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Engineering should be one of the building blocks of a liberal education.

Though hardly a new idea, the notion that engineering can serve as a basis for a traditional undergraduate liberal education in a global environment increasingly dependent on science and technology has much to recommend it.

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson and the birth of our nation, a liberal education has been thought to have two fundamental purposes: to prepare citizens to make constructive contributions to society and to prepare them to make their own independent, informed choices on the major issues of the day.

A comprehensive liberal education has long included an in-depth exposure to the arts and humanities, but in Jefferson’s day it also included the natural sciences — with enough mathematics to meet both practical and theoretical needs. A key to this liberal inquiry was a working knowledge of at least Latin and Greek (and preferably Hebrew), to allow an individual to read the original texts of the world’s great ideas unfiltered by the translations of others.

It can be argued that numeracy, or competence in mathematical skills, is the modern equivalent of that knowledge of the classic languages. Numeracy is certainly critical to understanding the full range of advances in science. And, analogous to the spirit of a Jeffersonian liberal education, numeracy skills are also key to an independent, informed citizenry, because understanding statistics and probability is one of the best protections citizens have against manipulation by purveyors of self-interested agendas, ranging from political pollsters to peddlers of a vast array of products.

In the 18th century, education meant a grasp not only of the arts and humanities but of science and mathematics.

At first glance, engineering may seem an improbable vehicle for the transformation to this new, grander educational purpose. In the recent past, engineering curricula have been too limited in their scope and content to serve as the base for this broader possibility. What’s more, engineering curricula are seen by some as too vocational, and by others as too theoretical, to serve any useful purpose. But those perceptions of the limits of a liberal engineering education can be changed with careful thought and clarity of purpose.

Why make engineering a base for a modern liberal education, instead of less dramatically augmenting and enhancing the basic science and math content in the traditional liberal arts curriculum? Because only engineering possesses a fundamentally important component not shared by science curricula: design. In its most generic sense, design is open-ended problem-solving in which there may be more than one correct solution to a given problem. Design also encourages systems thinking, which requires problem solvers to understand their concerns in the context of the surrounding environment. Supported by a working knowledge of both science and mathematics, design is a skill that is likely to be essential in this new century for a whole range of professions well beyond traditional engineering — business, finance, medicine, law, public policy. The combination of numeracy and design skills intrinsic to engineering education would open an array of possibilities to all those people — a majority, to be sure — who don’t already possess such ability.

As a nation, we face a perfect storm of challenges because of global climate change, unprecedented population growth, diminishing supplies of natural resources, and global competition. That is why our colleges of engineering must aim to educate their students with the broadest possible body of knowledge. We believe that Thomas Jefferson, were he alive today, might support such a simple proposition --- though implementing it will not be simple at all. It will require a complete rethinking of the content of both undergraduate and graduate engineering curricula, as well as a retooling of the engineering degree structure. But it must be done, and soon, so that future graduates are truly Jeffersonian citizens --- of our republic and of the world.


John H. McMasters, who died Feb. 13, 2008, was a technical fellow at the Boeing Corp. Clive L. Dym is Fletcher Jones Professor of Engineering Design at Harvey Mudd College.




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