2009 Symposium on Engineering & Liberal Education: Educating the Stewards of a Sustainable Future
Summaries of Friday, June 5, 2009 Discussion Sessions

Morning Keynote Speakers:

The Illiberal Art of Engineering
Lewis M. Duncan, President, Rollins College, and former dean and professor of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College
“We strive today not merely for a life of the mind, but for a life that is mindful."

Engineering and the Liberal Arts: Toward Academic Cosmopolitanism
Diane P. Michelfelder, Professor of Philosophy and former Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Macalester College, and President for the Society for Philosophy and Technology
“Much more could be done by way of cultivating epistemic respect for technology and its significance in shaping our world; and more emphasis could be placed on building capacity for curiosity, shaping good questions, and creative problem-framing.”

Morning Discussions

Table 1 – Recorder: David Hemmendinger
Table 1 had a somewhat disjointed (i.e. wide-ranging) conversation after the Duncan and Michelfelder talks.  We discussed the difficulty of packing the technical and non-technical elements of engineering into a four-year degree.  Some of us were sympathetic to the NAE suggestion in _The Engineer of 2020_ that the masters degree be the first professional one, like other post-baccalaureate professional degrees; others doubted that employers would hire B.S. graduates if the degree were not a professional one.  One suggestion that came up but was not pursued was that engineering education might adopt the law-school case-study approach to teach engineering practices.  We also agreed that one way to bring engineering and the liberal arts together was through a focus on problems, with engineering contributing skill in problem-solving and the liberal arts, skill in framing problems, which includes questioning received opinion.
Two participants from Sweet Briar College described their required course on engineering and society, in which they had enough time to address non-technical issues, unlike those programs that squeeze in a few such topics into technical courses.  This led to a discussion of general-engineering degrees that would allow time for such courses; again, some doubted that employers would welcome those degrees.
Participants from a major university and from a leading liberal-arts college described the hostility that their general faculty displayed toward technology.  They rejected engineering-faculty efforts to introduce the subject into general-education programs and appeared to regard curricula that addressed practice as inferior to the pure liberal arts, despite much evidence that liberal-arts students are deeply interested in practical concerns; i.e. employment.
        Several participants had engaged in team-teaching.  The group strongly endorsed such activity, and agreed that we often don't ourselves display enough intellectual breadth, though we ask students to do so by integrating all areas of their studies.  Several people described successful team-teaching projects; one described one that started well but became increasingly agonistic.  She attributed this in part to the personality of her colleague, but also to the university system that encouraged competition and displays of prowess.
        We concluded that efforts to improve engineering education and bring it closer to the traditional liberal arts would require work on several fronts.  It is not enough simply to focus on undergraduate curricula; we would also need to focus on changing institutional reward systems, graduate-school education that prepares future faculty to be narrow, employer expectations, and the hearts and minds of colleagues.

Table 2-3 – Recorder: Ellen Foster
Table 3 first discussed the cultural divide between engineering and the liberal arts.  Several group members expressed concerns that these differences made collaboration across disciplines more difficult.  Views expressed include the following:

  • Humanists tend to look down on “practical arts” like engineering—“learning for learning’s sake” is valued more highly than “learning for utility” or “problem-solving.”  
  • Liberal arts faculty tend to be more concerned with “purity of knowledge” and intellectual independence, and raise concerns that entering into partnerships with industry or working on projects funded by industry would mean that academic institutions are “selling out.”  Engineering faculty are more likely to view partnering with industry as a way to provide valuable opportunities for learning and working on “real world” problems.  

Several members shared anecdotes to illustrate this cultural divide.
Despite these concerns about the cultural divide, group members generally agreed that a liberal education would better prepare engineers for decision-making in a complex world:  considering a broad range of perspectives is essential when developing practical solutions to problems like water management or climate change.  We also agreed that students in the liberal arts would benefit by having a better understanding of technology and the influence that technological developments have had on society.  Figuring out how best to integrate engineering and the liberal arts is challenging:

  • Some argued that introductory design classes not only would provide the best opportunity to integrate the liberal arts and engineering, but also would be a good way to motivate engineering students and help them understand why they needed lots of courses in math and science. Design courses require students to consider a variety of perspectives and strengthen problem-solving skills.  These courses force students to deal with ambiguity and decision-making under uncertainty—there is no one correct design.
  • Others raised concerns that teaching a design course to students who did not have a good grasp of the fundamentals was difficult.  For this reason, design classes are “capstone” classes in many engineering programs, not introductory classes.
  • Collaborative teaching was suggested as a way to incorporate discussion of technology into liberal arts courses.  Engineering faculty could share their expertise with colleagues in humanities and social sciences by developing course modules on specific topics.  Liberal arts faculty could be brought in to engineering classes.

Table 5 - Recorder: Jeff Corbin
There were two main threads that our group focused on.

