Common Reading Experience encourages engineering students to think about roles in society

From the Diag to Pierpont Commons, Michigan Engineering has installed a series of posters featuring the cover of a book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

The posters ask engineers across campus one very important question: “What chapter are you on?”

This is the question posed by the College of Engineering’s new first-year reading engagement program, the Common Reading Experience.

“As students move into careers in the 21st century, they need skills in a broad range of areas beyond technical knowledge, and they need to be thinking about an engineer’s role in society,” explains Stacie Edington, CoE Honors and Engagement Program officer.

“We wanted to get students thinking in that context more broadly, what it means to be an engineer in the world, from their first day on campus.”

CoE, with assistance from a Transforming Learning for a Third Century Quick Wins grant, piloted the Common Reading Experience for all incoming freshmen in the 2013-14 academic year.

Over the summer of 2013, the entire first-year class and faculty teaching first-year engineering classes received a free copy of “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade” by Pietra Rivoli. By September, students and faculty were ready to engage in a lively discussion with their community.

“Literary discussion” and “engineering” might not seem like a logical match, but the Common Reading Experience begs to differ. “We wanted to shake up the stereotype that engineers don’t like reading,” Edington says.

It is very important that the common read is “not an engineering book,” Edington adds. The themes in the selected book spark conversation between students and faculty about the broader international context of a career in engineering.

Some engineering professors have used “The Travels of a T-Shirt” posters in their offices as “icebreakers” for discussion with students, Edington says. “With the Common Reading Experience, faculty know that students have the common ground to continue that conversation.”

For the 2014-15 school year, a panel of engineering faculty and students selected “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

This book “has an engineering component to it,” Edington says, “but it’s really about the protagonist’s community. It raises the right kind of questions about the broader role of an engineer in society.”

Over the summer, students are invited to react to the book by using the Twitter hashtag “UmichEnginRead.” When engineering freshmen arrive on campus this fall, more than 1,000 students are expected to attend the program’s peer-facilitated group discussions.

Engineering faculty have many opportunities to use themes from the Common Reading Experience in the classroom.

Nancy Love, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering asked students in her “Engineering 100: Engineering Solutions for Global Water Issues” class to create a water footprint of the t-shirt in the “Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” using information derived from the book.

In the 2014 winter semester, David Thompson, adjunct assistant professor in entrepreneurship programs, invited guest speaker David Merritt to his class, “Entrepreneurship Hour.” Merritt, a local entrepreneur and U-M graduate, spoke about the connections between engineering, entrepreneurship and “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.”

Thompson says that the Common Reading Experience has an important role to play in the U-M Engineering community.

“It is not enough just to be excellent at the principles of engineering. A Michigan engineer must also excel in applying these principles in a rapidly changing global environment. The Common Read is a unique way to bring all freshmen together to consider, debate and learn about how important engineering can be when applied in our interconnected and diverse society and world.”


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