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WIP: Liberal Arts Help Engineering Students Change the World

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Ethical and Global Concerns

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Alison Wood Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Dr. Alison Wood is an assistant professor of Environmental Engineering at Olin College of Engineering. She is a distinguished researcher in the fields of both water and sanitation, as well as a researcher and practitioner in using interdisciplinary thinking and approaches to solving environmental and sustainability problems. Dr. Wood is also pursuing her interests in the areas of equity and justice through education and engagement with context and values.

In addition to her teaching and advising duties at Olin, Dr. Wood serves as the Director of the Babson-Olin-Wellesley Three College Sustainability Certificate Program, the Director of Olin’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program, on the Catalyst Board of the open source journal Murmurations, as a member of Olin’s Sustainability Steering Committee, and as a member of Olin’s Context and Ethics in Engineering Education Working Group.

After graduating from Harvard University with a B.A. in Dramatic Literature, Dr. Wood worked professionally in theater and wrote and recorded two musical albums. She then returned to school to study engineering, earning a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University. Dr. Wood then went on to earn a Master of Science in Engineering in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, while working with the Austin chapter of Engineers Without Borders as a volunteer and project lead for a project in Peru.

She has published and presented on incentivizing decentralized sanitation and wastewater treatment, on sustainability of coastal community water and sanitation service options, as well as on integrating liberal arts and STEM education, currently through the vehicle of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program. She has co-designed workshops oriented toward educational change for Olin’s Summer Institute and the joint Olin College-Emerson College event: Remaking Education.

Her love of learning was first fostered by an unusual elementary school education that was deeply interdisciplinary with a substantial arts curriculum, which has informed all her subsequent thinking about the potential for education to transcend conventional models.

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Robert Martello Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Robert Martello, Associate Professor of the History of Technology (Ph.D., MIT, 2001) has led Olin College’s Arts, Humanities, and Social Science curricular development since 2001. Dr. Martello has developed a number of Olin courses that use self directed learning techniques to integrate humanities and social science content with technical concepts and competencies. He published several papers and delivered presentations investigating the relationship between interdisciplinary integration, self-directed learning techniques, and student motivation. Dr. Martello’s history of technology research centers on the connections between technological development, managerial and entrepreneurial skills, and environmental resource use in early American industrialization. His book Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Rise of American Enterprise, was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in fall 2010.

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As part of the ongoing work described in {ASEE 2019 paper}, a professor of environmental engineering and a professor of the history of science and technology collaborated to bring a new liberal arts course to the engineering curriculum at {School} in spring 2019. That work suggested that students learn new ways of thinking, knowing, doing, and being through participation in a transformative liberal-arts infused Grand Challenges Scholars Program. This project-based course was created with learning objectives of communication, critical thinking and reflection, identity development, and embracing many ways of knowing and being. Learning experiences provided scaffolding for students to identify and prioritize the impacts they hope to make in the world; explore paths for making these impacts possible; and begin to share these experiences, values, and ambitions with a variety of audiences. The course asked students to engage with questions such as: As individuals and engineers, how should we pose ethical questions and prepare to advocate for the values that we hold dear? How might we start to understand and react to larger global problems, causes, challenges, and opportunities that surround us? Who am I and what is my place in the world?

The course was a new, experimental offering. The two instructors heavily involved students in shaping the design of the course both in the planning process prior to the start of the semester, as well as through detailed feedback activities during the semester. This paper will explain the goals of the course and will offer an analysis of student responses to the learning experience--which were overwhelmingly positive--based on various feedback mechanisms. Drawing upon the analysis of these data and on the experience of co-creating and co-teaching this course, we have also compiled lessons learned about how to design such a course and the most successful techniques used to achieve desired student outcomes. We conclude with next steps for revising and expanding these learning experiences, which will be implemented in 2020. This entire analysis is embedded in a larger ongoing study of how a liberal arts-focused Grand Challenges Scholars Program can successfully provide transformative learning experiences for students. The experience related herein serves as an illustration of how liberal arts content and methods can be deployed within an engineering curriculum to help students better position their course of study and their professional ambitions within a larger personal narrative and a sense of purpose in the wider world.

Wood , A., & Martello, R. (2020, June), WIP: Liberal Arts Help Engineering Students Change the World Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35557

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