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)



Connecting the Dots: Overcoming my Forgotten Self to New Beginnings

This is it. The one blog post to connect what I have learned throughout the contemporary pedagogy course to showcase full understanding and mastery of the subjects taught. But this is not true and in my mind does a disservice to the course itself. A lot of challenging topics and discussions happened in an environment … Continue reading Connecting the Dots: Overcoming my Forgotten Self to New Beginnings


Part 23, “And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them” of Seth Godwin’s STOP STEALING DREAMS caught my attention this week. I felt isolated during my entire undergraduate program. I was lucky to have one or two friends in any of my classes. Like Godwin said, it’s because all assignments, tests, quiz, and homework are done individually for the most part. This is especially true for science disciplines, where everything is rote memorization, even the upper-level classes.

Biology, chemistry, anatomy, athletic injuries, exercise physiology, nutrition across the lifespan, even organic chemistry lab, whatever class you wanted to name, the course structure of the majority of my undergraduate classes was the exact same. We’d have our multiple choice tests, online quizzes, and homework assignments. If there weren’t homework assignments in a class, you would be expected to take tests every 3 weeks. This made it really difficult to get to know the other students in the class. If you weren’t able to make friends in your major, you likely wouldn’t have anyone to study with for the tests or anyone to ask questions about the homework assignments. You were isolated from everyone else who had friends within the major. I feel like the most successful students in my major were the students who had made friends early on, like in their first year, and continued through the program with the same set of friends.

“Oh but a solution would be to talk to whoever you’re sitting next to in class and make friends with them so you can study together.” That’s not easy. Especially if that person is introverted, shy about meeting people, or if everyone in the class is different from them. I was the latter. My career goals did not match any of my classmates, I wasn’t interested in the same hobbies, I didn’t participate in club activities that were related to my discipline, and I wasn’t interested in finding a physical therapist to shadow with. For the most part, students in my major (nutrition and exercise) were interested in a limited number of careers, becoming a physical therapist, physician’s assistant, or a dietitian. I wanted to do research in a public health setting. I thought I was in the wrong major because I wasn’t meeting anyone with similar interests.

I only had three friends who were in my major and I met them externally through my social clubs. Two of them were a year ahead of me so we didn’t have our core classes together. My major is the 5th largest major on campus and yet I had such difficulty making friends and meeting people through my classes. My friends in other majors, such as business or engineering, always had a solid group of friends that would study for exams together, work on homework assignments together, and, lacking in my program, do group projects together. We criticize our engineering and business programs for their issues with teamwork but we often overlook our science programs where there is virtually no teamwork opportunities.

I made my first in-major friend my senior year. She and I shared the same interests; we wanted to pursue a graduate degree in some sort of public health program and work in research. How did I meet her? We were two out of five students in a new class that our department was testing, Food and Nutrition Toxicology. The class centered around discussions and presentations. How did we both individually decide to take the class? We found that the course content was interesting and seemed applicable to our research interests. Also, we both struggled in traditional classroom formats.

Blog#5 Don’t let (little) people sit in sh!t

The reading this week definitely gave pause for reflection.  Parker Palmer said, “We are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”  Turning our head or doing things just because it’s part of the job or not part of our job are not acceptable excuses for not taking a human stand when necessary.  Palmer also said we are “in but not of” the institutions.  Dan Edelstein wrote about a liberal education that promotes “independently minded individuals” and Dr. Sonia Henry wrote about medical students losing their empathy. The writings reminded me to do the right thing, the human thing, and what I would want someone to do for me or my children.  I could share and say academic things that relate to this, but instead I’ll share a story about basic human needs. 

If you have a weak stomach or you are eating, don’t read the rest of this blog.  Not too long ago, I walked into the office to the most putrid smell I have ever smelled. It filled the entire office to the point where I thought I would vomit.  When I asked my secretary what happened, she motioned to a little boy and said mom was on her way (she lives about 5 minutes from the school).  The kindergarten boy had an explosion…the kind where there was brown up and down the back, coming out the socks and shoes, and everywhere in between. The mother had given the child a laxative and it hit him while he was on the bus riding to school.  We always have spare clothes for kids who have accidents and the staff is happy to help out, but this was going to require a shower.  When nobody showed up, I looked at my Assistant Principal and said get a bag and off we went to the nurse’s office loaded with wipes, clean clothes, and a little boy who needed somebody to the right thing. I told him I had a little boy once and that it was ok to have an accident.  I cleaned him up from chest to toe and handed the soiled wipes to my AP while she held the bag.  I told her that sometimes you have to override the decisions of others and do what is right for the child.  Some people were willing to let that little one sit there until mom arrived (which didn’t happen until 40 minutes later).  When I brought him back to my office all cleaned up, I asked him if he felt better.  He didn’t say a word, he just walked over and gave me a big hug.  As the principal of an elementary school, I can definitely say my most important job that day was to do the human thing and clean some poop.  I told my AP that the lesson of the day was, we don’t let kids sit in sh!t.

