Engineers are specialists in technical information. As the complexities of problems increase, there has been an increasing need for engineers to apply critical thinking in the context of problem solving. This article demonstrates the value and use of developing abstract thought in engineering, especially for students


In school, the most widely used, or at least the most reputable method for solving problems is “Critical Thinking.” From understanding the works of a long dead philosopher to solving differential equations, “Critical Thinking” is like some sort of intellectual panacea. Although everyone can agree that “Critical Thinking” is usually a good thing, it is difficult to explain exactly what it is and even more difficult to teach it.

For most engineers, problem solving is essentially their profession. Critical thinking and abstract thought, then, are invaluable tools, which complement an engineer’s technical expertise. In this paper, our first goal is to define what exactly critical thinking is. From there, we will discuss examples, which highlight the importance of abstract thought as well efforts to teach this in the classroom. Finally, we will look at how this can be applied to our Senior Project and perhaps future work in general.


To begin, we will look at two definitions of critical thinking. In her 2002 article, Jessop argues that critical thinking is comprised of three major skills: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. She goes on to quote a statement by Scriven (n.d.) to define the term more explicitly:

Critical Thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.(as quoted in Jessop, 2002, p. 141)

Analysis is breaking down the problem into parts and finding the relationships between them. Synthesis is thinking about other ways to solve the problem either by incorporating new information or combining the parts in a different way. Finally, evaluation is making a judgment about the results using the evidence at hand.

According to Scriven (n.d.), then, critical thinking is the combined process of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Since we are trying to use critical thinking as “a guide to belief and action,” synthesis, or the generation of new ideas or solutions, is a necessary component. However, creating these new solutions is difficult, if not impossible, without understanding the problem, which leads to analysis. The process of critical thinking, though, does not stop at synthesis. Out of the results from the synthesis stage, some may be better than others. Moreover, it is possible that none of the results actually solve the problem. Because of this, it is necessary to evaluate the results in order to find the best answer. To better understand this definition, we will apply this to an example.

Let’s assume we want an egg for breakfast. For analysis, the parts of this process might be putting butter in a pan, breaking the egg, and then cooking it. For synthesis, there are many different ways to prepare eggs. For example, we could whisk the egg to make scrambled eggs, or maybe we want hard boiled eggs instead. Finally, we need to evaluate our result. There are many different criteria for this, such as which one takes the least amount of time, which is the most delicious, which is the healthiest, etc. In order to apply critical thinking to this problem, the goals are to understand the problem, find possible solutions, and evaluate the result.

For comparison, we now look at another definition of critical thinking. Qiao (2009) writes, “When one used the methods and principles of scientific thinking in everyday life, then he was practicing critical thinking. So scientific and critical thinking are the same thing…” The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about “scientific thinking” is the scientific method, so at first, this comparison seems a little odd. For reference, the steps of the scientific method are presented as follows (Wikipedia, n.d.):

  • Define a question
  • Gather information and resources (observe)
  • Form an explanatory hypothesis
  • Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner
  • Analyze the data
  • Interpret the data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  • Publish results
  • Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

In the steps above, we see some similarities with the earlier definition of critical thinking. Earlier, we stated that critical thinking was composed of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. While engineers typically begin with problems instead of questions, the gathering of information and resources is definitely a part of analysis. In both cases, understanding the problem or question is a priority. In critical thinking, the next step would be synthesis. A scientist may be trying to answer a question by forming a hypothesis, but the need to imagine different possibilities and find an answer that fits is the same in engineering. Lastly, steps 4-6 could be considered one way to evaluate the results from synthesis. While a scientist may test his or her hypothesis with experiments, an engineer may run simulations or create prototypes. The point in either case, though, is to make sure is to ensure the ideas from earlier actually work.

Although we defined critical thinking from an engineer’s perspective, it should not be surprising that we can apply it loosely in other disciplines such as science. After all, the capacity for critical thinking is not limited to or only useful for engineers alone. Writers, philosophers, mathematicians, and many other disciplines make use of critical thinking as well. Even if the process is slightly different for each, at the very least, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation lie at the heart of critical thinking.


As a technical example of critical thinking, let us examine a problem a Tufts University student encountered while doing research over the summer. This student was writing the image processing code for a robot, which had a camera mounted on it.

The code to retrieve the video and display it was already written, so the student only had to focus on the image processing part. As a simple test, the student wrote a piece of code to find the number of black pixels in a video frame. The code was easy to test since all the pixels could be made black by covering up the camera. The problem occurred when the student’s code tried to count all the pixels when the camera was covered up. In this case, all the pixels should be black, but the student recorded only a fraction of that number.

So how did the student use critical thinking to solve the problem? First, he took into account all of the available information and tried to find possible sources of the problem. The input was a video frame with an apparent size of 480 x 640 pixels, which matched the output displayed. Repeating the test for black pixels consistently returned the same fraction. When the student modified his code to check for pixels of any colors, the result found the expected number of pixels, so at first the problem appeared to be related to detecting the black pixels. The student, however, had tested that part of the code thoroughly, and was fairly confident that it was not the source of the problem.

Continuing on with his analysis, the student decided to directly save the video frame and display it. Upon seeing the result, the student at once saw the problem and found a solution. While the given video frame had room for 480 x 640 pixels, the actual image was stored in the upper left hand corner as a 240 x 320 image. Thus, the student’s code was correct, as he originally surmised, and it was actually returning the correct number. The code to display the video, it turns out, expected this input, and resized the image to the 480 x 640 video feed that the student originally saw.

