As an organized Wellesley student, you mindfully planned each semester, checking and triple checking that you never veered too far off of your distribution requirements. Nonetheless, from there was a feeling that you couldn’t quite shake, the notion that one of these semesters you would have to bite the bullet: the mathematical modeling and science requirement. Wellesley students are fearless, brave, hardworking, and dynamic. Yet, many of us, who are devoted to the humanities (in my case, psychology), quiver in the face of classes like engineering, biology and computer science. If you can relate to my aversions on any level, I have a message of hope: no matter what your previous experiences or predilections, you have the ability to enjoy STEM classes and to learn new problem solving skills that will make you a more informed student, leader, friend, worker, and citizen of the world.
After returning to campus from a semester abroad, I found myself in the ever-so-familiar “Degree Audit” portal, wondering how on earth I had managed to put off the math requirement. I like to think it was destiny that led me to my first engineering course during the spring of my junior year. Was it “Snowmageddon,” or was it the complete re-arranging of my schedule because of my oversight on some class prerequisites? Whatever reasons fate had for directing me to some scintillating spam sent to the Wellesley email group advertising “Product Creation for All” one snowy eve, I really can’t explain. “Product Creation for All” was described as an introductory engineering seminar that focused on the study of the design process, human factors, along with creating products for local nonprofit organizations. I was enthralled. Intimidated, but enthralled.
It became clear to me immediately upon entering the engineering lab that my preconceived notion of engineering was completely inaccurate. Class started and we were given our challenge: create a nametag for the person next to you using non-traditional materials, matching the needs and expectations of your neighbor’s aesthetic preferences. As I rapidly interviewed my neighbor in between speed walking from the lego station to recycled wood station, my creative juices were flowing before I even had time to doubt whether or not I could complete the task. I started to view my engineering seminar no longer as a rebarbative monster, unconquerable and destined to cause great stress, but as an opportunity to learn new strategies for evaluating the world around me.
As the semester unfolded, my understanding of the traditional “creative process” was shattered. Instead of a professor directing us to meet with group partners outside of class or to prepare a powerpoint presentation, engineering required an entirely new mindset. From the very beginning, my engineering professor ingrained the idea that no theory or vision was too strange, too inconceivable or too nonsensical. This creative process was at first difficult for me. I craved the realistic, pragmatic objectives that most of my previous classes valued. I was out of my comfort zone humoring ideas that I knew were simply not possible for introductory engineering students. I disliked having to spend so much time on ideation, brainstorming ideas that required prolonged consideration of preposterous solutions. However, over time, our class environment broke my stubborn preference for traditional learning processes. The only way to be truly innovative and make progress on the unsolvable conundrums of the world is to dare to consider all ideas, even the ones that scare you and make you break the molds of ordinary thinking.
We conceptualized about how products were made, deconstructed products, read text about optimizing designs and the manufacturing process. We used mathematical modeling concepts, dabbled in physics, all while cementing an entirely new way of thinking. With an emphasis on collaborative discussions and teamwork, I started embracing challenges, no matter how daunting I perceived them to be. We had the opportunity to work for a local non-profit, Community Rowing, Inc. and help create a product that would assist the adaptive rowers’ needs. My design partner and I worked tirelessly to consider all of the factors and limitations we wanted our product to address. We tried, we failed, we tried, and we failed again. Failing is an integral part of the creative process, and learning how to overcome and learn from failures is when the truly brilliant ideas come to fruition. Every failure we experienced brought us closer and closer to our final product, and more importantly, to a revived belief in our capabilities to overcome hurdles.
As my new creative modus operandi emerged, I noticed an improvement in my other classes. I participated more in my psychology seminar and had a new understanding of the dynamics conducive to class collaboration. I was a more effective researcher and writer, better able to organize my papers. Importantly, ideation became an integral part of my academic repertoire and helped me to view long assignments and arduous study endeavors as more enjoyable and do-able, rather than a painstaking hastle. During my summer internship, I had to find flaws in a defendant’s alibi given cell phone records and hundreds of hours of jail calls on a case that lacked a single shred of concrete evidence. This might have caused some to run from a summer job which presented such a bleak prospect for fun. However, using the critical thinking skills and enterprising brainstorming techniques that an entire semester of engineering afforded me, I created spreadsheets, maps, color-coordinated data charts, and spent a significant amount of time analyzing and contemplating plans of action before beginning each assignment. I am a better humanities and social sciences student for taking engineering. I am a better employee and intern, a better leader of my society on campus, and a more confident woman. I have a renewed sense of conviction to overcome obstacles that are before me. I had the opportunity to learn first hand that humanities and engineering concepts are not mutually exclusive; in fact they compliment each other in a magical amalgam of an interactive evaluation of human behavior. My entreaty to you: no matter what your class year or major is, don’t miss the opportunity to learn a new way of approaching obstacles and challenges. If you want to proactively solve problems and gain a more profound understanding of how the world works, consider an engineering class and bask in the analytical richness that it gifts you.
Photo courtesy of Wellesley’s Engineering Laboratory