Unended quest for meaning and relevance in engineering and humanities education

Introductory note:

Until now I spent a total of ten years as a student in three different engineering schools and completed an MA in liberal education. Besides, I worked briefly as an engineer at a company and spent three years as a lecturer in Industrial and System engineering at a university in Saudi Arabia before starting my Ph.D. at VT in 2017. In this blog, I will try to reflect on my experience in studying engineering and humanities which relate to this week readings. It is still an unended quest, but I hope it could help me and the readers in connecting some dots.


I did my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering (EE). Majority of the EE classes that I studied were taught through pure lecturing. The role of the teachers in those classes was mainly transmitting knowledge to students through a top-down approach and then examine students’ learning through well-structured problems with given parameters that are stated, and the students are asked to find the correct solution. Also, the courses were usually taught as technical subjects with emphasis mainly on basic science and abstract mathematics, entirely isolated from its application and context. One the one hand, I used to enjoy sometimes solving EE problems mathematically such as solving challenging puzzles. On the other hand, I remember how painful it was to spend a long time studying uncontextualized technical knowledge and solving problems without recognizing its implications in real life. This made me feel sometimes that I was studying something meaningless or useless and the most thing that I will get out of it is a job after graduation to cover my cost of living. This experience was the main reason that encouraged me to continue my graduate study in Industrial Engineering instead of EE since I had the perception that IE has a broader application domain than EE.


In 2010, I completed my BS and worked as an engineer in a company the after two years I received a scholarship to pursue a master’s in IE at Arizona State University (ASU). Studying IE allowed me to build on my engineering background and develop more of a business mindset. However, I recognized early in my study of the IE program that focused on equipping students with technical skills and business topics to reduce the cost and maximize profit for the private sector while lacked an emphasis on social and environmental issues, a deficiency in many engineering programs. This influenced my decision to study social science while continuing my master’s in IE resolve this deficiency in my educational background and expand my ability to conduct interdisciplinary research. Therefore, I joined the Social Transformation School at ASU and completed a master’s in Social and Cultural Pedagogy.

During this second master’s program, I was introduced to critical theories which enabled me to recognize political and ideological biases in education. My master’s thesis was on educating engineers to work humanitarian to serve marginalized communities and this changed many of my former views about engineering education. Out of this research, I recognized the dominance of neoliberal ideology in engineering education, which indoctrinate engineers to work within its constraint and respond blindly to market forces without considering the need for structural change in the profession to prioritize public interest and serving society at large. Also, I realized from studying the history of engineering that it has been formed by trends in technology, society, economics, and politics which make it socially-constructed field, not merely objective science shaped primarily by experiments in labs and pure technical knowledge. Our attitudes toward engineering hinge, to a large extent, on what we believe about the nature of the knowledge underlying them. Unlike, scientists, engineers work with a world of their creation which by nature should include more subjectivity.

I learned a lot from studying humanities courses. However, I do not agree that studying any humanity course would improve student professional skills (critical thinking, communication, etc..). Not all the courses I studied in liberal arts enhanced my professional skills or enriched my thoughts. On the one hand, some of the classes I took – especially in my undergrad- were taught precisely like conventional engineering courses through lecturing which made them so dull. Moreover, the assessment in these courses was mainly based on multiple choice exams which assume an objective view of knowledge (i.e., choose the correct answer) and do not promote critical thinking. Actually, I found many engineering students take such courses to raise their GPA, since getting high grades in such classes just requires memorizing the material to answer the exam questions.

On the other hand, my experience in taking graduate-level courses in liberal arts was so fruitful since most of these classes were taught through discussion and dialogue. The class discussions enhanced my communication skills and critical thinking. Taking these courses helped me to get rid of the linear and fragmented way of thinking. After these classes, I noticed that I started to analyze issues from multiple perspectives and based on a holistic approach. I can conclude after reflecting on this experience that engineering education researchers should not take it for granted that liberal art courses promote professional skills since, in the end, this depends highly on how these courses are taught. In my opinion, even a core engineering course could develop professional skills if it was taught through learner-centered approaches and in an interdisciplinary manner. I think integrating liberal art concepts in engineering courses is more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses in anthropology or psychology. For instance, before coming to Virginia Tech, I studied at ASU a class on theoretical views of learning (EDU505). The course covered fundamental theories on learning and knowledge (e.g. behaviorism, cognitive, positivism, constructivism..etc). The course was very rich and informative for me. However, it was not clear to me how I will be using these theories I learned in this course in engineering education context until I took a class at VT on Fundamentals of Engineering Education (ENGE5014) which covered similar content of (EDU505) but with more focus on engineering context. Revisiting what I learned at EDU505 in an engineering context was more exciting, and I was able to connect to the material and reflect on the discussion more efficiently.


This experience enabled me to recognize the effectiveness of interdisciplinary teaching, especially in engaging students’ prior knowledge and experience. It is quite difficult for engineering students to connect what they learn in social sciences class with their engineering background if they studied social science concepts in a separate course. Therefore, I think integrating liberal art concepts in engineering courses might be more effective than teaching engineering students pure humanities courses. Of course, engineering students could take whatever classes they would like in humanities as elective, and they might be quite useful( if they were taught adequately ) for enlightenment purposes, building character, fulfilling personal interests and acquiring general knowledge, but my argument here is about the best way to achieve engineering schools educational objectives from introducing liberal arts courses ( i.e make engineering students better engineers not speaking about making them better citizen. That would be a different argument)



Inclusive Pedagogy

Shankar Vendantam argues that colorblindness is not rooted in psychological reality since our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races. The better approach is t put race on the table and to unpack the negative associations and superficial judgment. I agree with him and I think the issue is not with race but how we deal with race. Race does exist and it is natural to recognize it. However, racism is socially constructed and as educators, we need to educate ourselves and students to be aware of our implicit biases. Taking the implicit bias test might help in this regard. Another way that might help is to engage with people from varios backgrounds and reflect on our personal judgment and expression. During my master studies at Arizona State University, I had the honor of co-founding an organization called “Better Togather” to create positive, meaningful relationships across cultural differences. Through this organization, we fostered knowledge and appreciation of diverse traditions and inspired collective action for the common good. My engagement in Better Together taught me to embrace differences in culture, ethnicity, identity, religion, and ideology. Also, I learned about my implicit biases in many aspects and it challenged many stereotypes that I had.

Teaching inclusiveness, respecting diversity in our divided and full of conflict wold is very critical not just to foster creativity or increase financial gains of companies as mentioned in Phillips’ Article (even though these are good important gains). The shooting event in New Zeland mosque reminds us that hatred and discrimination could end innocent people lives. As educators, we should advocate and struggles for inclusive pedagogy inside and outside classrooms as fundamental educational value and basic human right issue.

Reflections on The Puzzle of Motivation

Ted talk link https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation/transcript

In this Ted Talk  Dan Pink areg that pay-for-performance could improve performance om manual and simple solutions.  However, in complex tasks that require cognitive function this type of rewards does not work. He supported his argument with two scientific studies; one done by scholars at MIT (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&feature=youtu.be&list=PLYTCuiMRMhZoVJ__qUNhoqtvhOWdedepK) and another experiment called the Candle problem. Both studies confirmed that there is a mismatch between what science knows about motivation and what business does.

Modern psychology claim that intrinsic motivators work better in tasks that require cognitive functions. Such motivator would include:

Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives
Mastery: the urge to get better, or develop skills
Purpose: the need to do what we do for reasons more significant than ourselves.

I was interested to hear about the organizations who adopted these ways of motivation and how this reflected on their performance. However, I think it will take a long time for these ideas to become common in the business environment. I believe such a shift require a profound cultural change in business, not just CEO decision. Even to change personal habits takes a lot of effort more than citing scientific studies. Also, I wished if he mentioned other contradicting studies and cases.   Especially that old paradigm of motivation in business (reward and punishment)  is also based on scientific schools in psychology (e.g., behaviorism), and we could find many psychologists still supporting the stick and carrot  and could argue with several examples and experimentations against the findings that Pink provided.

Also hearing this lecture made me think if these intrinsic motivators work only with adults or it also works the same with children?


GDEI-Week1: Networked Learning

I enjoyed exploring reading list. Several articles emphasized the importance of blogging and the open public for students, researcher and scholars. I found Dr. Michael Wesch’s video particularly interesting. I agree with him the conventional way of teaching through pure lecturing makes the students feel alienated. Unfortunately, the majority of the engineering classes that I studied were taught through pure lecturing. Such traditional lecture-based teaching approaches are based on positivism, which is a philosophical theory stating that an absolute view of knowledge exists interdependently of human perception (Prince & Felder,2006). Thus, the role of the teacher is to transmit this knowledge to students. This type of education is characterized by what Freire called “banking education.” In banking education, the relationship between the teacher and the student is hierarchical, where knowledge is transmitted through a top-down approach. As a result, “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.” (Freire & Ramos ,2017).

Learner-centered instruction is based on a different philosophical theory called constructivism. According to Constructivism, people construct and reconstruct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing events. Constructivist teachers should start with teaching content that is relatively familiar to students, enabling them to make connections with their existing knowledge. Also, the new material should be presented in a manner that does not require students to drastically change their cognitive models. Based on constructivism, effective instruction should also require students to fill in gaps and extrapolate material presented by the instructor through collaborative and cooperative learning. (Prince& Felder, 2006).

Learner-centered approaches usually use inductive teaching, as the instructor starts by presenting a set of observations or experiential data to interpret, or a complex real-world problem to solve.  The students are then responsible for analyzing the problem that has been presented and discovering the general principles and facts behind it, in order to resolve it. Inductive teaching is the opposite of the deductive teaching used in traditional engineering education, which begins with general principles and eventually arrives at applications. (Prince& Felder, 2006).It is clear that lecture-based teaching is not highly compatible with the principles of learner-centered instruction.  However, this does not imply the total avoidance of lecturing or neglecting the role of instructors in learner-centered approaches. Instructors still have a crucial role in facilitating the learning process, and sometimes lecturing may be extremely helpful in learner-centered classes.


Freire, P., & Ramos, M. B. (2017). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, England: Penguin Books

Prince, M. J., & Felder,R. M. (2006). Inductive teaching and learning methods: definitions,

comparisons, and research bases. Journal of Engineering Education, 132-138