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Avoiding Another Tower of Babel: Bridging Communication Barriers Among Students and Instructors from Civil Engineering, Humanities, and Other Disciplines in a Multidisciplinary Course

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Integration of the Humanities and Social Sciences into Civil Engineering

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.272.1 - 22.272.17



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Paper Authors


Steven J. Burian University of Utah

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Steven J. Burian is an Associate Professor in the Urban Water Group of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Utah. Dr. Burian teaches courses in sustainable urban water engineering, stormwater management and design, water management, hydrology, hydraulics, sustainable design, flood modeling, and hydrologic field measurements. He earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a M.S.E. in Environmental Engineering and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from The University of Alabama. Dr. Burian’s research team contributes to the engineering of sustainable and secure urban systems. Research areas include stormwater management and green infrastructure, urban water, extreme floods, urban impacts on the water cycle and climate, and the water energy-nexus. Dr. Burian is active in numerous professional societies including the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Water Resources Association (AWRA), Water Environment Federation (WEF), American Geophysical Union (AGU), American Meteorological Society (AMS), and American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE). He is currently the co-Director of Sustainability Curriculum Development at the University of Utah and the chair of the ASCE Rainwater Harvesting technical committee. He is a registered professional engineer in Utah.

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Edward Morris Barbanell University of Utah

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Department of Philosophy

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Maria Dawn Blevins University of Utah

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Bridging Communication Barriers Among Civil Engineering and Humanities Students in Interdisciplinary ClassroomsCommunication among students and faculty from different disciplines – sometimes widelydifferent disciplines – is one of the major challenges facing multi-disciplinary andinterdisciplinary classrooms. Of particular difficulty is trying to bridge the chasm that seems toseparate engineering and humanities students. Through their respective pedagogical strictures,they develop discipline-specific language that engenders paradigmatically different worldviews.Yet when such students are put together into interdisciplinary courses, regardless of the level, acommon foundation in terminology, concepts, and techniques is needed to bridge that chasm.Establishing such a foundation is difficult: not only is there a risk of overwhelming students newto the topics, there is also the hazard of losing the interest of students who may already have anestablished interest in it.This paper will provide an overview of the techniques described in the literature for bridging thedisciplinary boundaries in interdisciplinary engineering classrooms. The specific experiences ofthe authors from several courses offered at the University of _____ are highlighted. In particular,a strong focus is placed on our efforts to bridge the gap among civil engineering and humanitiesstudents in a special interdisciplinary water resources management course. This course wasoriginally offered in 2009 and is being modified to be offered again in spring 2011 semester. Thestrategies and techniques employed to increase the interaction of students from differentdisciplines are described, and the successes are noted. In addition, the lessons that were learnedfrom the experience and that will be incorporated for the next offering are highlighted. Theapproaches applied and tested in the water management course and others include case studyanalyses, writing of position papers, and multi-disciplinary team projects. One key lesson learnedfrom the original offering of the water management course was the need to use projects as casestudies to provide a comprehensive context to terminology, concepts, and techniques. Inparticular, the need to provide case study projects in the water management course was essentialto introduce terminology and concepts in an open ended way that could provide a solidfoundation for those that were new to the topic and still permitted greater exploration forindividuals that had previous exposure to water resources and civil engineering. In addition tocase study projects, the facilitation of classroom discussion and the forming of multi-disciplinaryteams were also found to provide substantial interaction among the disciplines. Finally, the papertouches on the need to identify extracurricular teams for projects and assignments. 

Burian, S. J., & Barbanell, E. M., & Blevins, M. D. (2011, June), Avoiding Another Tower of Babel: Bridging Communication Barriers Among Students and Instructors from Civil Engineering, Humanities, and Other Disciplines in a Multidisciplinary Course Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17553

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