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Dordt College News

Engineering: 30 years of multi-disciplinary engineering

March 14, 2014

When Dr. Douglas De Boer came to Dordt College in 1984 to help develop the electrical portion of Dordt’s new engineering major, he expected it would be one more step toward offering all of the traditional areas of engineering. He recalls that Dr. Charles Adams, Dordt’s first engineering professor and the founder of the program, said to him something like, “No, we’re one program, we don’t need separate majors in each area.”

From the start, Adams believed that one program with emphases in specific areas was the best way to offer a holistic, Christian engineering education. His vision laid a foundation for a program that, 30 years later, has established a strong reputation and graduated engineers who are respected  for the work they do and the way they do it. It has also proven to be a practical approach for 21st century engineers.

Dr. Kevin Timmer recalls one of his grad school professors at Iowa State University some years ago telling him that, as world problems cross boundaries, Dordt’s program was likely in a better position to address them than ISU’s was. At most large universities, mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical engineering are housed in their own buildings and compete separately for funding, rarely working together.

“Engineering students often wouldn't take seriously courses they had to take outside of their building,” says Dr. Kayt Frisch, about her graduate experience at from the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Dordt’s engineering faculty believe that their multi-disciplinary approach to engineering education is the best way to prepare engineers for today’s world.

“I tell prospective students, based on my experience in industry, that no one ever comes to you with a mechanical or an electrical problem, they come to you with a problem,” says Dr. Ethan Brue. "Problems are not just technical, but also organizational, social, economic, etc."

In today’s technologically advanced world, problems include mechanical operation, control systems, environmental requirements, resource considerations, specific needs, how best to serve people, and more. A multi-disciplinary, holistic education prepares engineers to address all of these aspects as they design.

The Dordt engineering department’s definition of “holistic” is broader than the one found in Frisch’s machine design textbook where holistic engineering is described as designing a machine with all of its parts in mind.

At Dordt, holistic engineering takes into account the complexity of God’s world and how all parts of it work together; it emphasizes the importance of developing and caring for creation as engineers design machines or anything else.

De Boer compares Dordt’s program to the threads that make up a piece of fabric. Core courses in the humanities and social sciences, along with courses that focus on mathematics and the physical world are coupled with a desire to be passionate followers of Christ in order to weave a strong foundation upon which to design technology that brings restoration and development to today’s world.

A multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach can help students see engineering as a way to seek shalom, serving others and the creation in which they live, says Timmer. It allows professors to talk easily about what it means to be integrally Christian in engineering without having it be simply an add-on to conventional engineering textbook material.

Dordt’s approach grows out of the department’s unified commitment to working as Reformed Christians in a world God made and sustains.

“This way of looking at life permeates our teaching and classroom conversations,” says Professor Justin Vander Werff. At a recent Christian engineering conference, with participants that included faculty members in engineering departments at small Christian colleges, Vander Werff was struck by a comment made by a faculty member from a similar Christian institution about how surprising it was that Dordt’s engineering department seems to have such a commonality of purpose and perspective.

“Our shared vision and Christ-centered approach to vocation and engineering is something that we sometimes take for granted, but what a blessing it is!” says Vander Werff. De Boer notes that rather than hindering them, this common vision allows them to talk about and wrestle with anything.

“Understanding and articulating what it is to be a Reformed Christian in engineering may sound a bit heady and  philosophical for many students today,” admits Brue. “But what we are really  asking students is quite simple: ‘Are you a child of God? If yes, then learn well how to respond to that and praise the Lord in your work.’”

Design projects help students develop a better sense of what praising God in their work could mean for engineers. Timmer tries to give legs to such a perspective in the introductory engineering course. All students must design and build a biomass cookstove. Biomass is at the forefront of ways to think about a sustainable energy future today. As much as half of the world’s population cooks with biomass every day. Inexpensive, well-designed biomass cookstoves save people money, use fewer scarce resources, and improve health conditions for those who use them.

“It’s a good project to help students understand the opportunities they have to be God’s hands in God’s world,” says Timmer. They design something that is low tech, that is on the cutting edge of technology, and that can meet needs.

Dordt’s engineering professors talk about that kind of focus as being obedient to God’s call for Christian engineers. It’s why Vander Werff is so involved in bridge design—it gives him an opportunity to help keep people safer as he explores new ways to build bridges that will withstand catastrophic weather events.

“The general goal in bridge engineering is to serve the public,” he says. The civil engineers he works with share their ideas freely for the good of everyone in society. That’s his approach. As he learns more about the way creation behaves, he shares principles and approaches to bridge construction that seem to offer workable and sustainable solutions.

“Christians often think of their task as janitorial,” says Brue: The world is broken and sinful; the Christian’s job is to clean up the ills and convert evil to good.

“Engineering is more than practice emerging from a fallen world," Brue adds. "We want to bring a sense of healthy flourishing to the practice of engineering through our teaching,” he says. “Our work as engineers isn’t just about addressing brokenness and disease, it is also about unfolding the delightful potential in the creation around us. There should be poetic playfulness to our work also."

And that may be why many of Dordt’s engineering graduates work at or start companies that are looking at new ways of using energy resources and sustainable ways to use creation’s resources or creative ways to automatically guide vehicles smoothly and safely on congested highway systems.

Dordt engineering professors find that prospective students and parents are intrigued that an engineering program takes faith and walk that seriously. It’s also what drew them to teach at Dordt.

De Boer’s friends at Hewlett Packard told him he was committing career suicide when he left there in the mid-’80s to teach engineering at Dordt. Today, in their mid-fifties, his former colleagues are all very comfortably retired. But he’d make the same choice again.

“I see my career at Dordt as a calling from the Lord and every bit as rewarding as my work at Hewlett Packard was.”

For others in the department, their student experience at Dordt College changed the way they would think about engineering permanently.

“I did not know what I was getting into as a student,” says Brue, who returned to Dordt 14 years ago after completing a Ph.D. and working in industry. In the end, his engineering education shaped him in more profound and lasting ways than he would have imagined.

Timmer and Vander Werff admit to enrolling at Dordt as students because it was an easy next step in their tradition of Christian education. Today, despite having to give up significantly higher salaries, the whole department has been drawn back from industry to share a way of being an engineer that they believe is different, and one that continues to produce, each year, skilled, thoughtful, and faithful engineers.


SALLY JONGSMA

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