Opening Books and Minds: SoE Book Club Engages Students

With her days spent seated in lecture halls and nights hunched over problem sets, Anuja Sawarte said she never had time to read. An honors student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, she could never commit herself to a book knowing she had work left to complete.

“The engineering curriculum is so rigid – it’s hard to motivate yourself to read when you’re so short on time already,” she said.

According to Assistant Dean for Enrichment Programs Jean Patrick Antoine of the School of Engineering, Sawarte was not alone.

“It’s a common problem I’ve seen with my students,” he said. “We suggest books to each other in casual conversation, but no one seems to have the time to pick up the books we mention.”

So during the winter of 2013, he came up with a simple solution: a book club for the School of Engineering Honors Academy. With five weeks of vacation between semesters, Antoine said it would provide students ample time to read.

The modest group of eight students then spent their break with Rebecca Skloot’s account of the immortal HeLa cell line, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Antoine said the book, a recommendation by Ilene Rosen, associate dean for student services, was a perfect tie between reading for pleasure and for education.

“Ethics is an issue all engineers face,” he said. “Reading works with technical subjects like HeLa allows students to think about the material they learn in class in a more personally and politically."

Sawarte could not agree more. At the six meetings the group held over spring 2014, Sawarte said she and the other seven book club members each had unique contributions to the discussion depending on their interests.

“Because I joined the book club, I became more aware of the issues surrounding research,” she said. “[In meetings], we would often discuss current events that paralleled topics presented in the books.”

One year later, Sawarte, now in her junior year, leads book club discussions herself. The club has tripled in size with 25 students who meet throughout the week. This semester, they are reading and discussing Next by Michael Crichton, a novel about a world obsessed with and corrupted by genetic research.

Sawarte said the work, just as the story of Henrietta Lacks did, really struck the members of the book club.

“For a couple of days after I finished reading the novel, I walked around in a daze,” said Roweena Kanj, a first-year student new to the book club.

“I think it's impossible to read Next without experiencing a total shift in your outlook on biotechnology and its legal and moral aspects,” she said.

With this growing positive response, Antoine said the next step for the book club could be an elective. The course would follow the same informal discussion structure as the club meetings, but it would allow a larger number of School of Engineering students to participate.

“Again, it’s all about what the students want,” he said. “My job is just to bring them together.”