Overwhelmed…

Since I started at VT during the fall 2015 semester, there is one statement that I repeated on the first meeting of practically every class I took: “I am here because I teach engineers, but I am trained only as an engineer and not as an educator.” I arrived at this realization before I left home, but I had no idea about how much there was to learn and how much needed to change from the way we taught and organized our curriculum until I got here. I realized that it was not enough for me to bridge the gap I recognized in my skills and identity as an engineering educator; there are institutional and systemic issues that need to be looked at and addressed as well.

This week’s readings served as another reminder of that realization. It was interesting to note that despite the fact that I came from an institution that placed value on integrating liberal arts education into the sciences, those of us who taught in engineering are still not able to give our students the holistic education that they need. When I reflect and think about it, it is an unfortunate paradox that I hope will change eventually.

Dan Edelstein’s quote from Mark Mills and Julio Ottino’s Forbes article is something that my institution subscribed to: “Innovation […] requires the attributes of the humanities found in right-brain thinking: creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotions.” In the Philippines, degree programs in higher education institutions are regulated by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), which mandates minimum course credit requirements that students should satisfy before being conferred a degree. For my discipline, CHED regulations require students to earn at least 221 credit units over five years (engineering is a five-year program back home), 39 of which are Humanities courses, in order to get a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. At my institution, however, a student needs 256 credit units to earn an electrical engineering degree; they take 27 more units of Humanities courses on top of the CHED-mandated 39 credits. Examples of courses that our students are required to take but are not mandated by the government are Theology and Philosophy courses.

So from the perspective of recognizing the importance of the Humanities, it seems like we made an effort to provide our engineering students with this important aspect of their education. However, I question whether we did more than just place a tick mark on a check box; how helpful will being saddled with 69 Humanities credits on top of 16 service-based course credits and 171 engineering and sciences course credits be to a student? As a basis for comparison, a student needs 132 credit units, 20 units of which should be from the curriculum of liberal education, in order to earn an electrical engineering degree from Virginia Tech.

My students…

What I have observed both as an undergraduate student and as an instructor in this environment is that the significance and positive impact of integrating liberal arts education into the engineering curriculum is diminished because of the immense workload that students are saddled with. Students are, more often than not, faced with choosing between finishing that 200-item problem set over spending time reflecting upon a reading for their Moral Philosophy class. It also does not help that some of our engineering instructors perpetuate the notion that engineering courses are more important to their degree than their non-engineering courses.

Palmer defined the “new professional” as “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the profession’s highest standards.” In order for my home institution to “produce” graduates who will embody this definition, engineering instructors should go beyond the abstract concepts and equations, as suggested in Palmer’s article. We should also foster an environment where the Humanities is considered as an integral part of the curriculum, and not a check box to be ticked off in order to meet “minimum credit requirements.” And most importantly, our higher education system should rethink the workload that we give our students; students should be given a reasonable amount of time to have a positive and balanced learning experience, allowing them to devote just as much time to discipline-specific as well as professional/humanities/liberal arts courses.

All this, however, is easier said than done. There are a number of other things that need to be considered – such as the teaching loads and compensation of faculty members – that I did not discuss here. I can only hope that I can make even a dent of difference when I share all the things that I have learned – and continue to learn – here.

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11 Responses to Overwhelmed…

  1. Alex Noble says:

    Palmer defined the “new professional” as “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the profession’s highest standards.

    ^ This is why we need liberal arts in STEM. Although 39 credit hours does sound like a whole lot, and undergraduate engineering tends to be a 5-year program here as well, though not intentionally (sinister joke). The place where an emphasis on ethics and diversity is not an engineering classroom (at this time). It’s in philosophy, history, sociology, religion, and all those other subject areas that make most engineers feel icky.

