Engineering Education and Interdisciplinary Studies, Merja Tarvainen

Merja Tarvainen
Student Union of Tampere University of Technology


The tradition of engineering education is based on natural sciences. Further on, the development of technologies has been changing the world of basic infrastructures into a more complex one. Information and communication technology systems have an obvious role in everyday life, but the development achieved from a purely technical point of view has its limitations. When new solutions are designed, the user has to be taken into consideration. Exploring human understanding allows us to create systems that function better in real life. The basic interdisciplinary approach combines different fields of technology. Interdisciplinary studies can also give skills that help future engineers to cope in a changing environment. The study of the boundary between engineering science and other sciences can be incorporated into engineering education as interdisciplinary studies. The systems theory approach could help drawing up the structures of interdisciplinary elements of curriculum.



What are the expectations of engineering students at the beginning of their studies? Engineers solve problems to construct the surrounding world. Engineers are supposed to be multi-skilled experts who solve various kinds of technical problems. The problem solving process can be very complex and require many different competences. During the studying period students perform similar kind of tasks they will do after graduation but also learn to understand phenomena around the engineering itself.

Problem formulation

This paper discusses the interdisciplinary studies in the engineering education. The theoretical frame of reference is the systems theory and an example used is the interdisciplinarity at Tampere University of Technology (TUT).


Basic interdisciplinary approach

Interdisciplinary approach has always been part of engineering. For example, the development of microelectronics required both chemistry and physics and tight connections to other fields of technology (Leppävuori et al, p.622). A number of new fields have evolved from pure sciences, such as telecommunications and signal processing. The knowledge of professionals of one specific field is usually specialized into a moderately narrow spectrum. This is necessary as the amount of knowledge is continuously increasing. If this split nature of science would be accepted, then the reality would be ruled by reductionism, which would mean that problems can be solved by separating them from a larger entity (Luukkanen, 1993, p.97). But considering the field of engineering as a whole, it is important to be able to continue the development of interdisciplinarity. The different parts must form an entity.

Wider interdisciplinary approach

Engineers are professionals whose activities have a strong influence on society’s technical infrastructure. Information acquisition has become more efficient due to information and communication technology. Thus, rapid changes in research, knowledge and economy call for knowledge management and universities play an important role in this development. In order to maintain the ability to educate people capable of meeting the demands of the changing environment, it is necessary that universities include new contents into the curriculum. The Institute of Biomedical Engineering at TUT conducted a survey of how well the program was able to prepare the students for their future jobs. The results revealed that language skills, project and teamwork, written and oral communication skills and knowledge of data processing systems were regarded highly important in work life (Anon1.)

In this paper the term interdisciplinary is used to describe all the education that combines different fields of science. Different categories of interdisciplinarity do exist. For example, according to Luukkanen (1993, p.99) the traditional interdisciplinary approach used in engineering would actually often be called multidisciplinary. Luukkanen’s interdisciplinary approach would require a neutral frame of reference, in which the aim is to break loose from the conventional paradigms of one specific discipline (Luukkanen 1993, p.100. Engineering science original function is to facilitate life by means of technological research and inventions.

Systems theory perspective

One frame of reference that can be used to study an organization is “systems theory”. Management studies have made use of the systems theory approach to improve the dynamics of enterprises. There are theories which represent models of an organization as an autonomous entity, as if it was a living creature (Anon2.). This enables one to perceive the functionality of the organization at a deeper level and hence improve the internal processes and activities with the environment. An institute of engineering education can be put under the same examination. It should produce competent knowledge workers for society through various processes. By analysing and possibly reconstructing the structures of the education system this goal can be met.

As mentioned previously an organization has a specific structure. Every action taken can only be performed under those conditions that are determined by this structure (Maturana, Varela, 1992, p. 171). A well-adjusted curriculum ensures best learning results. The structure of the curriculum must lie within certain boundaries. It is produced by the internal network of the elements, which highlights the autonomy of the entire system. Its function is to separate the organization from the outside world. But according to Maturana and Varela (1992, p. 46) this boundary is an active part of actions of the organization. This reveals the crucial aspect. Engineering education should contain elements that, on the one hand represent engineering knowledge, but on the other cross the line between engineering and other disciplines. The interdisciplinary boundary acts as a nervous system of engineering education. It is a tool to help the engineers to maintain an up-to-date comprehension of the world (Maturana, Varela, 1992, p.131). When changes of the environment emerge, the organization of engineering education can choose to accommodate some of them into its own structures (Maturana, Varela, 1992, p.95-96). Structures of education have a mutual effect on the environment.

Interdisciplinarity at Tampere University of Technology (TUT)

TUT provides the students with many possibilities to include interdisciplinary minors and courses into their degrees. There are some majors, which have an interdisciplinary nature from the beginning. The field of economics has the most obvious connection to engineering. Industrial engineering is the most obvious example of combining other disciplines into traditional curriculum since the importance of economics in society is indisputable. Other interdisciplinary majors are usability (Department of Information Technology), biomedical engineering (Department of Electrical Engineering), Environmental Engineering and Biotechnology, occupational safety engineering (Departments of Industrial Engineering and Management, Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Technology) knowledge management (Department of Industrial Engineering and Management), urban planning and design (Department of Architecture) and architecture. In addition, the Department of Science and Engineering offers teacher education (the pedagogical studies are given by the University of Tampere). It is also possible to do a minor for example in hypermedia, language technology or foreign languages. Sometimes the student can study some courses or a whole minor, for example psychology, at a different university.

Basic human needs are the main reason for implementing subjects like usability, occupational safety and biomedical engineering. For example, it is worth discovering the best solutions to make the devices most efficient for the user. Usability combines the knowledge of cognitive and behavioural sciences with computer science in order to design user-friendly applications (Anon4.). Human well-being is a good reason to add new elements into the curriculum.


There is a rise of interest in increasing interdisciplinary studies. It is essential to be able to predict the future more accurately, and there will be a need of other kind of knowledge than economic and technical in order to be able to do that. Most importantly, humanistic knowledge and communication skills are essential in assessing the state and existing values of society and thus leading the development into the desired direction.

Some basic ideas of engineering will probably always be the same; there will only be more layers of experts between the technical and non-technical level. They are all needed together to build up a functioning network.

Relevant References & Literature

Matthan Jacob, Torvela Heikki, Leppävuori Seppo. 1987. Microelectronics Research Requires Interdisciplinary Approach. SEFI Annual Conference. Interdisciplinarity in Engineering Education. Proceedings. Helsinki University of Technology. (10 p.)

Anon1. Ragnar Granit Institute.Biomedical Engineering as a Career Resource, survey. Tampere University of Technology. 1998.

Luukkanen, Jyrki. 1993. Systeemimallien rooli tutkimuksessa ja suunnittelussa. Vapaavuori, Matti (toim.) Miten tutkimme tulevaisuutta? Acta Fennica NO 5. Tulevaisuuden tutkimuksen seuran julkaisu. Painatuskeskus Oy, Helsinki, ss. 96-105. (10 s.)

Anon2. Self-Organization, Autopoiesis and Enterprises. Randal Whitaker.

Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. 1992. The Tree of Knowledge. The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston and London: Shambhala. 269 p.

Anon3. HCI and Usability: History and Concepts.

A version of this article was presented at the 2004 SEFI Annual Congress: The XXI Century: The Golden Opportunity for Engineering Education.