In my early years, the book worms and history nerds of my classes would wonder what value or application math would ever have for them. The math whizzes would snobbily find novels useless and history lessons irrelevant. However, with the ever-changing faces of science and technology, the development of a collaborative understanding of the engineering, policy and media surrounding each new invention is increasingly pertinent.
For Tech engineers, the need to understand the engineering behind any technology is already obvious. For policymakers and members of the media, on the other hand, this need may not seem as pressing. Without even a basic knowledge of a technology’s functions, effective policy cannot be made, and press releases should not be reported. For example, during the BP oil spill of 2010, the accident was not the result of a CEO waking up one morning and deciding to spill a few hundred thousand barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico just for kicks and grins. This oil spill was, rather, the result of errors in engineering, as many sources of outcry seemed to disregard.
Just as understanding engineering should be important to policy makers and media representatives, comprehending policy should be vital to engineers and scientists. When developing a new technology, the inventor must know all of his or her restrictions and the potential legal implications of the technology. Policy is largely built off of human values and environmental interests, two aspects that scientists and engineers often fail to evaluate. Engineers should recognize other broad implications of their inventions, such as cost effectiveness, impacts on the global economy and political outcries from both vocal minorities and majorities.
Again, with respect to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP’s response was delayed, becoming progressively slower by the day. While the difficulty of engineering did play a role in this sluggish response system, perhaps the time frame was the reflection of a poor understanding of the long-term environmental implications of BP’s activity and the requirements of sustainable living in the Gulf region. Although the ecosystem began to essentially clean itself and restore its initial state, local economies along the coast were destroyed, creating long-term effects for both BP, who paid out billions of dollars in correction, and coastal citizens, who now have to re-establish their economies and livelihoods.
To assist in the development of effective and all-inclusive policy, constructing collaborative groups of policy makers, engineers, scientists and members of the general public is important for decision-making. Bringing this need for collaboration to a very local level, Tech should encourage more flexible, interdisciplinary education. While many research projects at Tech reflect the presence of interdisciplinary work, the coursework and lack of flexibility in engineering class selection do not emphasize the need for a broader education.
Engineering and science students should be required to take more than the basic history and English courses, and perhaps with a little less disgruntlement. Liberal arts courses built in analytical thinking, as opposed to rote memorization of some dates and facts, would be more beneficial to engineering students. Even at the most basic level, stopping after two courses of English is absurd. If engineers cannot effectively communicate their ideas, how will non-engineers ever understand the work of them?
On that same train of thought, liberal arts and management majors should be required to take more than just basic lab sciences and CS courses. They should complete some coursework in more in-depth engineering classes to get a flavor of the kinds of science and technology they will deal with in their future careers, whether it is policy making, analyzing the impacts of a technology on a region or managing a company that has produced a major technology.
In addition to this varied course selection, discussion within classes should not be limited to what the course title suggests. True interdisciplinary education uses methods from multiple areas of studies to analyze a particular issue or problem. For example, some engineering courses discuss creating systems that are energy-efficient, noting the need for alternative energy to pursue sustainable living. In this class structure, students get education in engineering that is rooted in mathematical concepts, societal values and ideas of sustainability.