Building Sustainable Interdisciplinary Bridges

Engineering education has received much scholarly attention from historians of technology, in part, because looking at education offers a window to how the societal roles of engineers have been communicated both explicitly and implicitly [22, p. 738, 23]. Engineers' understanding of this role is shaped by their assumptions about how science and technology work. This is because ideas about the relationship between science, technology, and society underlie the engineers' decision-making process. Since the turn of the twentieth century, these ideas have been informed by engineers' educational experience of reading texts about the inevitability of technological progress. [15, p. 754, 22, pp. 740–741]. Although the notion of inevitable technological progress is widely shared within the engineering community, it is deeply problematic to many social scientists. The fact that engineers' predominant understanding of technology is counter to that of social scientists raises questions about how engineers are exposed to the social sciences and points to a need to develop new learning opportunities.

Is there anything new to try? In the 1960s, there were substantial initiatives to incorporate the humanities and social sciences into the engineering curriculum. One pedagogical approach involved describing why technology's adverse affects on civilization required engineers to learn the humanities: the humanities would help engineers to avoid technologies' negative consequence. Another method gave social scientists the task of developing courses that could make engineers into expert policy-makers, without substantial curriculum reform. The third approach was to make engineers more introspective by assigning readings that would allow them to use the social sciences and humanities in the same way that they used mathematics and science. During these 1960s reforms, historians of technology became embedded in the engineering culture as they sought to make the humanities relevant to engineers in a way that made them effective managers of technological progress. Although the programs did not last, the impression that engineer's should manage technology's inevitable progress remains powerful today [15]. The Summer School seeks to offer something new: a collaborative opportunity that brings engineers and social scientists together. Collaborative learning and knowledge production, however, is not easy [10, 24].

Although the social sciences are continually recognized as an important aspect of the engineering curriculum, they are often interpreted by engineers as a way to learn how to “put yourself in another person's shoes,” as one Summer School participant described. This understanding, however, misinterprets much of the social science scholarship, which develops concepts and analytical approaches to better understand science, technology, engineering, and society. For example, historians, sociologists, and philosophers all use different methods and theories to do their work. Some studies are highly empirical and descriptive and others are more conceptual. Some studies aim at explanation while others seek normative evaluation, or ethical analysis. Some focus on the theories and methods of science and engineering, while others pay closer attention to social forces [25, p. 5]. Instead of trying to “put oneself in the other's shoes” ethicists and philosophers of science, in particular, have emphasized the importance of trusting the authority, perspectives, and opinions of the people who are not in a position of power [26].

The social sciences and humanities are steadily described as a necessary part of the engineering curriculum, but are mostly viewed as a way to teach students communication skills. Students often perceive these sorts of courses as irrelevant requirements that must be fulfilled. Engineering faculty are hesitant to give too much time to such courses, and thus they usually remain a distinct add-on, noncritical, non-technical course in an otherwise integrated curriculum [15, p. 754, 27]. The Summer School is a distinct departure from this history, but also constrained by its legacy. While it does provide students with an intense social-science immersion opportunity, the course is not part of the core curriculum. The social sciences are relegated to the summer, in part, because there is little time to engage them during the regular semester. When students finally find themselves at the summer school, they struggle with the unfamiliarity of open-ended discussions even while they recognize the limitations of lecture-style instruction. The Summer School experience is a distinct outlier in their educational experience—a feature that magnifies its challenges and successes.

Conclusion

Histories of engineering education have examined how the training of engineers positioned them with respect to larger societal roles [22, p. 739]. In the postFukushima world, nuclear engineers are positioned to assume a new social role. In fact, this is what they are being instructed to do. Students are learning from their professors about the widespread severity of the Fukushima events on the future of the nuclear industry. Students were told that they were at the Summer School to learn how to communicate in a global society. They have been charged with rebuilding the trust of the nuclear engineering community; a task that they have inherited, like it, or not. They are being asked to think and act differently—to challenge their professors, to challenge all of their assumptions, to find their own answers. Students are hearing that it is time to expand the scope of nuclear engineering. Programs are being restructured. The Summer School provides those that are doing the restructuring with good evidence about: the value of discussion as a tool to facilitate critical reflection; the importance of collaboration for enabling engineers to inhabit new societal roles; and the necessity of incorporating student perspectives during curriculum reforms in a way that allows students to become active participants in shaping the future of nuclear engineering.

 
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