Fine: Expanding the scope of “whole brain engineering”

Simona Fine, Op-Ed Contributor

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Like most Northwestern students, any time I meet someone new, I introduce myself with my name and my majors.

So, here we go.

I’m Simona and I’m a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering and english literature. Does that combination surprise you?

If so, you certainly aren’t alone.

For a school that markets itself as a beacon of “whole brain engineering” and a place where “AND is in our DNA,” many cannot seem to comprehend that someone in McCormick may want to expand their knowledge beyond engineering and the sciences.

Upon hearing my majors, some professors assume that my passions lie in literature and that I pursue engineering in order to have better career prospects, which is simply not true. Others question me when I say that I take English classes, glancing at me with confusion and asking for a justification.

Double majoring across schools or across disciplines shouldn’t be seen as strange. It shouldn’t demand questioning. Studying multiple things can provide a whole new perspective on a subject.

If you have a group of students who are in the same major, they are likely taking the same classes, learning the same material and being taught by the same professors. This does little to stimulate diverse thinking. However, if these students are also enrolling in courses instructed by an expert in another discipline, they will gain exposure to new ideas and skills that can further their reasoning in both fields.

For example, the close reading of a literary text is not generally taught in an engineering curriculum, but that type of analytical thinking can still be beneficial when breaking down a scientific article or solving a technical problem. I’ve found that material taught in engineering classes can also be applicable to courses in other subjects as well. I wrote my final creative paper for a medieval literature class last quarter about a female scientist, connecting the tropes of a medieval romance to scenarios found in modern corporate settings.
Without taking classes in both of these departments, I would never have conceptualized these links and come up with this project idea. I truly believe that I am a better engineering major because I study literature and a better literature major because I study engineering.

We can shift the mindset on campus and make real “whole brain engineering” more common and more accepted. Instead of acting confused toward students who express their interests in fields that are not typically studied jointly, professors and advisors should actively encourage them.

I remember sitting in a McCormick first-year advising lecture as the advisors went over what classes we should be taking in the next quarter. Along with the engineering analysis and basic science classes, they displayed a list of recommended electives to fulfill our social science and humanities theme requirement. To complete this portion of our degree, McCormick students are supposed to choose a topic of interest and take classes that are thematically related to that subject. However, the list presented did not include courses in cultural studies, history, philosophy or literature but suggested introductory economics or psychology classes.

Instead of telling students the way to complete these requirements, advisors should be urging McCormick students to look for electives that interest them across all departments, not just those that are evidently related to engineering. The framework of theme requirement is the perfect opportunity to encourage them to do so. Let engineers explore the humanities, and if they choose to add a major or minor in them, do not discourage it.

“Whole brain” thinking shouldn’t be limited to the context of an engineering class. If we want to continue to produce innovative work, we must look past both the real and imagined differences between fields and foster collaboration across these disciplines.

Simona Fine is a McCormick sophomore. She can be contacted at simonafine2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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