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Education of Science and Engineering Students
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Author:  Gerald [ Sat Jun 26, 2004 12:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Education of Science and Engineering Students

Recently for a class I had to write a proposal, with the choice of what I wanted to write about open. I decided to go with a pet peeve of mine, and that is the ahistorical nature of people in the College of Engineering and Science at my unversity.

Here's the bulk of what I wrote:

Gerald wrote:
Statement of Problem:

One problem prevalent with the students in science and engineering related departments is lack of knowledge of the history and foundations of their own disciplines. Often times, particularly in applications that utilize mathematics, there is a tendency to accept a given procedure as being the right one that has been given to them without questioning its validity or how it was originally derived. When the history is presented it is often in a bemused fashion, as if the goal of the presentation of the past models is to make light of the thought processes of those who came before. The figures who stand as turning points in the history of science, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, are noted for their main accomplishments and a few anecdotes that are memorable, but the deeper context of their work is glossed over and simplified. Einstein is very much so a victim of this with the commonly recited, "God does not play dice with the universe" statement in reference to his skepticism of quantum theory, and it is often used to portray him as dogmatically caught rejecting the theory, which was not the case. It is ironic that one of the phrases commonly quoted from Newton, "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants," does not have its meaning appreciated.

Often, students of science also act as if the currently accept theory is the correct one, the only possible correct one, and any previous thoughts or alternative suggestions are bred from eras of ignorance or from those who wish to be oblivious from the truth. Very rarely do they know or are they even concerned with the inner workings of older models. For example, in the field of astronomy, they are often only aware that at one time people held a geocentric model of the universe, that work of Copernicus and Kepler helped to bring about the "correct" heliocentric model that is used today, and that the only force holding back the acceptance of the heliocentric model was the body of the church. It is not often explained that at the time the geocentric model was extremely useful in terms of navigational purposes and accurately predicted the position of the celestial bodies. It is also not often explained that the lack of this same utility in the heliocentric model was another impediment, and that science is not just about explanations but also about the utility provided by the explanations.

Another example an aspect of history needing clarification is Einstein's view towards quantum theory in his later years. He is often characterized as being out of touch with the new theory at the time and was stubbornly holding on to the older viewpoint. What is generally not touched about upon is that his complaint towards quantum theory was that while the theory was useful, it did not provide a proper explanation to the workings of the universe. Even more importantly in terms of the accusations of his rigidness to the old physics is that at the time he was more willing to abandon the laws of classical physics to make a more unified theory than Bell, a proponent of quantum theory who was very much so committed to adhering to the rules of classical physics. The correspondences between Einstein and other scientists of the day such as Schroedinger provide much insight into the workings of the minds that can be glimpsed in those dialogs.

Not only do students of science and engineering lack knowledge of the history of their disciplines, they may also do not have a formal view of what their discipline is. They may know what they work and deal with specifically, and they may have some vague notion of the nature of their field, but they do not have a clear view of what science is supposed to be. Often times they quote the idea of "the scientific method" without thinking about how it came to be, why the hold to it, and if the article shouldn't be "a" rather than "the." The students display a dogmatic acceptance of what they are taught, and this is troublesome considering that the great figures in the history of science came about often by questioning the paradigm of the day.

There is also a problem in terms of such students holding that only questions with definable, quantifiable answers are worth exploring, and that open ended questions more philosophical in nature are a waste of time. Again, this shows a lack of knowledge of the history of their fields, as the separation of disciplines is a recent development, and at one time thinkers were equally versed in mathematics, physics, engineering, and the liberal arts.

Solution to Problem:

    My solution to these problems is a change in the curriculum of students with majors in the College of Engineering and Science. There are three options that can be utilized:

    1. Work in cohesion with the History department and develop "History of..." courses for each major or group of related majors.

    2. Work in cohesion with the Philosophy department and develop "Philosophy of..." courses for each major group of related majors.

    3. Work in cohesion with both the History and the Philosophy departments and develop "History and Philosophy of..." courses for each major or group of related majors.

Aspects of the Solution:

On the surface, the three options all have bring forth a different sort of solution to the problems addressed above. However, these differences are more of how they would work on a technical level as far as the curricula goes rather than the content of the course. In those regards a marriage of the two fields should be maintained. The history of the discipline should be taught, and a critical analysis of the field is also important. Therefore, the classes themselves would focus on the work and writings of the figures and how they relate to the development of the field. In this way, all the aspects lacking currently in the education and training of students in the college of Engineering and Science would be explored together in an interrelated fashion.

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