014

[3] Winner, E., etc., Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education, Educational Research and Innovation OECD Publishing, 2013

[4] Oakley K., etc. , NESTA-UK, The Art of innovation. How Fine Arts Graduates Contribute to Innovation, Research Report- 2008

[5] Leigh University, Arts & Engineering Program

[6] US Arts Engine National Network, Art-Making and the Arts in Research Universities, Strategic Task Forces, 2012 Interim Report

[7] Metzger P., Oregon State University, Art Meets Engineering, post

[8] Hines, E.M., Tufts University, Principles for Engineering Education, paper Le Mesurier, 2014

[9] Morris L., senior consultant, The Innovation Master Plan, the CEO’s Guide to Innovation, book 2013

[10] Parker, H.D., Univ. of Michigan, Principles of Aesthetics, cap.14, course, 2003

[11] John C. Campbell Folk School, Wikipedia

[12] The Bucharest Art School (Romanian)

[13] Santayana, G., The Philosophy of Travel, essay, The Birth of Reason and Other Essays, posthumous 1995

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