We just held our first ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at Imperial College. The ‘Night’ is an idea from ‘MoTiv’ – the training consultancy run by my chaplaincy colleagues from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. It was great to work for two days with Renske, Hans, and Gunther from MoTiv.
In Delft, the first night of philosophy took place when chaplains mediated between a group of students and their lecturers about the way the course was being taught. It gave students and staff a chance to share their deeper motivations for choosing engineering, for wanting to design, build and create.
The Night of Philosophy then became a regular event – a chance to talk outside the confines of the curriculum about the things that really matter for their work – values, ethics, conflicts, context, politics, relationships at work, personal ambitions and passions for construction. All these things are implicit in the teaching and the learning. The challenge is to find good ways to have open and explicit ways to talk about them.
We worked with Rachel and Mitesh from the students’ Civil Engineering Society – who prepared and hosted the event.
The room was arranged with 6 tables – each with one member of staff and 6-8 students. Food and drink were provided. The first ‘course’ of conversation was about ‘why did you decide to become an engineer?’ The feed-back revealed a great range of motivations – shaping the world, building something tangible, creating something that lasts, making a difference.
There were also practical reasons, like ‘what can you do with maths and physics (if you do not want to be a doctor)’? and personal ones, like ‘my art teacher was my inspiration for engineering’.
In the second part the staff members shared personal engineering issues and interests. These included; the political decision making process around engineering like, the UK’s High Speed 2 Rail Project; the role of art and science in making iconic buildings; the need for new links between environmental and water engineers; the different roles that scientists/engineers can play – pure scientist, science advocate, issues arbitrator, or honest broker.
It seemed that everyone – staff and students – enjoyed the conversations. No one needed any encouragement to participate! Everyone talked about things that really matter for their work. It was a conversation across the usual roles of the teacher and learner.
What is the role of chaplaincy here?
I think we have skills to facilitate these kinds of conversations. In our own work we need to listen carefully in order to help others find deeper meanings. To do this we can let a conversation move across different realms – personal experience, technical implications, values, ethics, key texts and their interpretation, ideas and beliefs, as well as the social, the political and cultural context. We are used to conversations that stretch across ideological boundaries and contain conflicting views.
Big thanks to ‘MoTiv’, to Rachel and Mitesh from Civil Eng Soc, and to Alison Ahearn.