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Below the Waterline: A Deep Dive to Rethink Engineering Education

Posted: 07/16/2012 12:58 pm

If we think of engineering education as an iceberg, many educators are focused on the visible part of the iceberg -- the part above the waterline. As such, they teach students the known elements of existing science, math, engineering science, etc., thus leading students on a path of "mastery of the known." While all this knowledge is important and useful, many fail to realize that there's so much more to education -- especially engineering education -- than what we can see above the waterline. In fact, if the goal is to educate people for a full life, then we need to broaden our focus and educate in the areas that don't involve known facts. In other words, we need to look below the waterline.

Focusing above the waterline and filling young minds with known facts and knowledge used to be sufficient for engineering education. In the past, engineers were category enhancers, making existing products and technologies faster, better, and more efficient, so mastery of the known used to be enough. Today, however, engineers do so much more. They are no longer category enhancers; they are category creators, bringing to fruition things that don't yet exist. As such, because we don't know what future solutions will be needed, we can't merely pour existing knowledge into students' heads, hoping that this will be enough; rather, we need to educate deep, lifelong learners so they can adapt, create, innovate, and lead the world to a better future.

This need for competent lifelong learning shifts the focal point of education. To instill the joy of being a masterful lifelong learner requires education to dive below the waterline, to stop focusing so heavily on mere mastery of the known so that in the future we develop engineers who can take initiative, find the problems that need to be solved, think both critically and creatively, and come up with solutions that our world demands.

A Focus for the Future

When working below the waterline, we're working explicitly with a fuller picture of education -- a picture that includes language, body, and emotion -- and this leads us to three particular skills: noticing, listening, and questioning (NLQ), which are the skills that enable people to learn new things. In Big Beacon's work around the globe, we've found that explicit experiential training in noticing, listening, and open-ended questioning transforms schools by (1) giving teachers the tools they need to become aware of the perception, needs, and untapped potential of students, and (2) giving students the tools they need to become aware of their own stories and purpose, and to guide their own learning in productive directions of their own choosing. NLQ is not the whole story, but the current system becomes more amenable to the needed changes as more students and faculty members practice NLQ. Let's examine each of these briefly in turn:

  • Noticing. Noticing is central to human change, and R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist, said it well:
    The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

    Change and innovation begin with awareness, and below the waterline skills are those that get started when people notice. A portion of our brain, the middle pre-frontal cortex, gives us the capability to examine our thoughts and feelings, as well as those of others. The brain science is becoming clear: The more we exercise our ability to notice, the better we become at it. Sometime this capability is called mindfulness, and the practice of executive coaching aims at improved noticing and awareness. Even hi-tech companies such as Google are investing in mindfulness training for their engineers.

  • Listening. There are different ways to listen, and one distinction is between listening from ego and empathetic listening. When we listen from ego, we listen to others strictly from our own point of view. When someone tells a story of going to Paris, we respond, "Oh yes, I love Paris and have been their X times." This isn't necessarily a bad kind of listening, but everything the speaker says is an opportunity for the listener to share from his or her own point of view. Cocktail parties are built on this sort of listening, so it definitely has its place in communication.

    However, to educate a new generation below the waterline requires us to teach students how to listen at a deeper level. Empathetic listening occurs when the listener really focuses on what the other person is saying and doesn't assume he or she knows what the other person means. For example, someone may say, "I had trouble at school the other day." To listen at this higher level you might then ask, "What do you mean by 'trouble'?" In other words, you listen and try to find out how someone is using language and what they really mean. It's a deeper kind of listening where the listener attempts to understand the person's perspective through the distinctions they're making.  When you listen to people and their distinctions, you hear their emotions, troubles, concerns, and joy. You hear clues about people, business, and life that others often miss, which leads to deeper understanding of issues and greater clarity -- two things that tomorrow's engineers will need to master.

  • Questioning. Two important types of questions are information gathering and open-ended questions. Both are critical. To get the facts, we ask lots of information gathering questions, and they have short, fact-filled answers. But to really be creative and to explore below the waterline, the most powerful questions are usually open-ended. Open-ended questions beg a person to reflect on whatever comes to mind, to seek more than one answer, and to explore new threads. In other words, they are powerful tools to trigger reflection.

    One simple way to ensure that you're asking powerful questions is to begin every question with the word "what." There is no such thing as the perfect "what" question, and many of them (accompanied by empathetic listening are quite powerful), but here are a few generic examples:

    • What would success look like in this situation?
    • In what other ways can you think about this?
    • What is the other person thinking, feeling, and wanting?
    • What are you missing or avoiding?
    • What can you learn from this mistake or failure? ... from this success?
    • What's possible?

Having students and teachers master the art of the powerful question is itself a critical way to transform education and build below-the-waterline skill.

Taking Engineers to New Depths

This article has discussed below-the-waterline concepts in the context of engineering education, but clearly educating in this way goes beyond engineering and helps all students develop and live full blossoming lives. When we equip students with the NLQ skills of noticing, listening, and questioning, we'll have more reflective engineers in a world that is demanding engineers to step up and be the change leaders society needs.

Educating below the waterline is an important concept of the Big Beacon, a global movement to transform engineering education. Find out about NLQ and the other principles of the movement at Read the Big Beacon manifesto and pass it on.

Join the movement by reading the Big Beacon Manifesto on slideshare or download your own copy and share it with your friends at Follow the movement on twitter at bigbeacon or like it on Facebook at


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