Curricular principle: being as well as knowing

This is the first post of a series on Olin’s curricular culture principles (draft versions!) which is my attempt to bring transparency into the work I’m doing with Tess Edmonds (‘11) and others. The short backstory is that Olin gets a lot of visitors from other institutions — mostly faculty — who want to learn how to do “what we do.” This requires us to articulate “how we do things around here” — in other words, our curricular culture — to talk about not just the surface-level features of our practice (“students work on teams!”) but the underlying principles that manifest in those surface-level formats. You can find all the posts in this series here.

A note before beginning: I’m writing this for an audience of fellow Oliners, and while I’ve tried to unpack acronyms and terms, I may be missing some. Let me know in the comments if there are things I need to unpack more, and I’ll edit accordingly.

The first principle I’m going to unpack is: learning is about being a practitioner, not just knowing about practice. As Rick Miller has said, Olin students learn to become engineers rather than learning about engineering.

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. In the engineering education research world, we talk a lot about engineering epistemologies[1], which is the fancy word for “the study of engineering knowledge.” What is engineering knowledge, who decides what this knowledge is, how do we help people obtain it, and so forth? Similarly, when engineering faculty sit down to teach a course, they often talk about what students need to know, what they already know, how to help them acquire this new knowledge; it’s focused on the things students will learn about.

Without this principle, we end up talking a lot about the things students know, but not a lot about the people students are, except perhaps in a diversity-and-inclusion context. Even then, it’s usually in the context of how who they are affects the way they come to know — comments like “well, students from low-income communities tend to come in with less exposure to programming” or “how can we help women become more confident while learning how to use the machine shop?” However, we can’t separate knowledge and being/reality — it’s impossible to know something without there being a reality to know, and without being someone in that reality who can know[2].

This principle of “being as well as knowing” is not well developed throughout most of the engineering education world — including Olin (we don’t always do this perfectly). A lot of engineering educators focus on assessing and developing what students know about engineering. In order to adopt this principle, we also need to pay attention to how students are engineers — what it means for each of them to be their own particular kind of engineer.

To take two Olin faculty members as examples: by “their own particular kind of engineer,” I don’t just mean that Aaron is a MechE and Alisha is a BioE. I also mean that the ways in which Aaron and Alisha are engineers — the ways they embody engineering, the things it means for them specifically to be an engineer — include the things they know about engineering, but also include so much more than that. It’s important that Alisha is deeply invested in the design process and bringing it into non-engineering contexts and spent last semester working at a hospital; it’s important that Aaron has a minimalist aesthetic and works on transforming campus architecture and likes bikes. They know about things, and they also are many things (designers, bikers, people interested in medical work, etc). When Olin practices this principle well, it acknowledges and values these aspects of being (and more), and values how these aspects of being are expressed and developed — and crucially, sees this development and expression as part of engineering, not something separate from it.

This sentiment of also valuing the being of a person as an engineer similarly extends to the context of course design. Here, this looks like Olin faculty talking about what students should know, but also aspects of being they want students to have. For instance, QEA (Quantitative Engineering Analysis) faculty talk about how they want students to be engineers who enjoy doing quantitative analysis — which is related to, but separate from, their knowledge of quantitative techniques and their ability to apply them.

This aspect of Olin’s curricular culture affects the ways Olin community members work to help each other and ourselves grow as individuals[3]. Whether we’re students, faculty, staff, or alumni, we don’t just focus on developing what Oliners know; we focus on developing who they are.

Remember, these principles are drafts — I’m putting them out here for more commentary, feedback, etc. I’d love stories from Oliners (and non-Oliners) about their Olin experiences and how they do/don’t match this principle, and how this resonates with you, and especially how it does not (because that’s how I’ll learn to edit it). Post in the comments or contact me via whatever other means you have, and we’ll talk. And stay tuned for the next post, which I think will probably be on attention ownership (we’ll see!)

[1] Engineering epistemology (what engineering knowledge is and what it means to know about engineering) is one of the 5 key areas of engineering education research set forth in the 2006 paper that is still used to classify a lot of work in the field — see National Engineering Education Research Colloquies. (2006). The Research Agenda for the New Discipline of Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(4), 259–261. There is no mention of engineering ontology (or what it means to be an engineer) in that document, or in later iterations of an engineering education research taxonomy (current version at I’m… working on that.

[2] The philosophical terminology for this is ontology (the study of being/reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Engineering education has a well-developed practice of talking about epistemology, but we are not used to discussing ontology. (Reality is just… real, right? And things just are. What’s there to talk about? Turns out there’s a lot.)

[3] The phenomenon of other fields looking at the ontologies of their disciplines and education practices is very recent, and is known as the “ontological turn” that is sweeping across the disciplines. Engineering education hasn’t quite entered it yet, but part of my work is attempting to bring it there. For an example of the ontological turn from medical education, see Dall’Alba, G. (2009). Learning to be professionals. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.