The Frey Science and Engineering Center, with O'Shaughnessy Science Hall at right and Owens Science Hall at left July 25, 2011.

Engineering Unleashed - In Search of Outstanding

Eighty-three percent of St. Thomas engineering faculty have attended KEEN Network workshops.

All students know that what they try out themselves, what they “get their hands dirty” exploring, plays a large role in what they end up learning at a deep level. At the same time, they don’t learn everything on their own, in isolation with just their own hands and thoughts. The interactions between students and other students, between students and teachers, between experimenters and thinkers in the wider community – these all combine, allowing students to benefit from the inventions and insights of others in addition to discovering their own way. In both of these learning modes, hands-on individual and interconnecting, curiosity is what propels us beyond the rote work of training and task completion to seek deeper understanding.

Imagine standing in a vast, dark, unilluminated field. There are likely many paths from your initial standing point that you could conceivably explore, but how will you decide the direction of your first step? Now think of your curiosity as a switch – throwing the switch to ON powers bulbs that light up patches of the geography in the distance, maybe the outlines of a few paths winding toward the horizon. These are the tantalizing views that draw you from your starting point to explore your world, both what it already is and what it can become.

One thing the faculty members of the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering see under the illumination of their curiosity is a constellation of questions: In addition to technical and mathematical skills, what do our students need to learn if they are to become outstanding engineers and highly valued participants in their communities? How can we support them? What pathways do we want to find or forge with them?

An old saying runs, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The tools and techniques of engineering, without the judgment, discretion and commitment to use them artfully, are at risk of becoming just a large assortment of hammers. More than being able to solve engineering problems, more than being able to find and pursue engineering opportunities, there are the essential skills of questioning, reflecting thoughtfully and connecting to individual and shared experience that make it possible to ask, “Are we working on the right problem?” Might this be a skill set we can help our students develop?

Supported by a grant from the Kern Family Foundation KEEN Network, we have been diving in, hands-on, in a series of retreats and workshops that allow us to ask a powerful question, one that demands an open and curious approach, thoughtful reflection and the leveraging of decades of combined experience inside and outside the classroom: “What real paths – in our individual courses, through our curriculum, by including the community in our co-curriculum – can we discover and create to transform our incoming students into outstanding engineers?”

This question comes from within, grounded in the core approach to creating value that is all for the common good. Just as is the case with an individual learner, however, interactions with others can spur learning at a deeper level. The KEEN Network is helping us draw on the inventions and insights of other engineering partner schools as well as helping us share our discoveries with those partners, magnifying the impact of our work. Both hands-on as a team of faculty, and as an institutional participant in a larger network of engineering programs, we are heeding the very guidance we often give our students. We are taking the time to ask two deceptively simple questions: “Why?” and “What if?”

Doug Dunston collaborates with the School of Engineering as a facilitator and workshop coordinator. He has advanced degrees in music and physics and is professor of humanities at New Mexico Tech, where he teaches the courses Interdisciplinary Problem Solving, Practical Creativity, and Failure, Change, and Integrity.

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