Expanding Human Factors

I’ve recently landed in a position teaching Engineering and technical Communication to Engineering and Science students. This is a really enjoyable position and has allowed me to uniquely combine my background in Computer Science with my English research. Furthermore, there are a number of unique and effective pedagogical methods that I’ve learned in Engineering Communication that seem to really resonate with students. I’m convinced that English Departments, particularly the more traditional ones, could gain a lot from seeing how Engineering is developing language and critical thinking education.

In our program we teach from the perspective that the design process — the way in which Engineers turn a problem or challenge into a science or math-based solution — shares a number of parallels with the critical thinking process. So as we teach the design process, and the writing and communication that goes with it, we are also teaching elements of critical thinking: the ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives, to write using neutral and bias-free language, to generate multiple possible solutions, to form arguments to defend one’s solution, and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of those solutions.

As I continue to teach in this department I am trying to assess what forms of critical thinking students are being taught and what some of the challenges are to teaching critical thinking in an Engineering environment. My thinking is largely influenced by theories of critical pedagogy developed by Paolo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Freire’s work is especially relevant to Engineering education, particularly as his notion of pedagogy requires that we critique ‘instrumental and technical rationality.’ In what ways does Engineering education, particularly with its heavy emphasis on technical knowledge, insist on a kind of ‘technical rationality’? In what ways can Engineering education imbue students with a sense of critical thinking and critique that challenges this instrumental form of rationality?