1) The first one began with a comment by Taikang Ning that engineering students are separated from their peers in other disciplines almost from their first semester on campus. Part of this is a function of the curriculum – getting the students right into a math-physics-engineering track thereby reducing their contact with non-engineering students. Some of it is self-selection as well – the engineering students may see engineering as a path to a good job, and are interested in doing their best. And, the students may be choosing the things they are good at, rather than taking art or writing classes. Finally, it is partially cultural, with the engineering-minded students pushed into math and science even before they reach college
We discussed both the problems with this approach, which are well-documented, as well as some solutions. The two main solutions that we came up with were to engage high school counselors to encourage them to develop the skills of these students outside math and technology. It was also suggested that clubs – like U Sustain on the Union campus – can serve to break students out of those cliques.

2) From there, we went on to talk about how we can encourage engineers to take liberal arts courses, and also how to get non-engineers to take engineering courses. Both are essential if we are to really integrate the disciplines.
Much of our discussion involved changing the core requirements that most schools have – a certain number of courses in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, etc. Mohammad suggested that engineering be added as another requirement, though several of us thought that it only added to the problems that already exist in over-burdened core requirements. Furthermore, Atsushi made what I thought was a very interesting point about the need to break out of the traditional “humanities, sciences, engineering” tracks. As he put it, that’s Cold War thinking, and now the problems that we face require many skills. Yet the core still treats these as unique tracks.
Further ideas we discussed:

  • Team-taught courses, with engineering and non-engineering faculty, are an excellent way to build the integration right into a single course
  • Taikang told us about a class at Trinity College that is an Engineering 101 class with no math requirements. It is quite popular. The faculty are challenged in that the students are different from what they are used to and have to adjust teaching style and material accordingly.
  • Writing assignments (in, for example, Humanities classes) can be thought of more broadly – for example webpage design.

Table 6 - Recorder:  Becky Cortez
    Following President Duncan’s and Professor Michelfelder’s morning session presentations, a group composed of six engineering faculty members and one liberal arts faculty member discussed perceived differences between the engineering disciplines and the humanities. One mentioned observation, for example, was that engineering and science are coherent disciplines, whereas in the humanities, there is no coherency.  Furthermore, it was mentioned that more “open-endedness” exists within the liberal arts. 
    Faculty participants shared various observations about the experiences and goals of both engineering and liberal arts students.  One observation highlighted the story of a group of engineering students who were able to accomplish a technically challenging activity, however, when asked the question, “Why are you doing this?” were unable to answer, or replied, “Because we can.”  It was further mentioned that students at a liberal arts college “want to change the world.”  Interestingly, one faculty member shared survey responses from the introductory engineering class at their institution.  Within a six year time frame, it was found that the reason why many students chose engineering shifted away from being a parent recommended discipline towards a discipline that students were interested in learning more about because they wanted to change the world. 
    Discussion participants highlighted several challenges in building an interconnectedness between engineering and the liberal arts.  Some of these challenges stem from the resistance of faculty to change.  Furthermore, professional and societal perceptions need to be addressed.  For example, it was suggested that engineering is not well understood by the general public.  Indeed, some in society may not see it as being innovative enough.  Also, the need to educate students in a different manner than what has been done in the past was mentioned.  The difficulty to connect with faculty outside of engineering was also identified as a challenge to interacting with the liberal arts departments.  Finally, overcoming institutional bureaucracy which might struggle in defining how to count interdisciplinary efforts was also categorized as a challenge.
    The discussion concluded with several recommendations being made to address the challenges to bridging engineering and the liberal arts.  One suggestion highlighted the need to purposely infuse new faculty into the academic institutions to introduce topics that are mutually interesting to both engineering and liberal arts students.  It was further suggested that the teaching evaluation procedure should be changed for the teachers that take on these challenging roles.  Innovation, it was suggested, should be recognized as a scholarly work.  One final suggestion was to create common spaces for students to identify with a common theme.

Table 7 – Recorder: David Hodgson
The table consisted of engineering faculty and administrators.  The discussion was somewhat nonlinear and wide-ranging.  After introductions the group discussed the benefits of a liberal education to an engineer. It was noted that a broad background does not only lead to a "mindful life", but also can also help to frame and solve problems.

The discussion then moved to identify ways in which engineering could complement a liberal education.  It was suggested that constructing solutions and deconstructing questions require similar skills.  Exposure to the engineering design methodology could benefit students in the same way that exposure to the scientific method does.   There are skills that engineers have that would benefit all students for example teaming, problem reduction, and quantitative analysis.

The group then talked about ways to integrate engineering on a curricular level. One method to integrate engineering with the liberal arts is to have a common theme that runs through all courses.  Water was used as an example.  Each course devotes a little bit of time to the common theme with the hopes that students will have a deeper understanding of the topic and will learn that it is important to understand the same topic from different vantage points.

The group then noted that the key to integrating fields is to get faculty talking and working together.   This can take the form of an informal lecture series or a more intensive trip abroad.  The goal is to get faculty to learn from each other and experience the liberal education that their students are exposed to.

