McCormick teaches engineers how to do more than just problem sets

    Hidden within Caesar, there lie CTECs for a class offered by the McCormick School of Engineering. Listed under Personal Development, PRDV 395, it has reviews like ”this class was fun, but I wish it moved faster, with more dancing,” and “SO RELAXING.” Again, this is a class offered by the engineering school. 

    Clearly, this is not a class that involves problem sets and math and difficult situations to find solutions to. As the course name suggests, this is a class focused on personal development, offered by a unique McCormick office. As a staff of two, Assistant Dean Joe Holtgreive and his partner Heather Bacon, assistant director of advising and student development run the Office of Personal Development nestled in the second floor of Tech.

    The genesis of the class all began about a decade ago, when McCormick Assistant Dean Joe Holtgreive attended a talk given by Theater Department professor Billy Siegenfeld. Holtgreive was taken by Siegenfeld's ability to engage and motivate the group of people from many different areas and departments to come together and participate the form of dance he pioneered, called Jump Rhythm. With Jump Rhythm, it all comes down to connections —  first feeling your grounded connection to the earth and your body, then realizing how that allows you to connect with others.

    "I started thinking about connecting with your body, how important that process is for really designing well, and I realized it's about being whole body engineers, not just whole brain engineers," Holtgreive says. The school had been putting into practice the idea of creating whole brain engineers — that is, engineers that can both find solutions and think creatively. But to foster a culture of whole body engineers, he needed something beyond classes that focus on design and innovation. Something that gets people up, moving and thinking in different ways.

    This eventually led to two classes: one about mindfulness and one about dance. And for the past two years, Siegenfeld – that same professor that inspired Holtgrieve years earlier — has been teaching engineers how to dance. The non-credit class is offered to an even number (to ensure that each dancer has a partner) of engineers in the spring. And every Wednesday evening, the Theatre and Interpretation Center’s ballroom is populated by engineering students-turned dancers.  

    Jump Rhythm, which tells dancers to "stand down straight," is something that's almost equally as hard for engineers as it is for classically trained ballerinas, though in very different ways. Dancers are constantly told to stand up straight, a sometimes-unnatural emblem of grace and beauty. With engineering, the difficulty lies more in the mind. 

    "Learning how to dance is not a problem well solved in your head. It forces our students to essentially let go of that intellectual experience of problem solving and trust their physical experience,” Holtgrieve says. “And what that does, I believe, is opens them up to bringing their whole self to solving problems," 

    So Jump Rhythm, and by extension, Siegenfeld's dance class, is designed to teach students how to let go, learn how to work with others — not only physically, but emotionally — and to be able to "get out of their heads," as Holtgreive says. It's about connecting to the physical experience, away from computers and set solutions, which Siegenfeld notes isn't a constant in the academic career of an engineer. 

    "It's not comfortable. It teaches you how to move rhythmically and dynamically. It's because of prior conditioning of not just the body, but the body and the mind; it's hard for dancers to say that 'oh, if I can relax, I can also dance,'” Siegenfeld says.

    As unique as this seems to be even within Northwestern, the Office of Personal Development is something unparalleled at other engineering schools. McCormick claims to be the only engineering school to have a formally established office like this in the country. The small department has been trying to expand ambitiously. They have been offering both the dance class and a mindfulness class for the past two years and don't plan on stopping. Each class focuses on collaboration within the university, bringing dance professors and professionals at CAPS to engineering students and the opportunity to grow within McCormick employing resources that are already available is not just a goal, but a pretty feasible one.

    This year the OPD added a student advisory board, including six students. One such student is John Hodges, a McCormick junior. Hodges says that being a part of the advisory board for the office has really affected him, even the way he goes about preparing for midterms. The meetings always involve a meditation session, which Hodges has integrated into his pre-exam routine, sitting in silent reflection before beginning the massive brain drain of a test. 

    Beyond that, the office has really offered what Hodges has found to be the most educational part of being at Northwestern. More so than just going to class, students really grow when they attend events, seminars and get to interact and experience cross-school, cross-cultural exchanges.

    "Part of college, growing as a person, determining what's good for you," Hodges says. "I'm excited that the school is caring about the individual beyond test scores, not just about rankings […] There's effort into understanding us."

    It seems especially important that the Office of Personal Development exists within McCormick. There are stereotypes a-plenty about engineers and creativity, stereotypes that Hodges knows all too well.

    "Yeah, we do problem sets and lots of math, but there's a lot more to us," Hodges says.

    McCormick recently re-branded early this past March, portraying a new image of a whole mind and whole body engineers with the tagline "The Great Intersection." The press release says “Through this vision, McCormick strives to educate engineers who have superior technical abilities combined with divergent, creative-thinking skills: whole-brain entrepreneurs, designers and communicators” This change emphasizes a focus on balance and collaboration, using both the right and left brain to bring more to the able. For many, engineering tends to fall under the stereotype of down-to-business problem solvers without time to be creative, and this new way of approaching the engineering school challenges that idea implicitly. 

    "[With the new slogan, The Great Intersection] what they’re kind of trying to do is bring all those disciplines together and work together […] just to get the creativity flowing, knowing that we are more than just problem sets," Hodges says. "Because sometimes that's all we think about, work, work, work, and we don't really get to see everything else that's going on, on campus." 

    Holtgreive and the Office of Personal Development are doing their darnedest to prove that the stereotype is far from true through classes and initiatives such as the Artist of the Month program, which started this May. Hodges and a few of his friends decorated a submissions box where students can nominate McCormick artists to highlight each month. It’s just getting started, but it’s going a long way to keep the arts in the minds of engineers.

    This Friday, the OPD is trying out yet another new way to showcase that McCormick is full of creativity: a talent show. The Tech Factor — held, you guessed it, in Tech — on May 25 is yet another part of the effort to diversify the experiences of engineering students at Northwestern. Hodges says that there will be acts such as a rap about why industrial engineering is the best kind of engineering (he agrees, though he is biased — that’s his field of study) and sword juggling. 

    "McCormick needs more creativity, and I think there's a lot of creativity in there,” Hodges says. ”It's just a matter of people not being afraid to showcase it.”


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