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Thinking Like an Engineer: Responding to the Engineering Blind Spot at Liberal Arts Colleges

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engineering Literacy: Champions of Engineering in General Education

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Daniel Flath Macalester College

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Dan Flath, with MS in Electrical Engineering and PhD in mathematics, is a mathematics professor long interested in curricular reform in mathematics. He has co-authored an innovative calculus textbook and worked on modeling based reform of differential equations courses. He is currently working to create an engineering presence for all students in a liberal arts college environment with no engineering program.

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Diane P Michelfelder Macalester College

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Diane P. Michelfelder is Professor of Philosophy at Macalester College. Her primary areas of research inquiry are the philosophy of technology and the philosophy of engineering. She has been actively involved in the creation and development of fPET: the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology, and has served as the president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. Currently, she is co-editor-in-chief of that society’s journal, Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology.

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Despite the growing number of voices proposing that engineering deserves recognition as one of the liberal arts, except for those liberal arts colleges where it is possible to major in engineering, engineering remains a curricular “blind spot” at many liberal arts colleges. As a step toward addressing this blind spot at their institution and assisted by a small internal grant, two faculty members at Macalester College—a mathematician with an engineering background and a philosopher with expertise in philosophy of technology and engineering—developed a first year course, “Thinking Like an Engineer,” which was offered for the first time in Fall 2016. The enrollment was an equal mix of students primarily interested in STEM disciplines and students more focused on the humanities and the arts.

In this paper, we reflect on our experience in offering this course. The first part of the paper describes the goals for the course and how these goals were reflected in the design of the course itself. In particular, we had an interest in getting students to see how engineering is a liberal art by emphasizing similarities between the ways that engineers frame and think through problems and how philosophers do the same. We also wanted students to see that a design problem isn’t solely a technical matter, but is inseparable from ethical, social, political, and historical dimensions. And we also wanted students to appreciate the extent to which engineering design is increasingly done in contexts marked by uncertainty and risk. These three interests motivated the selection of topics for the course, of readings (including Petroski and Kant) and of design problems for students to engage with, with the latter emphasizing the process of thinking over its results.

The second part of the paper considers the impact of the course on students’ beliefs about science/engineering and on their degree of confidence in being able to perform different tasks within the design process. This assessment was based on both quantitative and qualitative data: the former gathered from three survey instruments administered before and after the course, and the latter from student course evaluations and a reflective essay done in conjunction with the final design project for the class. We conclude the paper with a short discussion as to how what we learned from teaching this course adds to the idea that engineering has a place within the liberal arts.

Flath, D., & Michelfelder, D. P. (2017, June), Thinking Like an Engineer: Responding to the Engineering Blind Spot at Liberal Arts Colleges Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29027

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