Commentary

Bringing the Liberal Arts to Engineering Education

Ellen Winkler for The Chronicle

April 27, 2015

"It’s required." Too many engineering undergraduates utter this simple phrase when asked why they are taking a particular liberal-arts course. The structured curricula that exist for most students in engineering fields create a checklist approach to liberal-arts courses that makes them seem, well, "required" — not relevant, salient, or connected to their professional aspirations. As a result, students struggle to see the value of the liberal arts, even though solving the complex problems of our time — eliminating hunger, preventing terrorism, minimizing our carbon footprint, to name a few — requires a multidisciplinary approach.

We believe that integrating the liberal arts in engineering education positions future engineers to be successful at anticipating, defining, and solving these problems. Such integrated curricula provide what Richard K. Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering, has referred to as the "missing basics" of engineering education, which include design and creativity, teamwork and interdisciplinary thinking, and understanding the social, political, historical, and economic context of a project — all the hallmarks of a liberal-arts education. Indeed, these traits are recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as critical skill sets for the next generation of engineers. However, significant challenges make this integration difficult to bring about. Leaders from liberal-arts and engineering programs discussed these barriers at recent meetings supported by the Teagle Foundation. They include:

Structural barriers. Faculty members themselves may lack the knowledge needed to make curricular connections between the liberal arts and engineering — an artifact of the historically silo-style mode of training for the professoriate. Resource constraints also matter. It takes time for faculty to come together to redesign curricula, and content delivery may require multiple faculty members from different disciplines to create and team-teach courses. And even faculty members interested in developing such curricula in the face of resource constraints would have to contend with a host of bureaucratic issues, from internal curriculum-review committees to external accreditation and state governance bodies.

Cultural barriers. Faculty members are fiercely proud of their disciplines — as they should be. They will resist integrated curricula that devalue their own discipline while elevating another. A lack of collaborative culture, marked by tenure and promotion standards that do not recognize interdisciplinary scholarship or cross-departmental service activities, presents another cultural challenge. And finally, while engagement by faculty from the engineering and the liberal arts is crucial for successful curricular integration, so is interest and support from senior campus leaders.

So the key question for engineering educators today is not, "Why the liberal arts?" The key question is, "How do we create a liberal-arts curriculum that is relevant to students in engineering majors?" The checklist approach is insufficient. What is needed is greater integration of liberal-arts content, infused regularly and genuinely throughout the engineering curricula that students follow.

Some examples of engineering courses anchored in the liberal arts already exist and provide the inspiration for program- or major-wide change. An engineering design course at the Rochester Institute of Technology provides students with the opportunity to explore "effective access technologies" — that is, technologies aimed at providing services to people with disabilities. To create such technologies, engineering students need to do more than just consider the mechanics or electronics of a prosthetic limb, or a lifting device, or a mechanism to enhance vision for the partially blind. Engineers need to think about how these technologies will be used in different social and cultural settings and refine them accordingly to enhance their use.

Or consider a civil-engineering course at Worcester Polytechnic Institute that transports students to the late 19th century and challenges them to decide how to best clean up Worcester’s heavily polluted Blackstone River using the technologies available at the time. As the course syllabus lays out, students are confronted with a range of possible approaches — "the cheapest approach, the approach that will last the longest, the approach most likely to make Worcester an exemplar of advanced engineering design, the approach that will be least disruptive to businesses, or the approach most likely to ensure the just treatment of all residents of Worcester and along the Blackstone River" — against a historical backdrop of African-American migration from the rural South to the industrial North and concerns about threats to public health from the growth in manufacturing.

Another example is the World Masterpieces sequence of courses at Lawrence Technological University, in which great works of literature that feature technological artifacts and the mastery of nature as central themes (think The Odyssey, Frankenstein, Don Quixote, or Brave New World) are explored through both a literary and technological lens. By reading these works in a technological context, engineering students explore the way ethnically, geographically, or historically diverse cultures perceive both the benefits and the dangers of technological progress. All of these courses enable students to learn not only about engineering-design principles and their technical application but also the social context in which these designs must be put into action.

That is important, because any curricular integration needs to demonstrate how the content, values, and ways of knowing within various disciplines are equally valued and complementary. These efforts need to be reframed as a matter of interdisciplinary collaboration rather than disciplinary competition, and be supported through governance structures built on principles of cooperation, transparency, and collective decision making. And finally, institutions must find the resources to enable faculty to develop integrated curricula and team-teaching arrangements and fund interdisciplinary student projects.

Engineering education today needs to help students devise innovative solutions for a complex world while also anticipating their potential unintended consequences. In other words, engineering education needs to prepare students to design expansively and imaginatively — a capacity that liberal-arts education cultivates, along with critical thinking, clear communication, and productive collaboration. Liberal-arts education provides a foundation upon which students begin to see their role in the world as ethical professionals equipped to define the contours — technical, economic, social, cultural — of the challenges at hand and devise solutions accordingly.

Certainly, liberal-arts disciplines have tremendous value in their own right; in tandem with engineering curriculum, they provide the knowledge base, skill sets, and critical reflection necessary for tackling our most pressing problems in a responsible way.

Loni M. Bordoloi is program director at the Teagle Foundation and James J. Winebrake is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology.