Engineering and Humanities

When I began thinking about how I could operate as a “new professional” and help revive education in my field, I found the Edelstein article extremely helpful. I completely agree with Edelstein that humanities curriculum usually demands and prioritizes originality from day one whereas STEM education usually demands reciprocation of information for most of the curriculum and then originality suddenly at the end. Demanding originality from the beginning encourages students to be developing their skills of innovation over a longer period of time and will produce students who are much more naturally innovative and productive when they graduate.

During my graduate studies, I have come to value humanities education much more highly even as an engineering students (even especially since I am an engineering student). The innovative and free-thinking mindset adopted by humanities classes is refreshing and helps develop and entirely new skillset that is equally as crucial to being a successful engineer. As Edelstein noted, innovation and creativity are still crucial in STEM fields and jobs, but we do not train STEM students to develop innovation and creativity. We train STEM students to learn and retain information and then expect them to magically have the ability to be innovative and creative as well when they graduate. That system just doesn’t make much sense.

Moving forward, I hope we can recognize and acknowledge the value of humanities studies for all students. We have seen how more diverse curricula benefit all types of students (as Edelstein gave examples for students in entrepreneurship, engineering, and medicine). Why not more fully adopt this beneficial approach more broadly as we aim to become “new professionals” instead of just continuing with the current trends?

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27 Comments

  1. I agree, there is definitely an opportunity to inject originality in STEM education. As a society we are pushing STEM education more than ever but at what cost if it diminishes our creativity? I think this is where more interdisciplinary education and collaboration would be beneficial. Maybe some of the freethinking mindset you mentioned from humanities would help encourage STEM educators to incorporate creative learning earlier in the process.

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    1. I definitely believe that interdisciplinary education will be more beneficial than education focusing only on STEM. I hope we can restructure our curriculum a bit to allow for more well-rounded and interdisciplinary training earlier on.

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  2. I agree with most of your opinions, but is it available in the real world? I mean most engineering students have difficulty to cover their own major. For increasing originality, should we give up getting knowledge from own major or extend education period?

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  3. I see what you mean and I do think it could be a challenge to add more content into an already-full course schedule for many engineering students. I think it would be most effective to use humanities courses as motivation for building in course content to encourage originality within the engineering courses instead of having students take engineering and humanities courses separately. For example, students could have access to more open-ended projects to apply the course content in a creative way to solve a problem.

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  4. Hooray for an engineer loving humanities! šŸ™‚

    As a humanities lover and student and teacher, I get upset by society’s general push for all things STEM.Yes, it definitely matters, but as you noted, humanities has a lot of merit, especially regarding free thinking, which is something, personally, I think should exist in STEM. Creativity should never be ignored. How to blend these ideas, though, is definitely more of a challenge. I often heard students with your opinion about having a humanities course that is like an outlet to them; they get to be creative and free thinking and have fun. There are not such rigid rules. We should definitely try to better blend humanities and STEM, but it will take time for it to become normalized.

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  5. As a former engineering student, I totally relate to what you’re saying. I remember for semesters taking test after test completing problem sets that resembled something in the book and suddenly being handed a senior project that had no set solution and just being frustrated.

    I think back to the problem-based learning model as a possible solution — just hand students real problems from the start — but I do agree that interdisciplinary studies would help. If STEM students are just taking English to pass it, why not relate the class to how they will need to write in the future?

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    1. Right! I don’t necessarily think that interdisciplinary studies have to look like taking engineering classes and humanities classes separately. I think it would be extremely valuable to just incorporate aspects of humanities classes that encourage innovation into core engineering coursework from the start.

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  6. I also found that article very interesting and enlightening. It would be particularly interesting how the humanities would be blended with the sciences. However, it is important to point out that the humanities must not be viewed just as a tool for the advancement of the sciences. It appears to me that a reasonable way to tap from the best of these two words would be through collaboration. But then, this collaboration would require the establishment of adequate common ground – thus those in the sciences would be required to pursue a bit of the humanities and vise versa.

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    1. I definitely agree that the humanities should in no way be treated as tool to advance the sciences. I think at the very least that we can just take some notes from how humanities courses are framed differently to prioritize innovation when we develop engineering curriculum. Collaboration between the two fields would also be great, and I think that it would be super beneficial to those in the sciences to pursue some humanities.

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  7. I really like how you connected these two topics. I have been finding the same things in my classes and this course has really allowed me to explore these thoughts and try to figure out solutions. While I understand how STEM got where it is but I wonder how we can evolve and also include humanities contributors who often do not get included in these conversations.

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  8. I definitely agree with your point that we are magically expected to be creative upon graduation in STEM. I noticed it a lot when I first started my master’s degree. I went from being told EXACTLY what I needed to know and what to do for an “experiment” in a lab class to being in charge of the direction of my learning and being asked to develop a research question and design an experiment for it. Talk about academic whiplash. STEM requires the humanities in order to be effective. Humanities is needed when considering what research is important, the ethics of research, how to write and communicate, and probably for a lot of things in between. I think it falls a lot on the STEM instructors to emphasize the importance of humanities in STEM.

