S2-S&SI1-1 - Integrating theological aspects to engineering education

1. Innovative Practice Full Paper
Samuli Laato1 , Erkki Sutinen1
1 University of Turku

In the contemporary world, questions of theological, or existential, origin are posing novel challenges on engineering education. We observe this phenomenon in fears related to climate change or virus outbreaks, or conflicts involving diverse and competing beliefs or ideologies. Moreover, the fragmentation of the world into isolated spheres of science vs. religion, elite vs. grassroots, and alike, is creating tensions, globally. While engineering students themselves encounter existential questions in their personal lives, engineers, as professionals, are increasingly expected to solve problems instead of being allowed to wonder and explore. To address this issue, we envisage two perspectives: (1) how theology can enrich engineering education and (2) how engineering can design artifacts needed in the theological domain.

Engineering, a natural partner to any other field, due its versatile, systematic and generic problem solving orientation, benefits from an encounter with theology. Theology provides engineering with a novel application area; a matter always critical to the development of engineering as a field. Designing solutions for theological challenges can invoke personal exploration of the meaning of life or thought processes regarding how to live, and support both spiritual and practical interpretation of the world. Furthermore, theology can offer complementary perspectives for problems that are not solvable only by engineering, from highly individual to global. Independent of one’s personal belief, theology provokes thoughts and encourages to conceptualize reality and position individual ideas within the surrounding world. This anchoring process is iterative in nature and brings fresh perspectives against the “engineer bubble”.

Theologians can also benefit from an encounter with engineering. Students and practitioners of theology can find solace in the constructive and pragmatic design orientation of engineering amidst the hard-to-navigate maze of mainly analyzing ancient texts and religious meaning. The engineering approach to designing solutions reminds theologians of the rigour to listen to users’ --not necessarily immediate--expectations and questions, extrospectively, that is also needed in theological work despite theology being more introspective in nature compared to engineering. Digital skills provide theologians with new opportunities to explore aspects of their own primary discipline and allows them to form and maintain an understanding of the role of digital solutions in today’s world.

Finally, we propose three concrete cases where theology has enriched or can enrich engineering education and vice-versa. First, we look at projects where engineers have worked together with theologians to create applications, inter alia, capstone projects such as designing digital sacred spaces or tools for inter-faith dialogue. Second, we observe previous inter-disciplinary research conducted between theologians and computer scientists. Third, we look at how digital technologies have been used to enhance theology education. Via these cases we design and propose a theology study module for engineers that aims to embody the identified challenges and benefits.