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Integrating the Philosophy of Socrates into the Engineering Curriculum

Academic institutions in America have a difficult task, being primarily responsible for the education of the population.Higher education institutions play the largest role in developing individuals and helping them find their roles within society.It is then necessary to look into how the best institutions in the country are educating and developing the minds of the next generation of leaders.

In particular, a great focus should be placed in the rising responsibility of STEM (Science Engineering Technology and Mathematics) graduates and their education due to the growing demand of STEM professionals in this era.

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Engineering curriculum’s, for the majority, follow specific criteria to define what is necessary and important for an engineering student to learn. This criteria is set by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which has identified eleven (11) student outcomes upon graduation of an engineering Baccalaureate level program.

Among these eleven outcomes, are three outcomes that involve something broader than technological knowledge, design and methods, and they are: (1) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context (2) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning (3) a knowledge of contemporary issues. In order to accomplish these outcomes, it is necessary to implement ancient philosophies from one of the greatest philosopher that ever lived, Socrates.

Socrates had a lot to say about knowledge, wisdom and education. He is famously known for the ideas that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” “the unexamined life is not worth living, ” and “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. ” Many students and professors in the school of engineering do not realize how little they know. For students, when accepted into a high ranked four-year institution, they might believe they are already among the best and the brightest, and this happens more often in the school of engineering.

Students tend to think they have four more years of education left (typically) since they’ve made it so far already and don’t realize that their learning has just begun. For professors at top higher institutions in Engineering, many have earned at least Master’s degree or better. It is common that most professors hold Ph. D’s at top research universities. With vast amount of knowledge these professors gain, they feel as if they know more than the students. Professors readily admit that they don’t know everything. There are not many opportunities to question the curriculum that is assigned.

More professors can benefit the student’s learning experience by providing an environment to learn beyond what is required. Both professor and students are at fault for not acknowledging their own ignorance, which hinders the students in their intellectual growth. Moreover, once students and professors can come to realize how much more there is to learn this can open a world of knowledge for them. Socrates highly valued curiosity and wonder stating that life should not go unexamined. So how does one go about ensuring the outcomes ABET outlines?

They implement a philosophical approach to technical education. Although this is present in some courses it is not enough. Most syllabi outline in detail what you are going to learn from concepts to chapters to homework problems to exams on day one. Learning is structured and more about following the rules. There is not a lot of encouragement to seek knowledge in other disciplines. The importance of concepts and ideas about other topics such as philosophy, politics, and education is not usually taught in engineering courses.

Yet it is required by ABET for students to have that board exposure to be great engineers. For example, the an aerospace student who is looking to work in the industry after college needs to study the economy and politics. That student needs to understand how the economy stands regarding consumer spending and analyze the possibility of their country going to war. These factors can determine whether or not there is a need for commercial airplanes and/or a demand for defense airplanes.

That student can then have a better understanding of what real engineering problems he will encounter and start thinking of ways to provide solutions by studying more applications of such problems. It is also important to know where that industry is head and looking into trends from the past to predict future ones and have a clearer vision of where to seek employment. This education, however, is not covered in your typical engineering course. Faculty and staff needs to put a bigger emphasis and link to education outside of STEM.

It is the curiosity and wonder of the students that will lead them to self-educate themselves on these broader topics outside of their curriculum that they are expected have learned upon graduation. This leads to the issue that higher education has developed as a compartmentalized learning system, seen more evident in the engineering schools. In my experience at a leading four-year, private, research university, it felt as if the engineering professors were concerned about what the students know as opposed to how they processed thoughts and ideas.

This is contrary to the belief that Socrates had, “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. ” With the focus to memorize formulas and problem solving methods students are just being filled with information and are then tested on how well they can recreate what they learned in lectures and texts in an exam. When asked, most alumni admit that they have retained very little from the concepts and formulas they learned in class. They state what they really acquired out of engineering school was the problem solving ability.

This makes sense, since books and the internet are available to an engineer as a professional; there is no need to memorize the content. Practice with concepts and methods are necessary yet it is more important to understand how these concepts came to be. Socrates would encourage students to ask more about the who, what, why, how, and when in the midst of their learning experience. Developing a critical mind should be the focus of teaching not how well a student can memorize.

Engineering programs across the nation don’t place enough of an emphasis on critical thinking and self-education of concepts outside of engineering. Engineering education is not just about the practice of engineering methods; it’s about recognizing hidden principles, patterns of learning and developing a desire for lifelong learning. With the teachings of Socrates, students will realize what they don’t know and start to become more curious and begin to self-educate themselves outside of the classrooms to become individuals that live fulfilling lives as professionals and members of society community.

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