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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
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SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE - By Anna Mulrine - The Bachelor of Arts degree in engineering is for people who want to be conversant in technology, but not necessarily engineers.

By Anna Mulrine
Illustration by Daniel Baxter

The bachelor of arts in engineering program has been around for close to a decade at Johns Hopkins University, and during that time the school learned something about who makes the best candidate for this unique degree. Program director Andrew Douglas can think of a couple of students in particular who have exemplified the program’s goals over the years. One is a woman who was interested in working in film. She recognized, Douglas says, that the industry needs people capable of understanding “both the creative end of things and the technical end of things as film went digital.” She didn’t want to become a “full-fledged engineer but technically conversant enough so that she could talk to the tech guys about issues that came up with digitization and distribution of film.”

Then there was the race car driver. “He was a cool guy,” Douglas says. “He recognized that the most important thing for him as a race car driver was raising and controlling money. He wanted an education that allowed him to do that very well, so he took economics courses, with a minor in entrepreneurship and management, as well as some business law, international property protection and financial accounting. He could really load up on the things that he felt would help him as a person running a small business,” Douglas explains. “But he also wanted to be able to talk to his pit crew in a technical way.” He didn't, however, “want to be the pit crew.”

The program, in other words, has some depth for people interested in engineering, “but certainly not as much as a B.S. in engineering. It has some depth in humanities as well—pieces for people who have broad interests—but maybe not as much depth,” Douglas says. Across the country, administrators of B.A. engineering programs agree that the heart of the course of study is creating students who are more technologically literate while allowing them to pursue interests in other fields as well. “What you’re getting here are people who want to be conversant with technology,” Douglas says, “but not the technologist.” Indeed, the goal of most engineering B.A. programs is, first and foremost, “to help us create more technically literate students—without a doubt,” says Paul Fleury, director of Yale’s B.A. in engineering program. “We felt that we’d like to capture some students and give them an education in engineering.” And that goal has paid off for many of the program’s graduates throughout the country.

But creating a program that is strong in both the humanities and the hard sciences is no easy task, says Kathleen Kramer, dean of the engineering B.A. program at the University of San Diego (USD). But the hard work can be rewarding and attractive to employers, she says. The university created a combination B.A./B.S. program to incorporate the requirements of its humanities program with an ABET-accredited engineering program. “We’re a liberal arts university, and USD just wouldn’t compromise on the university core curriculum,” Kramer says. The university requires its B.A./B.S. students to take three semesters of philosophy, including an ethics course, and three semesters of a foreign language.

Yale offers three undergraduate engineering degree programs: a traditional ABET-accredited B.S. degree, an intermediate B.S. degree with six fewer course requirements and a B.A. in engineering degree. The B.A. degree has four engineering prerequisites and requirements in the humanities and foreign languages as well. The program was created, director Fleury says, in recognition that there were a number of students who wanted some background in engineering “but had no intention of staying in the field.” Students have later gone on to study patent law and investment banking. “But no one has gone into the engineering field,” he says. “It’s not like we have a B.A. student who really, really wants to be an engineer.”

Nearly three-quarters of Yale’s engineering B.A. students have a double major. “We’ve had some very interesting combinations of degrees,” Fleury says. Those combinations have included pairing engineering with English literature, music and architecture. One student recently completed the B.A. program with a concentration in German languages. “That’s an option you’re not going to get generally in a regular engineering program,” Fleury says. At the University of Arizona, the engineering B.A.’s often combine engineering classes with courses in subjects like technical theater, music and sound production. “These are very strong areas for us,” says Jeff Goldberg, director of Arizona’s engineering B.A. program and associate dean of academic affairs.

The University of Arizona engineering B.A.’s design their own majors. The students take an eight-course sequence built around a theme, rather than a department, Goldberg says. If the topic is audio production, for example, the students might take three courses in each area including computer science, electrical engineering and industrial engineering, combined with training in studio production. Students might also take courses in technology and society, or mix psychology with artificial intelligence seminars. “We’ll give students credit for those courses as well,” Goldberg says. “There’s lots of flexibility.”


Something for Everyone

The B.A. engineering students also bring a depth to the classes they take with the B.S. program participants. “They add a lot to the classes that they’re in with ABET students,” Fleury says. “They have different perspectives. They want to know why something is being done, not just for technical reasons, but for societal reasons.” They might, for example, discuss ethics and regulations as they relate to engineering. They also take engineering courses with the B.S. students. “If I’m teaching junior-level fluid mechanics classes, they’re all in the same class,” Fleury says. B.A. students are able to take a lower-level physics class—but that’s the only requirement that they’re allowed to “downgrade,” he adds. The university offers four physics levels, including a midlevel course without labs. Some opt for that, but most take upper-level physics “with everyone else.” 

While there are a handful of engineering B.A. students at Yale who “for some reason or another couldn’t handle the technical requirements of the B.S. program and decided they wanted to downgrade in some way,” most simply want to deepen their knowledge of science while pursuing other liberal arts interests as well. At Johns Hopkins, Douglas says, “very few” of the participants enter the program as freshmen—perhaps two a year. And those two often leave, while another two enter the program to replace them. “The people who leave the program typically find that they really aren’t going to be two-headed individuals.” Some might ask how the program can be considered successful with so few students. “It may not be what you come to Johns Hopkins specifically to do, but we’re trying to provide experiences that are valuable to students,” Douglas says. “We wanted a really interesting combination of humanities and technology that would allow someone who’s deeply committed to the humanities to play the role of communicator, though they won’t be the engineers.”

Directors of engineering B.A. programs across the country concur that the degree has its pluses and its minuses and that, occasionally, it has not met expectations. At Texas Tech University, the program designers are beginning to address their own concerns about perhaps having too much flexibility in the program. The B.A. in engineering program has only been up and running for a couple of years and was designed to give the students “a bit more flexibility,” says Jeff Wolstad, associate dean for undergraduate studies. But to date, he adds, “it hasn’t been a particularly successful program for us. We envisioned it as a very broad degree, to give people a background in science and nontechnical subjects.” The idea was, for instance, “that people can get a degree in education and engineering and go out and teach school,” Wolstad says. “But as far as I know, we’ve never had anyone do that. What we’ve created is something that hasn’t necessarily attracted the upper-level students we were hoping for.” Program designers are now looking into ways to team up with the honors college, “and in that way get them to help us find the right type of student for the program,” Wolstad says. “It’s something that we’d really like to do better.”

Pedro Usma graduated from the USD B.S./B.A. program and uses his training to test and upgrade communications systems for the U.S. Air Force. He is also leading a radar installation. What’s more, after volunteering with the YMCA and learning that they were having trouble enlisting students for their martial arts classes, Usma started a business using the skills that he had acquired in the program. Today, the YMCA teaches 170 students in two locations in the Los Angeles area. “The hands-on experience that we had—the training, learning how to prioritize and delegate,” as well as interpersonal skills and problem-solving abilities, were all integral parts of his experience, Usma says.

At USD, finishing the program might take students four and a half years on average, but when they do, they are heavily in demand, Kramer says. “The feedback I get from the local industry is that they are just bowled over.” And the program, she says, is increasingly popular with her students. “We’re part of a trend,” she says. “We do seem to be becoming in vogue at the moment.” And the challenge for future programs, adds Johns Hopkins’ Douglas, will be how to perform a vital juggling act. “They might say, ‘OK, we’ve got this program. Now how do we make it intellectually rigorous—and intellectually exciting?’”

Anna Mulrine is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.  

 

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