The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 5, 2008
Colleges and universities increasingly view engineering as an important part of a liberal-arts education. Rather than segregate engineering from the arts and humanities, they are integrating the disciplines, in hopes of educating students to perform more effectively in an increasingly complex and technological world. Several college presidents, including Carol T. Christ, of Smith College, and Stephen C. Ainlay, of Union College, in New York, discussed the trend at a symposium on engineering and liberal education held at Union. Here are excerpts from their comments, along with those of Robert L. Clark, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Rochester and a former dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, at Duke University.
Carol T. Christ: Traditional definitions of the liberal arts often claim a dichotomy between general knowledge — appropriately the province of the liberal arts — and knowledge that is professional, technical, or useful. That dichotomy is a false one. College curricula have frequently included areas of study like architecture or meteorology that we would consider both liberal and professional, and most professional education has its roots in traditional liberal disciplines.
As the president of Smith College, I have been amused by how often I have been asked whether our development of the sciences, embodied in our new engineering program and plan for a new science center, means that we will abandon the liberal arts. Citizens of 18th-century Virginia could have asked Thomas Jefferson the same question when he introduced medical science and natural history into the curriculum. Surely the sciences are among the liberal arts — fields of study that contribute to general intellectual culture.
Indeed, engineering must become part of a liberal education in the 21st century. We must determine not only how best to educate engineers in the traditional liberal arts but also what role engineering might play in the education of musicians, economists, political scientists, and philosophers. Just as the study of literature and art enriches and deepens the education of scientists and engineers, so the study of science and engineering should enrich and deepen the education of historians and poets.
When we developed our engineering program at Smith, we were careful to create a structure of requirements for engineering majors that assured substantial course work across traditional liberal-arts disciplines. Students are required to take courses in literature, the arts, historical studies, the social sciences, and foreign languages as well as natural sciences and mathematics or analytic philosophy.
What has been unexpected is the influence that engineering has had on the rest of the curriculum. Faculty members have commented on the ethical seriousness that engineers bring to classes in history, or literature, or philosophy; they come with an awareness that solutions to complex problems, in whatever discipline, are best considered in a broad context, including their ethical implications. Moreover, the engineering program's focus on collaborative work and public-presentation abilities have inspired renewed interest in developing such capacities in students across each of the academic divisions. Similarly intriguing to other faculty members is the engineering program's use of portfolios to assess students' abilities and document students' growth as they mature in their field of study.
It is a particularly appropriate time to broaden our concept of the liberal arts to include engineering, because engineering is inherently interdisciplinary, using a broad range of knowledge in science and mathematics to develop solutions to many of today's problems. It is both research- and project-based, providing multiple opportunities for students to solve new problems under the guidance of faculty and industry mentors. The practice of engineering is international, as engineers work without borders, yet its goals are profoundly civic: engineers use their knowledge in service of society, responding to human needs and problems with technological solutions. Engineering also embraces sustainability as a core value — indeed, in a world of finite natural resources, we depend upon it engineering to conserve the resources that sustain us.
People often focus on the challenges liberal-arts institutions face in offering engineering programs: our relatively small size, our lack of graduate students, our few corporate ties. But the very fact that engineering in our colleges is not a separate school with its own area of the campus, its own curriculum, and its own culture gives us important advantages for integrating engineering with traditional liberal-arts disciplines.
Robert L. Clark: With society's increasing dependence on technology, some people in higher education are pushing to make science and engineering education the new liberal arts of the 21st century. That call to arms comes none too soon. The world's greatest challenges — for example, the need for water and energy in the greater context of environmental responsibility — cry out for a technically literate society, capable of creating solutions and communicating effectively to influence public policy.
Some liberal-arts programs are examining ways to incorporate components of engineering into a student's education. Yale and Johns Hopkins Universities have begun offering B.A. degrees in engineering for students interested in gaining greater understanding of engineering within their broader pursuits in the liberal arts.
Those steps should be applauded, but even bolder ones are needed. Science and engineering educators have a responsibility to prepare a broader population of students for the future challenges and demands awaiting our global society. However, not every student is drawn to science, math, or the engineering professions. How do you get students to sign up for such courses?
One fundamental way to do that is to infuse more experiential learning, including design, into the curriculum at an early stage — and more engineering educators have been working in recent years to do that. The experiential learning effort at Olin College is a model for "hands on" learning that keeps students involved during the early years of their program of study. Such learning provides opportunities for students to work with mechanical and electrical hardware that is mathematically described in textbooks. Assembling that hardware, using design principles drawn from engineering, gives students the chance to observe the difference between theory and experiment, to make mistakes, and to reinforce what they've learned.
