Who Should Engineers Be?
Innovation, Out-of-Control Technology, and the Remaking of the Engineering Profession

Event Date: October 2, 2014
Speaker: Matthew Wisnioski
Speaker Affiliation: Associate
Professor, Department of Science and Technology in Society, Virginia Tech
Time: 3:30-4:20pm
Location: ARMS B071
This talk explores divergent ways of being technical practitioners in the United States from World War II through the 1970s in order to make sense of today’s landscape of engineering education reform.

Its core focus is on the dramatic upheaval of the 1960s when engineers in the United States feared they were losing substantive and rhetorical control of technology. From corporate executives to unemployed aerospace specialists, engineers looked far beyond traditional boundaries to restore meaning to technology and their profession. They collaborated with artists, environmentalists, humanists, social scientists, non-government organizations, and federal agencies. Some embraced the critical ideas of those who assailed their profession. Others partnered with establishment intellectuals to explain how reinvigorated engineering leadership would harness technology and use it to overcome societal challenges.

At the margins of this conflict for the engineering profession’s soul, a new interpretation of knowledge work emerged—that of the innovator—which stressed creativity, collaboration, and radical flexibility. To be an innovator was to adopt an “ethic of change” that eschewed fixed titles and organizational structures and that denied distinctions between social and technical knowledge, private gain and social benefit. The talk uses my recent book Engineers for Change as a point of departure for a study on the origins and ambitions of our current innovation ideals.


Matthew Wisnioski is associate professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, where he works at the nexus of engineering studies, history, and design research. He is the author of Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America, the inaugural volume in the MIT Press Engineering Studies series. He currently is writing a book titled Every American an Innovator that charts the rise of “innovation expertise” from the 1960s to the present, supported by an NSF Scholar’s Award and the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Wisnioski is a senior fellow of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and a cofounder of the Human-Centered Design Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program, in which he teaches graduate seminars based on the principle of “disruptive interdisciplinarity” that interrogate the history, practices, and values of innovation.

Wisnioski received his BS in materials science and engineering from the Johns Hopkins University, his PhD in history from Princeton University, and his postdoctoral training as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Program at Washington University in St. Louis.