The Art of Engineering

The current trend at many technical and community colleges to tailor course offerings toward job preparation and to advocate STEM education at the expense of the humanities can be viewed as a threat to the long-term health of visual arts education. Whether we perceive the STEM-centered educational movement as a threat or otherwise, it is much more difficult to identify it as intentionally hostile toward the field of art history. In fact, this situation presents art historians with an opportunity to present the study of art as something relevant, practical, and helpful to teachers, students, and ultimately, professionals involved with STEM fields. In this essay, we outline an approach to course development that emphasizes the importance of providing bridges between art and engineering students.

First, let’s throw some light on the perceived marginalization of art education within STEM curricula. On the one hand, yes, many technical schools advertise high rates of employment among graduates and highlight the “return on investment” of a technical degree. Yet those approaches are often based in marketing and enrollment decisions rather than curricular objectives or institutional goals. Furthermore, there is no real need to view art history and STEM as an either-or scenario. Certainly, the humanities have always emphasized citizen building, critical thinking, and cultivating an ability to learn as the major benefits to a liberal education, but developments in STEM education often match these goals, only with a different vocabulary and from different perspectives. Many scientists and engineers see their own professional work as contributing to society – ultimately most strive to improve human lives in some manner. Employment is a means to achieve this core goal.

Perhaps relatedly, some current movements in STEM education seek to underscore a more humanistic approach to technology. In fact, this may be a time of unprecedented growth in the integration of the traditional liberal arts into STEM education and many colleges and universities, especially those that focus primarily technological education have moved towards a meaningful mingling of arts and hard sciences. Several highly regarded and influential STEM schools and programs emphasize an integration of humanistic study, especially art and design, into engineering education. Schools like Harvey Mudd, Olin College, Purdue University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, The Colorado School of Mines, Rensselaer Polytechnic, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, have all taken meaningful steps toward refiguring engineering education by emphasizing collaboration, connectivity, contextual studies, and the societal impact of technology.

Overall, it is interesting to note that, despite the perceived decline of disciplines like art history in comparison to emerging STEM fields, few traditional liberal arts schools seem to be reaching out to integrate technological education into their own core curricula. There are several reasons for this – first, many STEM degrees are only available at large public institutions or in self-contained schools within private universities. Second, many STEM-related degrees require accreditation which is only  awarded only after intense curricular scrutiny. Finally, integrating more STEM into a traditional liberal arts curriculum could require a complete overhaul of the approaches, methods, requirements, and expectations of liberal arts schools and their faculty. Frankly, the responsibility to weave technical subjects into courses of art history often comes down to individual professors and their interests.

At this time, one of the most effective paths forward is for art historians to find ways to make visual arts education relevant to the STEM scholars and students, and to do so, at least initially, by using the criteria supported by STEM educators and students. That was one of our objectives in 2014 when we secured a planning grant to develop a course titled, Enduring Design: The Art of Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. From the beginning, it was clear that art history was held in high regard by many of our engineering colleagues – several noted that a knowledge of art was vital to the intellectual and professional development of engineers. Throughout our initial planning, we took the approach that engineering students could be committed to a study of art history, but simply need encouragement to help them see how their lives and their careers may be positively impacted by such studies.

Rather than simply teach a course on the history of design, we sought to begin with a completely integrated approach. Often considered diametrically opposed, with “art” emphasizing aesthetic form, and “engineering” advocating practical function, the two fields of art and engineering share a historically attested connection. Technological expertise and output can be considered the ultimate goal of a STEM education, yet the meaning of the term, “technology” is rarely considered. Here, a certain knowledge of Classical art production is helpful. Many art historians are familiar with oft-quoted statement of Hippocrates that “Vita Brevis, ars longa.” Yet we rarely look at the Greek text of the statement that, Ὁ βίος βραχύς, ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή, “Technology” has its etymological roots in the classical Greek word techne (τέχνη). But in its original usage, techne was used to describe general expertise in craft or art. More specifically, techne implies a combination of knowing and doing within a certain context. Consequently, techne could be used to describe artistic and engineering production that satisfies formal and functional needs. Techne is such an important word and concept because it underscores the intimate relationship between art and engineering when practiced by a master hand and emphasizes the importance of integrating a liberal education with a technical education.

