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Liberate that Engineering Degree!

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India Currents |  Shivakumar Raman | October 7, 2015 |  Opinion |

So, do we really educate students to think, or do we train them to do just one thing really well? Should we foster teaching or learning?

My oldest son, a senior in college, is a mechanical engineering major, and he has chosen to take additional classes in religion, politics and linguistics. He explained to me the connection thus, “engineers still have to fit in society, know how to interact with people from all over the world, and learn from everyone’s history.”  I have heard the same sentiment expressed by some of his friends pursuing engineering fields. And yet most engineering programs in public schools are not responsive to additional classes in humanities and the social sciences. The core engineering curriucula is set to accept only 10% of courses from other disciplines. Why can’t we provide all students, regardless of  the major selected, a comprehensive human education?  Advisory boards of engineering colleges strongly recommend the incorporation of “soft skills” into STEM degrees to improve students’ ability to communicate with others. In plain English, teachers and college administrators want students to be taught to read, write and speak in addition to learning formulation and solutions to engineering problems.

In my own experience, breadth and context are as important as depth and concept.  Now, if one wants to be a pure mathematician, scientist, or engineering researcher, he/she should delve deeper into necessary research. But for a practitioner’s job, in any industry, entrepreneurship, or consultancy, liberal arts courses can facilitate critical thinking, comprehension of societal context, and effective writing. Liberal arts courses teach students to better understand complexity, diversity, and change. And yet its pursuit has diminished over the years at colleges and universities. Employers of high-tech firms are demanding more specialization in areas within engineering and computer science.  Consequently, many parents are steering their children toward surer “return-promising” degrees.  As an engineering professor, I myself have lectured at middle and high schools about the benefits of pursuing a STEM degree in college.  There is certainly a need for more engineers as we continue to build nations and create wealth and value.  How then can we achieve a balance between practice specificities and knowledge generalities?

Even within engineering, accreditation in individual disciplines requires a balance of foundation courses, subject core, and engineering electives. The total hours cannot exceed 120 hours by many, and the requirements cannot push the curriculum over four years. A longer curriculum could present a problem for parents and students in the light of rising college costs, and availability of financial loans. Liberal arts education in the 1950s through 70s by schools such as Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton often promoted humanities, social sciences, and fundamental sciences including mathematics. The degrees leading to societal evolution and growth depended on such “general education.” The students were allowed to seek breadth rather than specialize within the three fields, as necessary. Some Ivy League and prestigious private schools encourage this approach even to this day. Consequently, students from these schools are often sought after for their liberal thought regardless of major and specialization. Per aacu.org, “a liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Martha Nussbaum said it best: “when we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” The current structuring of engineering curricula and degree plans in many universities often makes students follow a specific but constrained path that purportedly enables them to find better employment.  All the same, this can often discourage serendipity and stymie logic, thus impeding creative thought. So, do we really educate students to think, or do we train them to do just one thing really well? Should we foster teaching or learning? There is one option worth considering that could partially address this age-old dilemma at public institutions: creating an accelerated BS/MS program, accented by general education. This way participating students could get an MS with an added year for basic liberal education, and in a sense retain some good from both worlds. The world around us is evolving. We have an obligation to facilitate the agents of that evolution!
Shivakumar Raman is a professor of engineering at the University of Oklahoma.  He is an avid reader and his interests span engineering education and college admissions to analyzing sports and multiple genres of music. – Courtesy      /        Shivakumar Raman – University of Oklahoma


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