For years, Duke University's schools of engineering, business, and medicine have teamed up graduate students in courses to share expertise to analyze technology marketability and create competitive business plans. Now the university is focusing on undergraduates. With gifts from the Duke Endowment, it is hiring faculty members and developing courses in engineering specifically for the integration of nonengineering majors. Considerable thought has been given to the content of the courses that the institution believes will serve the nonengineers in their chosen future professions. A course in uncertainty analysis is intended to give them the chance to apply statistics to a range of problems and recognize that all "answers" are bounded by uncertainty. An optimization course allows students to mathematically describe problems in a way that formalizes design, trading off parameters such as weight for strength, or sacrificing speed to minimize energy consumption. As humans we do this naturally every day when we plan the use of our time or our travels. Engineers simply formalize it with mathematics.
An exposure to design is a crucial element of this education. Understanding how products are born — through performance requirements and specifications as well as material and cost constraints — is essential to understanding the creation of new technology.
The take-home message is that core training and exposure to courses that span the disciplines of science and engineering — including uncertainty analysis — are essential for all liberal-arts students. Science and engineering educators need to develop courses that present statistical science and the creation and refinement of technology in a way that enables every student, regardless of major, to gain a theoretical and applied capability in the subject. The application of statistics to problems for which there is no "exact" answer is crucial to all professions, and it helps engineers and nonengineers make critical choices and prioritize trade-offs in the decision-making process.
Actively engaging students who major in economics, business, environmental science, public policy, and other fields in dealing with alternative perspectives will change the outlook, opinions, and skill sets of all students. In doing so, our students will be better prepared to deal with many of the important issues of the future once they are in the work force. That benefits everyone.
Stephen C. Ainlay: Interdisciplinary programs that integrate engineering with the liberal arts have proliferated in higher education in recent decades. Fields like environmental studies, energy engineering, digital arts, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics are just a few examples. Colleges and universities have started to rethink what it means to be liberally educated.
At Union College, for example, we are adding modules taught by engineers to our "Introduction to Environmental Studies" course. We have also developed full team-taught courses with faculty members from engineering and other parts of the college. A case in point is a course on the Three Gorges Dam project, in China, taught jointly by an engineering professor and a professor of Chinese language and culture.
In addition we have experimented with paired courses, one taught by an engineering-faculty member, the other by a professor from the humanities, sciences, or social sciences. For instance, we have taught several courses pairing music with acoustical engineering. In one such pairing, the music students perform in different settings, the engineering students try to make the sound of one setting approximate the sound of the other, and then the music students evaluate the results. Further, growing numbers of faculty members from engineering are teaching key components of our general-education curriculum. Seminars have included "Designing As If People Mattered" and "Water and Civilization."
In the broadest sense, we have discovered that engineers can make important contributions to other disciplines and establish their foothold in the liberal arts in three fundamental areas of thinking:
• Conceptualization. Scholars and students across many disciplines can learn a great deal from engineers about their investigative methods and approaches to the arts of design and problem solving. The concept of "system," used by engineers, should be of interest and use to biologists, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, political scientists, sociologists, and economists. The way that engineers and computer scientists use the recursive concept of "feedback" could also be relevant to political scientists, sociologists, and economists. As a final example, most scholars throughout the social sciences stand to learn a good deal from the ways in which engineers use forecasting, predicting, and risk assessment. Might not even professors in the classics and literature be interested in expanding their understanding of how people in different intellectual milieus approach the all-too-human circumstance of confronting the unknown?
• Creativity. The engineering-design process contains many features that speak directly to the concept of creativity. Scholars from many fields of study can learn from their engineering colleagues how to better distinguish among various aspects of the creative process, such as what it means to initiate, imitate, and replicate. Creativity goes beyond just design, of course, and the way engineers exhibit the creative impulse may have a variety of applications across the liberal arts.
• Evaluation. Could not a sophisticated understanding of how engineers assess failure and success be of great interest to professors in other disciplines? Could not the same be said for how engineers evaluate efficiency or make aesthetic evaluations? Perhaps even more important, we would all benefit from an extended conversation — between engineers and scholars across the entire academy — about the nature of ethical commitments and professional responsibility, especially at a time when "assessment" looms so large on the academy's horizon.
Engineering paradigms and practices should not be imported entirely into another discipline. But an informed understanding of how engineers conceptualize, create, and evaluate could help other scholars expand or refine their own thinking and paradigms.
Finally, the integration of engineering into the liberal arts is no single institution's innovation or mandate. It is a national and even international mandate, important to our collective future. Thus it is a goal we all share, and we will be far more effective if we all work together.
http://chronicle.com Section: Commentary Volume 55, Issue 2, Page A76
Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education