Educating Socially-Aware Engineers
A new method for educating engineers is to help them develop essential skills and instill them with values. “The products of engineering affect people’s lives”
Seven children with highly impaired motor skills, but with smiles on their faces, awaited the signal while seated in custom-fit electric cars. It was not a race or competition, but rather the result of an extraordinary project completed by students from the SmartUp honors program at the Afeka College of Engineering. For several hours, the students worked in teams to brainstorm creative engineering solutions for customizing the motorized vehicles to each of the children’s specialized needs so that they can whiz around in their new cars, just as other children do.
It could be seen as just another act of charity and goodwill, but in reality, the project brought to light the growing link between engineering in the 21st century and the preparation of engineers to work in the industry. Engineering professions have always required a broad knowledge base, but the new job description also calls for responsibility, a diverse skill set, strong ethics, critical thinking, and even social engagement.
At Afeka, emphasis is placed on teamwork and self-learning and research
“We believe that students need to acquire essential skills including teamwork, English language proficiency, communication skills, and ethics – but we also believe that engineers who develop and create product that affect people’s lives should be socially aware,” says Afeka president Prof. Ami Moyal. “That’s why we don’t just train engineers, we educate them, and this has implications on the pedagogical path we prepare for them.”
The electric car project is a great example of the change that has taken place within the engineering profession over the past few years, and that is being led by the Afeka College of Engineering. The process of educating engineers goes beyond classical professional training. It combines essential skills, social engagement, and a connection with the daily life of surrounding community and society as whole – this process equips engineers with the skills needed for successfully graduating and entering the job market.
The new engineer is involved in the community
“A fascinating learning experience”
For these reasons, teamwork and self-directed learning are emphasized during academic studies at Afeka. One of the courses integrated with our curriculum includes a project that combines social and community engagement. “Our projects challenge students, and they learn to lead lead and engage in a variety of engineering fields,” says Dr. Sharon Gat, head of the college’s SmartUp honors program. “You might see electrical engineers working on projects traditionally suited to mechanical engineers, or you might see mechanical engineers designing electronics or coding. This vastly enriches their knowledge and experience.”
“We have five undergraduate programs, and the honors program integrates with all of them,” Dr. Gat continues. “The year students are accepted into the program, they begin a “project year”. They are divided into teams and lead projects in interdisciplinary research fields. The process starts with an idea and culminates with a product.”
The projects completed as part of the SmartUp honors program generally have a distinctly social orientation, but not exclusively. The electric car project, for example, resulted from a collaboration with the Go Baby Go association, which specializes in fitting motorized toy vehicles for special needs children. Dr. Gat, who looked for a project that could be completed in a short time and that provided students with an opportunity to practice teamwork, stresses that it was a particularly challenging project that took place under strict time constraints. “These children lack mobility in their lower limbs, which means the students had to customize the cars for control with the upper limbs or the head, depending on the severity of the child’s disability. Solutions included a button or a microswitch like on a motorcycle for starting the car, and a specially-made joystick for steering”
It was all worth it for the children’s smiles
According to the students, cultivating and developing the necessary skills and proficiencies through social projects brings tremendous added value to their educational experience. “We are able to gain significant experience on various systems, while at the same time enjoying a fascinating learning experience,” says Elad Dov, fourth-year student at Afeka. “You learn to be inquisitive, curious, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and connected to the industry. And it’s enjoyable, too. It’s so much fun to know that all those hours spent on building the toy cars, for example, went towards a good cause. Once we saw those smiles on the children’s face, it was all worth it.”