Thursday, February 18, 2016

Building a Bridge Between Engineering and the Humanities

Building a Bridge Between Engineering and the Humanities . . . Acquiring the habit of overcoming habitual perception is one process that brings engineering and the arts together. It is how great writers impart human experience in new ways, and it is how engineers innovate. Technology does not proceed along a preordained single path, as one might suppose from a textbook or problem-solving approach. Like literature, engineering sometimes works not by satisfying recognized needs but by creating the needs it satisfies. And that is also like literature: Tolstoy did not satisfy someone’s need for a novel called Anna Karenina. But Tolstoy did provide his readers with a glimpse into Anna’s inner life. Similarly, engineering thrives by going beyond the technical into the realm of its human users. 

More and more, engineering education is recognizing the importance of understanding devices, systems, and processes in terms of the people who use them. At the heart of human-centered design is empathy, and empathy is what literature, above all, is good at teaching. When you read a great novel, you identify with a character, experience what she is experiencing, follow her thoughts and feelings moment by moment from within. You do this with people of a different culture, age, gender, social class, nationality, profession, and religion. You do it with several characters in the course of one long novel, and not just once, but countless times, until it becomes a habit. Empathy creates better people and better technical innovations for people to use. 

So how do we ensure that more skillful innovators emerge from academe? Boosting enrollments in STEM is not enough. An educational system that merges humanities and sciences, creating whole-brain engineers and scientifically inspired humanists, fosters more than just innovation. It yields more-flexible individuals who adapt to unanticipated changes as the world evolves unpredictably.

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