ASEE Prism Magazine
Soaring in Salt Lake City
Opening A New Book
Few and Far Between
Miracle Workers
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Professional Opportunities - Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues


Today's engineering students must be able to communicate well, work in teams, and take societal concerns into account. The question for educators is how to teach these skills.

- 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] school.”

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 arts—humanities 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 professors—some of whom have an antitechnology bias—are 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 in labs.

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.


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 communications—written and oral—not 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 Nagy's report.

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 professions—including medicine, law, and science—engineering is the only one that accepts a bachelor's degree as a professional degree—and 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.


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 adopt.

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, D.C.
He can be reached at

Contact Prism