New York Times Education Life | Henry Fountain | October 31, 2013
Engineering and art were not always completely separate disciplines. Take Leonardo da Vinci, who seamlessly combined the two.
“Five hundred years ago, you couldn’t really tell the difference between artists and engineers,” said James Michael Leake, director of engineering graphics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. But education has become balkanized and the field of engineering, in particular, more specialized, complex and math- and computer-oriented. Today’s engineering majors have little room for other pursuits.
“Learning how to think like an engineer is very powerful,” said Domenico Grasso, provost at the University of Delaware. “But other disciplines also have very powerful approaches to thinking.” Mr. Grasso has long been a proponent of holistic engineering, the idea that through cross-disciplinary learning students will be better able to understand, and design for, the human condition.
At Delaware, the work of putting engineering in a broader societal context involves an interdisciplinary collaboration on a senior design prototype. Among last year’s projects was a device humans can safely wear for chest compression simulations during cardiopulmonary training, and so replace mannequins. Art students made the device look more lifelike. Theater students, acting as patients, helped make it function more realistically.
“Engineers focus on how it works,” said Jenni Buckley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering for the program. “Artists focus on the user experience.”
Few schools actually require engineering students to take art, but the University of Illinois comes close. Mr. Leake incorporates freehand sketching and computer-aided design in his engineering graphics class. Many universities have abandoned such a class altogether, or focus on computer drawing.
Mr. Leake, whose first degree is in art history, believes that learning to make even rudimentary drawings is critical to development as an engineer. “Typically, engineering students are not comfortable with sketching,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, I can’t draw.’ ” But being able to quickly sketch to communicate an idea, he said, “is an enormously useful tool.” It also helps “see” an idea. “To do engineering you’ve got to be able to visualize.”
The Rhode Island School of Design thinks so much of the need to collaborate that it is spearheading a national initiative to incorporate art and design in STEM education — what it calls STEM to STEAM (as in science, technology, engineering, art and math). Art education, they argue, teaches the kind of risk-taking and creative problem-solving that can be applied to, say, health care and climate change.
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