Teaching mechanical engineering at a liberal arts college sometimes feels like living inside an old Reese’s commercial: I’m the chocolate in someone’s jar of peanut butter.
Yet there is a place for engineering – for applied science, design, and technical fluency – in a liberal education. I would argue that it can fit comfortably, and even sometimes deliciously: great tastes that do taste great together.
A liberal education introduces a wide range of methods of inquiry: “ways of knowing” the human condition and the world. These methods include the close, informed reading of literature, for example; the observation, interview instruments, and statistical analysis of social research; and the scientific method of observation and analysis. I believe the methods, values, and history of engineering provide another prism in the kaleidoscopic 21st century liberal education.
Engineering is sometimes defined as “creative problem solving,” and sometimes as “dreaming things that never were, and asking ‘why not?’” to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw. In making a dream feasible, engineers apply a variety of faculties, from creative thinking and visualization to rigorous analysis and evaluation.
One engineering method that transcends the practice of engineering is design. Engineering design is an iterative process in which empathy guides the definition and refinement of a “problem;” possible solutions are developed and evaluated; and prototypes are constructed and tested; with continuous feedback and revision. The “design thinking” approach I teach emphasizes the human-centered nature of successful designs. Empathy, not incidentally, is extraordinarily well developed by the broad reading, writing, and interpretation required for a liberal education.
In engineering design and in many engineering courses, students work collaboratively. They are taught strategies for effective collaboration; they learn that a team project involves stages of energetic attack, negotiation of roles and standards, and respectful disagreement, before a team can truly work together toward a common goal.
Some specific engineering concepts are also widely relevant. For example, engineers use the laws of thermodynamics to consider the feasibility of alternative energy sources. When non-engineers read about wind farms, fracking, ethanol subsidies, or have to decide whether to buy an electric car for their families, they would be well served by such knowledge.
Engineering departments and Colleges can help graduates of their larger institutions become better technological citizens. Being a good technological citizen means asking questions, and not thinking of your phone or your car or an airplane as a “black box,” whose workings are abstract and mysterious. The agile intellectual curiosity fed and fueled by a liberal education should include technology: how it works, how it is made, how it was developed, how it is distributed. As scholar Martha Nussbaum notes, democracies need “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.” A liberal education that includes engineering methods and values prepares this citizen more fully.
At Lafayette College, we are increasingly finding ways to help non-engineering students gain literacy in engineering methods of inquiry and “ways of knowing.” Courses designed to include and engage non-engineers make connections, and instruct students in the rewards of interdisciplinary collaboration. For forty years, we have had an interdisciplinary degree program leading to an A.B. in Engineering Studies, in which students explore the interconnections of engineering, economics, societal issues, and policy. We recruit students from all backgrounds to participate in interdisciplinary design projects.
The National Academy of Engineering in 2008 issued a set of “Grand Challenges” to motivate engineering educators and engineers to consider problems such as clean water, energy availability, and global health. These challenges are inherently “socio-technical,” and are intertwined with geopolitics, economics, and other factors. In working together to define design problems, and to identify possible solutions and context-specific aspects, students from all backgrounds gain appreciation for the methods, values, and history of other disciplines. They develop a mutual literacy in each others’ disciplines, and collaborate in this shared space.
The liberal arts are often defined in terms of what they are not, to distinguish them from the “useful arts” and pre-professional, practical “vocations.” But history teaches us, regularly and reliably, that engineers focused solely on the technical and “useful” will not yield better bridges, safer dams, or more elegant cellular phones. At its core, engineering is about helping people live. Engineers can realize enormous benefits from rounding out their education: among other benefits, this will help them understand and communicate with the people they hope to help. It’s “useful” indeed to read literature from a range of voices; to study sociology and psychology; to appreciate the art and music valued by the world. And for those pursuing non-engineering professions, the methods and values of engineering just might be “useful,” too.
Developing mutual, reciprocal literacies, and even fluencies, that include engineering seems to me a good place for the 21st century liberal education to find itself. Engineering’s role in a liberal education is to share its methods and values – design, collaboration, applied scientific analysis – and to increase the perspectives available to educated citizens.
Jenn Stroud Rossmann is associate professor and department head of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. Her scholarly interests are in the fluid dynamics of blood in vessels affected by atherosclerosis and aneurysm, and in the aerodynamics of sports projectiles. She is also a fiction writer whose work has appeared in failbetter, Cobalt Review, and other magazines.