THE NEBRASKA BLUE PRINT                October, 1931

The Engineer and His Feet



We hear much about the multitudinous and magnitudinous advantages that adhere to that magnificent talent which the rare man possesses, of being able to "think, on his feet." (For short, "t. o. h. f.")  We concede, "Yes, he is a remarkable man. He is keen and ready-witted. He can /. o. /'. f." We gloat, "Our speaker will be able to hold his own. He can t. o. h. f." We brag, "I got away with it, by being able to "t. o. h. f.". It seems to be a universally acknowledged accomplishment. In some circumstances, almost the summum bonum.

What interest has the engineer in this much touted talent?   When does he find it advantageous to t. o. h. f?

Well. to begin with, I should presume that it might be a very handy tool in the recitation room of the University of Nebraska. I do not wish to be sarcastic, but I've seen fellows who didn't evidence any ability to think, either in that position, or seated, or reclining on the small-of-their-backs.   Their highly polished brilliance was confined, largely, to their trouser seats, which were well shined by continuous squirmings.

Mv notion of a well-taught subject allows a very considerable element of classroom work in material extraneous to the textbook. Can the student apply the information he is getting from his text, his laboratory, and his teacher ? Is he getting a working knowledge of something?  This involves the extension of his thoughts and actions along more or less original lines, into fields beyond the boundaries of what he has been told. If he is to do this readily it means that he is thinking, on his feet.

Is this requirement of any practical significance? Will he find necessity for doing the same thing out on the Job?

The engineer occupies a great variety of posts in industry and business.  Among his activities come such tasks as sales, public relations, operation, planning,—as well as the strictly technical jobs of designing, manufacturing, etc. His contacts are with prospective customers, the public, the operating staff, the executive staff, etc. In no situation where discussion will take place, can he foresee all of the points to be settled. He cannot prepare for each individual emergency.  With a respected prospect challenging the reliability of his wares, expressing doubt as to the values represented, interpreting agreement clauses at variance with him,—what is the engineer to do? Go home and draw a picture of it ?

With an executive meeting in full swing, policies attacked, plans rejected, alternatives proposed, make-shifts suggested,—what is the engineer to do? Adjourn, and burn out a bearing on his slide-rule?

I believe I'm strong for the engineer who can t. o. h. f.!

Now, what training are you getting in it? Is there any such thing as training, or must one be born to it? Well, both help, but at this moment, I'm most interested in the controlled factor of training.

Did you ever take part in a formal debate? If so, you will recall that the first speech was a difficult thing to prepare, but you finally got so full of the subject that the making of the speech wasn't so hard after all. You had even prepared for the rebuttal of your opponent's argument by guessing at what he would say and answering it. You really made ready on both sides of the subject,—one for affirmation, the other for denial.

But, even then, you probably guessed wrong, and had to use some data you had not expected to need, You had this in your general fund of information,— the background which you had studiously built up for the occasion. And this made you able to answer unexpected arguments. You had to organize this material right there, on the platform, and that constituted thinking, on your feet.

To a certain extent, personal arguments with your fellow students give exercise to the same element of one's makeup, and my observation leads me to believe that every student likes to argue about something. But there is so much more value in an organized competition of knowledge and wits, with the assistance of team effort.

I'd like to see the engineering students arrange a series of debates during the winter.   They could arouse a great deal of interest in the project, and it would give several very well worth while student programs, for joint meetings of the societies.