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 FEATURES

BY MARGARET LOFTUS
ILLUSTRATION BY PHIL DISLEY
FEATURE: POLYMERS TO POETRY

POLYMERS TO POETRY

Engineering programs at traditional liberal arts colleges offer students the best of both worlds.

As a math and science whiz and engineering camp alum, Britney McCoy was sure she wanted to study engineering in college. The question was: Where? She found most traditional engineering programs lacking in the freedom she craved to pursue her other passions, mainly social justice. So when she heard about Lafayette College, she looked no further. Like the handful of other liberal arts schools that offer engineering, Lafayette, in Easton, Pa., allows engineering majors greater breadth and flexibility to integrate outside interests into their course of study. McCoy ended up graduating with a double major in engineering and government and law. “Having this type of background allows you to communicate with two different types of people,” says McCoy. “It’s the perfect balance.”

And it’s a balance that many traditional engineering schools have been trying to strike in recent years in response to a growing global demand for more well-rounded engineers. In fact, many argue the model of integrating engineering and liberal arts disciplines is more relevant than ever. At a symposium last spring at Union College, academics explored different ways to bridge engineering, technology, and the traditional liberal arts. They called for engineering to become a greater part of a liberal arts education and vice versa.

“It’s important in today’s world to have liberally trained thinkers who can also do the mathematics, who can roll up their shirt sleeves and understand the ramifications of the technologies we use,” says Linda E. Jones, director of Smith College’s Picker Engineering Program. The way liberal arts colleges teach engineering gives students the chance “to grow into that kind of role.”

Exactly how that’s achieved varies from college to college. Some, like Lafayette and Union, offer degrees in specialties, such as civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, while others award a general engineering studies degree. Students at Lafayette can also choose a more general A.B. degree in engineering.

What unites them is their foundation and flexibility beyond engineering. At Lafayette, that includes a freshman seminar on critical analysis skills, social sciences, humanities, and several writing courses, two of which are incorporated into engineering classes. Many students manage to squeeze in another major or a minor. At Swarthmore College, more than 40 percent of students in the past five years have graduated with a second major in addition to engineering. And students at Smith are required to do a major or minor in humanities or a self-directed course of study, known as Latin honors, to complement their engineering major. For example, a student may create an Asian Studies minor if she is interested in pursuing engineering in Japan. “We recognize that the humanities part is as important as engineering,” says Jones.

‘THE CHANCE TO EXPLORE’


With greater leeway in the curriculum, students who are curious about engineering have more flexibility to decide if it’s for them and, if so, which specialty suits them best. “I knew I wanted to do engineering, but I didn’t know where I wanted to focus,” says Smith junior Margaret-Avis Akofio-Sowah, who has settled on civil engineering after trying out other disciplines. “It gives you the chance to explore.”

Britney McCoy (left) now a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon, pursued engineering and government and law at Lafayette. Her honors research was directed by engineering professor Sharon Jones (right).Nonetheless, the engineering components are no less rigorous. “I’ve got to be able to put young women out there who are able to compete with their counterparts on a technical footing,” Jones says. “What’s unique about a liberal arts education is that you get the technical piece, but you get the technical piece in context.”

And as the field struggles to attract more young people who may perceive medicine and other fields as more service-oriented, understanding how engineering works in the real world is more important than ever. “I don’t want to be stuck at a lab bench somewhere,” says William (Ben) Towne, a senior at Lafayette who’s double majoring in electrical and computer engineering and community development. “I’m interested in learning about the social impacts of engineering.”

To that end, Towne says his liberal arts courses are essential: “I like that you could branch out a bit and take some courses in the other areas that have some tools and perspectives that are useful in thinking about problems.” Of course, traditional engineering programs have non-engineering requirements as well, but he suspects the discourse isn’t as lively: “At Lafayette, if you go into a history or psychology class, the other students may be majors in those areas, and they’ll be asking interesting questions.”

