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MIRACLE MATERIAL - A multiuniversity collaboration yields lasting improvements in engineering education. + By Margaret Loftus

Like many faculty members at well-known engineering schools, Gary Lee Downey wears several hats. On campus, he teaches engineering classes and shepherds new research projects. Off campus, he serves as a consultant for such companies as Michelin North America, the U.S. operation of the world’s second-largest tire maker. But here’s an eyebrow-raiser: The Virginia Tech professor is an anthropologist. Although he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering, his master’s and Ph.D. are in cultural anthropology.

By infusing his students with social science theory and methods, Downey aims to improve their ability to function as engineers. “There’s a widespread belief that engineering education is too rigid, and its graduates aren’t always flexible enough to work with people outside of engineering, who tend to define problems differently from those who have gone through the traditional engineering curriculum,” he says. “Our hope is to help bridge that.” He’s not the only academic attempting to span the gap. Across the country, universities have begun to leaven engineering training with exposure to workshops, courses, and research projects conducted by social scientists. Collaborators include sociologists, psychologists, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, geographers, historians, and even philosophers. While the movement has yet to sweep the engineering education establishment, it is gaining momentum. National organizations such as ABET, ASEE, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Engineering now encourage such collaborative efforts, prompting more schools to move in that direction.

“It’s part of the pathway for having a bigger impact for your work,” says Rebecca Wright, a professor of computer science at Rutgers University who heads its Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science program. “If you’re providing a solution, you need to know how it would work in the real world. Social scientists can help you.”

The strongest push for this interdisciplinary approach comes from a growing group of schools that have set up science and technology studies (STS) departments. Downey, for example, works in Virginia Tech’s STS program. These programs meld natural and social science to broaden the horizons of future engineers and influence engineering education.

The main way social scientists contribute to engineering education is by getting students to pay attention to the users of products they design. By learning how people operate machines, drive on highways, or deploy robots, engineers will develop handier, more practical items. “When I was an undergraduate engineering student, I was handed equations and told to plug data in,” recalls Jameson Wetmore, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “But technological systems work only if they mesh with social systems.” A case in point: ASU’s Global Resolve program developed smokeless, odorless, and efficient ethanol cookstoves for African villages, only to see them sit unused. Later, a newly arrived ASU expert on international development pointed out the problem: The stoves were too small for typical households and too narrow for their clay pots. Moreover, brewing ethanol was laborious. Asking such an expert to review the design before production might have helped match the stoves to residents’ needs, Wetmore observes.

Opportunities for cross-fertilization seem boundless. Political scientists, for example, can help engineers understand the dynamics of securing government approval. Psychologists might foresee organizational problems that would have slipped under the designer’s radar, while economists bring a fresh perspective to evaluating the fiscal and energy impact of a particular engineering approach.

In his work with Michelin, Downey helped resolve sharp differences in approach between U.S. and French engineers. The Americans had proffered a plan to sell more tires, but the French were lukewarm. As Downey explained it, the U.S. engineers were taught to be problem-solvers, and so concentrated on improving mass-production techniques. The French, steeped in mathematical refinements, were intent on new tire designs. Downey worked with the U.S. design team to come up with – and pitch – a new proposal. Mathematically exquisite, it could both accommodate new designs and cut the time between design and production. Paris was enthusiastic, and the two sides began speaking the same language. “It’s an example of an engineer asking an anthropologist for help in communicating with other engineers,” says Downey.

At the very least, social and behavioral scientists can acquaint engineering students with basic investigative techniques and analytical methods that can enhance their ability to tailor designs, construct new research projects and products, or evaluate a prototype. Consider the impact of a seminar Miriam Kahn, a University of Washington anthropology professor, and a colleague conducted for Boeing engineers when the firm was vying for business in India’s expanding air-travel market. “They taught us about the ethnographic approach — observing, doing interviews, and setting up some focus groups,” says Calsee Robb, an aeronautical engineer who was Boeing’s point person on the project. The engineers then studied how Indians used railcars — the main mode of travel for most – and were fascinated to learn that passengers sat facing the center of the car and moved freely around the train socializing. While that wasn’t practical for airline cabins, Robb says, the finding led to small design changes in the passenger compartment. Inspired, Robb went on to take one of Kahn’s university courses.

