Introductory note to give context:
I spent ten years studying in three different engineering schools and earned an MA in liberal education.
In addition, I briefly worked as an engineer for a company. I spent three years as a lecturer in Industrial and System engineering at a Saudi university before beginning my Ph.D. at VT in 2017. In this blog, I will try to reflect on my experiences studying engineering and humanities as they relate to the readings for this week in the contemporary pedagogy course.It’s still an unfinished quest, but I hope it can help me and the readers connect some dots and start a dilague on how to make STEM education more relevant and meaningful.
In 2010 I earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (EE). The majority of the EE classes I took were taught entirely through lectures. Teachers’ roles in those classes were primarily to transmit knowledge to students via a top-down approach and then assess students’ learning via well-structured problems with specified parameters for which students were asked to find the correct solution. Additionally, the courses were typically taught as technical subjects, emphasizing fundamental science and abstract mathematics, which were taught entirely apart from their application and context. On the one hand, I used to enjoy solving EE problems mathematically occasionally, such as solving challenging puzzles.
On the other hand, I recall how agonizing it was to spend an extended time studying uncontextualized technical knowledge and resolving problems without regard for their real-world implications. This occasionally gave me the impression that I was learning something meaningless and that the most I would gain from it would be a job to cover my living expenses following graduation. This experience was a significant factor in my decision to pursue graduate studies in Industrial Engineering rather than Electrical Engineering. I perceived IE to have a broader application domain than EE.
In 2010, I finished my BS and began working as an engineer in a company. After two years, I was awarded a scholarship to Arizona State University to pursue a master’s degree in IE (ASU). Studying IE allowed me to expand on my engineering background while also developing a more business-oriented mindset. However, I recognized early in my study of the IE program that it focused on equipping students with technical skills and business topics to reduce costs and maximize profit for the private sector while ignoring social and environmental issues, a deficiency in many engineering programs that concerned me for a while. This influenced my decision to study social science while continuing my master’s degree in IE in order to fill this gap in my educational background and broaden my ability to conduct research and projects that could have a positive impact on the world. As a result, I enrolled in ASU’s Social Transformation School and earned a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Pedagogy.
During this second master’s program, I was introduced to critical theories, which helped me identify political and ideological biases in education in general, and STEM in particular. My master’s thesis focused on researching essential attitudes and skills that could prepare engineers to work on humanitarian engineering projects and serve marginalized communities. This research changed many of my previous perceptions of engineering education, such as its neutrality and considering engineering as a mere application to science. As a result of this research, I discovered the dominance of neoliberal ideology in engineering education, which indoctrinates engineers to work within constraints and respond blindly to market forces without considering the need for structural change to prioritize public interest. Also, after studying the history of engineering, I realized that trends in technology, society, economics, and politics had shaped engineering education and research. So it is a socially constructed field rather than the false perception that it is a mere application to the result of objective science shaped primarily by lab experiments pure technical capacities. Engineers, more than scientists, work with a world of their design, which by definition should include more subjectivity and intersect with politics, culture, and beliefs. Our values and socioeconomic class heavily influence our attitudes toward engineering and experience in the classroom and work environment.
To be sure, studying humanities courses taught me a lot about important topics. However, I do not believe that taking any humanities course would improve the professional skills of engineering students (critical thinking, communication, etc..). In my personal experience, not all of the liberal arts courses I took improved my professional skills or broadened my thinking. On the one hand, some of the classes I took – particularly in my undergrad – were taught exactly like traditional engineering courses through pure lecturing, which made them so boring. Furthermore, assessments in these courses were primarily based on multiple-choice exams, which assume an objective view of knowledge (i.e., choose the correct answer) and do not encourage critical thinking.
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 a holistic approach. After reflecting on this experience, I can conclude 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 and the the philosophical paradigm of the curriculum . In my opinion, even a core engineering course could develop professional skills if it was introduced through learner-centered approaches and in an interdisciplinary manner.
Integrating liberal art and humanities concepts (such social justice , envromental justice…) in engineering courses is more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses on these topics if our goal is to make student reflect critically on their work and identity as engineers. 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 informative for me. However, it was not clear how I would be using these theories I learned in this course in the 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 or STEM in egnral to connect what they learn in social sciences class with their engineering background if they studied social science concepts in separate courses. Therefore, I think integrating liberal art concepts in engineering courses might be more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses. Of course, I would encourage engineering students to take pure huymanity courses , and they are essential not just 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 morre socially and enviromnetally responsilble engineers not speaking about making them better citizen in genral. That would be a braoder 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.
7 thoughts on “Unended quest for meaning and critical understanding of engineering and humanities education”
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.