Teaching engineers communication and the humanities

West Virginia University researchers are developing a holistic cross-disciplinary engineering education project to advance the professional formation of engineers to better prepare them for the more complex problems of today and tomorrow

By Jake Stump August 26, 2019

If you’re an engineer, you can probably build a bridge or a car or an app. But can engineers effectively communicate? Can they market your ideas or comprehend the business side of their work? A West Virginia University research team, spearheaded by Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources faculty, wants to add those sorts of tools to the toolbox of tomorrow’s engineers.

Researchers have been awarded a $200,000-National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to undertake a holistic cross-disciplinary engineering education project to advance the professional formation of engineers to better prepare them for the more complex problems of today and tomorrow. Engineering students will now have the opportunity to develop facets of problem-solving skills that complement their traditional math and science skills, such as management, economics, communication and public policy. The project includes co-investigators from the Reed College of Media, the John Chambers College of Business and Economics and the College of Education and Human Services.

“When we talk about engineering, the first things that come to mind are math and science,” said Kakan Dey, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “Those are predominant parts of engineering, but all of the solutions engineers develop are not solely for engineers.”

“If you do not know the end user and their expectations and challenges, how can you come up with an optimum solution? Most of the time, the problems we are trying to address aren’t engineering problems. They’re social problems.”

Take the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. Built in 1937, it was then the longest suspension span in the world and considered an engineering marvel. But no one predicted the traffic congestion nightmare it would eventually become, with an expected 500 million crossing it annually. Even less foreseeable were the 1,700 suicides that have taken place since the bridge’s construction.

David Martinelli, a leading proponent of holistic engineering is a civil and environmental engineering professor and co-investigator on the project: “The Golden Gate Bridge is a useful metaphor for the scope of the challenges faced by engineers in the context of today’s global grand challenges such as energy, the environment, national security and transportation. It is critical to design for a specific objective without creating unintended consequences.”

“Our project embraces a mandate that engineers must respond to a changing world,” Martinelli said. “The new American engineer will need to have additional disciplines and skills like leadership and management, economics, psychology and communications. A new engineer must think broadly across disciplines and consider the human dimensions at the heart of every design challenge.”

The research team has developed a course that places undergraduate students from civil engineering, strategic communications and economics together to define and solve those problems. In this project, faculty from Learning Sciences and Human Development will train engineering faculty on social science research methods. Students will simultaneously work in multi-disciplinary teams, on multi-disciplinary topics, guided by multi-disciplinary faculty and graduate students.  The grand challenge is transportation, specifically the development and implementation of autonomous vehicles.

“We want to challenge our students with open-ended problems because we don’t want to give them a very rigid path,” Dey said. “That limits the innovation capacity. We want to develop their innovation skills and how they can work as a team.”

In this project, students work on open-ended problems on future automated transportation system. “Automated vehicles for transportation obviously have technical implications,” Martinelli said. “But there are also so many other facets, such as public acceptance of the technology, changes in travel demand, safety and regulatory oversight. Holistic engineering is catching on as an important innovation in engineering education and the NSF’s sponsorship of this project is a huge validation.”

West Virginia University


– Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

Author Bio: Jake Stump, director, West Virginia University Research Communications