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Why engineers need the arts

Manish Paliwal and Swati Parashar | 19 September 2022

Reprinted from THE INDIAN EXPRESS with the permission of The Indian Express (P) Limited © 2022.

The original piece on The Indian Express can be found here.

A photo of a man in a plaid shirt wearing a blue hard hat and holding a notepad standing in front of some industrial equipment including a large silver tank, with a banner at the bottom with the blog title and author names, and portrait drawings of the two authors.
Manish Paliwal and Swati Parashar write: Students are now struggling to see the connections between different forms of knowledge and methodological approaches to human inquiry. (Representational/File)

The academic structure worldwide is driven by market values, privatisation of higher education and utilitarian degree programmes that produce highly specialised graduates who can quickly become part of a skilled labour force. A general perception is that arts and humanities graduates are less equipped to contribute to the workforce compared to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or business degree holders. The pandemic has enhanced this perception, exacerbating a drastic decline of resources, encouraging academic redundancies and closing down of several arts and humanities degree programmes.

As academics working within engineering and the social sciences, located in western academia, but also collaborating with colleagues in India and abroad, we are very concerned. If anything, the pandemic has taught us that solutions to real-world problems lie in a sustained collaboration across disciplines. Not only do we need more arts and humanities programmes, but we argue that engineering and generally STEM degree programmes must include arts and humanities courses.

In its report, “Grand challenges for engineering”, the National Academy of Engineering in the US identifies several key global challenges. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers strategy vision 2030 and the National Academy of Sciences have also recommended that engineers look beyond technical knowledge and solutions to address societal challenges. Several other studies in different contexts point to similar outcomes.

Over time, the engineering curricula in higher education have increasingly focused along disciplinary lines and have created silos, so much so, that there is an artificial separation of academic disciplines. Students are now struggling to see the connections between different forms of knowledge and methodological approaches to human inquiry.

The most common approach in engineering programmes is a la carte style, where students take several disconnected courses from a list of approved courses in social sciences and humanities to meet the programme requirements. They generally constitute 15-20 per cent of the courses required for an undergraduate degree in engineering in countries like the US. In India, the IITs seem to have about 10 per cent of courses in humanities and the social sciences. More worryingly, NITs have less than 3 per cent and the state colleges have no humanities and social sciences courses. Exceptions may be rare.

The enormous strides in technologies need to be backed by transferable, uniquely human skills, which will enable work in a dynamic, evolving environment. In fact, the learning outcomes associated with integrated education, such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and abilities for lifelong learning, remain highly desirable. Hence, we need education beyond disciplinary training to prepare students for future challenges and opportunities, and institutions need to design education that “intentionally” integrates different disciplines like arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences, engineering, and mathematics. This integrative model of education brings together knowledge, modes of inquiry, and pedagogies from multiple disciplines within a single course or programme of study where students can make connections between these disciplines and thus enrich their learning.

Research now indicates that the integration of the arts, humanities, and engineering in higher education is associated with positive learning outcomes and leads to increased critical thinking, ethical decision making, problem-solving, teamwork, etc. These skills and educational outcomes enhance the employability of graduates. This integrative approach also serves as a social corrective and has been shown to increase the participation of women and other minorities.

For the graduates of any STEM programme to possess the ability to design and produce creative solutions, they must be educated in public health, safety and welfare, and have an increasing awareness of the cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors in different contexts. Only an integrated approach to higher education can enable greater intellectual engagement, policy-based solutions and a dynamic learning environment both, for teachers and students.


Paliwal is Professor and Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering at The College of New Jersey, US and Parashar is Professor of Peace and Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.


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