PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - DECEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 4
Engineering For Everyone: Everyone needs to know about engineering, and more and more schools are teaching the basics to nonengineers. - By Bethany Halford - Illustration by Selina Alko

By Bethany Halford


On the cover:  Engineering For Everyone: Everyone needs to know about engineering, and more and more schools are teaching the basics to nonengineers. - By Bethany Halford - Illustration by Selina Alko Ask 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.


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, and art.

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," he explains.

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 it."

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, Md.


Engineering For Everyone - By Bethany Halford
Model Behavior - By Pierre Home-Douglas
Answering the Call - By Robert Gardner
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Tech View - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
Really Cricket: More British universities are offering degrees in sports engineering. - By Thomas K. Grose
On Campus: Rising to the Top - By Robert Gardner
Research: Delivering the Goods - By John Gilligan
Faculty's Finest: Kevin Kit Parker - By Thomas K. Grose
LAST WORD: Technological Paternalism - By Julia M. Williams


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