Rather than teach a standard art history survey course based on theme or chronology, we instead sought to present art as an integral part of the engineering craft and organized the course based on engineering disciplines. In this way, we created the course after the model of an art history graduate methodologies seminar. Instead of weeks devoted to theoretical frameworks like  iconography, marxism, feminism, and semiotics, we grouped weekly course plans in terms of engineering disciplines, like Civil, Mechanical, Industrial, and Electrical Engineering. Working with these broadly defined fields, we sought out subjects that emphasized and illustrated how art interacted with these fields. Basically, we encouraged students to examine historical and notable examples of art through the lens of engineering achievement and engineering through the lens of artistic merit.

For example, a topic like civil engineering lends itself well to a discussion of Roman arches, which served both symbolic and practically applied functions – arches served to span rivers and valleys, but could also be architectural markers of empire and Roman identity. Mechanical engineering is another excellent field for this type of course. As case studies, one need look no further than Leonardo, the trained artist who worked as an engineering advisor and Alexander Calder the trained engineer who advanced the medium of kinetic sculpture. Thus, we were able to identify a broad range of art historical topics that fit within the context of engineering. Yet we never strayed far beyond the basic content covered in a standard Survey of Western art from prehistory to the modern age. Instead we simply rearranged and repackaged that material in a way that spoke more clearly to our students.

From the beginning, however, we recognized that the true challenge of this course would be not developing the material, but rather legitimizing that material for engineering students. Engineering students tend to focus their studies on those courses that the students perceive to provide the expected return on investment.  As such, the effectiveness of this course was partially tied to the ability to demonstrate the relationship between the course and the students’ future professional studies. Moreover, STEM students often tend to tie their identities to their chosen career paths and are thus aware of and concerned for their future professional statuses.

We thus began organizing lectures in a way that offered opportunities for guest speakers. Going through our offices of Institutional Advancement, we were able to identify fellow professors and alumni of diverse fields of expertise and profession who had indicated a support for the arts. Although the link may not be immediately apparent, there is valuable connection between the methods of art history and the intellectual foundation of those who help to produce material culture. Several professors and alumni turned out to be very helpful – each had strongly supported the role of art in their successes as engineers and managers. As guest speakers or content developers, they armed the course with the intellectual support we wanted and the practical experience most valued by our students.

The active involvement of engineering professors, industrial designers, and manufacturers was vital to the planning and execution of the art of engineering course by contextualizing art history in the real world. In course evaluations, many students pointed to the involvement of guest speakers as significant to their understanding of the utility of art history, an element that can often be lost in the standard lecture-based survey. Courses like The Art of Engineering are not particularly difficult to develop, but require only collaboration to recontextualize, rather than reinvent, the wheel.

The approach we advocate – that is to recognize the particular needs of STEM students in course development – can be viewed as a capitulation that could lead to a debasement of the humanities. On the other hand, a course such as “The Art of Engineering” can serve as a bridge to the more pure humanities courses.  Without being shown the connections, STEM students may not fully appreciate art history as a relevant topic. Once we get them across the bridge, however, there is a reason to hope that they will more enthusiastically explore disciplines outside of their STEM major and recognize these courses as critical components of a complete education.

The approach we advocate – that is to recognize the particular needs of STEM students in course development – can be viewed as a capitulation that could lead to a debasement of the humanities. On the other hand, a course such as “The Art of Engineering” can serve as a bridge to the more pure humanities courses. Without being shown the connections, STEM students may not fully appreciate art history as a relevant topic. Once we get them across the bridge, however, there is a reason to hope that they will more enthusiastically explore disciplines outside of their STEM major and recognize these courses as critical components of a complete education.

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