On a broader scale, social scientists offer engineers a set of qualitative tools to assess risks, navigate potential political obstacles, and communicate with the public — particularly about complex global challenges. Addressing climate change or developing sustainable cities, for instance, will require a working knowledge of human behavior and foreign affairs along with a deep grasp of chemistry and civil engineering. On narrower challenges, social scientists can aid engineers in drafting plans for managing a department, designing experiments, preventing wrong moves that might cause consumers to reject a product, and advising firms on how to compute costs, repatriate profits, and decide whether to outsource jobs.

Social scientists in so-called applied fields — urban planning, for example — seem particularly compatible with engineering. Like engineers, experts in criminology, communications, energy policy, industrial psychology, and sustainability use social science techniques to solve problems. Juan Lucena, an associate professor in the liberal arts and international studies division at the Colorado School of Mines, says engineers are gradually learning that everything in the technical world has social dimensions and human dimensions, and that the two are always interconnected. “No longer can engineers say, ‘We’ll do our thing and you do yours,’” he says. “There’s no longer any simple separation.”

Future Shock

Rapid globalization and the advance of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics heighten the need for engineers to seek out social scientists. “With the emerging technologies, we now have more complex systems to deal with, and they’re more obviously intertwined with social systems,” says Donna Riley, professor of engineering at Smith College and an ardent proponent of fortifying engineers with social science perspectives. “There’s more public awareness involved.” She points to the raging controversy over the expanding production of genetically modified foods, which Americans tend to accept matter-of-factly but which still ignites protests in Europe and the developing world. But even conventional technologies can involve increased interaction with people, Riley says. The construction of huge electric power grids, for example, requires engineers to site the networks’ major components in ways that respect both the natural environment and the layout of communities.

To be sure, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between engineers and social scientists isn’t always easy, especially on campus, where new interdepartmental efforts of any kind can bring about collisions in approach, language, and values. Moreover, engineering students already carry such heavy course loads that convincing them to add an elective that doesn’t seem directly related to their required math and science classes can be a tough sell. Structural problems can stymie efforts, too. Faculty members in one discipline or specialty typically can’t advance by teaching in other departments — or publishing research in journals outside their field. Collaboration can also mean splitting research money several ways.

Historical prejudice lingers. M. Granger Morgan, a physicist who teaches engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, wryly recalls “the widespread notion” among physicists “that nothing goes on in the social sciences that a physicist couldn’t invent at a cocktail party.”

“That’s not true, of course,” Morgan adds. At the same time, many social scientists have had little contact with math or science beyond master’s-level statistics courses and worry they would lack the requisite depth of understanding if they joined forces with engineering departments. Morgan and others say collaboration works best if social science participants have a track record of empirical studies that produce hard results, as opposed to opinion-based papers or social commentary. “There are empirical research activities in all the social science disciplines,” Morgan observes. Which discipline is appropriate for a joint project “depends very much on the problem you’re addressing,” he says. To flourish, interdisciplinary projects require enthusiasm on both sides, institutional encouragement, and a willingness to credit each other’s contributions. The key to working across disciplinary boundaries, concludes Morgan, “is figuring out how to build an institutional relationship that involves stabilizing ways for people to work together — so you really can understand each other.”

Hybrid Creations

To date, STS departments are relatively few and small-scale. Pioneers include Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Rutgers, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Arizona State, Virginia Tech, MIT, and the Colorado School of Mines. Carnegie Mellon and RPI maintain interdisciplinary engineering programs that offer dual majors incorporating both engineering and social science skills. The University of Virginia’s School of Engineering offers STS as a minor. The Colorado School of Mines grants a graduate certificate in science and technology policy.

Yet collaboration between engineers and social scientists seems destined to spread as a result of encouragement from ABET, the accrediting agency, and the National Science Foundation, where Director Subra Suresh made interdisciplinary cooperation a priority. “Much of NSF’s involvement is motivated by the observation that engineering problems are really people problems, too,” says Jeryl Mumpower, an NSF division director who teaches at Texas A&M. Further encouragement has come from groups such as the newly formed Society for Social Studies of Science (known as 4S) and the International Network for Engineering Studies. Large U.S. corporations, as well, are hiring social scientists to collaborate with engineers.

Growing classroom interest could spur the pace. Patricia Ann Kramer, a University of Washington professor trained in engineering and anthropology, says younger students are eager to get more exposure to social science. Kramer proposes including the social sciences in undergraduate engineering education — first in classes and later for senior projects. “If we begin the collaboration early, it will continue for the rest of their lives,” says Kramer, a civil engineer who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology. In time, as Virginia Tech’s Gary Downey can attest, today’s bridge-building may yield better engineers and more useful designs.


Art Pine is a freelance writer and former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

photo collage by lung-i lo


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