For Engineers, A Lesson in Humanities

July 15, 2016

Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco

Engineers are primarily builders and makers, they say.

But a new course at Wentworth Institute of Technology is asking engineering students to visualize the humanities and social sciences as an integral part of their careers.

“Wentworth is known as an engineering school,” says Ronald R. Bernier, head of the Institute’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. “This course, with its deliberate focus on the humanities for engineering students, is both experimental and unprecedented here.”

With acclaimed poet Richard Blanco, Bernier is co-instructor for “The Human Engineer,” which stresses the critical supporting role that subjects like history, ethics, economics, sociology, politics, culture, and language play in every engineering project.

To complete the course, for example, students must create a vision plan for a simulated land-use project in Concord, Mass. But they also must focus on interacting with municipal boards and consider other factors, including the community’s history and culture.

And they have to compose a poem.

In a recent class Blanco reviewed those course requirements with his students, telling them that the writing assignment is critical to their training as engineers, because they cannot hope to prepare professional project proposals without practicing things like sentence structure and word choice.

“This is not an engineering design project,” Blanco told the class. “This is all of the stuff that comes before that.”

Conceived by Gloria Monaghan, a Wentworth professor of humanities and social sciences who is also a poet, the course is open only to engineering majors, and is being offered for the first time this summer.

According to Bernier, the humanities and social sciences focus is embedded across the course, which features individual class segments with a dozen Wentworth professors whose expertise ranges from gender equality to poetry, to political science, philosophy and physics.

Together, Blanco and Bernier teach a session on “The Craft of Poetry,” for example, while Professor Lois Ascher leads “Boston’s Molasses Flood: Municipal Planning in a Just Society.” Sciences Chairman James O’Brien looks at “Phenomenology & Physics,” and Professor Marilyn Stern offers, “Performance and Scene Technology.” Ascher and Stern teach English at the Institute.

Students are reminded that history’s great building feats sprang from individuals who were fully engaged in the humanities, including Archimedes of ancient Greece, the builders of the Roman Empire, the artists-scientists of the Italian Renaissance, and the great civil engineers and technologists of the modern world, like Alexander Graham Bell, Ada Lovelace, Gustave Eiffel, Emily and John Roebling, Lillian Gilbreth, Hedy Lamarr, Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page.

“These were and are creative problem solvers, shapers of our future, finders of solutions to real human challenges in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context—that is, engineers fully engaged by and in the humanities, and demonstrating how the ‘stuff’ of humanities is indeed an integral and important dimension of successful and innovative engineers,” according to the course description.

Blanco brings a unique perspective to the class, as a civil engineer turned poet who has used his writing to probe identity issues and explore his Cuban roots. In 2013, he was selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, becoming the youngest person, the first Latino, first immigrant, and first openly gay person to serve in that role. Recently, his writing has focused on the national trauma born of the June 2016 mass shooting of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Wentworth senior Igor Gojkovic, a biomedical engineering major, said students are impressed with the course’s matter of fact, practical approach—the manner in which Blanco, Bernier, and the other professors are demonstrating how the engineering process revolves around humanities and social sciences factors.

“I appreciate the whole idea of bringing these various faculty perspectives together in this one course,” Gojkovic said. “As engineers we work in the material world, but there’s so much more to life in general.”

Another student in the course, Katherine D Diaz, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said that thinking beyond the nuts and bolts and designs has made her a better engineer. “As creators we must understand the world around us, and that begins with being able to communicate with a diverse array of people.”

--Dennis Nealon

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