- BY Thomas K. Grose
MICHAEL NAGY is an electrical engineer who has built a
successful, 14-year career in the aerospace and telecommunications industry.
And along the way, he admits, he's worked with a lot of bad engineers.
Many were technical wizards, but they lacked other crucial skills needed
to do their jobs. He's worked with rotten communicators, ineffective
team-workers, engineers with no grasp of ethics, and those who couldn't
see how technology was affected by social and economic concerns. Underdeveloped
engineers, Nagy says, typically blame failed projects on stupid
accountants, marketers, customers, or regulators. They don't comprehend
that solutions that rely on technology alone are often unsustainable.
There are, of course, talented engineers who have the skills to take
all those considerations into account, and who also communicate well
and are team players. The problem is, Nagy says, If they're
good at those things it's not because they learned them in [engineering]
Industry has bemoaned for years that too few engineering
hires come equipped with those necessary extra-technical talents. That's
a complaint that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
(ABET) is seeking to address with its new Engineering Criteria (EC)
2000 standards. To remain accredited, engineering schools must now ensure
their students can demonstrate a host of nontechnical skills, ranging
from good communication to understanding the economic and societal constraints
on engineering. And there's general agreement among many educators
that the only way to meet those criteria is to more fully integrate
the liberal artshumanities and social sciences (HSS)into
the engineering curricula, with an objective of blurring the boundaries
between them. A liberal education should no longer be seen merely as
a means of broadening engineering students while they concentrate
on technical courses, says a recent report on the issue.
But in an academic milieu that has historically treated
the liberal arts with, at best, grudging acceptance and sometimes outright
disdain, giving greater prominence to the soft skills taught
in HSS departments won't happen easily. Many engineering professors
eschew an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, are suspicious of
the benefits of a liberal education, and see HSS classes as time-wasting
intrusions when it's hard enough to fit all the technical content
courses they deem necessary into the curriculum. A lot of engineering
professors want to give their students only technical classes,
explains John Prados, a chemical engineering professor at the University
of Tennessee-Knoxville. If it were not for ABET's insistence
[that engineering students take a minimum number of liberal arts courses],
liberal education would have disappeared a long time ago from
engineering curricula. And that jaundiced attitude, he adds, tends to
reinforce the views of those many students who consider HSS as
a dose of bad medicine. Another hurdle: Not all liberal arts professorssome
of whom have an antitechnology biasare all that eager to work
with their engineering counterparts.
Before EC 2000, ABET required that engineering students
take the equivalent of one full term of liberal arts courses, usually
15 to 18 hours. That led to the Chinese menu approach currently
used by most schools. Students typically take a hodgepodge of HSS electives.
Bruce Seely, chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Michigan
Tech, says that's the result of a decades-long uneasy dance between
engineering and liberal arts that was usually orchestrated by outside
influences and events. Early in the 20th century, engineering educators
believed that their progeny should be well-rounded gentlemen, which
required them to take classes in philosophy and foreign languages, Seely
says. The Depression put more importance on economics. Political science,
civics, and history gained in importance as the United States fought
Nazism, then communism in midcentury. Writing became a paramount concern
in the 1960s. In the last decade, there's been more importance
placed on the understanding of economic development, the impact and
development of technologies, and foreign cultures. The problem is, the
cafeteria model often does not add up to anything coherent,
complains Barbara Olds, associate vice president for academic affairs,
liberal arts and international studies, at the Colorado School of Mines.
Moreover, there is seldom a means to help students connect what they
learn in HSS courses with the technical skills they're acquiring
A group of engineering and HSS academics are working to
help engineering schools meet EC 2000 by formulating recommendations
on how best to merge liberal and engineering education. The University
of Virginia in April 2002 hosted a conference on Liberal Studies and
the Integrated Vision of ABET 2000, which resulted in several reports.
Moreover, in June 2002, the Liberal Education Division of the American
Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) endorsed a white paper that
contained recommendations for better integrating liberal arts and engineering.
Proponents insist that there is no one true path toward integrating
all these disparate disciplines within engineering curricula, and they
note that the ABET criteria stress flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all
approach. All schools have options, says Kathryn A. Neeley, an
instructor in the Division of Technology, Culture, and Communications
at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied
Sciences. And there's no need to entirely toss out the electives
approach, adds Neeley, who organized the April 2002 conference. Some
electives are valuable for their own strengths, like anthropology,
sociology, and history.
