Magazine article ASEE Prism

Pening a New Book

Magazine article ASEE Prism

Pening a New Book

Article excerpt

MICHAEL NAGY is an electrical engineer who has built a successful, 14-year career in the aerospace and telecommunications industry. And along the way, he admits, he's worked with a lot of had engineers. Many were technical wizards, but they lacked other crucial skills needed to do their jobs. He's worked with rotten communicators, ineffective team-workers, engineers with no grasp of ethics, and those who couldn't see how technology was affected by social and economic concerns. Under-developed engineers, Nagy says, typically blame failed projects on "stupid" accountants, marketers, customers, or regulators. They don't comprehend that solutions that rely on technology alone are often unsustainable. There are, of course, talented engineers who have the skills to take all those considerations into account, and who also communicate well and are team players. The problem is, Nagy says, "If they're good at those things it's not because they learned them in [engineering] school."

Industry has bemoaned for years that too few engineering hires come equipped with those necessary extra-technical talents. That's a complaint that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is seeking to address with its new Engineering Criteria (EC) 2000 standards. To remain accredited, engineering schools must now ensure their students can demonstrate a host of nontechnical skills, ranging from good communication to understanding the economic and societal constraints on engineering. And there's general agreement among many educators that the only way to meet those criteria is to more fully integrate the liberal arts-humanities and social sciences (HSS)-into the engineering curricula, with an objective of blurring the boundaries between them. A liberal education should no longer be seen merely as a means of "broadening" engineering students while they concentrate on technical courses, says a recent report on the issue.

But in an academic milieu that has historically treated the liberal arts with, at best, grudging acceptance and sometimes outright disdain, giving greater prominence to the "soft skills" taught in HSS departments won't happen easily. Many engineering professors eschew an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, are suspicious of the benefits of a liberal education, and see HSS classes as time-wasting intrusions when it's hard enough to fit all the technical content courses they deem necessary into the curriculum. "A lot of engineering professors want to give their students only technical classes," explains John Prados, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. "If it were not for ABET's insistence [that engineering students take a minimum number of liberal arts courses], liberal education would have disappeared a long time ago" from engineering curricula. And that jaundiced attitude, he adds, tends to reinforce the views of those many students who consider HSS "as a close of bad medicine." Another hurdle: Not all liberal arts professors-some of whom have an antitechnology bias-are all that eager to work with their engineering counterparts.

Before EC 2000, ABET required that engineering students take the equivalent of one full term of liberal arts courses, usually 15 to 18 hours. That led to the "Chinese menu" approach currently used by most schools. Students typically take a hodgepodge of HSS electives. Bruce Seely, chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Michigan Tech, says that's the result of a decades-long uneasy dance between engineering and liberal arts that was usually orchestrated by outside influences and events. Early in the 20th century, engineering educators believed that their progeny should be well-rounded gentlemen, which required them to take classes in philosophy and foreign languages, Seely says. The Depression put more importance on economics. Political science, civics, and history gained in importance as the United States fought Nazism, then communism in midcentury. …

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