Connecting The Dots – Reflection


I have served as a teaching assistant and instructor in my time for several courses at the Virginia Tech.   The Contemporary pedagogy class has helped me to reflect on my teaching method, style, and strategies. But it has also made me think and rethink whether I want to continue teaching in my time in the United States. This brought me to crucial question what purpose do I seek from teaching and what should be my politics?

During my time at Virginia Tech, I heard several stories by Ph.D. graduate students of the experience of teaching undergraduate classes. The teaching experiences of my colleagues differed based on discipline, gender, nationality, race, etc. My best friend, who I spent almost every single day of my academic life working on several projects together, also taught classes in the political science department. He comes across as a white male with a mid-west English accent. His experience of teaching hugely varied from mine. He often got outstanding SPOT scores, good comments; students sent him to thank you messages, etc. My experience was the opposite. Being a woman of color, speaking English in desi accent, acceptance by the student remained a significant difficulty. I always had to try harder from him, and I had a lot to more to emotionally process. The rolling eyes of the students, rude emails, and not following instructions properly are a few things to mention. I vividly remember when one of my students used a racial slur to address me in front of my class.  I also want to acknowledge, I have got good responses and acknowledgments of my work in the class from students of color, international student, and students coming from the immigrant families.

I kept saying to myself, “It’s not me; it’s them.” But then I always questioned myself why to get into this emotional ordeal every year. What purpose do I achieve? As an advocate for subaltern rights, I have been a firm believer of the fact that education is the most empowering tool for the marginalized population. It gives the ability to recognize oppression and the ability to act over it. But as a social movement theorist, one of my key learnings have been to be strategic. ‘Being Strategic’ means when and how to act in a manner that you can be most effective in achieving the intended goals.

My best friend graduated this semester, and we talked over our aspirations for the future. He wants to focus on teaching. He enjoys teaching and feels that he can be an effective teacher. In my case, if given a choice I would not like to teach again in a predominantly white school. (But if I have to, I  teach, to sustain myself). Students in these schools have a sense of entitlement and instructors like me struggle to be more effective. I think if I have limited time in the United States I want to focus on research then teaching.



Things I am going to keep in mind as a future teacher

The practice of education has probably the biggest impact on our society, starting from the scale of an individual to shaping the future of life on earth. Before taking this course of contemporary pedagogy, my perception of education like many others was very much limited to the idea of exchange of knowledge between the educator and the student. My thoughts on being a good teacher would revolve around only how to become a more efficient facilitator of the technical knowledge. There are numerous other facets, like taking into consideration inclusion, diversity, ethical issues, the human factors that would extend a teacher-student relationship beyond the classroom, that makes the process of education complete.

Every year my PhD advisor creates an yearly family newsletter sharing the events of his family with all his students. I find this really sweet, it lets me know that my advisor is not just a great scientist, he is a great father and husband who loves to spend time with his family! And this knowledge affects the dynamics of my interaction with him, allowing it to be more informal and personal. For the class that I am a TA for, the professor asks the students to write something good or positive about their exam on the top of their test paper. Among the wide variety of things they write, one of the students addressed the professor as “the fantastical Mr. S”! This caught my attention and immediately made me happy and made the tedious task of grading much enjoyable. There are innumerable ways to connect to our students, and making such human connections goes a long way in making a classroom a better place not just for learning the subject, but to be a more respecting, thoughtful, appreciating and tolerant person.

Just like every research topic needs a good motivation, learning a subject becomes way more interesting once we know why we are learning it and how it affects the world we live in. It is imperative for students to be aware of the ethical issues, the environmental impacts, the interdisciplinary crossroads that surrounds a topic for them to have a complete expertise on the subject. My biggest takeaway from this course was that it forced me to think about teaching as a much more comprehensive practice of sharing not only knowledge, but also emotions.

Pass me my shield please.

“We can rebuild the entire system around passion instead of fear.” ~ Seth Godin

Because if we want a better education system that doesn’t dictate from atop an ivory tower, we must build it ourselves, we must be ready for battle, we must be revolutionary.

The research is there, we’ve seen that carrots and sticks don’t work. So why do we keep relying on rote memorization and obedience as markers of learning? How do we speak truth to power? Or perhaps more importantly, how can we encourage students to speak truth to power, when as educators, we are often seen as the power in the room?

Palmer recommends we strive to seek an “academic culture that invites student to find their voices about the program itself”, which in turn creates opportunities for support from faculty and staff. However, I don’t quite buy in to the call-and-response way of building culture. I strive to understand and recognize ways we are interconnected.  We must work together to create the kind of world we know is possible. We can stand up and with one another even in battles that are not our own; laying a foundation for brave spaces. Demonstrate warriorship and the courage required to speak out against the status quo, to have unpopular views, and to break silence in pursuit of positive cultural transformation. Be willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations and make mistakes with one another, rather than avoid difficult topics.

We need to entrust our students with these messy problems and encourage them to speak about the ways and means learning is a choice and a pursuit to gain greater participation and be a better human in our society.

“Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms—that is, how to build networks that make us smarter” ~ David Weinberger

For myself, smart rooms and networks must remain rooted in empathy and compassion for others. My hope is to plant seeds of leadership and grit in to the classroom so that students will feel empowered through knowledge and training.

Connecting the Dots Through “Critical” Pedagogy

There is a need for a paradigm shift towards “critical” pedagogy in which we, as educators, have a really big responsibility to improve and transform ourselves in fostering criticality in the classroom not only to let students think beyond but also to encourage them to find their voices by education.

I found Seth Godin’s TED-talk titled “Stop stealing dreams” highly crucial for anyone, who has been/will be teaching, in terms of his critique of the current education system by historicizing it since the beginning. He starts endlessly questioning “what school was/is for” in his talk.

Image result for seth godin what is school for

He argues that the sole intent of universal public education was not to train the scholars of tomorrow but to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in. Godin very nicely explains this logic by historicizing the actual aim of the capitalist system which was to train “human bodies” to be productive, mechanic yet obedient and docile (workers) for the sake of the effective functioning of capitalism. He further talks about the ways in which “school” seeks to normalize people with the particular textbook, force them to take standardized tests which eventually brings about ranking system.

Specifically, I really like how he makes an analogy between school and factory and ties it to the complaint of educators when students ask: “will this be on the test?” He says, “when we put kids in the factory, that we call the school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance. Why are we surprised that the question is ‘will this be on the test?’

This is a very important insight that we think about if we, as educators, really want to transform ourselves towards “critical pedagogy.” As our guest lecturer, Dr. Hometo Murzi, mentioned last week when we were talking about the assessment of PBL, firstly we can think about “measuring experience instead of test scores” if we believe that “our students are more than their scores” as Dr. Michael Wesch says in his TED-talk.  Again, similar to our class on PBL, Seth Godin also talks about the need to “transform the teacher’s role into a coach.” And, I believe, the most interesting part of his speech is his question, which implicitly covers what we have discussed our class throughout the semester: “are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots?” In this regard, he argues,

We’re really good at measuring how many dots they collect, how many boxes they have filled in, but we teach nothing about how to connect those dots…you can only teach it by putting kids into a situation where they can fail. Grades are an illusion. Passion and insight are reality. Your work is more important than your congruence to an answer key.

At this point, I believe, Godin can be put into conversation with J. Palmer. Palmer, in his article “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” similarly discusses the current education system and how it shapes students’ personalities as “being” future professionals. Palmer overall suggests that,

The education of the new professional will offer students real-time chances to translate feelings into knowledge and action by questioning and helping to develop the program they are in. I am not imagining a student uprising but rather an academic culture that invites students to find their voices about the program itself, gives them forums for speaking up, rewards rather than penalizes them for doing so, and encourages faculty and administrative responsiveness to student concerns (p. 12).

Similar to Godin’s points, he also suggests five proposals to educate the new professional, which are:

1) “We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us as if they possessed powers that render us helpless — an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue”

(2) “We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects”

(3) “We must start taking seriously the ‘intelligence’ in emotional intelligence”

(4) “We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support”

(5) “We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them” (pp. 9-11).

Specifically, I found the fifth proposal very interesting, sincere, and supporting on the part of educators. He affirms that mentors must be exemplars of an undivided life, that is to say, mentors must also show how to tackle with this question: “How do I stay close to the passions and commitments that took me into this work – challenging myself, my colleagues, and my institution to keep faith with this profession’s deepest values?” (p. 11) I believe this is equally as important as teaching criticality to create a “circle of trust” between students and instructor.


Palmer, P. J. (2007). A new professional: The aims of education revisited. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning39(6), 6-13.



Did Engineers Even Have Empathy in the First Place?

Reading Dr. Henry’s article this week about medical students losing their empathy struck a chord with me. I vividly remember the night last semester during the small group I lead with my church when one of the medical students spoke up with a prayer request. He was on his ob-gyn rotation and had just that day had to tell a family that their baby no longer had a heartbeat. As he broke down, he told us that he didn’t want to lose this empathy – the sense of why he was doing what he was doing and the purpose behind it.