A MIXED BAG
MOST SCHOOLS ARE likely to provide a mix of solutions
beyond electives, including specially designed HSS courses for engineering
students, interdisciplinary courses co-taught by engineering and liberal
arts instructors, and incorporating liberal arts modules
within standard engineering courses. There are examples for the various
approaches. The technical writing cooperative at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology adds writing tasks to technical courses and writing instructors
provide lectures and workshops. HSS courses with a technical bent include
Texas A&M University's history of the space program, and Lehigh
University's environment, the public, and the media. Schools already
taking an interdisciplinary, team-teaching approach include North Carolina
State University, which offers ethics in engineering, and Miami University
of Ohio, which has an upper division course called sustainability perspectives
in resources and business.
Nagy, who is director of the electronics group at Movaz
Networks, Inc., an Atlanta telecommunications company, was lead author
of a study that linked critical workplace abilities to skills learned
in liberal arts classes. For example, the report notes that on the job,
engineers must know how to grapple with failure so they can learn and
persevere. History courses teach how great men and women overcame failure,
and students learn that real-life problems don't always have readily
available answers. Nagy complains that too many technical courses give
students problems to solve that also include all the needed pieces of
the puzzle. The real world is not like that, he says. His
report suggests that supervised practice and a liberal perspective,
as in a team design project with an integrated liberal education component,
might provide the most effective approach to developing . . . important,
but hard to teach, qualities, including initiative and perseverance.
The report also stresses the importance of good, clear communicationswritten
and oralnot only among members of multidisciplinary work teams,
but to best reach managers, clients, policy-makers, and the public.
Those are skills best taught in English and speech classes. While classes
like economics, sociology and political science help engineering students
to see technology in cultural, political, and financial contexts, says
Interdisciplinary teamwork may be a key factor in industrial
research, but it's an approach that's so far not won many
converts within academia. It's hard to get people to cross
boundaries. It's hard enough to get engineering professors to cross
boundaries within engineering, Prados notes. And it's also
tough to get liberal arts professors interested in working with engineering
instructors. A survey of engineering professors and administrators conducted
for the April 2002 conference found 58.3 percent said a big obstacle
to curricular reform was a lack of a culture that valued interdisciplinary
approaches to teaching. Academics tend to pledge their greatest allegiance
to their departments, which is understandable, since that's where
decisions that can affect their salaries and career paths are made.
There are not many rewards and incentives for academics
to work on interdisciplinary projects, teaching or otherwise. And that's
probably a big reason why the third most cited obstacle in the survey,
at 41.7 percent, was a lack of interest in HSS by technical faculty.
Prados says distrust of HSS among engineering instructors is fairly
widespread even if it's not PC to openly disparage
efforts to increase the role of liberal arts in engineering education.
He suggests: What you need to do is bug the faculty lunchroom
in the mechanical engineering department of a big school, and you'll
get an earful.
Even professors who grudgingly accept that ethics and
history need to be taught tend to have a NIMBY attitude, says Olds.
They'll say, Fine, just don't ask me to do it.'
That attitude stems in part from a feeling among academics that they
should teach only those subjects that they're expert in, explains
Jerry Gravender, dean of liberal arts, Clarkson University. But he argues
that they are expert enough to teach things like ethics, safety, and
public welfare. We don't expect them to teach Kant in an
engineering design course, Gravender says.
Of course a big complaint cited by many engineering professors
is that engineering curricula are already too jampacked as it is. Many
technical faculty say it's already hard to teach all the content
they feel their students should know. How, they ask, will it be possible
to slot in even more liberal arts classes without diluting the degree?
Says William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering:
We are constantly in the business of trying to stuff 10 pounds
of content into a 5-pound sack in engineering education. But,
he adds, if that's an old question, it's also a specious one
in an age when technology is evolving so quickly it's impossible
to try to teach it all to students. No matter how up to date recent
graduates are, what they learned in class will soon be outmoded anyway.
It's not possible to build a 40-year career on what you learned
in college, says Wulf, who is also a professor of computer engineering.
One of the reports to spring from the April 2002 conference argues,
for instance, that given the superhigh performance computational predictive
tools engineers now use, it's become unnecessary to teach all students
to write computer programs. We may actually be preparing students
for the engineering world of the 1950s and 1960s instead of the world
of practice in the 21st century, it states. It may be better to
downplay content and instead teach students to learn to learn, Prados
says. We should be educating them to be problem-solvers ... content
is secondary. That sort of attitude also fits into the ABET criterion
that students should embrace the need to engage in lifelong learning.
