The greater share of my “general education” experience comes not from the classroom, but from having changed direction many times in my life. That’s the beauty of living in America: if you don’t like where you’re at, you have the power to do something about it! “Work hard, apply yourself, and anything is possible,” we like to tell our children. In my case, it turned out to be true! I spent the first few years after high school pursuing a music career. When that dried up, I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps infantry. (Talk about a change in direction!) After five years active duty I started my engineering degree at Iowa State University. Even then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started as a Mechanical Engineering major, but after a year of studies, I realized my calling was not in Mechanical but in Software Engineering.
What does this have to do with General Education electives? Well, while my path through life has been an adventure, I wouldn’t exactly call it the clearest road map to success. At the time I finally graduate, I will be 31 years old. Most developers my age in the workforce have been working in software development for almost a decade, rising up the ladder in responsibility and pay rate. They likely have their college debt paid off and have started saving for retirement. I, on the other hand, will be starting fresh at 31 with over $90k in student loans (mine and my wife’s). So while I cherish the unique life experiences that have given me a great deal of perspective on the world, I know there’s a much more efficient route to get where I am today.
That’s where GenEds come in. Just as my unorthodox journey made me well-rounded and gave me perspective, so too do general education courses. They’re designed to make you versatile, giving you a foundational understanding of the world as well as a broader perspective that can help shed light and wisdom on the challenges you face in your personal or professional life. Our primary task as engineers is to think critically about problems to arrive at an appropriate solution. As it turns out, critical thinking cannot take place in a vacuum. If all we had to guide us was our technical knowledge, we would come up with very clever ideas that either miss the mark entirely or fall short of their true potential.
Think about the concept of Design Thinking. Design Thinking begins with Empathy, described by Knct Lab (2015) as follows:
Any social endeavor begins with the human element. It involves identifying the molecules that make up your target audience, getting under their skin and finding out what they value, what they want and how they look at the world. The challenge of the designer lies in synthesizing this within the context of their design.
To empathize with our users, we need to be able to view the world through their eyes. You need perspective. This is the sort of thing that general education electives offer. In my Design Cultures class (DSN S 183), we talked a lot about this design thinking process and how it is applied to “wicked” problems. The Austin Center for Design (2012) defines a wicked problem as…
…a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
As you can see, this way of design thinking about problem solving has a strong correlation to the kind of problem solving that engineers are faced with. The Design Cultures course itself falls outside the engineering curriculum, but the perspective it offers can be directly applied to the way we engineers think about problems.
While I chose Design Cultures specifically for its close ties to engineering, I have experienced other similar benefits from classes I did not expect to. For example, in the second semester of my sophomore year I took Introduction to American Government (POL S 215) out of a desire to better understand government and politics to be able to play a more informed role in our country’s democratic system. This I accomplished, but the added bonus I did not expect to gain was a better understanding of engineering problems in the political domain. Problems surrounding electronic voting, political polling, social media influence graphing, etc. And while the course didn’t explicitly cover these topics, when I encountered them later in my Software Engineering curriculum, I had a greater understanding of the different factors at play and what the impact of those factors were.
My GenEd Coursework
- ENGL 150
- Critical Thinking and Communication (Tested Out)
- ENGL 250
- Written, Oral, Visual, and Electronic Composition
- ENGL 314
- Technical Communication
- LIB 160
- Information Literacy
- SP CM 212
- Fundamentals of Public Speaking
- DSN S 183
- Design Cultures
- ECON 101
- Principles of Microeconomics
- POL S 215
- Introduction to American Government
- HD FS 240
- Literature for Children
Another couple other classes that broadened my perspective were Principles of Microeconomics (ECON 101) and Literature for Children (HD FS 240). The economics class is recommended to freshmen by the advisors and has a more obvious impact on our trade as engineers (supply and demand, opportunity cost, etc.), but Literature for Children was, again, one that I took for my own reasons and came away from with more than I bargained for.
I originally took Literature for Children for two reasons: First, I have two boys of my own (ages 1 and 2) whom I love reading to, so I figured a children’s literature class would only help in that area. The other reason was to fulfill the US Diversity requirement set forth by the College of Engineering. I wasn’t especially excited to learn the diversity element, but it turned out to be very engaging. Growing up in small-town Iowa, it was easy to overlook the issue of social inequality in our country. Not that I was oblivious to the fact, but it was never an evident issue in my own community, so I wasn’t directly impacted by it and didn’t think about it. However, engineering is a very multi-national, diverse field, and you find yourself often working with people from all walks of life. Having taken a course that focuses some of its efforts on diversity, it has made me more sensitive to the topic when approaching an engineering problem and working towards a solution.
Thinking back on my experiences before Iowa State—pursuing a career in music and serving in the Marine Corps—it’s easy to see the manner in which the experiences shaped my perspective of the world. They have become part of my identity. However, I am also grateful for the way my general education experience at Iowa State has helped prepare me for the challenges to come. We students take GenEds begrudgingly at times, but their ultimate impact is to make us more effective members of society.
What’s next for me?
Before graduation in May of 2018, I have a few major short-term goals, the most immediate of which is the launching of my wife’s start-up business, Lilia Grace, on November 13th. I’ve been helping setup the various online technologies, including the website, online store, ShipStation, MailChimp, etc. We’re excited to see the response at launch, but it really is quite a lot of work to start a business! My other short-term goals are to finish my remaining time at Iowa State honorably and to ready our house for sale in the spring. I say “honorably” because once the pressure of finding a job is over, the temptation to slack starts to creep in. It’s not in my nature to submit shoddy work, though, so I just need to dig in and work hard to finish out my remaining time at Iowa State.
In the long term, I’m looking forward to starting work at Zirous in the spring. Zirous is an information technology and consulting company, and I’ll be working as an application developer on one of their teams. I’m really excited about it! One of the things I like about working for a consulting company is that I’ll get to work on many projects, with lots of different technologies, across a wide range of industries. I’d like to learn as much as I can at Zirous and maybe someday start my own business.
Austin Center for Design. (2012, March 1). Wicked problems: Problems worth solving. Retrieved from https://www.wickedproblems.com/1_wicked_problems.php
Knct Lab. (2015, April 9). The 5 steps of design thinking [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.knctlab.com/blog/5-steps-design-thinking