By Diana Hernandez-Alende
Technology is constantly evolving and so is engineering education.
With the recently created bachelor’s degree program in interdisciplinary engineering, FIU students are exposed to a plethora of engineering disciplines. As they dive into each area of specialty, students gain an understanding of how the engineering industry operates – working across different technical engineering and science areas, plus social sciences, to broaden perspectives and foster collaboration, all while understanding the needs of clients.
“In this major, we have a core set of classes that emphasize human-centered design and solving real-world problems in society,” said Stephen Secules, assistant professor in FIU’s School of Universal Computing, Construction, and Engineering Education (SUCCEED).
Secules, who teaches the new Foundations of Interdisciplinary Engineering course, instills in his students the notion that the class is about “learning to learn,” reflecting the continuously changing workplace of tomorrow.
“I was an engineering major that also studied music and acoustics. Before becoming an educator and researcher, I worked at consulting firms in acoustical engineering, which required understanding noise laws and regulations and managing for clients,” Secules said. “The purpose of this course is to teach students how to develop and manage client relationships and to not be afraid of not knowing a specific subject because in the real world they’ll work with different types of engineers and each individual will bring their area of expertise to the table.”
The course, which is a feeder into the interdisciplinary engineering major, is project-based with three innovative projects that reflect teamwork and growth.
The first project consisted of students measuring traffic noise near FIU’s College of Engineering & Computing. Students received a memo from a fictional developer looking to build residences in Miami and were tasked with developing an acoustics planning report.
Students reported their noise measurement data and how they calculated it; an overview of the city of Miami’s ordinances on noise regulations; and social science and engineering areas implicated in the project—along with addressing any social, legal and ethical concerns.
Project two involved the use of drones for prosocial (something positive for society) reasons. Students improved an existing drone prototype to combat deforestation in Madagascar. Ideas included adding a lightweight bag to drop nutrients and infrared cameras to detect active deforestation fires.
In the final project, students were asked to submit a problem they've faced—from invasive species in their home gardens to the complications of taking attendance in a large event. Then, students selected a problem that wasn’t their own and worked in teams to come up with solutions. Students were encouraged to interview participants and discuss their chosen problem with experts outside of their field.
“I like the idea of planting a seed in my students to think of becoming engineers to change the world,” says Secules, an advocate of social justice. In addition to teaching the interdisciplinary engineering course, Secules conducts research in enhancing diversity and equity in engineering education.
This intersection of technology and diversity is what attracted FIU Honors College student Jaquan Starling to the interdisciplinary engineering bachelor’s program within SUCCEED. SUCCEED was formed in 2018, in conjunction with the STEM Transformation Institute.
Originally a mechanical engineering major, Starling enjoyed learning how to build cars and planes but was also eager to learn the psychology behind it.
“I’d ask myself what are some complications of building this car, for example. I was drawn to this humanistic-like field of engineering,” Starling said. “I also like how I can customize my major a bit more. I’m able to take engineering and business courses in this program.”
Starling, who’s minoring in computer science and serves as the vice president of FIU’s Black Student Union, feels the foundation's course is preparing him for the workforce.
“The course has helped me communicate technical information clearly and gain comfort in new areas, like acoustics which I had never heard of before this class,” Starling added.
Starling is expected to graduate in spring 2022 and looks to work on ethical technology, an emerging area that makes ethics a priority in today’s tech-driven world. He is currently an artificial intelligence (AI) fellow at CreAItivity, a nonprofit organization with a mission to spread awareness about AI in helping to solve issues society faces.
The Foundations of Interdisciplinary Engineering course is currently open to all engineering majors and continues to attract diverse and dynamic students.
“I like knowing who my students are, where they’re from and where they want to go. I ask them how I can be of support to craft their learning so that it responds to them,” Secules said.