UM-Dearborn launches new engineering program for makers, creatives and designers

July 14, 2020

Could this be the future of engineering education?

Creative fields like art and design are generally stereotyped as being at odds with more technical fields like engineering. But Applied Arts Lecturer Sarah Nesbitt says many students often see the synergy. In recent years, she’s had more than a few engineering students show up in her drawing, photography and design courses looking for something they wish they had more of in their engineering programs. “They often feel a little conflicted about their majors because they want to do more creation, more building — and that’s not always the focus,” Nesbitt says. “Lately, when I’ve been telling students about this new program we have in the works, they’re just like, ‘where do I enroll? That’s totally for me.’”

That new program is a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in Human Centered Engineering Design (HCED), which launches this fall for current engineering students and makes its full debut for new students in Fall 2021. The HCED program will feature all the same technically rigorous coursework in science and math that engineering majors have to survive now. But on top of that, students get an equally extensive lineup of art, design, human factors and anthropology courses — the key interdisciplinary components of the Human Centered Design discipline that’s often seen as the future of the engineering field.

Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Georges Ayoub says the program grew out of a desire amongst faculty and university leadership to deeply rethink how UM-Dearborn approaches engineering education. “Currently, the majority of engineering education is knowledge-based and focuses on mathematical and scientific tools that the students apply to solve engineering problems. But there isn't always a lot of connection with real problems,” Ayoub says. “So we wanted this undergraduate program to be a problem-based design program, where every year, each cohort of students will be presented with real-life community or industry problems and will be challenged to create solutions.” Ayoub says through that process, they’ll learn crucial engineering intangibles like problem identification, rapid and low-fidelity prototyping, and collaboration and communication skills. They’re also getting a new design studio — filled with art supplies and engineering gear — that will serve as an instructional and maker space. 

Assistant Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering DeLean Tolbert says the program has the potential to expand the pool of people who may consider engineering as a discipline. “I think this will appeal to students who always felt like math was a barrier to engineering, in the sense that they have trouble connecting with the subject when they really just want to get in there and do some designing or solve a problem that would help people,” Tolbert says. “Some students have created this experience for themselves by dancing between art and engineering, and joining the competition teams. Now, we'll be able to provide that right out of the gate.”

Tolbert says the new program also has the potential to address the access and equity issues that still plague the engineering field. Tolbert, whose research focuses on such challenges, says when other university programs have made attempts to offer their curriculums in more “culturally and socially relevant” forms, it’s helped boost interest among groups currently underrepresented in engineering, like women and students of color.

“We’re hoping that by creating more opportunities to use engineering to meet social needs, more women and underrepresented minority student groups will begin to see that engineering makes sense to them,” Tolbert says. “We have students who really do struggle with the question of whether engineering is incompatible with caring about social issues. So I think this program will appeal to people who care about their communities and want to use engineering and design in really ethical ways.”

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Want to learn more about the new Bachelor of Science in Engineering in Human Centered Engineering Design? Send your questions directly to Sarah Nesbitt, DeLean Tolbert and Georges Ayoub.

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