By Bethany Halford
IN A TECHNOLOGY-DRIVEN SOCIETY,
EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT ENGINEERING, AND MORE AND MORE
SCHOOLS ARE TEACHING ENGINEERING COURSES TO NONENGINEERS.
any college graduate to name three famous scientists and the
chances are good that they'll rattle off Einstein, Curie,
and Newton without much thought. But ask those same students
to name three famous engineers and more likely than not you'll
be answered with blank stares and head scratching.
Engineering's accomplishments are no less wondrous
than relativity, radiation, or calculus, and most students
would find that engineering advances have a far greater impact
on their daily lives than the finer points of quantum mechanics.
So then, it seems like a peculiar development in higher education
that all students are required to take some rudimentary science
courses in order to graduate, but they can leave the groves
of academia completely ignorant of engineering.
In our technological age, this knowledge gap is a genuine
liability. People today need to know how to grasp technical
information and to logically analyze data. The goal is to
give nonengineers the knowledge of how the nation got built,
how engineering and public policy interact in our society,
and some expertise in judging engineering works.
"There is a need for this nation to attract and retain
bright students to the engineering profession and to teach
those who have pursued other fields of study the central role
of engineering in all facets of life," says David Billington,
a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton
University. For more than three decades, Billington has been
a trailblazer in engineering education, carving out a path
between engineering and the humanities. His goal: "To
make engineering accessible to all students, to give students
an understanding of engineering, and to inspire professionals
and the general public to continual learning."
Billington's courses, Structures and the Urban Environment
and Engineering in the Modern World, have proven to be popular
among all of Princeton's undergraduates. In fact, between
25 and 30 percent of all Princeton undergrads take one of
the courses. By weaving together technical, historical, political,
and artistic threads, Billington shows engineering's
influences and transformative power from the Industrial Revolution
to the present.
The theme of the Structures course is that, at their best,
structures are works of art—a new art form parallel
to but independent of architecture. This was illustrated by
the The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy exhibition
at Princeton's art museum in 2003, which is currently
on exhibit at MIT. The theme of the other course is that engineering
has transformed American society from rural agrarian to urban
industrial. Billington's colleague, Michael Littman,
has developed laboratories for these courses and co-teaches
the second one with him.
SPREADING THE WORD
Billington's goal over the past decade has been to
disseminate the materials developed for these courses to other
schools around the country. Classes have sprung up at places
like Smith College, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins, Stanford,
Penn State, and Grinnell College. Billington has essentially
grown his own crop of engineering educators who've scattered
to other schools where they bring his vision to the curriculum.
Now, Billington hopes that by making the courses he's
developed at Princeton available to universities all over
the world, he'll be able to expand his educational vision.
"I know that the material is of a permanent quality,"
he says. "It can be done by any reasonably interested
engineering or physics professor."
Last August, Billington and several colleagues held a workshop
at Princeton for faculty from 20 other schools, a result of
which more institutions are beginning to teach with materials
he and his colleagues developed at Princeton. He has already
set up visual information to use in lectures as well as lab
experiments. "These lectures are all visual. We bombard
these people with images and get them into the aesthetic sense
of engineering and its overall importance in transforming
society," Billington explains. "This approach
advances the knowledge and understanding of engineering education
by teaching that all great engineering works integrate scientific
principles, social needs, and individual vision." A
key feature of these courses is that they are based on original
scholarship, which gives students a clear insight into how
some of the greatest engineering innovators thought and worked.
Bill Hammack, an associate professor at the University of
Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, sees his mission as an engineering
educator in practical terms: "You want voters that make
informed decisions on technical issues," he says. Hammack
is also trying to bridge the engineering-humanities gap in
higher education by offering courses that demonstrate how
engineering is relevant to courses like history, business,
Most people know Hammack as the velvet voice of engineering.
His award-winning radio commentaries on "Engineering
& Life" bring the listeners of Illinois Public Radio
weekly lessons on the engineering and technology associated
with everyday objects. Hammack's everyman discussions
on engineering aren't limited to three-minute essays,
though. For six years he's been teaching "The
Hidden World of Engineering" to freshman and sophomore
students at the University of Illinois.
