Engineering involves more than just understanding and applying core concepts.
By Mel Chua
There’s a subtle but important difference between these two statements:
- I’m learning about engineering.
- I’m learning to be an engineer.
The first is about engineering knowledge—learning about engineering as a discipline separate from oneself. The second describes engineering being—a discipline you inhabit, embody, and represent.
Engineering knowledge is crucial stuff. In 2006, engineering epistemologies (“the study of engineering knowledge”) was defined by the Engineering Education Research Colloquies as one of the field’s five main research areas. Questions like what is engineering knowledge, who gets to decide that, and how do we help people obtain it … these are all hugely important questions.
So we talk a lot about the things engineering students should know. But we don’t talk much about the people engineering students (and faculty and staff) are. If we do, it’s usually in the context of how identity affects the way someone acquires knowledge. This is reflected in comments such as: “Well, students from low-income communities tend to come in with less programming exposure,” or, “How can we help women become more confident while learning how to use the machine shop?”
However, we can’t separate knowing from being. There must be someone who knows—and a reality for them to know. Engineering ontologies (the study of being/reality) need to take their place alongside the study of engineering knowledge. What kind of person is an engineer, and what does it mean to embody engineering professionalism and practice?
These questions are more painful and pertinent for some engineers than for others. Not long ago, being an engineer meant being white and male, because the profession excluded most others. We’ve come a long way in making engineering knowledge more accessible—though as a deaf person who struggles to access lectures and meetings, I know there’s still a long way to go. Moreover, it has become much, much harder to access engineering being. What does it mean to be an engineer from a culture whose native language has no words for technical topics? Or to have no clue about what to wear for your first conference because you’ve never seen engineers like yourself in those spaces? What does it mean to be an engineer whose gender identity makes using the bathroom in the department’s building an issue?
Such questions offer a tremendous opportunity for engineering educators. What might it look like, for example, to have engineers who work at hospitals, build bikes, or have three kids under the age of five? Some of us know from experience but most do not. What about engineers who read braille, come from rural Appalachia, raise (or are themselves) foster kids, identify as multiracial, or took several years out of the workforce to care for a sick partner? What might it look like to have engineers who not only cook, sing, knit, dance … but also who cook gluten-free food, sing Gregorian chants, and dance with a wheelchair?
What might it mean to have such pursuits be part and parcel of our engineering practice, not just things we do “on the side” or outside of engineering? We often think of our engineering thinking, training, and tools as powerful items we can bring into other domains. What if we thought of ourselves—all of ourselves—as gifts to the field of engineering?
Even as we change the world by being engineers, each of us also changes engineering. And this is real work. Being genderqueer, Latinx (today’s gender-neutral term for someone of Latin heritage), first-generation college student, or the first/only member of a group in your school or company or field … is a constant project of making it possible to be these things in engineering. It’s the ceaseless effort of stepping into and making new realities. Because once you’re an engineer, nobody can ever say that it’s impossible for someone like you to be in engineering.
Sometimes our work is knowing about engineering; sometimes it involves doing engineering. And sometimes our work is being ourselves as engineers and doing both at the same time. After all, our job includes creating things that have never existed before.
And sometimes, the things we dream up are ourselves.
Mel Chua is a Ph.D. student in engineering education at Purdue University.