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Reclaiming General Education: History for Engineers

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Embedding Sociotechnical Systems Thinking II

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Amber Genau University of Alabama at Birmingham

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Dr. Amber Genau is an associate professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She received her B.S. and M.S. from Iowa State University and Ph.D. from Northwestern University, all in materials engineering. Before coming to UAB, Dr. Genau spent two years as a guest scientist at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany, working on metal solidification and microstructural characterization. She is particularly interested in broadening participation in engineering and providing international experiences and perspectives to undergraduate students.

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Andre Millard University of Alabama at Birmingham

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PhD from Emory University in economic history
Editor of the Thomas Edison papers
publications include "Edison and the Business of Innovation" (Johns Hopkins university press), "America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (Cambridge)
Historian of technology, technology & culture, American studies.
teach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

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US institutions generally take a broad view of higher education, requiring all students, regardless of major, to take courses in a variety of subject areas. These general education courses are often considered by engineering students to be entirely unrelated to their chosen profession and are therefore seen merely as hoops to be jumped through on the way to graduation. However, these courses make up a significant percentage of students’ overall credit requirements, and represent a mostly untapped opportunity to meaningfully incorporate the global and societal context required by ABET into an engineering degree program. By partnering with the humanities and social science faculty who teach these distribution requirements, engineering programs have an opportunity to reclaim this portion of the university experience, making it a meaningful component of students’ professional formation as engineers.

This paper will discuss a new, two course sequence that students can use to meet the history requirements at a large, public university. The courses were developed and are being co-taught by a history professor and an engineering professor. The course sequence, entitled “World History and Technology” departs significantly from traditional world history courses by using a Big History textbook as a basis for the course content. Big History utilizes the findings of a variety of scientific technologies developed in the mid-20th century to tell a universal origin story of the human species, beginning with the Big Bang and the formation of the university itself. The early sections of the book (and the course) cover not only what is known about the formation of the universe, stars, our solar system, and the origin and evolution of life, but the development of scientific thought and the technologies that allow us to piece together the evidence for our past. Once humans appear on the scene, the focus remains on broad themes, such as power, water, and the manipulation of engineering materials. For maximum relevancy, the course utilizes a variety of guest speakers and outside reading sources. A group project is used to develop teamwork skills, as well as written and oral communication.

The motivation for creating the course sequence, some challenges in getting it approved as a distribution requirement by the university, and the experience of teaching it for the first time during the 2017-2018 academic year will be described. The paper will also put this effort into context by comparing it to some history of technology courses at other institutions.

Genau, A., & Millard, A. (2018, June), Reclaiming General Education: History for Engineers Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30919

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