Engineering for Everyone

By Halford, Bethany | ASEE Prism, December 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Engineering for Everyone

Halford, Bethany, ASEE Prism

ASK ANY COLLEGE GRADUATE to name three famous scientists and the chances are good that they'll rattle off Einstein, Curie, and Newton without much thought. But ask those same students to name three famous engineers and more likely than not you'll be answered with blank stares and head scratching.

Engineering's accomplishments are no less wondrous than relativity, radiation, or calculus, and most students would find that engineering advances have a far greater impact on their daily lives than the finer points of quantum mechanics. So then, it seems like a peculiar development in higher education that all students are required to take some rudimentary science courses in order to graduate, but they can leave the groves of academia completely ignorant of engineering.

In our technological age, this knowledge gap is a genuine liability. People today need to know how to grasp technical information and to logically analyze data. The goal is to give nonengineers the knowledge of how the nation got built, how engineering and public policy interact in our society, and some expertise in judging engineering works.

"There is a need for this nation to attract and retain bright students to the engineering profession and to teach those who have pursued other fields of study the central role of engineering in all facets of life," says David Billington, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University. For more than three decades, Billington has been a trailblazer in engineering education, carving ont a path between engineering and the humanities. His goal: "To make engineering accessible to all students, to give students an understanding of engineering, and to inspire professionals and the general public to continual learning."

Billington's courses, Structures and the Urban Environment and Engineering in the Modern World, have proven to be popular among all of Princeton's undergraduates. In fact, between 25 and 30 percent of all Princeton nndergrads take one of the courses. By weaving together technical, historical, political, and artistic threads, Billington shows engineering's influences and transformative power from the Industrial Revolution to the present.

The theme of the Structures course is that, at their best, structures are works of art-a new art form parallel to but independent of architecture. This was illustrated by the The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy exhibition at Princeton's art museum iu 2003, which is currently on exhibit at MIT. The theme of the other course is that engineering has transformed American society from rural agrarian to urban industrial. Billington's colleague, Michael Littman, has developed laboratories for these courses and co-teaches the second one with him.

Spreading the World

BILLINGTON'S GOAL over the past decade has been to disseminate the materials developed for these courses to other schools around the country. Classes have sprung up at places like Smith College, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Penn State, and Grinnell College. Billington has essentially grown his own crop of engineering educators who've scattered to other schools where they bring his vision to the curriculum.

Now, Billington hopes that by making the courses he's developed at Princeton available to universities all over the world, he'll be able to expand his educational vision. "I know that the material is of a permanent quality," he says. "It can be clone by any reasonably interested engineering or physics professor."

Last August, Billington and several colleagues held a workshop at Princeton for faculty from 20 other schools, a result of which more institutions are beginning to teach with materials he and his colleagues developed at Princeton. He has already set up visual information to use in lectures as well as lab experiments. "These lectures are all visual. We bombard these people with images and get them into the aesthetic sense of engineering and its overall importance in transforming society," Billington explains. …

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