Chachra 2014

Five Things I Unlearned After Engineering School

Shedding false assumptions is the beginning of wisdom.

By Debbie Chachra

Displayed on the checkout counters of the bookstores that I frequent, there seems to be a growing collection of volumes with titles like What I Learned in Design School, or What I Learned in Business School (I live in a college town, admittedly). But a generation out from my own undergraduate engineering degree, I’ve spent a surprising amount of time unlearning what I learned in college, and I work with engineering educators to help them do likewise. So here’s my contribution to the genre:

1. Engineers are smarter than other people. I had some of the best grades in my high school, and I was admitted into an ultra-rigorous engineering science program, one that half the students flunked out of after the first year (see item #2). We were told, mostly implicitly but occasionally explicitly, that we were the smartest students in the university. It turns out it’s easy to think you’re smart when you’re hanging out only with other engineering students; it wasn’t long after I graduated that I began to appreciate how brilliant writers, historians, anthropologists, and people in many, many other fields are, never mind all the smart people without formal disciplinary specializations.

2. Math and physics are hard. My friend Nick Seaver, an anthropology professor at Tufts University, likes to share a possibly apocryphal quote from a giant in his field, Gregory Bateson: “There are the hard sciences, and then there are the difficult sciences.” I started my education in engineering physics, and moved on to biology and biomaterials, and I remain astonished at how frequently I see engineers approach biology with an Occam’s razor-style mind-set. In engineering, we’re often taught to optimize systems so they are as simple and efficient as possible. But biology is messily complicated—millions of years of evolution have shaped biological systems for resilience, not efficiency. In fact, this is probably why we’re still around: optimized systems are brittle—it’s why there are massive cascading delays for passengers when fully sold airliners are grounded by bad weather. For the past decade or so, I’ve been doing engineering education research, and I now I have a far greater appreciation for the complexities of studies where the humans can’t be abstracted out of the system.

3. Science is objective and universal. There’s a famous test for identifying passive voice, created by Rebecca Johnson for her students: if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, it’s passive voice. The widespread use of passive voice in scientific papers effaces the researchers themselves and makes the work come across as universal, because anybody (even zombies) can be the active agents in the work, and replicability is what science is about. While this is a laudable ambition, in reality, the people who are doing the research matter very much indeed. Nowhere is this more obvious than with gender. When osteological analysis of Viking warrior mummies was finally performed, it turned out that half of the bodies buried with swords and shields were women. Modern studies of hunter-gatherer societies show that the majority of calories come from plant sources, and only a third from meat; the common misperception that the opposite is true likely resulted in part from 19th- and early 20th-century Western researchers studying (male) hunters and not (predominantly female) foragers. Emily Martin has detailed the many ways in which the implicit anthropomorphization and gendering of egg and sperm cells has led to misleading or outright inaccurate understanding of the fertilization process. But all science—what gets studied, how, and by whom—is socially constructed.

4. A woman in engineering is just “one of the boys.” When I was in engineering school, my program was less than ten percent female. If you asked me then, I would have said that I was “one of the boys,” no different from my male peers. I’ve observed a similar pattern with students and alumnae today—they consider engineering school to be gender neutral, until they’ve been out in the workforce or in graduate school for a few years and the accumulated weight of gender bias leads them to recognize it in their memory of their undergraduate experience. Of course, sometimes it is apparent to women while they are still in school, as observed in a recent study by sociologist Susan Silbey at MIT that focused on undergraduate engineering students: Female students overwhelmingly reported negative interactions in their classes and internships that were directly related to their gender.

5. Lectures and problem sets are the most effective way to learn engineering. Like many of my colleagues, I came to teaching having been exposed to a default model of education: broadcast lectures, coupled with individual work such as problem sets. When I started as a faculty member, I recapitulated what I had learned about teaching as a student, preparing a syllabus that was a list of topics and lecture notes. In the years of teaching and education research since then, I’ve come to recognize that alternate models of learning—notably, student-centered, project-based learning experiences that emphasize context, communication, and self-direction are a better fit for more students, result in more effective learning, and better prepare our graduates for their careers—and lives—once they leave engineering school. I hope that they will have far less to unlearn than I did.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at Olin College.