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Senior engineers get final send-off in capstone course

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Charles Adams likes to think of his Technology and Society class as “Harry’s den with a paper.”

“Technology and Society” is the senior capstone course for engineering and computer science majors. In the process of studying a Christian philosophy of technology, students discuss such issues as the role of computers, appropriate technology, and historical views of technology. The course also focuses on engineering ethics, addressing issues such as safety and risk, professional responsibility and authority, whistle-blowing, responsible salary structures, and career choice.

Adams models the course on Friday nights in the 60s that he and others spent at the home of his friend Harry, a New York businessman.

In their senior capstone course, Technology and Society, engineering students build on the technical training they've received and relate it more consciously to broader issues in the field of engineering.

In their senior capstone course, Technology and Society, engineering students build on the technical training they've received and relate it more consciously to broader issues in the field of engineering.

“It was a wonderful time of music, conversation, and learning,” Adams says.

Harry’s home was a magnet for Christians interested in learning how they might make their faith direct the whole of their lives—particularly their college studies.

While Adams can’t recreate that experience, he believes the setting affects what happens in the class. Engineering and computer science majors, joined by a few philosophy, English, history, and other majors, gather on Monday evenings for presentations and discussion.

“Engineers aren’t typically the most talkative, so having other majors present helps the discussion and adds different insights,” Adams says.

Engineering 390 is not something you’d find in most college or university engineering curricula. The course focuses on a Christian philosophy of technology and is obviously heavy on Christian perspective. But it is not Christian icing on a secular cake. The course takes many threads introduced and developed in individual courses in the four-year curriculum and weaves them together in a conscious Christian response to concrete contemporary issues.

Adams divides each class into two parts: a time of presentation and a time of discussion. In the first six classes, he shares his understanding of a Christian perspective on science and technology, describing the fundamentals of a Christian philosophy and a Christian philosophy of technology. He also discusses aesthetics and design, and he talks about authenticity and truth in design. Showing the film The Day After the Trinity: Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, helps students see how easy it is to get caught up in the “inertia of technology,” and how decisions regarding who one serves with one’s talents are complex.

It’s a time of show-and-tell for Adams, as he shares music and literature as well as the wonderful books he’s read and the wealth of ideas he’s found that can help shape the way thoughtful Christians respond to their technological world.

Of course, not all students respond positively to any class, but in their end-of-semester evaluations Adams has had many students over the years say that the class had a significant impact on them. One wrote, “I think this course has had the largest effect on my overall worldview of any of the courses I have taken.” Another wrote, “I really learned to see everything in life as a response to the Creator. It has played a big part in the type of job I search for and what the company values.”

To prepare for their class discussions, students read from Psalms, Hosea, Exodus, Isaiah, Matthew, and Jonah as well as from their textbooks: Responsible Technology (Monsma), The Fabric of This World (Hardy), and Engineering Ethics (Martin and Shinzinger). And they read short practical essays that Adams has written over the years and compiled in a volume titled “Exercising our Worldview.”

The first part of the course is admittedly theoretical, because Adams believes that philosophical grounding is crucial to thoughtful response and concrete action. Then, using what they have learned about management theory from their reading and discussion of The Fabric of this World and what they have learned about cultural appropriateness, stewardship, and justice from Responsible Technology, students are asked to design one aspect of a technological business enterprise.

“When I used to give students a fictional company, some complained that it was an unrealistic assignment,” Adams says. So today he gives them a thriving company that has actually used some suggestions made by earlier classes.

That company is Adams Thermal Systems in Canton, South Dakota, owned by Adams’ son Mike, a 1994 graduate of Dordt’s engineering department. Employing 300 people, including engineers, programmers, and research scientists as well as managers, clerical people, technicians, and laborers, Adams Thermal Systems designs and manufactures heat exchangers for engines in trucks and agricultural machinery. Its mission is to be obedient to the Word of the Lord in its structure, its operation, and its impact on society. The company plans to design and manufacture products that promote energy stewardship. It has also implemented many radical organizational and compensation policies that grew out of that mission. For the assignment, Adams asks groups to be radically Christian in their thinking and requires them to present a written report and give a fifteen-minute presentation to other members of the class. Asked whether the group project was effective, one student said, “It helped me look at how, if I get into management, I should try to run a company based on strong biblical norms.”

Two additional assignments challenge students to delve into issues in their field. Each student writes a scholarly research paper on a topic related to a Christian understanding of technology and leads a seminar based on the paper. This is the “…with a paper” part of the “Harry’s den with a paper” description. Here, too, Adams drew on his own experience. One of the most enjoyable and valuable things he remembers about his master’s program was a research paper he wrote. Whether his students will share the memory as a highlight or not, Adams believes the experience is a positive life skill, requiring students to learn in detail about some issue in their field, take a position on it, and be able to present that argument to others.

And students write weekly journals, reflecting, questioning, and commenting on things they’ve read for the week. Adams says the journal gives him an opportunity to interact more individually with students as they think about what they’ve read. In fact, he looks forward to Saturday mornings when he puts on a pot of coffee, retreats to his study, and, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., reads and comments on his students’ reflections.

Adams hopes that Engineering 390, Technology and Society, not only helps his students develop a Christian perspective on technology, but also a desire to continue reading and thinking once they are in professional work situations, maintaining a strong sense of their calling as Christian engineers and computer experts.

“I see tremendous growth in most students between their first year and their senior year in the program, but I worry that, as they become absorbed in day-to-day deadlines and pressures, these issues get left behind,” he says.

He is encouraged by comments like “This has been a challenging and enriching class for me. I wish there were more classes like this one and more opportunity to discuss issues like these.”