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  5. Jeffrey S. Russell: Inspiring engineers to think differently

Jeffrey S. Russell: Inspiring engineers to think differently

Conventional wisdom might suggest that engineering and the arts and humanities are at polar ends of the academic spectrum — with one dealing in exacting, technical and applied science, and the other in creativity, beauty and human expression.

Jeffrey S. Russell argues that some of the most visionary engineers of the 21st century will be the ones who successfully integrate the best of both academic worlds. “Engineers need to be broader and deeper today,” says Russell, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering. “How do engineers address major challenges in a proactive and meaningful way, as opposed to being viewed as a technician? The answer is to be literate in the social, economic and cultural issues, and still have the technical depth to address them.”

Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell (large image)

Putting this together in a four-year undergraduate experience is a formidable challenge for engineering programs, which also face higher required levels of rigor in math, chemistry, physics and biology.

To help, Russell and colleagues created “Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society” (ISSuES). The certificate program provides a structure for students to maximize the impact of their outside-of-engineering coursework and glean more meaningful engagement in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Launched in fall 2009, the certificate received lead support from Engineering Beyond Boundaries and expects to enroll 25 students each year over the first four years.

Russell teamed on the project with Sarah Pfatteicher, assistant dean in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and Daniel Kleinmann, director of the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies and chair of community and environmental sociology.

The Holtz Center provides the perfect academic partner for the certificate. Robert Holtz, a Wisconsin native and successful engineer, and his wife Jean formed the center in 2001 to help people better address the social and cultural ramifications of technological change. Students in the certificate will take one required course, Where Science Meets Society, from the Holtz Center, and have academic advisors from Holtz and engineering. The certificate is built around four academic tracks — ethics, leadership, design and general — on which students will build their own 16-credit program. “We want the students to own the education,” Russell says. “There are guidelines and suggestions, but what ultimately comes out of this is a theme developed by the student, with the help of faculty, to fit a vision.”

Elise Larson, a Biomedical Engineering undergraduate and certificate student, created a vision to understand the junction of engineering and art and to use trends in both fields to reflect the human factor in engineering design. Larson fashioned a group of courses in art history, studio drawing and material culture that will make her more aware of how her work as an engineer is used, internalized and interpreted by society.

Larson’s example demonstrates what Russell hopes to see from the certificate — students combining courses that give added definition and relevance to their professional goals. “We underachieve in the humanities and social sciences in the sense that many students look at them as requirements that must be satisfied — as we say, ‘check off the box’ — as opposed to thinking about them in an intentional, integrated development perspective,” he says.

So far, students have entered the program with diverse interests, including ethical questions involving health and medicine, leadership skills and what it means to be an effective leader, and policy issues.

Russell notes that the intersection of engineering and art has long been recognized and says humanities disciplines challenge engineers with a different way of thinking.

“Think about the incredible amount of preparation, organization, creativity, movement, thought and execution that goes into a dance recital,” he says. “There are lots of similarities to engineering, but in a completely different context.”