What (some) engineers think about liberal education


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?

6 Comments

Filed under Education, Engineering, Engineering education, Higher ed, Liberal arts, Life in academia

6 responses to “What (some) engineers think about liberal education

  1. Will Farris

    An undergrad engineering education is really not an education – it is an endurance course that industry uses to filter out the bright and hard working people. A real education contains lots of communications learning, informal logic, and exposure to macroeconomics, history, philosophy, fine arts, and of course math and science. The applied stuff like Matlab, and almost everything else engineering should be at a graduate professional level like Law, MBA, even accounting now. They don’t call Georgia Tech the North Avenue Trade School for nothing, even if a bit tongue in cheek. I was not educated until I went to seminary and had to put complex ideas into words and then logically and literarily defend a position. You only get a limited taste of that in doing lab reports, usually a collaborative effort of regurgitating things in a strict format.

    So I applaud this post and the activities behind it – way to go, Robert!

    • Will isn’t kidding about Georgia Tech’s alternate moniker. Our BS in Mechanical Engineering is particularly notorious for its requirements. There are 15 hours of electives on there, outside of science and engineering. The ME students are miserable, because there is no way they can graduate in four years and pick up a minor in anything. We have a lot of MEs who desperately want to minor or get a second major in a modern language, something that will serve them well. However, they just can’t do it with the curriculum. Heck, many of them can’t get out in five years and accumulate anything outside of the ME curriculum.

      I know that CS != engineering, but what our College of Computing has done is really fascinating. Students choose two of eight “threads” to complete their degree. All 28 choose 2 add up to an ABET-accredited CS degree that lets students choose what they’re interested in, and many encourage them to think beyond the hard-core CS. They also have several free electives. (Choosing Information Internetworks and Theory as a random thread combination, I see six free electives, and that’s not even counting the humanities and social sciences electives on there.)

      It’s kind of scary how two technical units on the same campus can be so completely at odds in their approaches. I really like the LEAP ELOs (next time I teach freshmen, I’d like to point out how my course goals get at parts of the ELOs when talking with my students), and it’s great to see people at ASEE lining them up with the ABET standards.

      • I’ve blogged about GT’s CS innovations at some point in the past. (I’d give the link but I’m doing this on my iPod right now. You cam search for it.) I agree, Mitch – what they’re doing is really cool and beneficial for students.

  2. You may well be right about that strong support for liberal education amongst engineers, Robert, and I really hope you are. If so, someone needs to get the word out, however. The vast majority of engineers I have encountered in debates about mathematics education in particular, but other educational issues in general, are staunch political/social/educational conservatives (regardless of what they may claim about their party politics; the conservative mind-set oozes from every post they make). They are some of the most vehement opponents of progressive mathematics education I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, and they are also incredibly entrenched about their beliefs. As a group, they are some of the most smug, snide, dismissive ‘professionals’ out there. Perhaps I just meet some self-selected sub-group that is highly motivated to oppose the sorts of teaching and educational philosophies I value. But the ones I’ve dealt with over the past two decades seem like clones of one another, so much so that it’s hard to believe that it’s sheer coincidence that they share a profession.

    • Engineers do tend to have a professional esprit de corps similar to that of test pilots and surgeons. They are very good at what they do, and what they do is quite technically difficult and requires the survival of some distinctly exhaustive training. That’s not to dismiss arrogance among some or say that it’s right.

      I will point out that I’m at a conference of engineering *education* and so the kind of engineer that shows up here is more concerned with improvements and innovations in education than the typical engineer. So there’s a bit of self-selection going on. However, I do also think it’s significant what ABET’s done in their accreditation criteria. They’ve basically (maybe without even realizing it) thrown down a gauntlet and said, if you want our certification, you need to liberally educate your engineers. A lot of engineers, even the ones here at the conference, are mystified as to how to take this and what to do with it. But others see it as an opportunity to improve their engineering curricula in new ways.

  3. Having been through the ABET accreditation process in my former (computer engineering) department, I can say that it is a lot of work (we estimated about 1.5 faculty years of effort to produce the self-study for the department), but that it does provide an opportunity for really in-depth overhaul of a curriculum.

    I’ve also served on general-education committees. One difficulty is connecting the general education to the goals of the students, so it doesn’t just become a one-from-column-A-two-from-column-B checklist. A lot of students are so focused on getting their degree that the regard ALL requirements (major or general) as barriers to avoid, rather then as opportunities to learn. The latest general-education redesign at UCSC is the best I’ve seen: http://advising.ucsc.edu/student/GenEdReqs.pdf The requirements make pedagogic sense (well, there is one that I think is political, rather than pedagogic) and really encourage a more cohesive view of education.

    Engineering faculty do struggle with the limits of a 4-year degree. We are usually limited to something like 36 courses, a quarter of which are not dictated by campus rather than departmental goals. The remaining courses have to satisfy not just ABET requirements (which only recently moved away fro very strict bean counting, and which still have rather old notions of what is important in some fields) but local industry desires for engineers who need no further training in the currently fashionable tools. The tension between what the market wants (trade-school training in particular tools) and what the students need (fundamental problem-solving and learning skills that will last a lifetime) is always a difficult balance.