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
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.