[To appear in May-June 2018 issue of IETE Technical Review]
Who is a good engineer? An engineer is trained to analyze, design, produce and maintain systems. What about leadership qualities, ability to effectively communicate and willingness to work in teams? These features also are what makes engineering profession. An engineering graduate is expected to have an integrated view of both scientific and engineering disciplines since most engineering programs are science based. When engineering graduates join in a management program, perhaps they further gain a holistic view of science, engineering and management opening up greater opportunities. A growing number of educationists acknowledge that having expertise in multiple disciplines, therefore, is a desirable trait but the actual practice belies this.
You will agree, I’m sure with the following fact. In today’s world, most of us tend to work in isolated domains with no cross-disciplinary awareness. We unwittingly enjoy innovating in our own specialized areas because of the sheer thrill we derive from such innovations. But what does it mean to be working in silos with utter disregard to other disciplines, exactly? Let us see.
It is common knowledge that the economies of major countries in the world are interwoven and are driven by research and innovations in materials science, genetics, computing, communications and other technologies. Technologies are a result of scientific innovations. As the new technologies are adopted by the populations, the social, cultural, economical, environmental and political implications on human societies are immense. Even foreign policy issues and international relations are critically influenced as we grapple with trade barriers, climate change, job creation, security and a host of other complex issues which are truly global in nature. To ensure that these developments do not negatively impact the human societies, we formulate policies and regulations. However, who are competent to make these policies and regulations?
It shouldn’t be surprising to know that scientists and technologists are barely exposed to humanities, social and legal sciences. And alas, it turns out unsurprisingly that policy makers, who are generally social scientists and legal experts, are often stupefied by the rapid technological advances which have become ubiquitous in our lives. So in reality here we are, in a closed world of our own domains of expertise. Writ large, this problem emanates from our inadequate educational system. The consequences of having experts with no holistic understanding are obvious – seemingly ill-formed policies and regulations that could seriously impact us in critical areas such as our work environments, personal and social lives.
The fundamental question experts in education need to examine is how to make technologists understand the issues that the policy makers grapple with? Can we design our engineering degree programs to provide more exposure to social sciences and humanities to the interested students? It is no accident that today we are living in a world where human societies are expecting the experts to provide solutions to the problems they face. If technologists are ignorant of social issues, if they cannot effectively communicate with the policy makers, we are bound to have bad policies and regulations to live with. Put simply, the need for intervention cannot be underplayed.
How, then, do we approach this problem? How can we develop the ability to look beyond the existing order? It appears that for breaking these barriers, higher educational institutes with a focus on training engineers and developing technologies should have stronger teaching and research activities in social sciences and humanities. Similarly, universities where there is a greater emphasis on social sciences and humanities should start science and engineering programs. This framework, promisingly, has a two-fold influential and durable impact. First, it will bring a synergy between technologists and social scientists. What’s more, it will lead us to the ultimate goal of producing scientists and engineers who are socially aware and work for the good of the society.
As hard as it may seem, but higher educational institutes should themselves take a lead here. For example, more recently, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which is a top ranking university in India has announced a five year dual degree program where students study their core engineering in the first four years and in the final year specialize for their Master’s degree in one of the areas of social sciences and humanities such as sociology, foreign languages, computational linguistics, law and governance, economics, science policy, political science, media studies, regional development, international relations and so on. This experiment may look provocative because it runs counterintuitive to the way we predictably think about engineering education.
Our instinctive and undesirable myth is that social sciences and humanities need not be taught to engineering students. This inherent feature of our thinking is a result of pure cognitive bias. But yet I am optimistic that engineering education together with training in social sciences and humanities can bring into being graduates as competent in the engineering discipline as in the social science and humanities domain. This holistic approach has the potential to become the bellwether of future education as higher educational institutes cannot survive if they are averse to change and novelty. Hopefully, trained young scholars with such a broader outlook may eventually play a key role in good governance and policy making. We just need to give ourselves the chance to create a better future.
And now, do you agree with me? What are your thoughts?