Whether a young college student or someone seeking a mid-career change, earning a degree in engineering and computer science still offers the best bang for your buck. On average, overwhelmingly, engineering offers the best opportunities for employment with higher wages and higher lifetime earnings. However, fields such as philosophy, history, sociology and many others offer valuable insights for budding engineers, and this has been recognized both locally and nationally.

Weber State University will contribute to those important collaborations this week, hosting both LingoFest and the Digital Humanities of Utah conferences on Feb. 1 and 2. The conferences emphasize the true power of multidisciplinary work — embedding humanities and social sciences into engineering and technology. LingoFest2019, which begins Feb. 1, is devoted to exploring the world of the 600 million plus voice-activated devices that we use in this country and will include industry and academic experts. Representatives from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Comcast and more will represent industry. The academic side will feature keynote speaker Safiya Noble from the University of Southern California. She will explore how discrimination can be built into the algorithms of user interfaces.

Building voice interfaces requires many skills and includes understanding language, dialogue and human behavior. When I built them in the 1990s, we had a compact team that included market and business analysts, anthropologists, linguists, and software and hardware engineers. Industry typically has multidisciplinary design teams.

Brielle Nickoloff, a user-experience expert at Witlingo, a primary sponsor of LingoFest, notes how they have built experiences for Alexa with elderly residents of care centers in mind and how that differs from many other experiences. Many of those residents looked to the device not only for information but also for companionship and conversation. Devices having truly deep conversations remain far off, but understanding the users’ needs helps build a better product. Witlingo worked with gerontologists to refine their interface.

Digital Humanities Utah 2019 gets into full swing Feb. 2 and continues the exploration of the link between technology and culture. Amanda Crittenden, from the University of Utah, looks into the best usability practices. Leah Murray, from WSU, explores the capacity to govern with technology creating a limitless public sphere. Devin Asay, from Brigham Young University, lays out the reasoning for teaching programming for humanities majors. The closing keynote speaker, Miriam Posner, from the University of Southern California, will try to weld together the multiple themes of the two concurrent conferences.

WSU has long understood the value of a multidisciplinary approach. The university, like most universities, requires all students to take general education courses, courses outside their major from various colleges and departments. In the last few years, the university has offered faculty incentives to work collaboratively to create more interesting and relevant general education classes. You can find historian Gene Sessions and microbiologist Craig Oberg teaching a class on disease. You can find computer scientist Luke Fernandez and communication professor Julia Panko discussing how big data has influenced the novel. Professors love teaching these classes as they learn from their colleagues.

The college of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology (EAST), has been interacting with fields from across the campus as well. Take, for example, our Concept Center. The center provides internships for students to get out-of-class, real-world experiences on projects that might run shorter or longer than the semester. The center has worked with entrepreneurs, companies, nonprofits and the U.S. Air Force. One successful project is a crash-proof electronic casing that rides on a balloon that goes to the edge of space. The center also worked with faculty from both Engineering and Visual Arts to bring to life an art project imagined by the participants in this past summer’s Girls Welding Camp, now on display at the Bountiful Davis Art Center.

Just this past weekend, Dana Dellinger the outreach director for EAST, helped WSU host the third Coding and Creativity Bootcamp. The bootcamp included faculty and students from across campus, who together learned the Unity language for building virtual-reality applications. These bootcamps have been a resounding success.

This past fall, ABET, the national accreditation body for all engineering programs in the country, put out a report on engineering education. ABET argues that design must make the needs of humans the top priority. “Students in STEM fields need diverse and global perspectives to understand and address long-standing problems in new ways.” Through projects, courses and conferences, WSU will help lead the way in that effort.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9

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