When Rensselaer seniors worked on their capstone projects in air vehicle design last spring, some groups designed the best fighter jets and drones they could come up with. But one group designed light aircraft that could record the sounds of a rain forest to assess the long-term changes, an alternative to the Jeeps that drive through the sensitive terrain to leave and retrieve recording equipment.
“The students were given a chance to think, ‘should we use our skills in a traditional way, or should we also consider other things we can do with our tools and know-how?’” explained Amir Hirsa, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering. “Getting them to think about the bigger picture really opened their horizons to effecting change.”
Rensselaer science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students are increasingly being asked to consider the bigger picture, thanks to the collaboration Hirsa, Chip Kilduff, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Peters Persans, professor of physics, have begun with Professor Kim Fortun, a cultural anthropologist who heads the Department of Science and Technology Studies.
The nascent effort encourages students to consider environmental, ethical, and social ramifications of the utilities, aircraft, and infrastructure they might one day design and build. The faculty members involved want their students to incorporate concerns about sustainability into their thinking.
Fortun notes that opening a pathway between the social sciences and technical sciences has also given Rensselaer humanities students a perspective on what the engineers and physicists face in their work. One class that she and her colleagues in STEM disciplines co-taught, for instance, considered the merits and risks of building the Keystone Pipeline. Students saw that many kinds of analysis are needed.
“The questions become more brass tacks when you have people on the social/political side and the technical side in the same room,” said Fortun, whose research centers on the impact of environmental policies on public health. “I think it’s really important that we learn about one another’s field.”
The new faculty collaboration is being called STEM+ and is one of many examples of innovative pedagogy at Rensselaer. The Institute has long been a pioneer in mixed-reality and cyber-enabled learning and discovery, and pedagogical innovation is among the highest priorities of The Rensselaer Plan 2024, the strategic roadmap guiding the Institute as it approaches its bicentennial. Collaboration across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions, and harnessing the power of modern tools and technologies to address grand challenges, is central to the vision of The New Polytechnic, a new paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer.
Fortun, who has been at Rensselaer since 1993, said that faculty in STEM fields and faculty in social sciences have enjoyed a respect for one other, but often at a distance. There are not many occasions that bring them together with students to address issues collectively. Fortun senses, though, that a growing number of scientists are realizing what is left out when technological factors alone are addressed.
“Amir is not a policy guy,” she said of Hirsa, “but he knows that the design decisions his students make have a huge impact on our carbon footprint and things like that.”
The STEM+ collaboration started in 2014 when Hirsa looked for a way to introduce ethics education into engineering classes. Fortun helped him with his aircraft design class in the spring and she then enlisted him to co-teach her class, Environment and Politics, this past fall.
The course, which Fortun has taught for a decade, challenges first-year students to address and debate topics such as nuclear power regulation and the Keystone Pipeline that have an impact on the environment. The effort expanded when Persans and Kilduff began co-teaching some of the classes with her.
Kilduff showed students how engineers painstakingly analyze evidence to reach conclusions. In one presentation, he illustrated how difficult it would be for non-specialists to evaluate the connection between climate change and rising sea levels because the work involves highly sophisticated measurement techniques and models. Also, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions because different lines of evidence can lead to different interpretations.
Fortun notes that opening a pathway between the social sciences and technical sciences has also given Rensselaer humanities students a perspective on what the engineers and physicists face in their work.
“The take-home message,” he said, “was that you need a concerted effort to really ‘understand science,’ that you need to seek information from as many sources as possible and need to be persistent and patient in formulating a science-based position. Science will eventually converge to a consensus, but it will not happen overnight.”
He and his colleagues already see the effort paying off for both themselves and their students.
“My involvement last fall was pretty intense,” said Hirsa. “I attended many of Kim’s classes. Kim, in turn, really influenced my teaching. My whole world expanded when I really embraced the sociology aspect of engineering.”
As a result of the new collaboration, his graduate engineering students have become teaching assistants in Fortun’s social science classes. And Hirsa believes it was Fortun’s input that influenced a group of engineering students to design the aerial device that would minimize damage to rain forests.
Kilduff has kept in touch with some of the first-year students in Environment and Politics and helped them plan speaker events on topics that had their genesis in the class.
“And I will teach a sophomore-level class in the fall to introduce many of the same students to some of the technical elements of the sustainability challenges they were analyzing in the first-year course,” he added. “So we hope we have initiated a ‘thread’ that will run through the experiences of all four years of the student’s education.”