When I think about engineering, I try to think about it in the same way. Engineering is a profoundly human profession, even though our engineering curricula may not reflect it. Everything we do — the time spent our research work, the projects we bid for, the designs we produce — has a purpose. However, often when you ask students why they want to be engineers, you hear “because I’m good at science and math” or “because I want to make a lot of money”. This effect is compounded during undergraduate education, where courses that incorporate the humanities like engineering ethics often aren’t required classes for students. I know when I was doing my BS, the closest we got to a discussion of ethics was talking about professional engineering licensure and the danger of putting your Professional Engineer (PE) stamp on a drawing that you hadn’t checked (not even because someone might die but because you might lose your license)! I’m having a hard time remembering and discussion of how the application of design principles might affect communities or how to make a hard cost-benefit decision when one comes up.

Palmer’s essay was especially meaningful to me, especially having taken Engineering Ethics and the Public last semester (Fall 2018). As I think about that class and compare it to Palmer’s essay I can’t help but think about the example of the resident that couldn’t listen to all of her patients and caused one of them to die. I was reminded of our discussions in Engineering Ethics of the importance of engineers valuing non-scientific experiences (like that of citizens in Flint, Michigan who knew something was wrong with their water but didn’t know how to prove it) and remembering the people for whom you are working instead of a nameless and faceless entity. This class also really encouraged a deep reflection of recognizing our responsibility for our work and grappling with the idea that “knowing is not enough”. In our class, we had to write a “story of self” where we examined our own lives and values and the point at which we are willing to confront inhumanities instead of staying silent.

I believe that as we prepare the engineers of the future, we as educators must, as Palmer said, “insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.” We need to confront students with ethical dilemmas and encourage them to think now about how they will react, instead of throwing students into dilemmas without preparation and hoping they don’t feel “overwhelmed” enough to do the right thing. Engineers need a sense of empathy – to remember that we are serving in a helping profession. We need to learn how to listen and how to respond, not just how to design the most effective piece of technology. To accomplish this, we need some humility — we need to value the input of those in other fields who are practicing this better than we are. It’s only through empathy, listening, and humility that we’ll be able to train engineers for the new profession, not just the old one.

School Factory in the 21st Century

School factory is a complicated concept, the sustainable world despises it, capitalism consuming society is dependant on it. A great example can be a large operating mine. The operating company have designed a routine and wants employees to learn the routine, perform it in a safe, productive manner like a robot. They train employees over and over (like quarterly mandatory training) for the same routines to make sure they go through it step by step; because an incident will cause more loss than a profit based on a new way of completing a task. Shortcuts are forbidden, and instructions are the golden rules, especially if you are a worker in the field. It can make sense in terms of ensuring that employees are careful enough in completing the job in the safest way without skipping a step to finishing the job earlier. This emphasis on codes and rulebooks can increase safety, preventing the potential hazards of working with heavy-high energy machinery. However, the employees are turning to robots! They are expected to work like robots! But why they do not replace them with robots which can be easily done for simple tasks such as remotely controlled equipment, automatic data logger and so many other simple examples. One reason is that they can create jobs for the local community and get social acceptance. And those employees are happy earning money by following a simple routine in some cases. The interesting part is when they have the same instructions for engineering tasks as well, and if an engineer as the design wants to change a routine in one task there is a long justification process which makes it almost impossible to have a creative idea. If they need a creative idea they hire consulting companies. All of this is to secure the process as much as possible to have a minimum loss in case of any failure or challenging crisis. In this system, the risk of trying a new beneficial path is more than repeating the traditional time-consuming ways. And they apply technology just in case of urgent need and guaranteed result.

You might think that; it is the rule of the business so what? My point is that to train engineers for such a system, there is no need to change the school factory method. The traditional schooling is exactly what industrialized and developing societies require. They hire you to serve a certain task you want to make a home run out of it which is not required, they switch you with an easier-to-deal-with employee. Large companies and organizations and also governments are supporting this education system as it is in their favor. Therefore, although there are research-based organizations which support novelty for their purposes and are supporting higher education, the majority of the jobs in the society required trained obeying employees graduated from a school factory as explained by Seth Godin.

My point is that an aware knowledgeable teacher, who values the novelty and ingenuity, is one side of the story. The other side is the system, which measures students based on their performance on tests. Teachers cannot ignore the acceptance rate of their students on those national or required tests and just rely on training future entrepreneurs. The assessment system is the one which the large companies require to pick the employees who will obey instead of making a mess by initiating a new method.

My question is that, how much is the role of the teacher in this system? I remember my college years in Iran. The entire curriculum was designed to teach students technics in theory with no room to think out of the box. Even in such a framed education system, the courses which were taught by more knowledgeable instructors who encourage students to get deep in concepts were more interesting to me, I spend more time on having extracurricular study on their topics and I am better at them even now. So, the bright side is that although the system might be rigid, the teachers have the power to create microcracks in it.