Engineering: Cultural issues, My vision, and Myself as a Quaker Engineer

In an attempt to understand why I am in this field and what I see my role as being, I have decided to examine the following three questions:  (1) What is the fundamental issue in engineering education, (2) What is my vision of a new engineering education community, and (3) what role do I want to explore in my ideal paradigm.

(1) What is the fundamental issue in engineering education?

The fundamental issue within engineering is the dualistic mindset, grounded in the positivist paradigm which feeds on the notion that engineering is superior and other fields are inferior. This dualistic mindset is embedded throughout the engineering and engineering education culture, and is highlighted in the concept of “rigor.”   During the ASEE Distinguished Lecture, Donna Riley (2013) focuses on the concept of “rigor” within engineering education.  She highlights that “rigor” in engineering education research usually has a formal research question and theoretical framework.  Engineers often think of high levels of complex math as being more “rigorous,” so the field also leans towards quantitative research. Riley also examines the definition of the word “rigor,” meaning that there is a “stiffness,” “cruelty,”  “inflexibility, “ etc. This word “rigor,” that the community has embraced confines the type of research that is acceptable in the field.   Some engineering education scholars have attempted broaden the term “rigorous” by arguing that there is “rigorous” qualitative research that needs to be embraced within the field (Streveler & Smith 2006). I agree that some research can have more trustworthy results, and I appreciate that there is the movement to push engineering education out of the existing box. However, this attempt builds on the notion that there is some work that is fits within a certain box “rigor” and in order to do good research a person needs to follow the set guideline.

Some engineering change agents have attempted to flip the perspective of what qualities are needed in an engineer.  A recent manifesto has declared that engineers need to “find joy in life,” to be “open, trusted, and trusting,” and to be “authentically connected to others.” This manifesto moves the emphasis away from technical ability, ultimately a radical shift in the discourse of engineering (BigBeacon 2013).  Even though I love the thought of a world with all engineers having this approach to life, I appreciate the shift in perspective of what qualities are needed in an engineer and I identify as “this type of engineer,” I know, mostly through failed romantic relationships, that forcing all engineers to live like this will not work. Not all individuals want these qualities in their life and attempting to change another person to be something they are not is wasteful energy.  So identifying an engineer in this light also plays into the aforementioned polarity.  Where the superior engineer is the compassionate engineer.

(2) What is my vision of a new engineering education community?

In order to address this issue, the engineering community needs to move from a positivist to a constructivist paradigm.  In a constructivist paradigm, the basic notion is that each person creates his or her own understanding of the world through experience.  Learning comes from reflecting and challenging pre-existing ideas of the world.  In this space, every individual’s engineering story is respected and valid, and through critical reflection and open discourse, we as a community can engage on appropriate methodologies for given research. The overall community does not hold a superior-inferior dichotomy belief, but there is still room for individuals who are in the positivist mindset.   This view would allow the individual to appreciate and respect the liberal art major, while still having room in the community for the individual who does not have the same appreciation and respect for the non-engineer.  I believe that through reflection individuals will ultimately see that their own dichotomy mindset is invalid, however, allowing that mindset to exist is crucial.

Community standard of “rigor” can and would need to exist, but the limitations would be recognized.  Some problems need rigor to be solved; yet many do not. For example, when an engineer is designing a bridge the structure design needs to be done precise to insure it’s stability.  However, engineers can also work on the aesthetics or be involved with community outreach to determine the uses of the bridge. This work needs to be intentional, requires more creativity, and will ultimately determine the greatness of the structure. There are approaches that are more or less appropriate for this work depending on the community, culture, etc., and research needs to be grounded in past work.  However, this method needs to be more flexible and allow for the messy nature of problem. The engineering community needs engineers in all different forms, and to embrace different engineers rather than trying to make engineers all the same.

In my own engineering story, I entered into engineering based on many of the reasons I have issues with now.  I started off being a chemical engineering student, the most “difficult” of engineering major, at one of the top universities’ in the world, UC Berkeley. I loved the challenge, the mental stimulation, and the complements I received on my intelligence.  As a woman engineer, the standard line people said when I explained my major was, “Wow, you must be smart.” Through this experience, I connected my intelligence to being “better,” and thus sharpening my internal polarity. Since I was smart, it meant that people not studying engineering were less smart.

In my junior year, after reading a work by Dr. Crewe (1997), an anthropologist, regarding engineers designing useless cook stoves because they failed to look at how people interacted with the technology, I started to reflect on my own practice and my education .  In engineering, because of the high prestige of the technical, students do not learn the practical, ultimately harming society.  At that time, I vowed to be a bridge from the social to the technical.

I see education as the way to accomplish this.  Ultimately, I see allowing students and trusting them to follow their own passions is the best way to impact the world, while at the same time, following my own passion.

(3) What role do I want to explore in this ideal paradigm.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Since my time in undergrad, I have put out a lot of energy in attempting to change the existing engineering paradigm and have contemplated what it means to change.  My initial approach was head on, and I learned that approach is emotionally exhausting and I can get burnt out fast.  I have sat face to face with professors and explained how the pedagogy methods are not effective and in my view unethical, only to be dismissed and belittled for attempting to approach the topic. Although I am not giving up on having difficult conversations about engineering paradigm, that is no longer my primarily way to create change in the world. I wish to change by living a life that I believe in, one that embodies my principals and hopefully I might be a role model for others.

A large part of who I am is a Quaker, and so one of the next steps I am going to explore in life is looking at what it might mean to be a Quaker engineer. I see a Quaker design processes as one that seeks unity of all the community members, before a technology can come to fruition.  The technology would have the intention of peace, to enhance equality of all sentient beings, and cultivate a deep respect for the earth.   Upon graduation I am hoping to spend some months in Monteverde, a community in Costa Rica and work with students at a bilingual Quaker school and explore this topic.  I don’t know if this will be a permanent role for me, but I think it is a good first step as a way for me to live as a wholehearted engineer.

Conclusion

Overall, I think the current engineering community has a strict dualistic mindset that attempts to place a box on what an engineer is without.   This thought is grounded in the positivist mindset.  In order to be a inclusive community, we need to embody a more constructivist mindset and allow for and value different types of engineers.  I will be living by example, as I explore what it means for me to be an engineer.

 

References:

Big Beacon. (2013). Big Beacon Manifesto. Retrieved October, 2013, from http://bigbeacon.org/big-beacon-manifesto.pdf

Crewe, E. (1997). The Silent Traditions of Developing Cooks. In R. D. G. a. R. L. Stirrat (Ed.), Discourse of Development Anthropological Perspectives. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Riley, D. (2013). Rigor/Us: Merit Standards and Diversity in Engineering Education. ASEE 2013 Distinguished Lecture, Atlanta Georgia

Streveler, Ruth A., and Karl A. Smith. “Conducting rigorous research in engineering education.” Journal of Engineering Education 95.2 (2006): 103-105

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