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  9. As an undergraduate engineer, I always kept asking myself the question of why am i memorizing all these equations, when will I ever use this in real life, we should be learning practical life skills. Had i not chosen to pursue a Ph.D, i think most of my questions would have gone unanswered. However, now that I learned all the basics, I have the necessary tool to innovate in my Ph.D work.
    Since most students are unlikely to pursue a Ph.D, I can see the importance of integrating classes that engage critical thinking during undergraduate education. However, I also understand the need to make students learn other people’s work since you need to have this information before you can provide your own contribution.

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    1. I found memorizing equations to be a huge waste of time because now that I am pursuing a PhD and need to use a lot of those skills I just look up the equations I need! That time definitely would’ve been better spent understanding how to apply different equations and thinking critically about how to approach and solve problems in my opinion. But that definitely does require us to still get the base knowledge necessary to have a proper foundation.

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  10. Thanks for sharing your post Cherice. Speaking from the other side, I think an interdisciplinary education would have benefits for students in the arts and humanities as well. In my experience, I’ve found that having a STEM course where I don’t feel as much pressure to create something new can help to balance my academic life.

    My department offers an art course called Creative Coding which attracts both art students as well as computer science students. As you might expect, the CS students tend to be much more proficient coders while the art students tend to have an easier time conceptualizing a “creative” outcome. I took this class as a student, and it was great to have an opportunity to learn from others who were in a different field.

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    1. That class sounds awesome! My professor co-taught a class one semester with both engineering and arts students and I heard a lot of great feedback about the diversity in teaching approaches, course content, and even what they could learn from their peers in the class. I wish more classes like those existed.

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  11. I think you bring up a lot of great points here… And I can’t help but relate a lot of what you’re saying to different ideas we’ve discussed throughout this class. If we want STEM students to be more creative, then we need to motivate and foster that creativity. The best way of doing so is to first get them to care about the class… We need to motivate, engage, and invite them to take charge of their learning. A great way to do that is with PBL case studies, which actually directly call for creativity on students’ part because of their open-endedness.

    Speaking more broadly though, I think that a lot of STEM classes need to at least have more examples rooted in students’ reality. Too often, STEM classes rely on obscure word problems that ask us to care for the sake of caring rather than giving us something that we can relate to and care about on our own. If we can give students a problem that they relate to and care about, suddenly, I think we’d see a massive shift in their motivation and, by extension, their abilities.

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    1. I totally agree with you that genuine learning is rooted in caring about the problem at hand, which means the problems we have students working to solve should be real or at least realistic. The classes that I have learned the most in allow me to learn based on real or realistic cases that I can relate to. Creating more opportunities like these for students would definitely shift their motivation, how well they learn the course material, and what they take away from the class.

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  12. I didn’t appreciate humanities in college until my last year when I finally took two really incredible courses in early modern European history and environmental politics & policy of all things. I’ve wondered about how to fit more of this into packed schedules and (I hope the English teachers don’t hate this too much, but) I think it would be good to cut out some of the “gen eds” in which skills can be addressed in other courses. If students didn’t have to take two classes specifically on writing on contrived essay topics, they would have space to, early in their university career, experience an engaging humanities class in which they could write about something interesting to them. There is certainly enough writing in humanities courses without having to have a whole class only on writing.

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    1. I agree that schedules can become too packed to be able to fit any meaningful supplementary classes into your schedule. One of my main concerns about cutting out gen eds like core writing classes and allowing students to take a humanities course of their choice instead would be ensuring that those other courses will still focus on developing specific skills that the students will be expected to have moving forward. That is of course assuming that gen ed writing class was working on developing specific skill sets. But there must be some way to open up students’ schedules more because right now they are pretty set in stone (in my experience at least).

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  13. You brought an Interesting issue in this post. I agree with your point that the curriculum of many STEM-based courses does not foster creative thinking and rather focuses on problem-solving in a step-by-step manner (first do this, then calculate that, …). Personally, some of the most memorable and enjoyable courses I had in my undergraduate studies as a someone in the STEM filed were indeed requiring creativity. Among them, one was particularly focused on problem-based learning in which the instructors provided real-world problems from his industry background. I believe integrating PBL and covering materials from the application-based (rather than merely theoretical-based) can be effective to invoke the creativity of students.

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    1. I had a similar experience with my most memorable courses integrating real-world problem solving to encourage creative application of the course content. That is a very realistic and reasonable way to use some inspiration from humanities courses to enrich STEM courses.

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  14. I loved reading your post, Cherice! It is interesting to hear that STEM education is often more fact or content-based than some humanities courses! I went to a liberal arts college where interdisciplinarity was constantly emphasized. In fact, we did not even offer engineering at my alma mater! It is encouraging for me, as a hopeful future faculty member in the humanities, to see your perspective on what the humanities can offer STEM, hopefully we will see more STEAM curricula in the future!

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  15. “STEM education usually demands reciprocation of information for most of the curriculum and then originality suddenly at the end.” I say this ALL the time! I felt disappointed when I finally got to senior design because I felt so unprepared. I think I echoed this in my own blog post this week. We have to get learners involved early!

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  16. What would be your best suggestion on trying to mold creative thinking in someone whose thought processes are generally linear without them feeling patronized or alienated?

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