Can the arts and humanities provide key perspectives for engineers in developing awareness of and interest in the environmental and sociotechnical impacts of engineering? How might essential habits and skills necessary for engineers to meaningfully address these impacts be learned using the arts and humanities? We are exploring such questions under a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and assess a curriculum that explores methods of fostering reflective habits and skills in graduate students through activities involving the arts and humanities. Largely informed by the theories of John Dewey, Elliot Eisner, and Donald Schön, our experimental curriculum includes such activities as autobiographical writing with an accompanying art creation, reading about and discussing ethical dilemmas, practicing visual thinking strategies (VTS), writing weekly reflective essays, reading and discussing fiction with strong environmental justice themes, and even collaborating on art projects with graduate students in the School of Art. Incorporating aspects of the arts and humanities to complement engineering thought and action is a critical component of our work, which we describe as developing reflective engineers through artful methods.
In this paper, we present findings from two instantiations of a newly designed graduate course in civil/environmental engineering that integrates the arts and humanities. The objective of our course is to develop engineers who are more reflective than traditionally trained engineers and are thereby better able to: (a) understand and address the complexities of modern real-world challenges, (b) make better ethical decisions, and (c) serve the public not only with technical engineering skills but with mindfulness of and sensitivity to the complex social, cultural, and environmental contexts their work. Thus far, results have been encouraging from both our surveys (reported here) and our analyses of student interviews and writing samples (reported elsewhere). For example, aggregate results from the pre/post Likert-type surveys (n = 19) showed statistically significant increases in Insight, which is a metacognitive factor central to the process of purposeful & directed change (p < 0.02, d > 0.3) and in Contextual Competence, which is an engineering-specific measure of contextual understand (p < 0.001, d > 0.8). We also observed potentially significant increases in Reflective Skepticism (p < 0.1, d > 0.3), which is a measure of reflection regarding the tendency to learn from one’s past experiences and be questioning of evidence, and in Interdisciplinary Skills (p < 0.3, d > 0.3). These self-reported survey results, despite the small number of participants, suggest clear potential that engineering students can develop their capacity for reflection through arts- and humanities-based activities.
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