Meet Qin Zhu, new engineering education associate professor
At the intersection of ethics, philosophy, and engineering, stands Dr. Qin Zhu, one of Engineering Education's newest associate professors. His research centers on better understanding cultures, values, and norms in engineering and technology.
"If we believe that scientific progress is based on fundamental assumptions such as reproducibility, validity, and explainability," he said, "then we need to ask to what extent these theories and tools derived from the Western context have been tested and validated in other cultures...to me (and us too), truly empirically guided research needs to consider (cross-)cultural validity."
Zhu enjoys serving as editor for International Perspectives at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science; associate editor for Engineering Studies; and executive committee member of the International Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum.
Get to know Qin in our top 5 getting to know you Qs:
Why Virginia Tech? What do you love about VT?
I think Virginia Tech is certainly outstanding and exceptional in many different ways. Personally, I have been really impressed with that there are so many very ambitious but also well-organized interdisciplinary research programs across the campus. When I say interdisciplinary, I think Virginia Tech truly means it.
It is not that a civil engineer collaborates with a computer scientist. Or a social scientist is invited to join an engineering project to serve some “window dressing” function (showing “oh we do care about social impacts of technology”). What I have seen so far is that researchers from different disciplines meaningfully collaborate with each other from the very beginning of research and design technologies, systems, policies, and infrastructures to address big problems and create flourishing environments for our future generations.
What is even more important is that different levels of the university administration from the President and Provost, to our Dean and Department Head, all have established mechanisms for nurturing and enhancing interdisciplinary collaboration spirit and relationships.
What’s your favorite thing about being a professor/faculty?
I think one favorite thing about being a professor is to always get to know and work with amazing students. They bring their passion and enthusiasm about learning which further motivate me to learn and grow. They are very brave and creative and are not afraid of challenging dominant paradigms or disciplinary boundaries. In my past experience as a faculty member, the most creative and less traditional (or boring if I may) papers were often inspired by or co-written with my students.
What does your research entail? What do you hope will come of it?
My research is all about better understanding cultures, values, and norms in engineering and technology. We (I intentionally use the term “we” instead of “I” to show research in fact is a collective enterprise) are interested in studying engineering and technology in culturally responsive ways. We are interested in making visible and challenging cultural values and ideologies prominent in training, practices, and policies surrounding engineering and technology, using empirical and experimental methodologies to study the effects of cultural values and norms on these environments.
Two of our most recent funded projects explore: (1) how engineering students in different cultures (United States, Netherlands, and China) develop their moral reasoning and intuition differently across four years of their learning experience in engineering programs; and (2) how to employ theoretical resources from non-Western traditions such as Confucian (role) ethics to design robots that encourage self-reflection in human teammates and contribute to a more flourishing ecology of human-robot interaction. My colleague Rockwell F. Clancy, PhD (who will be joining our department as a research scientist) and I call our approach culturally responsive and empirically informed to technology and engineering studies.
What originally got you interested in your work and/or research?
When I started my Ph.D. program at Purdue University, I was frequently challenged by the fact that most theories and tools we learned in classes were predominantly Western-centric. If we believe that scientific progress is based on fundamental assumptions such as reproducibility, validity, and explainability, then we need to ask to what extent these theories and tools derived from the Western context have been tested and validated in other cultures, because I think there are also some political concerns here.
In other words, if we don’t make visible the Western-centric ideologies embedded in these theories and tools, it will be problematic to use them to measure learning and programs in other cultures and then make recommendations for improvement based on these findings. To me (and us too), truly empirically guided research needs to consider (cross-)cultural validity.
What advice do you have for graduate students looks to join the engineering education field?
First, I’d really encourage them to believe in themselves. Insofar as you have developed a critical understanding of what other scholars have done, trust your intuition. You may have developed some really interesting ideas in my mind which can advance your field. Don’t feel that you cannot do anything innovative as you think you are only a PhD student. You are supposed to innovate. That’s why science can progress!
Second, while I encourage students to be bold, I also recommend that they be humble and always be ready to learn from other scholars. Finally, I think not only students but all of us as researchers need to balance work and life. Taking care of yourself and your own wellbeing is the single most important thing we all need to do. Only you have taken good care of your own wellbeing then you can have successful career. Otherwise, no matter how successful someone’s career may seem to be it will not be sustainable or healthy.