Johannes Strobel Professor University of Missouri

To Engineer Myself

PostedThursday, March 16, 2017 at 9:58 AM

Monk, IT consultant, engineering education researcher and STEM toy designer. My career has taken many different turns – all characterized by a desire to understand myself and the environment I share with other living organisms and meaningfully contribute to the human-designed aspects of our world. My own K-12 education left me unprepared when it came to STEM education and so I turned to the humanities and social sciences: Meditation, activist work, analytical philosophy and educational research – I have drawn from a wide range of paradigms, tools and cultures. Later, I encountered engineering serendipitously – listening to stories of how engineers solve problems within the constraints of their jobs in industry. I heard stories of large and small projects, million dollar budgets, a myriad of different stakeholders, tight deadlines and technical challenges which took years to find creative and effective solutions. Learning the breadth of engineering was and still is fascinating. Yet, another aspect of engineering started to intrigue me: engineering as a tool for self-improvement.

Engineering is such a process-oriented profession – nowhere else have I found such a high concentration of people passionate about HOW work is done and ready to deploy all analytical and design tools at their disposal to optimize processes. After working for years around engineers, with engineers, teaching engineers and engaging in engineering work myself, I started to notice that more and more I employed methods of process optimization in and for my own life: How can I structure the files on my computer for optimal fast access? What is the optimal time between meetings to recuperate, be prepared and show up on time? With a large group of advisees and students, how to increase efficiencies in work processes to maximize research output? How to maximize the efficiency of my working hours to balance life on the tenure track with my growing family of two young children? The possibilities to apply engineering optimization to my life seemed endless and made me feel productive and, yet, I started to see myself as a system, a machine to be optimized and felt that I slowly turned myself into a human robot. I didn’t see inefficiencies as human elements of life – loveable quirks of well-intended people. Inefficiencies became in my mind the starting point at which the very fabric of human society broke down and disappeared and my frustrations with inefficiencies started to show: My approach to engineer myself became a burden, unsustainable and unhealthy. I needed to rightsize and provide balance in my own approach which led me to several new pathways: (1) a new appreciation of the role of failure in the learning process and (2) a stronger desire to understand the intersection of the affective/emotional side of engineering with its technical aspects. Both led me to study empathy and care and their embodiment in technical professions and the design of engineering learning environments grounded and embracing different human experiences. The results of my exploration reminded me that technical processes decoupled from desires, wishes and relations are rather cold and produce a very limited world in which to live in.

So, what is here to gain for the education community – beyond the maybe obvious point of the story to learn from my mistakes? To engage in the act of engineering can shape the actor in more than just professional ways: to be an engineer or engage in engineering processes can have a larger and profound impact personally; engineering can change habits, view of life/worldviews and can become something very personal. When engineering becomes personal and touches and shapes our professional and personal identities, I am in a different and authentic space from where to teach my students that engineers are people, interacting with other people and working for other people. Imperfections in our interactions with each other are not necessarily imperfections to be removed but direct indicators that we are still humans.

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