Bridging technological and philosophical worlds
Posted: January 04, 2011
Mastering engineering requires learning to engage in rigorous and precise thinking. Zachary Pirtle’s studies in the field took him even further – beyond a focus on the technological into deeper inquiry in a more fundamental realm.
“Engineering led me to philosophy,” says Pirtle, who earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and philosophy at Arizona State University in 2007. He followed that with a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in 2009.
He’s considering pursuit of a Ph.D. in philosophy of science or public policy in the future.
While still an undergraduate, Pirtle pursued interests in technology and philosophical questions both in and outside the classroom, and he’s continuing endeavors in both areas as he begins his career.
As an undergrad, he worked with the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at ASU, which explores the societal ramifications of the emergence of nanotechnology.
In his undergraduate honors thesis he examined issues involved in aligning public policy to guide nanotechnology research in accord with the goals and principles of a democratic system of government.
While in graduate school he earned a prestigious Fulbright scholarship that enables top students to study and do research abroad. He used it to spend much of the 2008-2009 academic year in Mexico, where he contributed to public discourse on the social and cultural impacts that the rise of nanotechnology could potentially have on that country.
Diverse set of skills
Pirtle later earned a graduate fellowship to work with the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C. There he supported the academy’s Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society. He researched and wrote about the potential societal implications of converting the nation’s power systems to “green” renewable-energy technologies.
He then worked as a consultant in the Washington, D.C. office of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, where he authored a report that detailed the consensus among experts on the direction the country should take in developing innovative energy policies.
In July of 2010, he began working as a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, he’s applying his engineering and policy training to support new technology development projects NASA is undertaking to expand humanity’s reach into space.
“The only reason I’m able to bounce around among these various fields is because of the interdisciplinary education I got at ASU,” Pirtle says. “Being able to combine engineering and philosophy was very enriching. It’s given me a broader perspective, and people value that diverse set of skills. It’s going to greatly affect what I can contribute to society during my career.”
Looking at the bigger picture
His job at NASA “is more on the technical side for now, but I hope to find a way to keep contributing to science policy and philosophy,” he says.
Already he’s written an article published in a new book, Philosophy and Engineering: An Emerging Agenda,
and co-authored an article in the journal Environmental Science & Policy on climate modeling.
His training in the environmental area stems from research he conducted in the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management at ASU, directed by engineering professor Braden Allenby.
Pirtle says Allenby “is one those engineers who can think far outside of the box.” He credits Allenby – along with mentors at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and the Center for Nanotechnology and Society – for training him to look at the bigger picture, beyond the merely technical challenges of engineering and science.
Prospective and current ASU students “should know the university offers opportunities to combine education in things like engineering and social sciences or the humanities,” he says. In his case, “philosophy helped me understand engineering better,” he says.
“Zach is one of those challenging students who make you glad that you’re a professor,” Allenby says. “He was a joy to teach, because his intellectual curiosity always drove him further than he had to go.”
Bridging two worlds
Pirtle is “among the rare people who are able to succeed in varied disciplines, and pursue those interests in both academic work and outside the classroom,” says Jameson Wetmore, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
Wetmore, who studied both engineering and philosophy on his way to earning a Ph.D. in science and technology studies, often counseled Pirtle.
“Because of the example Zach set, many engineering students brought themes from the social sciences into their honors theses projects,” Wetmore says, “and he is continuing to bridge those two worlds in his career in Washington, D.C., a place where that bridge is crucially needed.”
Pirtle’s interest in the dual course of study was sparked while fulfilling a humanities requirement he had as a student in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.
In a philosophy of science course taught by Richard Creath, a professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Pirtle found it “really eye-opening to think about these deeper questions” about what constitutes knowledge and how we put it to use in science and engineering.
Intellectual road map
His interest in engineering has roots in the family lineage. His grandfather, Albert Pirtle, studied math at the Arizona State Teacher’s College – the precursor to ASU – before becoming an architectural detailer. His father, Randall Pirtle, an ASU grad, has been working in engineering at Honeywell Aerospace for more than 25 years. His brother, Trevor Pirtle, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from ASU and now works for Orbital Sciences in Chandler, Ariz.
Pirtle says the engineering profession would benefit from a more philosophical bent. “More engineers should think about the far-reaching impacts of what they do, and its real value to society,” he says.
He believes such an intellectual approach could provide a reliable road map for the evolution of the engineering profession, and help to establish a more sustainable and democratic foundation for successfully navigating our way in an increasingly complex and highly technological society.
“I’d like to have a role in developing a really solid philosophy of engineering,” he says.