GEDI19, Uncategorized

Unended quest for meaning and critical understanding of engineering and humanities education

Introductory note:

Until now I spent a total of ten years as a student in three different engineering schools and completed an MA in liberal education. Besides, I worked briefly as an engineer at a company and spent three years as a lecturer in Industrial and System engineering at a university in Saudi Arabia before starting my Ph.D. at VT in 2017. In this blog, I will try to reflect on my experience in studying engineering and humanities which relate to this week readings. It is still an unended quest, but I hope it could help me and the readers in connecting some dots.

 

I did my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering (EE). Majority of the EE classes that I studied were taught through pure lecturing. The role of the teachers in those classes was mainly transmitting knowledge to students through a top-down approach and then examine students’ learning through well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and the students are asked to find the correct solution. Also, the courses were usually taught as technical subjects with emphasis mainly on basic science and abstract mathematics, entirely isolated from its application and context. One the one hand, I used to enjoy sometimes solving EE problems mathematically such as solving challenging puzzles. On the other hand, I remember how painful it was to spend a long time studying uncontextualized technical knowledge and solving problems without recognizing its implications in real life. This made me feel sometimes that I was studying something meaningless or useless and the most thing that I will get out of it is a job after graduation to cover my cost of living. This experience was the main reason that encouraged me to continue my graduate study in Industrial Engineering instead of EE since I had the perception that IE has a broader application domain than EE.

 

In 2010, I completed my BS and worked as an engineer in a company the after two years I received a scholarship to pursue a master’s in IE at Arizona State University (ASU). Studying IE allowed me to build on my engineering background and develop more of a business mindset. However, I recognized early in my study of the IE program that focused on equipping students with technical skills and business topics to reduce the cost and maximize profit for the private sector while lacked an emphasis on social and environmental issues, a deficiency in many engineering programs. This influenced my decision to study social science while continuing my master’s in IE resolve this deficiency in my educational background and expand my ability to conduct interdisciplinary research. Therefore, I joined the Social Transformation School at ASU and completed a master’s in Social and Cultural Pedagogy.

During this second master’s program, I was introduced to critical theories which enabled me to recognize political and ideological biases in education. My master’s thesis was on educating engineers to work humanitarian to serve marginalized communities and this changed many of my former views about engineering education. Out of this study, I recognized the dominance of neoliberal ideology in engineering education, which indoctrinate engineers to work within its constraint and respond blindly to market forces without considering the need for structural change to prioritize public interest. Also, I realized from studying the history of engineering that engineering education and research have been formed by trends in technology, society, economics, and politics which make it socially-constructed field, not merely objective science shaped primarily by experiments in labs and pure technical capacities. Our attitudes toward engineering hinge, to a large extent, on what we believe about the nature of the knowledge underlying it. Unlike, scientists, engineers work with a world of their creation which by nature should include more subjectivity.

Admittedly, I learned a lot from studying humanities courses. However, I do not agree that studying any humanity course would improve engineering students professional skills (critical thinking, communication, etc..). In my personal experience, not all the courses I studied in liberal arts enhanced my professional skills or enriched my thoughts. On the one hand, some of the classes I took – especially in my undergrad- were taught precisely like conventional engineering courses through lecturing which made them so dull. Moreover, the assessment in these courses was mainly based on multiple choice exams which assume an objective view of knowledge (i.e., choose the correct answer) and do not promote critical thinking. Actually, I found many engineering students take such courses to raise their GPA, since getting high grades in such classes just requires memorizing the material to answer the exam questions.

On the other hand, my experience in taking graduate-level courses in liberal arts was so fruitful since most of these classes were taught through discussion and dialogue. The class discussions enhanced my communication skills and critical thinking. Taking these courses helped me to get rid of the linear and fragmented way of thinking. After these classes, I noticed that I started to analyze issues from multiple perspectives and based on a holistic approach. I can conclude after reflecting on this experience that engineering education researchers should not take it for granted that liberal art courses promote professional skills since, in the end, this depends highly on how these courses are taught. In my opinion, even a core engineering course could develop professional skills if it was taught through learner-centered approaches and in an interdisciplinary manner. I think integrating liberal art concepts in engineering courses is more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses in anthropology or psychology. For instance, before coming to Virginia Tech, I studied at ASU a class on theoretical views of learning (EDU505). The course covered fundamental theories on learning and knowledge (e.g. behaviorism, cognitive, positivism, constructivism..etc). The course was very rich and informative for me. However, it was not clear to me how I will be using these theories I learned in this course in engineering education context until I took a class at VT on Fundamentals of Engineering Education (ENGE5014) which covered similar content of (EDU505) but with more focus on engineering context. Revisiting what I learned at EDU505 in an engineering context was more exciting, and I was able to connect to the material and reflect on the discussion more efficiently.

 

This experience enabled me to recognize the effectiveness of interdisciplinary teaching, especially in engaging students’ prior knowledge and experience. It is quite difficult for engineering students to connect what they learn in social sciences class with their engineering background if they studied social science concepts in a separate course. Therefore, I think integrating liberal art concepts in engineering courses might be more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses. Of course, engineering students could take whatever classes they would like in humanities as elective, and they might be quite useful( if they were taught adequately ) for enlightenment purposes, building character, fulfilling personal interests and acquiring general knowledge, but my argument here is about the best way to achieve engineering schools educational objectives from introducing liberal arts courses ( i.e make engineering students better engineers not speaking about making them better citizen. That would be a different argument).

