EngSci and IHPST's Synergy in Interdisciplinary Education

July 10, 2024 by Dr. Pamela Fuentes Peralta

The IHPST is part of a fruitful collaboration thanks to the initiative of Philip Asare, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream at the ISTEP (Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering, Education, and Practice) and EngSci (Division of Engineering Science) who embarked on an innovative journey to bridge the gap between engineering and non-engineering students. His inspiration for this course stemmed from his previous teaching experiences at another institution. There, he facilitated a course that allowed students from diverse disciplines to discuss engineering-related topics. Although this earlier course was somewhat different from his current objectives, it laid the groundwork for fostering an environment where students from varied backgrounds could learn from one another. Asare’s approach aimed to facilitate a richer, more collaborative learning experience.  When he pitched the idea to other units about conducting a soft pilot, IHPST director Edward Jones-Imhotep was receptive to collaborating.  

Arts and Science students participated in an independent study project under Professor Asare’s supervision, engaging with the engineering course by attending lectures and working on team projects. This integration was particularly useful during the initial stages of the project, when students defined what they wanted to design and for whom, benefiting from the humanities and social sciences perspective. These students observed and learned from the engineering students' technical work, which enriched their understanding of engineering design. This mutual exchange aimed to enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and learning. Professor Asare explains: “a lot of my background in engineering is sort of looking at engineering from a from a human perspective: how we do the engineering and who does it. One of the things that I found is that the people in the room making the decisions matter. The other thing that I have found is that I have done a lot of multidisciplinary work, but not everybody knows how to do it well. I have been on good multidisciplinary teams, and I have been on bad ones, and I have got to observe what works and what does not, I think the missing element is practice”.  A course like this highlights the importance of teamwork, where individuals bring diverse perspectives based on their fields of study before entering the workforce. Integrating practical experience and training students during their university years is crucial, as this aspect may sometimes be overlooked when students concentrate solely on their majors, even at the graduate level. 

Second-year Engineering Science students collaborated with peers from the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts & Science to work on sustainability projects based in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. They presented their final projects at the Praxis III Showcase 2024 Photo Credit: Aaron Demeter, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering

This year Rachel Katz, PhD candidate at the IHPST served as the course instructor for “Exploring Values in Science and Engineering Practice” the Arts and Science component of the course. Students enrolled in this class worked along with students enrolled in Praxis III, the capstone course of the Engineering Science Foundation Design sequence. Katz, who holds degrees in both Biology and Philosophy, is a strong advocate for interdisciplinary collaboration. She asserts, "I really believe in interdisciplinary education […] It is very difficult to find a career where you are only working with one type of person or one type of professional, regardless of the field or work environment. I think that having a multidisciplinary experience during one's education helps cultivate respect for different disciplines, an understanding of the skills required, and an appreciation for the effort and various kinds of work undertaken by people in different roles.”   

In the Praxis III class, Professor Asare, and his co-instructor, Professor Morgan Hooper aim to embody the principles of the Engineers for the World (E4TW) motto, which aspires to address global critical issues with compassion and through the collaboration of individuals from diverse backgrounds. Their goal is to leverage technology to enhance the quality of life for people worldwide. Following this line, Professors Asare and Hooper bring a social justice perspective to their roles as an educators. Professor Asare emphasizes that “we present things to students and engineering as if they are facts. The reality is that these are not facts but decisions made by others that have shaped the technology as it exists today. It could exist in a very different form”.  For its part, at the IHPST, where humanistic studies of science and technology are emphasized, there is a recognized need to engage more with the sciences and engineering. This class presented an excellent opportunity to achieve that goal. Professor Mark Solovey, IHPST Undergraduate Director, who oversaw the organization and implementation of this collaboration for the Institute, highlights the need for this kind of collaborations: “we realize we don't want to just talk to ourselves or only learn from other humanists. We need to really engage with the sciences and engineering in a serious way.” 

A group of students celebrating the end of the course at Lalibela Restaurant
A group of students celebrating their hard work and the completion of the course at Lalibela Restaurant. Pictured from left to right are: Anusha Alam, Emily Huynh, Marcus Hong, Harry Nguyen, Jason Yang, Meredith Gladish, Kate Dong. Eva Fang (not pictured) was also part of the team. Supplied Image.

Emily Huynh, an undergraduate student who is majoring in two programs: Molecular Genetics and Microbiology as well as Cells and Molecular Biology, remembers that before participating in the pilot class, she had the opportunity to attend an event where scientific startups pitched their ideas to investors. She observed that the most successful candidates were not necessarily those with the strongest scientific backgrounds, but rather those who could present their ideas in the most accessible manner. After engaging with Engineering Science students, she gained a greater appreciation for a multi-disciplinary class and teamwork through firsthand experience. She concentrated on individuals, local communities, and small business stakeholders, highlighting strategies that would enable their prototype to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include eradicating poverty, taking climate action, reducing inequalities, and fostering sustainable cities and communities. As the project progressed, Emily found it increasingly challenging to keep up, particularly with the more engineering-intensive aspects. Nevertheless, this did not deter her from contributing; her team took the time to teach her engineering concepts in an accessible way and clarified any points she found unclear: “Their empathy and the efforts they went to include me allowed us to create a stronger, more well-rounded ideation. With the multi-disciplinary approach, we were able to genuinely foster an inclusive environment, and this is a skill that I will take with me as I progress in my academic and professional journey”.