By Cory de Vries

The National Academy of Engineers and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) recently stated that todays’ engineers need to have a more holistic understanding of their work than just “math and science”. The petroleum engineering curriculum is predicated on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with little to no focus on the humanities. One idea is to include humanities and liberal arts studies into the engineering curriculum to produce more well-rounded engineers into the next generation.

Egypt is one country that boasts numerous higher education programs in petroleum engineering at the bachelor (BSc), masters (MSc), and doctoral levels (PhD) to support students studying in this field, as the country is a major player in the oil and gas industry in the Middle East. Egypt Oil and Gas spoke to a range of students, academics, and practitioners in order to know their views on the application of humanities to engineering.

Why Integrate Humanities and Liberal Arts into Engineering?

Liberal arts and humanities education is said to impart important soft skills for students and also teach topics concerning common human objectives; engineering teaches technology, science, and math. Merged, it may bring more holistic solutions at the communal, national, and global level and open a novel discussion about the impact and future vision of petroleum engineering.

Dr. Ahmed Sultan is the manager of the Petrophysics Department at Tharwa Petroleum Company and spoke to Egypt Oil & Gas on this topic. He is a practitioner and an academic, having received his BSc, MSc and PhD in various streams of petroleum engineering from Suez University, where he currently holds a teaching position. He stated that training in liberal arts may develop a student’s critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, and ability to innovate, and “generate new ideas”, all which are said to complement hard skills. He further stated that with the inclusion of this education, the graduates would become “diverse, well rounded, socially conscious individuals.” That may lead to the acquisition of “knowledge of international affairs that will help students decide what is best, not just for their community but also for the entire humanity.”

Several students interviewed by Egypt Oil & Gas are in agreement with Dr. Sultan’s sentiments. Ola Hussein is a fresh graduate with a BSc in petroleum engineering from the American University in Cairo (AUC) and currently works in the field. In an email interview, she stated the importance for engineering students to have a certain soft-skill toolset. Specifically, she said that liberal arts training would be useful to teach engineers “how to work with people from different nationalities and backgrounds”. From a broader perspective, she stressed that the oil industry is “affecting our economies, politics, welfare, health, safety, environment and societies… and also the world’s economy and politics”. She concluded by expressing through learning liberal arts, engineers could comprehend the bigger picture of how critical and influential this industry is.

In another student’s perspective, common themes were resounded. Abdullahi Bare studied petroleum engineering at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and graduated in 2016. In an email interview, he said that engineering students would benefit from not only the hard skills taught in engineering curriculums, but also be taught in a way that allowed students to think from more “rational and emotional standpoints.”

However, as it stands, humanities and liberal education appear to be absent in engineering curriculums. Micheal Alfy is a senior geo-scientist at CGG, a French-American Geophysical services company operating in Egypt. Alfy studied geophysics at Cairo University (CU) and maintains ongoing relations with the university by providing updated training material on the industry. When asked about the connection between engineering and humanities studies, Alfy told Egypt Oil & Gas that ‘humanities’ “has nothing to do with my work”. He said his work is “purely technical, related to the mechanics of engineering” and does not address any aspect related to humanities studies. He noted that during his visits to CU, he observes that the education provided to students is “not including humanities or liberal arts” and that it is “purely technical at the moment”. However, when asked about the utility of this inter-disciplinary bridge, he said that humanities “is a hidden part from engineering” but he believes that “the link between engineering and humanities is important”.

Academics, students, and practitioners appear to see the utility of bridging these two disciplines, but it may time for this initiative to be realized in the educational system. In the meantime, looking at the ‘big-picture’ of petroleum engineering seems to be taken care of by companies. Alfy stated that his interaction with topics concerning ethics and the environment come top-down, through his company’s protocols.

How Can Egypt Benefit from Training their Engineers in Humanities and Liberal Arts?

There appears to be a growing opinion for engineers to be able to make responsible cultural, political and social decisions that will shape the future of the country. Wrong decisions in the oil and gas sector may risk resource exploitation, damage the environment, and stir political conflicts if not carried out properly.

Dr. Sultan neatly summarizes the issue and possible solution by stating “integration of different streams of knowledge, especially liberal arts, humanities and social sciences in the engineering curriculum would add to the oil industry in Egypt because it would boost Egypt’s oil sector modernization and development”.