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What (some) engineers think about liberal education

June 21, 2010, 6:21 pm

I’m currently at the American Society for Engineering Education conference and symposium in Louisville. There is a lot to process as I attend sessions on student learning, technological literacy, liberal education, and so on, all from the perspective of engineers and engineering educators. There is an entire division (a sort of special interest group) within the ASEE for Liberal Education, and I attended one of their paper sessions this afternoon.

Engineers have a quite different perspective on liberal education than those in “liberal arts” disciplines (by which we usually mean social sciences, arts, humanities) and those of us math/science people working in liberal arts colleges, but surprisingly — at least for the engineers I hung out with in the session — the two conceptions largely agree. We all conceive of liberal education as education that integrates multiple perspectives into understanding what we study and do. We believe in the importance and relevance of disciplines other than our own and seek to learn about other disciplines, connect with practitioners and colleagues in other disciplines, and incorporate other disciplines in meaningful ways into our courses. We believe in teaching students metacognitive skills and preparing them to be human beings, not just workers.

Of course there are engineers who don’t think this way and in fact look down on other disciplines in direct proportion to their methodological distance from engineering (the less data and design involved, the greater the disdain). But consider too that there are also poets, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, sociologists, and so on who feel the same way about their own disciplines. The departmental silos exist all over campus.

Particularly enlightening was a parallel given in a talk by Cherrice Traver and Doug Klein of Union College (a liberal arts college known for its strong and historically-rooted engineering programs) between the criteria for ABET accreditation of engineering programs on the one hand, and the learning outcomes of Liberal Education and America’s Promise (or LEAP; a prospectus from the American Association of Colleges and Universities) on the other. Here are ABET’s Program Outcomes and Assessment criteria:

Engineering programs must demonstrate that their students attain the following outcomes:
(a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
(b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data
(c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic
constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety,
manufacturability, and sustainability
(d) an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams
(e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems
(f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
(g) an ability to communicate effectively
(h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global,
economic, environmental, and societal context
(i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning
(j) a knowledge of contemporary issues
(k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for
engineering practice.

The entire accreditation document is here (PDF).

Compare those with the LEAP outcomes:

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, Including

Inquiry and analysis
Critical and creative thinking
Written and oral communication
Quantitative literacy
Information literacy
Teamwork and problem solving
Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, Including

Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
Intercultural knowledge and competence
Ethical reasoning and action
Foundations and skills for lifelong learning
Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative and Applied Learning, Including

Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies
Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

As the presenters mentioned, you can make an exercise of lining these two lists of learning outcomes side by side (in fact, they gave us a handout where this was done) and draw lines connecting learning outcomes in LEAP with corresponding, or even identical, criteria from ABET’s list.

What this means, I think, is that there is a strong base of support for liberal education among engineers. One might even say that those in charge of accrediting engineering programs want engineers to be liberally educated. Some engineers, like the ones in the session I attended, will even say that themselves.

What nobody seems able to explain just yet is the implicit and sometimes explicit resistance to liberal education among many engineers and engineering programs. For example, why do most engineering programs require monumental depth in a single engineering discipline — as undergraduates — with only token amounts of university-required coursework outside of engineering? The electrical engineering degree at one university, for example, requires 68 credit hours just in freshman and electrical engineering courses. Then 33 hours in math and science, and a 3-hour mechanical engineering course. Eighteen hours total are left over for electives outside math, science, or engineering — and six of those are prescribed courses (composition and communication), leaving just 12 hours to be chosen from General Education elective blocks.

That’s just four courses the student gets to pick out of sheer curiosity and personal interest for his or her entire college education! Can that possibly be in line with what ABET — or for that matter, the engineering community and its clients — really want?

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