In early September, my favorite columnist, the influential David Brooks of The New York Times, made a pitch for more liberal arts majors and a rebirth of romanticism at a time when, he believes, many college-age kids are being force-fed more practical majors and pushed into a “mercenary direction.”
He argues that parents are part of an apparatus that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic. This comes at a time when transactional jobs are declining—as technology now performs many of the tasks previously handled by humans—and relational jobs are expanding.
This discourse—albeit exaggerated as viewed from my perch—serves as a sensible lead-in to a conversation about the responsibility of colleges and universities to mold holistic professionals, regardless of major, who are able to demonstrate the necessary mix of humanistic skills and the cognitive abilities associated with “hard” skills. Theater majors, for instance, need to understand basic science and engineering principles, especially as they interact outside the stage with today’s technology-centric world. Much the same, engineering majors should be exposed to the writings of Bertrand Russell and to the songs of Sondheim so that their curiosities will be stimulated beyond the task of understanding mathematical formulas. When this balance is reached, great personal and professional heights are imaginable.
Successful technology innovators are able to aptly meld machines and systems with the social world. These individuals don’t necessarily set out to develop transformative technologies. According to renowned author and occasional Mechanical Engineering contributor Henry Petroski, the breakthroughs materialize from an innovator’s unique mindset that understands the nuances of multidisciplinary, multinational, and multicultural effects.
In his new book, Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan drives home the point that great innovations must pass the test of Petroski’s tenets, as he showcases examples of the force of the engineering mindset.
A biomedical engineer, policy adviser, and researcher at the National Academy of Sciences, Madhavan reflects on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; the ketchup squeeze bottle; Microsoft’s Office Suite; and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window to make the case that these are examples of creations that were spun from an engineer’s mind, crafted with singular purpose, vision, and clarity. He credits engineers for owning a unique vision and the mental tools that foster innovation and deliver creative solutions.
This month, ASME celebrates that very conceptual toolkit, as it pays tribute to those who have distinguished themselves in technology. Some who will be recognized at the Society’s Honors Assembly—held during the 2015 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Houston—are engineers; others are not.
Among the honored is Freeman A. Hrabowski III, whom we also feature in this month’s One-on-One column on page 16. Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a leading U.S. voice in the advocacy of STEM education. He is also an inspiring speaker who encourages an educational environment emphasizing the necessary hard skills along with an appreciation for romanticism. This approach, he offers, maintains an innovative, democratic society. Hrabowski knows “how engineers think” because he works hand-in-hand with many, finding best ways to nurture the minds of the young and the not so young. And that’s something that both liberal arts and STEM-related majors can appreciate.