None of the students in the class are engineers, and most
are nonscientists. While the course attracts a diverse mix
of students, Hammack says that it's particularly popular
among business majors. He reckons that business students account
for about 60 percent of the overall course enrollment, probably
because the syllabus delves into engineering's economic
and societal implications. However, this emphasis doesn't
mean the students don't have to be proficient with some
technical aspects as well. "I do use equations,"
Hammack says. "I want them to understand that there's
a mathematical description of an object"—but he
adds that it's fairly simple math.
Hands-on engineering education is also a major component
of the course. Students work in groups on small engineering
projects, which largely focus on the design of everyday objects
but also touch many of engineering's subdisciplines.
To discuss less tangible fields like chemical engineering,
for instance, he talks about salt and salt production. Each
topic explores the choices the engineer made to achieve a
particular goal, Hammack says. "We're trying to
get them to understand the engineering process."
In one class, Hammack hands each group a disassembled VCR
cassette and the students have to put the tape back together.
Most find it a little daunting at first, but Hammack says
he can't help but anticipate the look of satisfaction
that crosses a student's face when the final spring
snaps into place. "If you take a step back and ask,
‘What's the essence of an engineering education?'
you see that it's this thought process to apply a certain
methodology," Hammack notes. By getting his students
to understand and use the same thought processes he hopes
they will "see the technological texture of the world."
George Scherer, professor of civil and environmental engineering
at Princeton, takes a different approach to teaching engineering
and materials science to nonengineers. Instead of bringing
them into the engineering realm, in his class Lab in Conservation
of Art, he shows students the part engineering plays in art
history and art conservation. "Most courses in art conservation
are offered for conservators. What I'm interested in
is the underlying physics," Scherer says. Students in
his class—most of whom are majoring in the humanities,
art history in particular—examine how environmental
factors like acid rain, ice, and salts damage sculpture and
monuments made of stone and masonry. "The idea is to
understand the underlying mechanisms that cause problems,"
The class fulfills Princeton's requirement for a laboratory
course, and consequently, most of the grading is based on
lab reports. "The first lab is a tour of campus, and
I show them which buildings are in trouble," Scherer
says. "One building has absolutely everything wrong
with it"—rusted bolts, salt crystals growing out
of the foundation. The tour is always an eye-opening experience
for the students, he says. Often in their course evaluations
students write that they used to think it was a beautiful
campus, and now all they see is rot and ruin. For their final
project in the class, the students pick something on campus
that's deteriorating—like a picture or a building—and
describe why it's falling apart and how it can be fixed.
"Labs are fun because they make connections to the
lecture," Scherer says. He also tries to provide variety
in the lab. For example, in one lab session, the students
will break stone, then use a scanning electron microscope
to look at the stone's microstructure. Then, they'll
examine how water moves up into a stone and causes it to deteriorate.
"The challenge is to present this real science to them
in a way they can understand and appreciate," Scherer
explains. He teaches the course without using math and instead
tries to put everything in visual terms, relating engineering
principles to things his students have seen. For example,
to illustrate what controls the strength of a structure, Scherer
uses a wishbone. Breaking a wishbone demonstrates the strength
and weaknesses in a structure, and how by concentrating stress
on that flaw, the wishbone will break.
Because the course requires the students to use the Internet
to collect and collate data, it encourages a certain degree
of computer and quantitative literacy. For one lab, the students
learn to use Microsoft Excel in order to make and use a spreadsheet—a
useful skill for real-world accounting, keeping track of spending,
and sticking to a budget, among other things.
Scherer says the first time he taught the class he was horrified
to learn one student had been typing numbers into a spreadsheet
and doing the math by hand, not taking advantage of the programs.
"They're math averse."
Scherer says that he's taken away some skills from
the course. "I think it's made me a better teacher,"
he says. "When you want to clarify something for an
engineer, you just write down equations, but that doesn't
work with these students. I have to put it into more tangible
or visual terms."
John Bennett, associate dean of engineering at the University
of Colorado–Boulder, and James Young, an electrical
and computer engineering professor at Houston's Rice
University, also take a project-oriented approach to teaching
their Introduction of Engineering Design course for nonengineers.
Over the semester, students work in teams to build robots
that can accomplish some task, like play soccer. The robots
are autonomous, not remote controlled, so everything the robot
is capable of has to come from the programming and design
the students give it.