 

An added paragraph from the comments might help in clarifying the argument about pure humanities to engineers :

Teaching pure humanities for example international relations to engineering students might enable them to understand basics of global politics (which is good and important) but do not guarantee that this course  will encourage engineering student to  think about engineering through a political lens ( e.g the politics of design or artifacts) or reflect on how their labor is utilized in the broader social and political context or think they could use it to create a better world. I think understanding the political dimension of engineering is as critical as understanding the basics of international politics if not more since it empowers engineers to think about making a change in their circle of influence not just enrich their circle of interest. You might find many engineers enlightened in broader topics of life through taking pure humanities or personal reading of other factors ( which is good and important) but their understanding of engineering is conventional and narrow which make them more susceptible to be utilized for creating harmful products or engaged in unresponsible activities. So balancing both parts is important, being enlightened in the general sense is so important ( taking pure liberal art courses help in this regard, I know engineering education is still behind in this area) but being enlightened in your specialization(e.g understanding its broader implication, recognizing critically its embedded ethics and politics.. ) is essential and interdisciplinary courses work better in acquiring this mindest than pure conventional humanities. I do not see them contradictory actually they complement each other and others.

 

7 thoughts on “Unended quest for meaning and critical understanding of engineering and humanities education”

  1. Mohammed, thank you for your post! It was really interesting to read about all the different paths you have taken in your education in order to become a better engineer (and, I think, a better citizen). Too often, as you recognized, the social sciences and engineering remained siloed from each other, such that it can be difficult for either group to see how specifically they relate to each other. In order to make both, and the students of both, better and more able to cause change using these fields’ principles, there has to be more interdisciplinary discussion. This should be encouraged from the top down, and not occur because students like you are seeking something extra and therefore go outside of their subdiscipline to discover the knowledge they seek. I do wonder how to inspire the kind of thinking you have developed through your diverse educational experience within a single undergraduate program.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kassel,
      Thanks for the fruitful comment. Regarding your question, I think it is a challenging task and it requires top leadership commitment as you mentioned. Introducing interdisciplinary courses that bridge the gap between engineering and social science especially through integrating social and environmental justice lens in core engineering courses could be a very good step to start. But more importantly, adapting engagement and critical pedagogy approaches, fostering constructivist view about knowledge rather than positivist which is dominant in engineering, reforming the culture in the profession ( engineers identity, values,..). Without changing the pedagogy, and reforming the underlying philosophy and culture, the root causes of the problem will not be noticed let alone be resolved.

      Like

  2. So I completely understand when you say you value the pedagogy that strives for “better engineers” and as a result perhaps better engineering education with an eye on the humanities. This means renovating the curriculum and adopting critical pedagogy. On the other hand, I still think enlightenment, building character, and even fulfilling personal interests CAN and maybe should be taken as seriously as objectives by engineering students.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Arash,
      Yes, I cannot agree more with what you said. Not only engineering students but also engineering educators as well as university management and leadership. However, my argument is that even introducing humanities to engineering curriculum might not achieve the objective of the enlightenment fully or event the vocational purposes if it were not taught adequately.
      Teaching pure humanities for example international relations to engineering student will enable them to understand basics of global politics (which is good and important) but do not guarantee that they will think about engineering through a political lens ( e.g the politics of design or artifacts) or reflect on how their labor is utilized in the broader social and political context I think understanding the political dimension of engineering is as critical as understanding the basics of international politics if not more since it will empower engineers to make a change in their circle of influence not just enrich their circle of interest. You might find many engineers enlightened in broader topics of life through taking pure humanities or personal reading of other reason ( which is good and important) but their understanding of engineering is conventional and narrow which make them more susceptible to be utilized for creating harmful products or engaged in unresponsible activities. So balancing both parts is important, being enlightened in the general since is so important ( taking pure liberal art help in this , I know engineering education is still behind in this area) but being enlightened in your specialization(e.g understanding its broader implication, recognizing critically its embedded ethics and politics.. ) is essential and interdisciplinary courses work better in acquiring this mindest than pure conventional humanities courses. Also, they complement each other.

      Like

  3. Hey Mohammed. It’s a really good post. I think humanities play an important part. I remember in my undergrad University back in India, it was compulsory or us to take at least 3 non technical electives and we ended up taking humanities, economics , arts courses and the things we learned in these courses actually helped a lot in the technical courses as well. So I think you are right that interdisciplinary approach should be be encouraged.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Mohammed, it is a great post, and I really like how you linked your experiences in different fields with the topic of this week. It is cool how you start to gain the reader’s attention. Tottally agree with you that the humanities is an critical thing in the education.

    Thank you for sharing this useful post.

    Like

  5. I totally agree with your point about engineering classes and also teaching schedule, which is far away from social skills and improving emotional intelligence as well as logical intelligence. It is memorable to linking your background and personal experience to express your point and I hope more people follow your point of view especially in higher education.

    Like

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