This interaction with non-engineering majors is in marked contrast with many big universities, where engineering students are often segregated in classes — and sometimes even dorms — from the rest of the campus, allowing for few friendships to develop among those in different majors. “Getting students to mix is important,” says Sharon Jones, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the engineering division at Lafayette. “They are totally integrated into the school.”

A HOLISTIC VIEW


As a result, says Towne, the school “is not dominated by the engineering mind-set.” There are still times when he doesn’t leave the engineering building save for the occasional pizza run, but he has managed to make a lot of friends who are liberal arts majors. “A network of friends outside of engineering allows you to solve problems which may be beyond you. If you need someone with a particular kind of expertise, you probably know someone who has it.”

Some students are drawn to the more intimate scale of most engineering programs within liberal arts colleges. Engineering students make up one-fifth of Lafayette’s total enrollment, or about 466 students. Other programs are much smaller: Swarthmore, with an enrollment of almost 1,500, has roughly 100 engineering majors, and of the 685 students at women-only Sweet Briar College in Virginia, 25 are engineering majors.

Lafayette engineering major William (Ben) Towne, shown here during a winter-break course in South Africa, has helped coffee growers in Honduras and edited a literary magazine.“The teachers know exactly who you are in the class,” says Smith’s Akofio-Sowah. “You’re not just another face in the crowd.” The absence of graduate students means the focus is on undergrads, adds Towne. “The professors and resources aren’t reserved for grad students; they are available and accessible.” As a result, students gain a more holistic view of engineering, says Cherrice Traver, the dean of engineering and a professor of computer engineering at Union. “The small classes allow them to develop stronger relationships with faculty and other students that foster a broader knowledge of how things are connected. When engineers are involved in most anything these days, the systems are so complex that they really need to be able to interact with people from all different specialties and cultures.”

Liberal arts colleges also have a strong track record of sending their engineering students abroad. While multinational employers look favorably on a semester or year spent studying in another culture, few engineering students can fit it into their rigid curriculum. Often, only those who come into college with substantial AP credits have the option. But Smith and Union colleges send about 60 percent of their engineering students abroad, compared with the average of 2 to 3 percent among all engineering students. “It’s part of the culture at Smith,” says Linda Jones. “That’s one of the advantages of a smaller school; we can work one-on-one to arrange classes.”

And at Lafayette, between 20 and 30 percent of engineering students regularly study abroad. Sharon Jones attributes the number to a faculty-led program that allows students to stay on track with their required courses. “We want to make sure that average students get to study abroad, not just the exceptional students,” she says.

DOES SIZE MATTER?


What does all this mean for diversity? In an unscientific sample, the percentage of women in liberal arts engineering programs is slightly higher than the 19 percent average in co-ed programs. Of the 17 students in Swarthmore’s sophomore engineering class this year, for instance, eight are women, and 23 percent of Lafayette engineering students are female. At Union, women make up 20 percent of the electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering majors — traditionally, the specialties with the lowest proportion of women.

To be sure, big universities have their advantages, including established ties to industry. Liberal arts colleges are helped by a base of committed alumni in industry, but they may have to work harder to nurture corporate relationships beyond that. At Sweet Briar College, where the engineering program began only three years ago, director Hank Yochum says he’s had some success in developing a network of central Virginia companies. “It’s important that we’re not just an engineering school that doesn’t have a connection to reality.” Still, he admits, “it takes time. We’re not Virginia Tech.”

Towne says his job search hasn’t been hindered by the lack of companies that recruit on campus, noting that the communication skills he’s honed at Lafayette have given him a leg up in interviews. “A big complaint from companies is that engineers don’t have a lot of interpersonal skills,” he says. “Communicating what you’ve done in engineering is about as important as engineering. If you’ve invented this great thing and you can’t tell someone about it, then it’s almost like you didn’t invent it at all.” Britney McCoy, now a doctoral student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, hopes one day to put her own communication skills to work as a lobbyist on issues like climate change: “You’ve got committees in Congress who don’t understand it and scientists who can’t explain it,” she says.

 

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.

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