PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
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Paper or Plastic?

By Mary Kasarda

THIS MODERN PROBLEM SHOWS WHY ALL STUDENTS MUST BECOME MORE TECHNICALLY LITERATE.

As I read the article in February's Prism regarding incorporating liberal arts into the engineering curriculum, I wondered how many of my colleagues are aware of their role on the other side of that coin—incorporating engineering into a liberal arts curriculum. Engineering programs at liberal arts colleges is not a new idea, with outstanding programs at such institutions as Harvey Mudd, Lafayette, and Smith. However, the "engineering in liberal arts" that I am referring to is the technical education of nonengineering majors. I propose that it is the social responsibility of everyone in higher education—and not just engineering educators—to educate students in technological issues and change cultural perceptions of technology for the betterment—and survival—of society.

This past year, I have become particularly aware of liberal education while serving as an education consultant, through my home institution, Virginia Tech, to Sweet Briar College as they begin their own engineering program—only the second in the nation at an all-women's college. Sweet Briar's program, funded partially by the National Science Foundation, has been designed to have campus-wide impact, so that all of the college's students have an opportunity for technical education at some level. The program consists of two new majors, a B.S. in engineering science and a B.A. in integrated engineering and management. However, the new engineering courses are utilized to create an engineering science minor, and the first two engineering courses, Introduction to Engineering and Introduction to Engineering Design, qualify as general education electives for all Sweet Briar students. Programs like this make technical literacy possible and give individuals the skills to sort out the issues, ask the right questions, and respond intelligently to the evidence.

The necessity of technical literacy is exemplified in an example that I heard in a presentation by Ron Kander, who runs the department of integrated science and technology at James Madison University, on the environmental issues behind the familiar grocery store question, "paper or plastic?" Conventional wisdom tells us that paper, a renewable and biodegradable resource, is the way to go. The reality is that paper bags end up in landfills in oxygen-starved environments that precludes biodegradation. Although plastic bags also end up in landfills under the same conditions, they take up significantly less space, and their lighter weight reduces life-cycle transportation costs, including pollution output.

While this may not be an open-and-shut case, the point is that awareness of the total life cycle of an object significantly alters the question at hand. A technically literate society must be educated on what issues to evaluate or be resigned to being the victim of snake-oil sales people in the form of politicians, telemarketers, and other guises.

To successfully educate the nonengineer, we also must observe and modify modern culture. By working to reframe the cultural perception of technology as a creative process for helping people, engineering and science become less intimidating and more appealing. It is only through a combination of education and cultural change that technology will be demystified, citizens will become better prepared and more comfortable evaluating technology, and more underrepresented minorities will be attracted to careers in engineering. This change can occur only by instilling nonengineers with the belief that they can understand, evaluate, and create technology by obtaining a basic education in engineering as part of their college experience.

Mary Kasarda is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and visiting associate professor of engineering at Sweet Briar College.

 

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