Saturday, November 15, 2014

Teaching Engineers Philosophy

From an article in the Atlantic regarding the Air Force's emphasis on wanting to produce more well-rounded decision makers:

"Solti and others at the Academy see a background in the humanities as a way to understand complex, interdisciplinary relationships between seemingly disparate entities. When military decision-makers consider possible tactics to approach a situation, they have to consider the people and relationships that decision may affect, even if those results aren’t immediately obvious. "It’s not just taking down the electric power, for example, it’s about the effect [that action] creates, Solti said. "Electricity powers computers that feed the financial network that feeds [the] economy—it’s a single integrated system. And to evaluate how people in a country might react to an action like that, historical and cultural reference points can make the difference between a successful operation and a debacle.

For airmen, this holistic understanding is most important in time-sensitive situations when they have to make high-stakes decisions.  So administrators have built these hypothetical decision-making opportunities into the curriculum. "One great example is that we allow our cadets to operate a war room-type scenario where they are conducting a mission, Solti said. "They have to make these real decisions in a safe virtual environment. But you can see some of these ‘aha’ moments when they’re making what turn out to be poor decisions constrained by uncertainty and time. These wrong decisions are the "scar tissue that students develop and that informs their decision-making when the stakes are higher.

Exercises like the war room work best when they are interdisciplinary by design, a microcosm of the real world. "We partner engineers with legal majors and history majors and management majors, Solti said. "They form holistic teams that are able to tackle any problem, so they gain appreciation for their peers and for the power of the curriculum they’re learning.

For non-military schools, Solti noted that events like robotics competitions and debates create similar opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and appreciation. "The more experience [educators] give students that don’t have canned solutions, that have time constraints, that really test their ability and their gray matter, the better their minds’ ability to synthesize what they’ve learned, Solti said.

But educators at the Academy have to consider the real-world applications of their lessons, so they stress that the greater focus on the humanities doesn’t mean a decreased emphasis on STEM. "It’s not a trade off, it’s not a zero-sum game where engineers gain and humanities lose, Solti said. With more cross-disciplinary projects, Solti hopes that Air Force students from all fields can work together toward a common goal. Eventually, when those students are in the field and under pressure, they can remember all the nuances at play and make the right decision."

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