A liberal education introduces a wide range of methods of inquiry: “ways of knowing” the human condition and the world. These methods include, for example: the close, informed reading of literature; the observation, interview instruments, and statistical analysis of social research; and the scientific methods of observation and analysis. The methods, values, and history of engineering provide another facet in the prismatic 21st century liberal education. Of course, the more facets a prism has, the more light and colors are revealed: the more fully we see each other and the world.
We prize the many benefits Lafayette engineers receive from their liberal arts courses, context & experiences: their communication and critical thinking skills; their appreciation of history and the societal context in which they hope to practice engineering; their development of ethics, professionalism, and empathy; and the opportunities they have to participate in the arts, athletics, and other pursuits. However, we have traditionally been less vocal about what the presence of engineering on Lafayette’s campus offers other students. Engineering methods and values transcend discipline, and can provide an interesting lens on the world.
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Lafayette offers many routes for non-engineering students to gain literacy in engineering methods and “ways of knowing.”
The annual Lafayette Forum on Technology and the Liberal Arts brings experts from various fields to our campus, and fosters community dialogues on relevant topics. Courses designed to include and engage non-engineers in the methods, history, and values of engineering are often taught as First-Year or Science and Technology in Social Context seminars. For nearly 50 years, we have had an interdisciplinary degree program (Engineering Studies) leading to an A.B. in Engineering, in which students explore the interconnections of engineering, economics, societal issues, and policy. And in all our engineering programs, we encourage students from all backgrounds to participate in inter- and multi-disciplinary design projects, often with entrepreneurial components.
The National Academy of Engineering in 2008 issued a set of “Grand Challenges” to motivate engineering educators and engineers to consider concerns such as clean water, energy availability, and global health. These challenges comprise technical issues intertwined with geopolitics, economics, and other factors. At Lafayette, we have emphasized the socio-technical nature of these Challenges and recruited multidisciplinary student teams. In working together to define and address context-specific design problems, students from all backgrounds gain appreciation for the methods, values, and history of other disciplines.
The liberal arts are often distinguished from the “useful arts” or professionally-oriented vocations. But history teaches us, regularly and reliably, that engineers focused solely on the technical and “useful” will not yield better bridges, safer dams, or more elegant cellular phones. Engineering is about serving humanity, so an understanding of the human condition is central. And for those pursuing non-engineering majors, the methods and values of engineering might be “useful,” too.
But we do not become educated only because it is “useful;” we do so to comprehend the human condition, in order to become humans who may lead meaningful lives. Developing literacies and lenses that include engineering is part of a 21st century liberal education. Here at Lafayette College, the methods and values of engineering – design, collaboration, applied scientific analysis – increase the perspectives available to educated citizens.