Developing critical thinkers

Sep 1, 2005

Engineering studies at Kettering University teach students important analytical and critical thinking skills for fields outside of Engineering.

Doctors. Lawyers, Poets. Professional race car drivers. Dentists. Musicians. Is there a connection between these professionals and their educational training?

On the surface, most readers might say no. After all, what does the study of poetry and music have to do with the study of cadavers or tooth decay? Can the root cause of gingivitis lead one to create the next greatest symphony?

For many in the engineering field, the connection between diverse fields and the study of engineering is not a stretch. For example, Charles Postlewate, a 1962 graduate of the Mechanical Engineering program and world-renown classical guitarist who teaches guitar studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, explained during an interview in 2004 that the rigorous education at Kettering/GMI, "gave me the fortitude and discipline to go forward with my musical ambitions." This from a man who worked as an engineer during his co-op rotation, played music in the smoky clubs of Flint, and eventually went on to become a full-time engineer with GM, until he decided to pursue his passion for music.

Postlewate's statement debunks the old adage that engineers lack creativity and those sensibilities most people associate with artists and other professionals. Today, they are not simply numbers people. According to a study titled "American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering" conducted for the American Association of Engineering Societies in 2004, a majority of people who responded to survey questions felt that an engineer "is creative." Additionally, 63 percent of respondents feel that engineering includes a variety of fields of study and occupations, thus suggesting that the educational skills one acquires during and engineering education are transferable to other professions.

Jim Gover, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Kettering, has long recognized that the study of engineering often leads students into many different, diverse fields. During his career, Gover worked for the U.S. Congress for three years as a science and technology advisor and earned the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Citation of Honor for his policy work. He continues to publish policy papers on such topics as healthcare costs to counterterrorism. Eventually, engineering graduates achieve great success in endeavors outside of the engineering field and most credit their Kettering engineering education for helping them make these career changes. "Studying engineering provides opportunities for students to hone important skills, especially critical thinking and analytical skills," he explained, adding, "these are skills that our graduates use in great supply in such fields as law and medicine."

Gover feels that Kettering offers the kind of engineering education and professional cooperative work experience that other schools simply cannot provide. The cooperative professional experience, which begins freshman year, introduces students to the idea of applying classroom theories to professional assignments, which helps cement the students' understanding of the relationship between higher education and real world experience. In addition, students work in state-of-the-art labs and research facilities using technology and equipment industry-leading companies currently use at their organizations throughout the world. Kettering faculty and staff also have a wealth of practical industry experiences and networks in dozens of diverse fields, which aids them in finding professional opportunities for students. These are just a few reasons why Kettering continues to produce industry leaders in many fields, including Robert C. Kagle '78, general partner of Benchmark Capital who helped launch e-bay, and James A. McCaslin '74, president and CEO of Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

"If we consider attributes of what makes a good engineer," Gover said, "we see four components: engineers are inventors; business managers; savvy in technology; and very strong in math and science skills. These attributes also clearly aid any professional in just about any field. However, only some of these are teachable at institutions of higher education-other attributes are gained during the course of one's professional experience, including working in co-op positions."

To further illustrate his point, Gover points to recent Kettering graduate Greg Cumberford of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who earned duel degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Cumberford currently works at a research and design laboratory for Sun Microsystems in San Diego, Calif., but has designs to attend dental school.

Cumberford said, "I like the fact that dentistry is a combination of science and art, both fields that I really enjoy. As a secondary facet of my career, I want to work in a dental research lab where I can collaborate with university and industry researchers experimenting with various ideas and inventions to help improve the dental field." Cumberford also said that when he becomes a dentist, he feels he will be able to spot various problems "where I can apply my engineering experiences and develop solutions to these problems. I believe there is a great deal of crossover knowledge between engineering and dentistry. Both professions require a tremendous amount of precision, the ability to understand and interpret scientific information and the ability to think critically. These are all skills professors at Kettering help instill in students."

He also feels that his co-op experiences have been a big help in preparing him for a career in dentistry. "Working in a dental office is by no means a one person show. You need to be a team player, working well with patients, dental hygienists, various support staff, the ceramics lab, and other dentists and know how to work with different personalities. Through my co-op rotations at Sun Microsystems, a company of over 30,000 employees, I have worked for seven different managers and with a number of different co-workers. My Kettering co-op experiences have been great for me to learn the real-life soft skills that are applicable to working in both a Fortune 500 company and a dental office."

When he described his designs to attend dental school to Gover, the professor suggested that Cumberford consider conducting a technology survey of dental practices to determine how to improve dental equipment and the dental experience for patients, and to show potential dentistry programs how enthused and dedicated the young engineer is to becoming a dentist. Cumberford worked with the professor on an independent study project to examine electromagnetic cross-talk and its use in dental instruments for locating nerves, as well as identifying resources that could create efficiencies in treating patients while establishing a more positive experience for people. To do this, Cumberford spent time in several dental practices in Michigan finding out about technology uses and needs in the dental industry.

Based on survey results, Gover and Cumberford created a short list of the following technologies that show great promise.

  • A large robotic rabbit in the office lobby that uses voice recognition technology to interactively explain to children the importance of regular dental visits. This rabbit could also answer questions posed by children to help them become more comfortable at a dental office.
  • A dental digitizer system that employs lasers and acoustics to create a three-dimensional image of teeth without molds or x-rays. This technology would provide a permanent digital map of one's dental structure to identify areas of decay based on shifts in reflection magnitudes. This eliminates patient exposure to radiation from x-rays, provides an electronic record of dental history and eliminates storage space necessary for molds.
  • A motor-driven flosser that eliminates the awkwardness of flossing back teeth using fingers.
  • Passive and active bio-sensors to monitor and annunciate incipient problems before they become visible to humans.
  • Existing pattern recognition and data mining algorithms for improved interpretation of metrics collected by dentists.
  • A credit card that holds an electronic record of a patient's complete dental history. This card would use current flash memory technology.

Once they have completed the research project, Gover said he would like for Cumberford to present a paper on this effort at an engineering conference in the near future. According to Cumberford, dentists who participated in this survey were, "receptive to the idea of engineers entering the dental field," Cumberford said. "Practicing dentistry requires a great deal of precision, technical knowledge, continual improvement and discipline, all qualities any good engineer possesses." Gover also said that most technological advances in the dental industry are often made by engineers who, like Cumberford, pursued dental school.

"The idea," Gover said, "is for dental offices to be more competitive using technology and to make visits to dental offices less stressful for patients. Greg's research is just another example of how students who studied engineering can apply their analytical and critical thinking skills to areas that many once thought were outside of the engineering field."

Visit Dr. Greg Cumberford's website.

Like many professors at Kettering, Gover is happy to encourage students to use their engineering educational experience to pursue other fields if they so desire. Cumberford is just one example of a student who did just that.

To learn more about Kettering's unique educational and professional cooperative opportunities, visit

Written by Gary Erwin