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The Performing Engineer: Engineering Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Transfer

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Communication as Performance

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Lydia Wilkinson University of Toronto

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Lydia Wilkinson is a lecturer in the Engineering Communication Program at the University of Toronto, where she coordinates communication instruction in the Chemical Engineering department. Her research focuses on interdisciplinary skills transfer and investigates the mechanisms through which students apply their Humanities learning to their Engineering disciplines.

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The Performing Engineer: Engineering opportunities for interdisciplinary transfer

Representing Science on Stage, a theatre elective for engineers at [name redacted] introduces students to theatre and performance by analyzing and performing selected plays about science. Through the course, students are tasked with developing an original scene, analyzing three theatrical texts, and performing an excerpt from one of these texts with a group of their peers. As we work through these activities we make use of our students’ core scientific knowledge and interest to increase the relevance and accessibility of the new discipline, while also supporting their transition by providing a class environment that shares similarities with a typical engineering classroom, namely instructors drawn from an engineering faculty and a classroom filled with other engineering students. While our students may be evolving as performers, they are doing so against the backdrop of their engineering degree and identities.

Through its practical activities, the course accomplishes a number of objectives: first, students gain an understanding of how science is mediated through/by culture, specifically within the performing arts and more generally through the relationship between science and the humanities; second, they develop basic performance skills through improvisation and scene study; third, they build on written and oral communication skills; and fourth, they add breadth to their cultural knowledge. These outcomes are focused on the development of transferable skills, which will remain useful and relevant beyond our theatre classroom; whether our students continue to draw on these strategies in other areas of their education and career, however, is difficult to measure.

This intersection of engineer and performer has long been a part of the course experience and of particular interest to the course coordinators, who observe their students pulling from both these spheres as they develop new and innovative ways to tackle the challenge of theatrical development and performance. To engage this relationship more explicitly, a recently added task, the Performing Engineer, asks our students to more mindfully consider the ways that they are bringing together and transferring skills between these two disciplines. Students are directed to “consider how [they] developed and applied approaches from both disciplines—theatre and engineering—to identify points of transfer between [their] studies as an engineer and [their] experience as a performer.” Alongside a description of their process and the techniques that they applied within this process, students are also asked to consider the future implications of this type of transfer and in turn the future utility of the skills learnt and practiced within our classroom. Student responses to this assignment will show how students can adapt knowledge and approaches between diverse subject areas, providing insight into the lasting impact of a more multidisciplinary education for future engineers.

Wilkinson, L. (2016, June), The Performing Engineer: Engineering Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Transfer Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26995

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