  2. qualla says:

    “We should also foster an environment where the Humanities is considered as an integral part of the curriculum, and not a check box to be ticked off in order to meet “minimum credit requirements.” ”

    YESS!! I agree with so many of your points as well as Alex’s comment. We’ve talked about this in Foundations a little as well. Students feel so pressured and rushed with all the strenuous requirements for getting their degrees that the humanities classes are just a box and there’s no space for things like diversity, communication, or studying abroad. But it starts with us, the instructors, to change the culture. As Palmer says, we must recognize that we are a part of this system and that we can influence it in the right direction. I thought that was very reassuring and powerful.

    • Dalya Ismael says:

      As you mentioned, more emphasis should be given to the engineering curriculum (whether undergraduate or graduate) to increase the number of credits from departments that offer humanitarian courses, or increase the number of courses offered. An engineering graduate needs this mix of skill and knowledge, and as Qualla said, it starts with us.

    • Rachel Kinzer Corell says:

      I came here to quote this part (“We should also foster an environment where the Humanities is considered as an integral part of the curriculum, and not a check box to be ticked off in order to meet “minimum credit requirements.” And most importantly, our higher education system should rethink the workload that we give our students; students should be given a reasonable amount of time to have a positive and balanced learning experience, allowing them to devote just as much time to discipline-specific as well as professional/humanities/liberal arts courses.”) but I see you’ve beaten me too it.

      So I can only add: bold, underline, underscore this. It’s so true and so important for higher education. Great post!

  3. Jess Hotter says:

    As I was reading your post something my dad always told me popped into my head, “the best way to show a mastery of something is by teaching it to someone else.” Many people do not realize how difficult it is to actually teach someone else something even if you’re very experienced in the field/topic. I mean there’s an entire major solely for educators…

  4. Hanh says:

    “And most importantly, our higher education system should rethink the workload that we give our students; students should be given a reasonable amount of time to have a positive and balanced learning experience, allowing them to devote just as much time to discipline-specific as well as professional/humanities/liberal arts courses.” As a graduate student, it is not easy to find the balance point between a limited time until graduation and the workload from school and research; between research and coursework; and between major courses and elective courses. I do not deny that liberal art/humanities/professionals brings have their own benefits on student education, but at graduate levels, I will give the priority to major courses and research. So can we try to integrate liberal art/humanity/professional education into major courses?

    • Michelle Soledad says:

      I agree with your last statement/question… it may even be more meaningful for students if ethics and creativity are infused into discipline-specific courses; that’s what they will need to do im the workplace anyway! Thank you, Hanh!

  5. katy p says:

    Having a holistic teaching experience in engineering can be difficult. As an engineering student who is near the end of my studies, I can definitely say I am burnt out. However, given the opportunities to take a course like this one is worthwhile and has allowed me to see the world from a different perspective. I believe as long as we make it accessible to engineering students to have these courses available to them, it will contribute to the type of learning experience you are touching on.

  6. Ezgi says:

    Thank you for your blog post. I share your vision about benefitting from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Obviously, the course load and designs do not allow an effective interaction, yet as teachers, we can learn from each other and integrate perspectives in our teaching practices. I believe we need to start creating the spaces in which we can learn and inspired by each other.

  7. Brett Netto says:

    “It also does not help that some of our engineering instructors perpetuate the notion that engineering courses are more important to their degree than their non-engineering courses.”

    This statement saddens me as someone who was once a STEM major and eventually decided to be a liberal arts major. I agree with your post that there needs to be a better integration of the liberal arts and humanities into other disciplines. I think this is why Virginia Tech has developed the Pathways to General Education program and the minors that are associated with it. http://www.pathways.prov.vt.edu/

    • Michelle Soledad says:

      It is saddening, especially when the reality is that any engineering problem that needs to be addressed has cultural, sociological, economic, and ethical – to name just a few! – concerns that need to be considered and factored into the problem resolution process. It most certainly is not all about the calculations. The whole misplaced “superiority complex” that seems to be pervasive, at least in my environment, also irks me no end. I am truly grateful that I was given an opportunity to come here and see how things can be different. I mean, based on conversations with other engineers here, things are not necessarily perfect yet, but at least there are people and institutions that are making an effort to put forth change – such as VT’s programs like you mentioned. Thanks Brett!

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