PhD Program: Introducing Engineering to Tibetan Children

In the Indian town of Selakui, some 400 6th through 12th graders are enrolled in a branch of the Tibet Children’s Village (TCV), a residential school system for Tibetan students in exile. Like its sister schools, TCV Selakui has a goal of ensuring each student a sound modern education and cultural identity.

Marisol Mercado Santiago Marisol Mercado Santiago

In 2012, equipped with an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a longstanding interest in Buddhism, Marisol Mercado Santiago set out to bring the study of engineering to high school students enrolled in the school—and to explore how Tibetan culture and Buddhism influence the engineering thinking of Tibetans in exile.

A doctoral candidate in Purdue’s School of Engineering Education (ENE), Santiago developed a five-week introductory engineering course and gained approval from TCV Selakui to teach it as an extracurricular class. (All math and science courses in the school are taught in English.) “The goal was to provide students a general understanding of engineering and sustainability, to help them understand the connection between engineering and society, to offer them a hands-on design experience, and to have them reflect on how their values, beliefs, and identity as Tibetans influence their practice of engineering design,” she says.

As the 33 students in Santiago’s class learned basic concepts of engineering—including structural engineering, product design, sustainability, and energy technologies—they developed ideas for design projects aimed at bettering their school environment, following an engineering design model that Santiago based on Buddhism’s four noble truths:

  • The truth of suffering, translated as “Identify a need (problem) in your school”
  • The causes of suffering, translated as “What are the causes and conditions of this problem?”
  • The cessation of suffering, translated as “Plan: What do we need to do to address the problem?”
  • The path to the cessation of suffering, translated as “What is our design solution to help solve the problem?”

Design projects covered a range of solutions, which the student teams eventually demonstrated in the school’s auditorium for the entire student body:

  • a bell ringer mechanism to mark class periods
  • a portable (foldable) cart to move grasses across campus
  • a rat trap
  • garbage bin repair
  • a load carrier
  • a model of a garbage incinerator
  • a device for catching dogs
  • a hydro-powered reading light

Santiago cites the load carrier as an example of the cultural relevance of these projects. “The students at TCV Selakui are teamed in groups to perform service for the school,” she says. “That’s a way of putting ‘others before self.’ The team working on the load carrier wanted to develop that product to help children in these groups move sacks of rice and vegetables from the school’s canteen to their living quarters, where their meals are prepared.”

To further place engineering design in a meaningful context, Santiago supplemented the curriculum with photos and information gathered during her visits to Tibetan communities in the area. “I visited a metal-working factory that is owned by a Tibetan, where they make traditional instruments used in Buddhist ceremonies,” she says. “I also went to the Tibetan noodle factory that manufactures the noodles that the students consume in the school.”

Santiago with her students Santiago with her students

Her fieldwork completed, Santiago is now back on campus analyzing her data, which she collected as a participant observer (and with the aid of a teaching assistant) through interviews, videos, photos, and field notes. “I’m going through the data to identify best practices and to understand how students are connecting Buddhist values and cultural beliefs,” she says. The work touches on many themes in the School of Engineering Education’s overall research profile, including diversity, precollege education, design thinking, global engineering, teaming, and experiential learning.

Santiago sees cultural approaches to teamwork and conflict resolution, along with qualities like patience and perseverance, factoring into how Tibetan students experience engineering. And, she says, like Tibetans, many other groups value the collective more than the individual, so assigning community-based design projects is an educational approach that may be constructive for other student populations as well.

As for the Tibetan students themselves, says Santiago, “their political situation permeates everything in their lives, including engineering education. I hope that this research project contributes to the Tibetan people’s efforts in culturally responsive education.”