Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Response to "Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges?"

In an Inside Higher Ed article "Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges?," Domenico Grasso, the dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont, argues that if America is going to reclaim a leading role in engineering (in both producing those who entering engineering as well as educating them), we need to revise the engineering curriculum: in short, that they need fewer technical classes and more humanities courses:
Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century - an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons - engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.

To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today's engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.

How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science - literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages - that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take - leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.
As an undergraduate, I was a humanities major surrounded by engineers. Literally. I spent all but one semester living in the dorms known as the Engineering Quad where one had to be an engineering or science major to get in (I began my college career as an English and biochemistry double major). A good number of my closest friends in college were engineers. Class rank was a real issue for these men and women, and as it turns out, a good number of my closest circle of friends were at the top of their classes. The best of them, the most successful of them, took more humanities and social science courses than required. One was torn between engineering and art. Another between engineering and music. A third between engineering and history and philosophy. Others weren't torn but took as many humanities/social science courses as they could. Is there a correlation here? I don't know. I could just be that they had the opportunity to take extra courses because they weren't retaking Calculus III or Advanced Thermodynamics for a second or third time. What I do know, however, is that my friends at the top of their classes were called in by the Dean of the College of Engineering, who then strongly encouraged them to take a special two-term humanities for engineers honors course during their sophomore year.

I do believe, however, that undergraduate college education should be cross disciplinary. I believe that thinking critically means being able to see beyond a narrow perspective. I disagree with those academics who believe that academic specialization means adopting disciplinary blinders. So, in short, I agree with Grasso that our engineering education needs more humanities and social sciences to produce critical thinkers who can work not as problem-solvers but as problem-definers. I don't agree, however, that we should shut down colleges of engineering.

But there's a flip side to this, however. The amount of science and technology courses the average non-science and engineering major is required to take is pitiful. It's no secret that the American public has little understanding of science and technology even while many of our most pressing and contested social and political issues are issues of science and technology. Ultimately, it won't matter how well trained our scientists and engineers are if the American public, if the average voter and the typical policy maker, doesn't have the basic knowledge necessary to grasp, let alone make informed decisions about, some of the most pressing and important issues facing us today.

While I have, at times, thought that we could do away with business degrees at the undergraduate level, I don't think we should be closing our schools of engineering. I don't think, however, that is what Grasso is really arguing for. Rather, he's arguing for increased humanities and social science education as part of the engineering curriculum and I agree with that. And just as our engineers ought to be more knowledgeable of "the human condition, the human experience, the human record," our non-scientists and non-engineers need to be more knowledgeable of science and technology.

We need to increase the amount of science and technology the average undergraduate takes. In addition to the fundamentals like Introduction to Chemistry or Introduction to Geology, humanities/social science majors should be taking a broad range of upper division classes geared for non-majors or that look at the intersection of science/technology and other disciplines. Two of my favorite courses, taken as electives after I'd stopped being a biochemistry major were "Life in the Universe" and "Evolution, Creationism, and the Origins of Life," offered by the departments of Physics and Astrophysics and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology respectively. The former blended astrophysics, biology, philosophy, and religion, and the later blended biology, sociology, and religion. As a biology major, one of my wife's favorite classes was "Plants and Human Affairs" which was a mix of biology, history, sociology, and economics. Her research paper, the paper I think she most enjoyed writing as an undergraduate, was on the Tulip-Bulb Craze of the 1630s. We need more classes like these and more students need to be taking them. The sad fact is that right now most science and engineering majors get a better education in the humanities and social sciences than most humanities and social science majors get in science and technology. This, too, needs to change.

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