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The T-shaped Engineer: Connecting the STEM to the TOP

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Restructuring/Rethinking STEM

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1237.1 - 23.1237.21

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Paper Authors


Joe Tranquillo Bucknell University

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Joe Tranquillo was the second faculty member in the new Biomedical Engineering Program at Bucknell University and helped build an accredited department with seven faculty and 60 undergraduate students. His teaching interests are in biomedical signals and systems, neural and cardiac electrophysiology, and medical device design. Nationally Tranquillo has published or presented over 50 peer reviewed or invited works in the field of engineering education. In 2012 he was a founding faculty member of the KEEN Winter Interdisciplinary Design Experience and a core faculty member in the Institute for Leadership in Technology and Management at Bucknell. He was the founder and inaugural chair of the Undergraduate Research Track at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference, and co-organized the Biomedical Engineering Body-Of-Knowledge Summit. He served on the board of the Biomedical Engineering Division of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) and was elected as chair of the division in 2012. He is the winner of the 2010 National ASEE Biomedical Engineering Teaching Award and in 2011 was selected to be a National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education faculty member.

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The T-shaped Engineer: Connecting the STEM to the TOPMuch buzz has been generated around the concept of T-shaped engineers; those withboth technical depth and multi-disciplinary breadth. Unfortunately, most engineeringcurricula compartmentalizing the depth (STEM disciplines) and depth (Traditional“Other” Programs, e.g. Liberal Arts, Law, Business) without connecting the two. In thispaper, I highlight two examples where students are required to make a fully formed T,and in the process build not simply awareness of, but empathy for, other disciplines.A traditional signals and systems class will focus on topics such as Laplace transforms,feedback control, data acquisition and signal processing. More enlightened coursesinclude labs or long-term projects that challenge students to design and build a devicerelevant to the discipline. But T-shaped engineers should be able to use their skillsoutside of traditional boundaries too. With that goal in mind, I challenged student teamsin a signals and system course to design and build non-traditional musical instruments.Student still learned the topics of a more traditional signals and systems course but in ajust-in-time fashion. The focus of the class was on constructing an instrument that wouldrecord biological signals and then transformed those signals to MIDI code that was thensent out to the sound system. No prerecorded sounds were allowed, enabling a musicianto generate music on-the-fly. Most importantly, student teams developed their devices incollaboration with a professor of jazz improvisation and his students. In parallel to thebiomedical/music collaboration was a sculpture/dance collaboration, with the objective ofcreated wearable art that would enhanced or restricted dance movements. At the end ofthe semester, all four classes joined together for a public performed in the student center.A second example is a cross-listed course, Brain, Mind and Culture, co-taught with aprofessor of comparative humanities. The course objective was to provide a venue for anintellectually diverse group of students (including engineers) to compare and contrast thedifferent methods, traditions, communication styles, and hot-button issues of theirrespective disciplines. Readings and discussions ranged from historical and contemporaryphilosophy, science, engineering, film, art, and architecture to local and internationalnews. An extra hour was offered during which I introduced a number of technical topicsthat are often skipped in more traditional engineering curricula. These included: agentbased modeling, game theory, non-linear dynamics and chaos, network dynamics, opensystems and self-organized criticality. All students were required to complete anindividual, semester-long project, using the style of a discipline different from their own.It is important for faculty who may want to create their own experiences to understandthe properties of a rich breadth/depth learning environment. First, it is important forfaculty themselves to collaborate across disciplines in designing activities. Second, thefaculty should be collaborating and learning along-side their students, with everyoneoutside their comfort zone. Third, the experience should be unique and non-repeatable.Lastly, in addition to seizing learning opportunities, faculty should highlight empathyopportunities. To create fully formed T-shaped students, engineering educators need toprovide challenges that connect the STEM to the TOP. I hope to stimulate a discussion ofother ways to make the connection.

Tranquillo, J. (2013, June), The T-shaped Engineer: Connecting the STEM to the TOP Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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