You are Not a Brain on a Stick
As engineering educators and students, our bodies matter.
By Debbie Chachra
When Cambridge University closed during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665, Isaac Newton went home, set up a laboratory, and produced breakthroughs from universal gravitation to calculus and optics. This period is now often described as his annus mirabilis, or remarkable year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made us aware of our bodies in ways that are perhaps new for some of us but that are inescapable for all of us. The measures required to reduce transmission of the virus (distancing, masking, frequent handwashing) have dramatically transformed the ways we interact with other people. The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the different ways in which bodies factor into learning.
Higher education in general, and engineering science in particular, leans toward a mind-body dualism—what I often shorthand as “brain on a stick.” But it’s really only possible to think of yourself as primarily a mind when your basic needs are met—enough food to eat, water that doesn’t make you sick, access to adequate hygiene and secure shelter, and artificial light to augment your vision and give you control over the hours in your workday. What the stories about Newton’s plague years rarely mention is that his home, Woolsthorpe Manor, was staffed by servants under the eye of Newton’s mother, who made sure that young Isaac was fed and warm, wore clean clothes, and had light to work by. This isn’t something that all of our students can take for granted. To give just one example, even before the pandemic, some estimates suggested that a third of U.S. college students experienced food insecurity. (See “Learning on Empty,” September 2019 Prism.)
The wholesale shift to online learning in the last year or so is unprecedented, and it’s true that online services like Zoom, Google Docs, and Miro are powerful tools for distributed collaboration. But they also reinforce the idea that our students are primarily brains on sticks and that engaging with each other remotely is adequate. While it’s true that our telecommunications technologies are useful and necessary, not for nothing have we built up a global transportation system. For a thousand years, students have been traveling to be with each other and with educators, researchers, and scholars, even as new communication technologies—the printing press, postal mail, the Internet—arose. We are gregarious primates and embodied learners.
This might be especially true for engineering education. The science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin has offered one definition of technology: “the active human interface with the material world.” This has been the challenge for many of us to rise to—how to facilitate an active human interface through hands-on learning, when the pairs of hands might be tens or thousands of miles apart. My colleagues worldwide have been brainstorming new approaches, redesigning courses, assembling and mailing kits, and creating self-training materials for equipment like 3-D printers, all so that students can engage in experiential learning wherever they are.
Educators and students are learning how to use remote collaboration tools effectively and to explore distributed design approaches, both of which will continue to be important skills in students’ professional lives. And the pandemic has broadened our ability to bring different perspectives into the classroom, since we’re no longer limited to guests who are geographically close and can travel to campus.
But even as we’re exploring the opportunities provided by fully distributed online learning, we are bumping up hard against the limits of what we can do (there are some intensive practical engineering courses that my colleagues are simply not offering this academic year) and the way virtual learning encourages us to neglect our bodies. I have often reminded my students that they are not robots—they shouldn’t expect to have 100 percent productive uptime, and that they need to sleep, shower, and eat. Now I’m making sure to add exercise to that list and also reminding my colleagues (and myself!) that we need to get up and move around too, since so much of our teaching is now sitting in front of a screen instead of walking around a studio. But even as we need to stay physically distant, we can work to be socially close—maintaining our ties via technology until we can once again safely come together as an embodied, hands-on learning community.
Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College.