Unlike other professions, like medicine and law, engineering
has not emphasized the need for its practitioners to update their skills
base. And for a lot of working engineers, that lack of flexibility has
been a career destroyer. Nagy recalls that during the late-1990s high-tech
boom, many Silicon Valley companies desperately sought engineers with
specific skills. They called these hires brains on a stick.
Once the project they were hired for was completed, they were let go.
They never advanced. It wasn't a good way to build a career.
And when the boom inevitably turned into a bust, a lot of those engineers
were stunned to find they were unemployable. It was hard on everyone,
Nagy recalls, but those engineers who could see beyond the end of their
slide rule and had a developed world view saw [the downturn] coming
and were prepared. Because they adapted to new skills requirements,
they didn't stay jobless for long. Those who were oblivious to
the world around them, and weren't prepared to change and develop,
had a much harder time finding new jobs, he says.
Alone among the professionsincluding medicine, law,
and scienceengineering is the only one that accepts a bachelor's
degree as a professional degreeand that's a big reason why
the undergraduate curricula is so dense. As Michigan Tech's Seely
notes, the other professions also have huge amounts of technical content
to grapple with, but they save much of it for their post-graduate students
who only then begin work on earning a professional degree. As such,
he says, there is no debate over the liberal education approach to teaching
pre-law and pre-med students, for example. There have been a few efforts
to change the structure of engineering education. After World War II,
Cornell and Ohio State universities offered a five-year bachelor's
degree in engineering. But they had a huge problem with recruiting,
Seely says, compared with most schools, which promised to graduate students
a year earlier. But even now the four-year degree is really a myth.
It takes the average engineering undergraduate 4.8 years to earn it.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
ENGINEERING FACULTY reluctance to understand and endorse
the value of HSS lessons not only undermines the effort to give engineers
the skills industry says it needs but can reinforce negative perceptions
of nontechnical classes that too many students already have. Engineering
students often see courses such as social science and literature as
add-ons, says Betsy Aller, who teaches communications and design
at Western Michigan University's department of industrial and manufacturing
engineering. Many majors opted for engineering because they liked math
and science and had had enough of English and history. Faculty attitudes
send strong signals to students, Seely says, and it doesn't help
if those signals connote that there's nothing of value
in easy liberal arts courses. When those perceptions are
reinforced among students, he says, the result for HSS instructors is
students who are hard to teach. Virginia's Neeley says,
it's important to make students realize that the demand for contextual
skills is coming from future employers.
Many proponents of change think the first true marriages
of engineering and liberal arts will most likely occur at the tech schools
that are geared toward churning out engineering graduates. That's
because the HSS departments at those schools exist mainly to provide
a service to the tech departments, and there are fewer walls to break
down. At big, land-grant schools, the humanities and social science
departments are entities unto themselves, with their own majors and
interests to keep them occupied. The University of Virginia is the rare
nontech school where the School of Engineering has its own dedicated
HSS department. But, as Seely says, once the tech schools show that
a full integration of liberal arts and engineering can be achieved,
they'll provide workable models that other nontech schools can
It will also help move things along if faculty get strong
signals from deans and provosts that interdisciplinary teaching efforts
will be rewarded, Seely says. And, he adds, if those deans and provosts
are asked [about integration] by accreditors, there is a higher
likelihood that they'll pay attention. Toward that goal,
the key may be using HSS academics to help train ABET accreditors so
they're better able to judge whether a school is meeting the EC
2000 criteria. Accreditors now come from the main engineering disciplines,
and are trained by the professional engineering societies. The success
of EC 2000 could hinge on how well the accreditors do their job,
Olds says. Neeley says she has been in contact with ABET about using
liberal arts professionals to help train accreditors, and ABET
is very open to talking.
Ultimately, what may have to change is the entire structure
of engineering education. Like law and medicine and science, engineering
may require students to earn a master's degree before they're
considered professionals. Stephen Director, dean of the University of
Michigan School of Engineering, says that will eventually happen, and
he welcomes the change. It will take some of the pressure off
of the first four years, where we're now trying to cram all this
stuff in. And it would make a blurring of the boundaries between
HSS and technical classes easier to achieve. Wulf, however, says the
transition could take up to 20 years. He counsels patience. You
know how universities change, don't you? Wulf asks. One
grave at a time.
Thomas K Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington,
He can be reached at email@example.com.