Book Review: A Whole New Engineer

Stephen DeAngelis

November 21, 2014

It doesn’t take long to discover that A Whole New Engineer, written by David E. Goldberg (@deg511) and Mark Somerville (@MarkAtOlin), is going to be a whole new kind of reading experience — that is if you were expecting to read a traditional book about engineering. The book discusses teaching engineers about love, empathy, and caring as well as levers, electronics, and crankshafts. The book begins with a brief, but delightful, biography of Franklin W. Olin who demonstrated a lifelong love of engineering and education. Olin’s biography metaphorically embodies the spirit of Goldberg’s and Somerville’s book. The volume isn’t about engineering per se but about why and how engineering education needs to transform and how better-educated engineers can transform the world. In the book’s preface, the authors admit that their book is intended for a much broader audience than traditional engineering or academic tomes. They express the hope that the book will be read by “students, parents, educators, employers, practitioners, and policymakers” — in fact, they hope it will be read by anyone who “is interested in this topic.”

Both Goldberg and Somerville are engineers and educators. Goldberg is President of Big Beacon and an emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Somerville is a professor of engineering and associate dean at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. The initial focus of the book is the establishment of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and how it broke the mold normally associated with engineering education. When the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education established the charter for Olin College, it wrote:

“We believe that modern engineering education provides the optimum basic preparation for the leaders of the future we see. We believe that engineers will continue to be expected to practice their profession in the traditional technical capacities. In addition, however, we believe that engineers will be called upon and must assert their leadership as managers of technology-based commercial ventures and governmental agencies, as senior corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, political leaders, and as specialized professionals in the fields of medicine and law. We believe that engineers will be so important in this future society because their education uniquely provides them with the essential knowledge, skills, processes, and perspectives to understand the complex system that modern life has become.”

That was written nearly two decades ago; but, it remains just as true today as it was then. Engineers are problem solvers and the world has plenty of problems that need to be solved. What Goldberg and Somerville argue is that those engineers need to be empathetic and compassionate as they go about solving problems. And frankly that’s not a trait normally associated with engineers. The following video describes the eight recommendations that Goldberg and Somerville make for transforming engineering education.

Of the eight recommendations discussed in the video, none should be more welcome to students than the one that insists teachers should “stop boring students into dull obedience.” I’m a big believer that, if taught correctly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects can be some of the most interesting courses a student can take. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. We believe that when students actually get to put what they learn to work they begin a lifelong love affair with STEM. Goldberg and Somerville appear to have a similar outlook. That’s why they recommend that professors become less “expert” and more “coach.” Big Beacon’s Press Room provides six reasons why people should be interested in buying the book. They are:

  • One book. WNE tells the unlikely story of an unlikely collaboration with a surprising conclusion (Introduction) – that culture and emotional change are the key variables for successful educational change, not content, curriculum, or pedagogy.
  • Two schools. WNE tells the story of the founding of Olin College (chapter 1) and the iFoundry incubator at the University of Illinois (chapter 2), and the lessons about 21st education they learned together.
  • Three missed revolutions. WNE gives an historical review (chapter 3) going back to the 19th century, and the 3 missed (missed in universities) revolutions since WW2, the entrepreneurial, quality, and information technology revolutions.
  • Four technologies of trust. WNE surveys important theories and practices surrounding 4 technologies of trust: intrinsic motivation (chapter 6), executive and leadership coaching (chapter 7), organizational culture (chapter 8), and change management (chapter 9).
  • Five pillars of transformation. WNE surveys (chapter 5) the cultural-emotional pillars of change: joy, trust, courage, openness, and connection.
  • Six minds of the whole new engineer. WNE goes beyond the narrow technical framing of engineering education to invoke six minds (chapter 4): analytical, design, people, linguistic, body, and mindful minds.

I included the promotional material in this review because it provides a clear overview of why A Whole New Engineer is a different kind of book. What other engineering book that you have read discusses joy, trust, courage, openness, and connection? And the topic of “six minds” evokes more images of a workshop on creativity than it is does of an engineering lecture hall at some university. In fact, Goldberg and Somerville have come to the same conclusion that many creativity gurus have also reached: The world’s best problem solvers are those who can look at a problem from a number of different perspectives. That’s where the “six minds” framework comes into play. Goldberg and Somerville build on the work of Howard Gardner (@OfficialMIOasis), who writes about multiple “intelligences,” and Carol Dweck, whose research has led her to conclude that scholastic success is based as much on a person’s beliefs about his or her intelligence and abilities as it is about IQ scores (see my post “Using Technology in STEM Education“). Goldberg and Somerville write:

“Inspired by the work of these thinkers, we have spent time considering the capacities that engineers require in this new world. We propose that the Whole New Engineer needs to develop, and be able to bring to bear, multiple minds in his or her work. We emphasize multiple, because as Gardner argues, there are many ways to understand, to solve problems, to create. We choose the word mind to reflect two ideas: first, that these capacities extend beyond cognition and, second, that these are not fixed abilities but rather areas in which an individual can grow and develop.”

The late Isaac Asimov once suggested that the people who come up with the most important ideas are those who are able to make connections between ideas from disparate disciplines. “What is needed,” he wrote, “is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.” [“Isaac Asimov Asks, ‘How Do People Get New Ideas?’,” Introduction by Arthur Obermayer, MIT Technology Review, 20 October 2014] By stressing the need for engineers to develop multiple minds, Goldberg and Somerville are essentially confirming what Asimov suggested. They admit that finding room for teaching concepts like the “six minds” in an already packed curriculum is not a trivial challenge. But I find their argument for doing so compelling. “The pace of technological and economic change is higher than ever,” they write, “and the cutting-edge facts that students learn today will be old news tomorrow. Given this, we believe that helping students develop as complete human beings, with whole minds and bodies engaged in learning, who are practiced in understanding in a variety of ways, is the educational mandate of our times.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Anyone who would like to take a journey, not just read book, will love reading A Whole New Engineer. It’s part history, part autobiography, part educational, part motivational, and part advocacy. Goldberg and Somerville deliberately set out to produce a heuristic work and I think they achieved that goal.