Watch: Carr Everbach
Engineering is usually not thought of as part of the liberal arts. But what is the purpose of engineering, but to solve human problems for the benefit of humans? At Swarthmore, we believe the best engineers are the ones who understand not only the widgets they design but also the people whose needs are to be met. The social context of engineering designs is often as important for success as the technical details of the designs themselves. Interdisciplinarity is seeing the connections between fields, so that wicked problems can be solved.
Youngmoo Kim was one of my early students, a double major in music and engineering and a singer in 16 Feet. His Senior Design project was to invent a system that determined what notes are being played by a single-line instrument like a violin or trumpet and created a musical transcription. After Swarthmore, Youngmoo went to Stanford for a masters and to MIT for his doctorate, working in the MIT Media Lab to develop automatic classification systems for music based solely upon audio characteristics. This technology allows listeners to discover, for example, forgotten gems of classic jazz in large databases of music. When he came to Drexel University as a professor, Youngmoo created the EXCiTe Center, a technology and arts hybrid that develops clothing with sensors, dances with drones, and graphical visualization of music. It is an example of what Youngmoo calls “constructive disruption of tradition” and embraces “the serendipitous exchange of knowledge and ideas that lead to the formation of new connections, inspirations, and collaborations.” An excellent example of interdisciplinarity that Youngmoo piloted at Swarthmore.
Did you know that over half of Swarthmore’s engineering majors double-major in something else? A recent Swarthmore graduate, Ethan Lee, double-majored in engineering and art and is now on his way to a masters in architecture at Harvard. He was funded by the Halpern Family Foundation to design and fabricate the Moebius Bench that now sits between Papazian and the Friends Meeting House. That practical sculpture will be moved soon to a park in Swarthmore Borough to make way for the BEP building, where interdisciplinarity among biology, engineering, and psychology students will create innovative solutions to problems that the world faces.
Finally, I’d like to tell you about a current student, Gabriel Perez-Putnam. Gabe is majoring in engineering and minoring in economics, but he is in Cape Town, South Africa, now attending Swarthmore’s Environmental Study-Abroad program. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Costa Rica, has worked in construction, and is studying renewable energy in South Africa toward helping developing nations break free of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that Gabe’s future successes will depend on his ability to think across disciplinary boundaries. Whether majoring in engineering or some other field, our students will continue to solve human problems with the insights they gain from interdisciplinary thinking at Swarthmore.