The class—affectionately known as "Lego Lab"
among the student body at Rice—has come to be equally
popular with engineering and nonengineering students. At the
height of the class's popularity students were enrolled
via a lottery system. "I have never thought it was a
good idea to just teach one course for nonengineers,"
Bennett says. "Our society is driven by a technological
engine, and I'd like for our future policy makers to
be technically literate. The real value is offering a course
to both engineers and nonengineers."
With help from Young, Bennett developed the course about
10 years ago, when he was a professor at Rice. He also introduced
the course—and the idea of teaching engineers and nonengineers
side by side—when he joined the faculty at UC–Boulder
four years ago. "We had decided that we wanted to develop
a course for two different groups of people," Young
explains. They envisioned a class not just for nonengineers
but also for budding engineers as a way to keep them from
abandoning their engineering studies in the first few semesters
of their undergraduate education.
"We were losing a lot of those people in the first few
semesters of school," Young says, because of the "eat
your spinach" approach to engineering education. Because
engineering students are required to take several semesters
worth of rigorous math and science prerequisites before taking
the more exciting engineering classes, many get bogged down
and lose sight of what attracted them to engineering in the
first place. "Junior year is when you basically get
to know enough to design anything interesting," Bennett
adds. By that time, many of the students have jumped ship
for other majors.
Students start the course by building their robot. Then,
as they encounter problems or want to get the robot to do
certain things, they start to ask questions that lead to larger
engineering discussions. "We start at the top with a
very broad-brush approach and then we wait until the students
want to learn more," Young explains. "If I told
them all they needed to know up front, half would be bored
and others wouldn't have a clue why I was talking about
Also, Bennett and Young say the course is designed so that
both the engineers and nonengineers are on pretty much equal
footing from Day 1. The engineers may be a little more comfortable
with the quantitative aspects of the class, but the nonengineers
tend to excel in lab. In fact, one of the first things the
students do in the lab is solder together a print circuit
board. It's an activity that comes easier to the students
with the best manual dexterity—often music and art majors.
The class culminates in a competition between the robots.
It's open to the public, and Young says that he inevitably
ends up filling the largest indoor venue on campus with screaming
students, each cheering on their favorite robot. "The
competition is, in fact, a powerful motivator," Bennett
remarks. In all, the students have about 48 scheduled lab
hours, but Young says that it really takes between 60 and
80 hours to build a good robot, and the students usually rise
to the challenge, carving out extra time to work on their
projects. "My original thought was that I should downplay
this competition thing. I thought it might turn off women,"
Bennett explains. "What I found was that my thoughts
on this were way off base." In fact, he found the women
in the class exhibited a ferocious competitive instinct. "They
were asking if they could destroy the other teams' robots."
Young points out that the students' grade in the class
does not depend on winning the contest. "That helps,
but not much," he says. "We want a more collaborative
environment. It's competitive, but it's more for
the glory, not for the grade." Young says that he grades
the class more like a humanities course than an engineering
course. Students are expected to participate in class discussions.
They keep a design notebook and record their progress with
video team reports. They're also evaluated on the quality
of their lab work and evaluated by their teammates. One telling
question: Students are asked to say whether or not they'd
work with their teammates again. "Those make very interesting
reading," Young notes.
Integrating nonengineers and engineers into one class has
proven to be fruitful for both types of student, Bennett and
Young say. "A key lesson that I learned was that nonmajors
brought a fresh perspective to the material," Bennett
notes. "It's clear that these folks are creative.
They don't know what you can't do and that's
a valuable contribution to open-ended design. They're
completely unfettered by what engineers would call ‘conventional
wisdom.'" And this unconventional thinking moves
the engineers to think creatively.
Likewise, the engineers leave the course with both technical
literacy and confidence. "The students learn not to
be afraid of a big project or task," Young says. "They
come out of the course with the confidence to attack large,
complicated problems. They say, ‘I didn't know
anything about how to build a robot but I did it.'"
Bennett recalls one of his favorite student evaluations of
the class: "One woman who took the class as a first-year
student wrote, ‘I have learned why so many of my engineering
friends put themselves through hell to be engineers. It's
because of the awesome sense of achievement you feel when
you build something with your own two hands and intellect
and make it work really well.'"
Bethany Halford is a freelance writer based in Baltimore,