From there, the rest of the problem was straightforward. For synthesis, the student decided to use the upper left corner of the given images and ignore the rest of the pixels. The result was more efficient than the original code, since it only had to process a 240 x 320 image and it ignored the pixels that were skewing the results. This example demonstrates the importance of analysis in critical thinking. Without an understanding of the problem, it is unlikely that the student would have found a solution by starting with the synthesis step. In this case, the solution and the tests to make sure it worked were relatively simple, so the synthesis and evaluation steps were not as important. Nevertheless, applying all of these steps in tandem allowed the problem to be successfully solved.

Engineering Curriculum

For the most part, critical thinking has typically been something reserved for the liberal arts, especially English and Philosophy. Even on standardized tests like the SATs, there is a critical reading section. However, as we discussed earlier, critical thinking is not limited to the liberal arts; it is also an integral part of the sciences and engineering.

Recently, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has been pushing for more emphasis on communication skills and understanding the global context of today’s problems in the engineering curriculum. Previously, and even now, the ABET accreditation process acknowledged schools that trained students not only to be able to apply their technical knowledge, but also lead and work well in teams. ABET believes that their new objectives can be achieved through the inclusion of more writing and critical thinking in the engineering classroom (Gunnink & Bernhardt, 2002).

Although most people agree that critical thinking should be a focus in school, there are a variety of proposed methods, but no single class or solution stands out. Even though we have been treating critical thinking as an individual effort, a few papers have suggested the use of group discussions and forums in order to encourage critical thinking (Radzi et al., 2009; Jacob et al, 2009). After defining critical thinking in her article, Jessop (2002) suggests a course based on Brainstorming and Critical Reading. For the brainstorming section, students are given a problem, and then, over the course of a few weeks, students must engineer a solution. For the critical reading section, students are given a number of journal articles to read and evaluate. Naturally, the brainstorming half is mainly concerned with the synthesis aspect of critical thinking while the critical reading half focuses on the analysis aspect (Jessop, 2002). The hope, of course, is that by practicing these steps, the students will become better at critical thinking in the future.

As mentioned earlier, Qiao (2009) was writing on critical thinking in schools in China. Qiao goes on to state, “The nature of authority has two forms: textbook authority and teacher authority. Laws and rules in textbook are golden and precious, beyond any manner of doubt. Science teacher is the prolocutor of truth.” (2009, p. 115). In order to promote critical thinking and a sense of skepticism, Qiao suggests a History, Philosophy, and Science (HPS) Education approach. In addition to the usual Science that students learn about, Qiao (2009) believes it is valuable to learn about both the History and Philosophy behind these advancements. While Jessop’s (2002) strategy is purely from an engineer’s perspective, Qiao’s approach relies on the idea that critical thinking is not restricted to engineers. Instead, the capacity for critical thought is developed through studies in history and philosophy.

Despite the differences in each method, the goal is the same. In order to tackle increasingly difficult problems, engineers will require more than just technical knowledge. To this end, there is a need for teachers and experts, whose job is to train these engineers, to bring critical thinking into the classroom.

Application to Senior Project

In this paper, we have attempted to answer questions like, “What is critical thinking?” and “Why is it important?” As we stated before, critical thinking can be thought of as similar to the scientific method, but its main points are the problem definition and understanding, the search for solutions, evaluation, and iteration. Since critical thinking is a powerful tool in problem solving, we have seen recent efforts to include it in the engineering curriculum. The final question we want to answer is, “How does this apply to our senior project?

The answer to this lost question is relatively simple. Each of our senior projects, if properly scoped and planned, should aim to solve a problem. In light of this, we should strive to solve these problems intelligently, which is to say, using critical thinking. This means fully researching and understanding the problem, creating new solutions and finding old ones, and evaluating the result. When our result is a failure, we go back, look for other solutions, and try again until we have solved the problem. So we can see that critical thinking is an important, if not essential, part of our senior project.

Cited References

  • Gunnink, B., & Bernhardt, K. L. S. (2002). Writing, critical thinking, and engineering curricula. In Frontiers in Education, 2002. FIE 2002. 32nd Annual (Vol. 2, pp. F3H–2–F3H–7 vol.2). Presented at the Frontiers in Education, 2002. FIE 2002. 32nd Annual. DOI: 10.1109/FIE.2002.1158211
  • Jacob, S. M., Lee, B., & Lueckenhausen, G. R. (2009). Measuring Critical Thinking Skills in Engineering Mathematics using online forums. In 2009 International Conference on Engineering Education (ICEED) (pp. 225–229). Presented at the 2009 International Conference on Engineering Education (ICEED). DOI: 10.1109/ICEED.2009.5490577
  • Jessop, J. L. P. (2002). Expanding our students’ brainpower: idea generation and critical thinking skills. IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine, 44(6), 140–144. DOI: 10.1109/MAP.2002.1167273
  • Qiao, C. (2009). Science Education and Fostering of Critical Thinking in China. In Second International Conference on Education Technology and Training, 2009. ETT ’09 (pp. 114–117). Presented at the Second International Conference on Education Technology and Training, 2009. ETT ’09. DOI: 10.1109/ETT.2009.25
  • Radzi, N. M., Abu, M. S., & Mohamad, S. (2009). Math-oriented critical thinking skills in engineering. In 2009 International Conference on Engineering Education (ICEED), (pp. 212–218). Presented at the 2009 International Conference on Engineering Education (ICEED). DOI: 10.1109/ICEED.2009.5490579
  • Scientific Method. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 18, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (n.d.) “Defining Critical Thinking.” National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction. Retrieved from http:/lwww.criticalthinking.orgiuniversitylunivclasslDe~ning.html

Additional Resource

  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.abet.org/
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