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Engineering education is largely not about teaching students how to do engineering.  Most of the work of engineering is learned on the job, not in the classroom.  Engineering education is about teaching students how to be engineers.  The distinction is subtle, but important.  To put it another way, the curriculum of engineering education only teaches a fraction of what of what engineers need to know and how to practice engineering.  More significantly, engineering education shapes students into the correct “type” of person to be an engineer.  If this is the case, then interventions in engineering education might be misguided to focus too heavily on the curriculum:  adding engineering ethics and social science courses is not likely to produce different kinds of engineers.

Juan Lucena and Gary Downey describe this process of engineering education shaping engineers as “weeding out.”  Weeding out describes the process of eliminating certain students from engineering education, as well as certain traits from individual engineering students.  When I was beginning my own engineering education (I hold a Sc.B. in Engineering Physics) freshman orientation included the now infamous line:  “look to your left, look to your right, one of you will be gone by the end of the year and another won’t graduate.”  Nor was this just an idle threat, the statistics backed it up.  My institution is not peculiar in its attrition rates:  most engineering schools are the same.  The students who are weeded out are not those who aren’t good enough or smart enough, but those who fail to conform to engineering culture.  These students are disproportionately women and people of color which gives the first indication that weeding out in engineering education is supportive of racist and sexist social hierarchies.  Thus weeding out does much more than simply select for the best graduates.

It is not just students that are weeded out.  Engineering education demands efficiency, discipline, competition, and routine.  These traits are valued and competing traits are trained out.  Excessive workloads force students to ruthlessly organize their time.  Thus students must separate their non-work selves from their work-selves.  Their interests other than engineering are restricted to being completely outside of their engineering work.  Hobbies must be compromised, because there is no compromising the engineer’s coursework.  To maintain this structure, the authority of the professor must be absolute, so engineers are trained with a deference to authority.  The grading system and the structural limitations to the percentage of students who can succeed force students to compete against one another for much of their education.  It is clear that what weeds out students is not a curriculum that is too rigorous and advanced, but the oppressiveness that is built into the very structure of engineering education.

Applying Bell Hook’s concept of teaching to transgress provides a way of creating a practice to deal with these problems of engineering education.  This requires the beginning with the assumption that teaching should transgress.  So I presume that the reader, like me, believes that engineers should NOT enter the workforce to create tools of oppression, violence, over-consumption, environmental degradation, conquest, and authoritarianism.  These are the activities engineering education currently trains engineers to engage in.  But what if we wanted engineers to engage in liberatory, democratic, anti-racist, feminist, egalitarian, and empathetic activities?  For instance, this might mean making fewer weapons, fewer consumer electronics, and giving up on pet technologies and instead making products that are designed to be repaired rather than trashed, or explicitly designing technology for the poor rather than for who can pay.  Currently, engineers are taught to do the former rather than the later.  Education is important to changing engineering practice, and Bell Hooks argues that the learning process and the classroom dynamics are just as important to education as is the curriculum.  For her, learning is inherently about revolution and freedom, not domination, and knowledge is intrinsically related to how one lives.  If this is so, then engineering education, which is inherently domineering and suppresses interests outside of the narrow curriculum, is the epitome of anti-intellectualism.

To change this problem we cannot simply change the curriculum, what is taught, but the classroom dynamic and structure itself must change.  The professor alone cannot direct the class, it must be a community.  Because the classroom enacts learning through rituals and practices, these practice must reflect what the students learn.  If students are learning democracy, and authoritarian classroom where the teacher is responsible for learning, responsible for grading, and the final authority on everything, the class will fail.

What might this look like?  One blog post is certainly not enough space to tackle all of problems I have pointed out.  So I will focus my examples on how to make engineering education more democratic.  I leave it to the reader to apply this framework elsewhere.  The changes I suggest can fit into nearly any engineering curriculum.  In this way engineering students do not have to sacrifice, balance, or pile on to what they are already expected to know, but can still avoid being dragged into an oppressive authoritarian system.  Simple exercises like peer grading, peer lectures, and student selected problem sets are hardly revolutionary, but could go a long way into dismantling the authority of the classroom and placing some responsibility on the students.  And we can get more radical yet.  Students could vote on whether or not to count their grades for any particular assignment.  The class vote would decide for every student.  For another assignment or set of assignments, the students could select representatives who would decide, through either consensus or voting, whether to count any given grade or not.  High scoring students have an incentive to work with students with low scores, and low scoring students have an incentive to invest themselves in a class they otherwise might give up on.  It is important to note that such dynamics in the classroom are incompatible with the practice of weeding out.  Through these practices in the classroom, students are not just being taught democracy, but learning by doing democracy.  If the education process itself undermines engineering students capacities to understand or participate in democracy, it matters little how much democracy and ethics are contained within the curriculum.