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Empowering Students through Current Issues

Solving real-world problems through the lenses of culture and engineering

The interdisciplinary thinking the BYU Honors Program strives to cultivate in its students and faculty is exemplified in our HONRS 200 level classes - the Unexpected Connections courses. Classes are team-taught by professors from two different disciplines who choose their section’s unique focus and curriculum. Students are able to engage in an exceptional interdisciplinary learning environment and make unexpected connections of their own during the course.

When faculty members Aaron Eastley & Paul Richards created their Honors 225 Course, “Building Cultures: Engineering & Immigration” in 2017, they had no idea the border wall would still be the hot topic it is today. With their class being more relevant than ever, Eastley and Richards provide a class that helps students solve real-world problems today through the lenses of culture and engineering.

In the course, students learn that big feats of engineering often required immigrants to make them possible. Students study not only the resulting mix of cultures, but also the host society’s attitudes towards the newcomers. Dr. Aaron Eastley, an Associate Professor of English, takes the lead in teaching students about these historical events from a cultural perspective.

“Throughout history, big engineering projects have often involved people coming from long distances; whether it was unwillingly – like the people the Romans enslaved to build the aqueducts, or by enticement – like the Irish and Chinese who were lured into building the transcontinental railroad. Those people had a really dramatic influence on the development of the cultures that they become a part of,” said Eastley.

Eastley explained that whether it was building the aqueducts of Rome, or the structures of 19th century England and America, each nation approached other cultures very differently, and differently from how we view culture today. For example, the Romans were culturally inquisitive and borrowed elements from any culture they liked. By contrast, 19th century British and American attitudes demonstrated a lot of intolerance; people feared outside influence or anything new they thought was undesirable or dangerous. “There are still vestiges of those perspectives and students can see that today,” he noted.

Dr. Paul Richards, an Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, teaches students about the science behind these engineering feats.

“Right now we are learning about how to design Truss bridges. It is important to have an equilibrium and balance; there is no movement in the bridge but if there are unbalanced forces then there is acceleration and movement. When we are talking about the Romans, the students engineer an aqueduct to bring water into a city. Students learn principles of how you can make water flow, even uphill, by thinking about the forces that are causing and driving movement, bringing objects from one spot to another. The models then apply to forces that drive people to move or go to different places,” said Richards.

One of the application sections of the course is where students actually design and test their own truss bridge.

“Students design 3D print bridges instead of physically building them because it shifts the emphasis to designing and focusing on the engineering principles of the bridge,” said Richards. “Instead of 10 hours of arts and crafts and 1 hour of focusing on the engineering of the bridge that you get with typical bridge building activities, by using 3D printing technology it’s about 2 hours of engineering and just takes a few minutes for students to set up their bridge to print. They are going to be experimenting with different sizes of trusses, to see who can build the lightest load. We have a jig and then we see if [the bridge] can lift the bag of bolts. It’s a fun project.”Eastley & Richards are passionate about their course, and want students to leave their class with unexpected connections that inform their opinions on current events.

“One thing that can be cool about this intersection of the course is that a lot of times when people think about issues like immigration, cultural kind of stuff, they think really dogmatically about it,” said Richards. “They don’t tend to run the numbers on it. People might say ‘I want a wall’, others might say ‘I don’t want a wall’, and I say ‘How much will the wall cost?’ If it’s free I feel one way about it, if the wall will cost as much as we spend on American education then I feel an entirely different way about it. We focus on helping the students quantify those things and I think that’s what engineering brings to the table- numbers.”

Towards the end of the course, local experts come in to discuss immigration with students, and to paint a picture of what immigration in the US looks like today.

“In our third unit, we have a local immigration attorney come in and talk about the realities of trying to come into the United States today, and how our system treats immigrants. [Previous to the guest speaker] we have students make a short 3 minute presentation on one of their ancestors who came to this country, to talk about the place where they came from, what that place is known for, what they did there, and then how they came to immigrate and build America once they were here. It was interesting after hearing those stories to then have a person come in and say ‘that doesn’t happen anymore’,” said Richards. “I would say around 98% of our ancestors wouldn’t be able to come to the United States if they were trying to come today, because they were just ordinary people who wanted a better life. That’s kind of sobering for the students to realize we aren’t the country that we used to be. The character of our country has changed really dramatically.”

The student’s final assignment is to write an immigration manifesto, and to base it, at least in part, on an engineering principle. “[The manifesto] should be something from the engineering side of class that gives students a way of thinking about an immigration issue, or can help clarify a rationale to find an effective middle ground. As we go throughout the course we have found that good solutions for these immigration issues are not towards one end of the political spectrum or another; the extremes are not good answers. But finding a good middle position that is actually helpful can be tricky. One of the biggest problems with immigration is that we don’t feel like we can take different positions on the subject and even just have a conversation, because they are such loaded issues. But we need to be able to talk about them, that’s another thing the engineering perspective allows. It helps us to ask questions like ‘How much of this [perspective] is enough or how much of that do we need?’”

As Dr. Eastley noted, "Our lives are a fascinating mixture of things beautiful and tragic, functional and fanciful, mundane and immense. Our learning should be the same."