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SU Engineering students challenged to think wider
Author: Frieda le Roux
Published: 08/12/2017

It's not every day that engineering students are challenged with concepts more at home in Social Sciences. But with the Eng. Curriculum of the SU it is the case with a specially developed module, namely Complementary Studies.

And what initially sounds strange is exactly in line with Stellenbosch University's (SU) goal to give students an education and exposure that is as wide as possible – and relevant in our society with its unique challenges.

When Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director of Social Impact and Transformation, and Monica du Toit, Head of the Transformation Office, take their place in front of the class, it is to challenge the engineering students to think even wider than what their lecturers expect from them. The course aims to make students more aware of their role in the wider society – as involved citizens but also as trained engineers who can make a difference with their unique skills.

“In our discussions in class we grapple with the realities on campus and in social media and it is challenging, especially at the start, but we do get to new possibilities," says Monica. “I like the fact that engineers in essence are 'doers'." She says the students have again convinced her that one of our country's greatest assets lies in its engineering students – especially when it comes to the much needed changes in our society. “They have skills to live close to the experiences of regular people while, at the same time, think innovatively about solutions."

For their final assignment the students were divided into groups and asked to tackle different social challenges by looking at it afresh. In this way one group decided to use 'big data' to get access to information that will help universal access for the users of buildings and amenities. With a special app named Enable, users can indicate places where they have difficulties with access. The information on the app, which makes use of GPS coordinates, is in the public domain where all – from building owner to architect, engineer and others with disabilities – can access it and learn from it.

Another group thought about the way engineers can help in creating better integrated communities. And, they found, engineers do not always think of the bigger issue but would rather solve a specific problem as cost-effectively and efficiently as possible. But during their discussions as part of the Complimentary Studies course they realised that the focus – also for engineers – should always include the human aspect and shouldn't only be about technical skills.

Prof Anton Basson, Vice-dean: Teaching & Quality Assurance says students in the Faculty of Engineering are exposed to contemporary societal issues in their third and fourth years. “These modules, which all engineering students must do, expose our graduates to the complex social issues that they will encounter when they enter engineering practice. Our graduates often fulfil leadership roles and these modules raise their awareness of the complexities of gender, racial, access and social responsibilities that challenge leaders."

Leslie, who has been presenting the course for four years, says it is part of the University's goals to equip students with a complete set of skills. “For the University it is important to equip students with skills and the possibility to make an impact on the various levels of our society. This specially developed curricular module gives all engineering students the opportunity to do exactly that." The Faculty of Engineering, together with the Engineering Council of SA, gives the necessary guidance in this regard.