Teaching art to engineering students

Typically, engineers receive little or no education in the arts. Very rarely do engineering faculties at universities offer courses in art history, architecture or the appreciation of beauty. This is almost unique within university faculties.

This left-side of brain bias in engineering (and some science courses) produces graduates who are not ‘whole brain thinkers’, and to their detriment. As Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, puts it:

“The arts are essential for training specific, visual, perceptual ways of thinking, just as the ‘3 Rs’ are essential for training specific, verbal, numerical, analytical ways of thinking… both thinking modes – one to comprehend the details and the other to ‘see’ the whole picture, for example, are vital for critical-thinking skills extrapolation of meaning, and problem solving.”

A new study by a United States engineer turned sociologist Erin Cech found that engineering students were less concerned about matters of social welfare following graduation than when they first commenced their degrees.

One-sided (brain) teaching narrows the outlook and thus limits the range of potential solutions that may spring to mind when one is faced with technical issues and problems. This can ultimately lead to a built environment and infrastructure designs that are principally products of cost, functionality and expediency.

The Civil Engineering Design Unit of Study at Sydney University is taken by students in their last undergraduate semester. It is fundamental to those delivering the course that design is a creative activity and the 12 weeks of the course are designed around this premise. Hero engineers of old are referenced:
  • • Fazlur R Khan: structural engineer who pioneered tall building design, such as the Sears building in Chicago. “A technical man must be able to appreciate life – and life is art and music and people.”
  • • Buckminster Fuller: inventor, engineer and scientist. “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Think outside the square

A short course in art is at the heart of this course and is intended to open the way for students to “think outside the square” – or more precisely, through art to find themselves in that challenging but potentially wonderful place outside their own personal square.

The lecture takes the form of a travel adventure where famous paintings and architectural marvels are discovered along the way.

It is interspersed with structures for film sets, (Mad Max; The Matrix; Superman), ceremonial occasions (the opening for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Doha 2006 Asian Games) and modern public art that the author has designed in his consulting practice.

This emphasises that engineering is also part of the world of creative activity, and that engineers do share in the creative process.

Immediately following the lecture, students are presented with an assignment, to be completed within three hours in the drawing office (equipped with canvases, brushes and acrylic paints), to paint ‘an idea, a mood, a feeling or an emotion’ and write 50 to 100 words about their work. Skill in drawing is not sought, but much rather, self-expression.

Marking the students work is a real privilege. Suddenly there are no formulae to fall back on; no mathematics to underpin an approach of reasoning; no right or wrong. Everything is new, fresh, seeking, exploring – and this is true for both student and marker.

Many students from overseas – particularly from Asian countries – paint their own family or village showing idyllic scenes of an earlier life, or a happy family celebration.

Other students – and this has become, over the years, a common theme – paint scenes showing them being lost and confused. Often there is an expression of some apprehension at leaving the comfort of university life and forging a life in the ‘real world’, which they often feel they will have to deal with alone.

And then there are the students who show that they have little to learn about ‘thinking outside the box’.

These are already the inventive ones, who have not painted on the canvas but on its plastic covering; who have cut holes in the canvas or painted on its rear; or who use their hands instead of brushes, who paint one canvas and then press it against another to reveal a mirror image.

They are curious, adventurous, and not afraid ‘to have a go’ – these students already appear to be on the way to a rich and rewarding engineering career.

Student feedback has been almost universally positive. The teaching staff firmly believe that even this brief exposure to art will have a beneficial effect on at least some engineering students, not only in helping to develop a more ‘balanced brain’ but also in opening up the potential for an enriched cultural life and thus facilitating a fuller contribution to society in their engineering careers.

* Harry Partridge BE, MEngSc, FIEAust, MIStructE, NPER, CPEng , Aff(2) RAIA is director of the Partridge Structural and Artmap Studio in Australia and a guest lecturer at the University of Sydney.