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Engineers, Start Your Right Brains

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When I studied engineering at the University of Toronto and California Institute of Technology, it was all left-brain work. My classmates and I knew that career success depended on linear, logical, and analytical talents. Left-brain thinking also dominated much of my career as a professor at Stanford and initially as dean of Santa Clara University's School of Engineering.

But the world's engineering problems are complex and require use of both sides of the brain, so engineering schools have been changing curricula to work on the right brain too, so students will become ethical, compassionate, and innovative engineers.

Engineers Without Borders emanated from the University of Colorado to create positive change for developing communities. A decade after its birth, EWB has 206 chapters, more than 100 projects in 34 countries, and more than 4,000 members, many of them from universities.

Stanford's "d school," or institute of design, is a hub for students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, the humanities, and education to learn design thinking and work together to solve problems in a human-centered way.

Institutions like Rice and Santa Clara send students all over the world to immerse themselves in different cultures and find engineering solutions to challenges like clean water. Because of its Jesuit mission, Santa Clara has taken its curriculum one step further by requiring students to engage in service and community-based learning.

Santa Clara civil engineering junior Ashley Ciglar has built forms for concrete slabs and framed houses without power tools in Mexico, where she saw families living in shacks without water or electricity. She welled with emotion when a mother cried tears of joy upon seeing the house the students had built for her family. She created water distribution and filtration systems in Honduras and Nicaragua, has done more than 20 service projects near campus and is pursuing a fellowship to train farmers in methods to adopt organic practices.

Until they engage both sides of their brains in college, students like Ciglar do not fully understand the needs of the world, nor the solutions offered by engineering. They expand their education beyond formulas and equations to include an awareness of the real world, and how they can personally make a difference. It's an empowering realization.

Engineering curricula are quite full at every school, but we can find innovative ways of incorporating interdisciplinary learning and right-brain focus. We also need to engage students in more and deeper discussions about ethical decision-making, globalization, and concern for others.

As I like to tell first-year students, becoming a great engineer involves the head, heart, and hands. You can learn the core of your profession -- math, physics, and science -- at any university. But today's students need to deepen their empathy for the plight of others, as Ciglar and many other engineering students at top schools do.

With less than one percent of the world's population holding a bachelor's degree, college graduates are an extremely elite group. Those who graduate with engineering degrees, I believe, have a moral obligation to help the world's poor and under-served with basic needs, like gaining access to clean water, adequate lighting or cooking fuel.

We live in such a diverse global society that I think engineering students should also serve in communities with cultures different from their own. This kind of immersion leads to a broader perspective, one that will cause students to ask deeper questions and thus find more compelling, more compassionate answers. They learn to tackle poverty's problems, but as important, they begin to understand why they should care, and their character blossoms.

Professors and administrators have a duty to empower young adults to make a difference through curricula and co-curricula opportunities. Those of us designing courses and projects need to ask: will this experience teach our students merely to become good engineers; or will it transform them into well-rounded leaders who will go beyond knowledge to use their heads, hearts and hands to improve technology for the greater good?

Godfrey Mungal is dean of the school of engineering at Santa Clara University.