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ENGINEERING, HUMANITIES INTEGRATION

Thomas Grose’s article “Opening a New Book” [February, 2004] contains many valid points regarding the problem of preparing engineering students for today’s market. There certainly is some inertia among academics toward giving up technical courses in favor of more liberal arts courses. But I see that as only one small component of a rather large problem.

I find particularly offensive his repeated claims that engineering faculty are resisting these changes, especially the closing statement that change will only come “one grave at a time.” All that does is add fuel to those politically inspired rants about requiring “accountability” of our public school systems, whatever that means.

I've never heard any of my colleagues bemoan the time our students spend on general education. As an adviser, I always encourage my students to take additional liberal arts courses, though they seldom can afford the extra time required.

Also, my engineering department recently voted to approve several business courses as technical electives. We are working toward a joint degree in engineering and business. This was in response to a survey of our alumni who realized they should have had more business preparation while in college.

The article failed to mention the alternatives available to all students at most institutions. One alternative is an arts and science program, e.g. in math, chemistry, or physics. These provide more hours in liberal arts, including training in a foreign language, time for more electives like philosophy, history, advanced composition, business, and the like. Unfortunately, none of these programs really prepare a student for a job upon graduation.

Another is engineering with a minor in something else, such as business or math. This typically takes five years. Neither of these is at all attractive to our working-class student body. They need that four-year engineering degree to get out and earn a living.

What's happened to our junior and senior high schools? Perhaps I was among the lucky ones to be educated in Grand Island, Nebraska, in the 1940s. I credit my junior and senior high school experience with learning economics, shop practices, typing, history, political issues, some business practice, music, literature, and more. In California, many of these subjects are considered “fluff” and are being dropped.

That is the core of the problem, not that our students aren't taking these in college.

W. A. Barrett
Computer Engineering Department
San Jose State University

 

Thomas Grose responds:

I meant no offense when I wrote that some engineering faculty members are resistant to change. But, to a person, the many sources interviewed for this story said that is often the mind-set of “many” faculty members, though certainly not all. Also, the “one grave at a time” comment was a direct quote from National Academy of Engineering president William Wulf, who, clearly, was indicating that change comes slowly to academia in general.

 

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