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.
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.