Table 8 – Recorder: Anastasia Pease
Starting with classical antiquity, applied fields like Engineering were looked down upon by the academy and the society at large as “lower-class” activities.  Intellectual pursuits were the domain of the leisure classes.  In later history of the West, entrepreneurship was also viewed with suspicion.  Remnants of these ideological biases are still present in our culture.

Academic Engineers are more amenable to the Liberal Arts than Liberal Arts professors are to Engineering, Science, and Business.
Representatives of Smith College brought up the question of what it would take to have Faculty adopt a “technology across the curriculum” or “Mathematics across the curriculum” scheme, modeled on “Ethics across the curriculum” and “writing across the curriculum”?  Would it be worth it for a Liberal Arts College to institute such a program?  How could Faculty resistance/reluctance be addressed? Who might be the first adopters of the scheme?  What institutional resources would be needed?  What incentives could be offered?

Union’s innovative course (co-taught by Megan Ferry and Ashraf Ghaly) was discussed at length.  Its collaboration between Modern Languages, Culture Studies, and Civil Engineering could be a model for combining Liberal Arts and Engineering courses.
The question of “institutional turf wars” came up next.  Many colleges and universities demand that Faculty focus their energies on research and publishing and leave the lower-level courses (“science for dummies,” etc) to adjuncts and teaching assistants/graduate students.  Is this the best system to encourage Faculty involvement and innovation in these “bread-and-butter” courses?

Large departments tend to dis-incentivize innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration, especially by junior Faculty.  Small departments, on the other hand, have a better record of inter-disciplinarity.  Hans Mueller pointed out that Classics, for instance, has an incentive to reach out and innovate to enhance the perception of the subjects’ relevance to contemporary students.  Teaching courses such as “Entrepreneurship in the Ancient World” or courses on the history of technological progress tends to enhance both enrollment figures and the department’s visibility.

The degree of curricular flexibility, relatively high in the Humanities, is very low in Engineering courses and Majors.  Engineering Faculty teach under external (certification-related) and internal curricular constrains that prevent innovation and inter-disciplinary collaboration.  What can institutions do to address the problem?  How do institutions and departments encourage Faculty to reach beyond their academic comfort zones?

One possibility is to encourage and celebrate the “unlikely couplings” of course materials into inter-disciplinary courses, such as the Civil Engineering/Culture Studies, Classics/Technology, English/Technology (as in Science Fiction as Literature), Engineering/Ethics, etc.
Currently, interdisciplinary integration is marginal. How do we encourage the spread of these ideas? Because what motivates engineers is finding real-world solutions to existing problems, we need to raise awareness that the problem exists. If engineers were aware that the current system needs renovation, they would be more likely to think of possible solutions.

Afternoon Keynote Speaker:

The Challenge of Sustainable Engineering Education 
Braden R. Allenby, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and of Law,Arizona State University; President of the International Society for Industrial Ecology

Arizona State University School of Sustainability declares that "Our mission is to bring together multiple disciplines and leaders to create and share knowledge, train a new generation of scholars and practitioners, and develop practical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainability, especially as they relate to urban areas." 

Afternoon Discussions

Table 1 - Recorder – Jackie Cockburn
The discussion at our table focused on a variety of issues – student openness to new learning, student experiences prior to college (digital native vs techie) and the model of current education systems.  As well, our table was a very broad group of individuals with the following groups represented – engineering, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.  This diversity led our group discussion to focus less on engineering education and more on the framework of higher education and the role institutions play in shaping this discourse.  One of the conclusions we came to was that the specific model of education was not necessarily the motivating mechanism – but rather specific experiences (e.g., an instructor, activity, group of friends).  Furthermore, rather than reinventing the process, perhaps a revival of early (pre-batch processing) models should be fostered and expanded upon.  At Union College, it seems we are already following this path in a number of ways (e.g., in social sciences 1/3 of teaching time is dedicated to one-on-one learning experiences, Wold Building (science and engineering) dedicated space for student/faculty interaction). 

In an effort to address some of the discussion questions, our group looked at the incentives that supported newer or innovative teaching approaches (e.g., co or team-teaching courses across different disciplines).  Again at Union College, there are mechanisms in place to cultivate these teaching approaches and faculty from many disciplines are involved with this program.  One discussant shared an anecdote from his team-teaching experiences and suggested that it reinvigorated his interest in his discipline.  In addition, he felt that having to define the discipline and particular issue for a non-expert really helped shape the course and the collaboration.  Other discussion centered on helping students to understand the richness of a multi-disciplinary education, rather than focus on the expertise of one particular topic.  This approach would hopefully facilitate an awareness of a discipline rather than spotlight on a specific occupation (e.g., how things work vs mechanical engineer). 

In conclusion, one of the most important items discussed was the investment of all the parties involved (i.e., administration, faculty, students, parents, alumni).  Although the speaker suggested that incoming students were of a new, digital generation.  It was discussed at our table, that perhaps our students have been exposed to newer technology, longer, their expertise did not necessarily reflect this exposure.  Rather, the digital generation is perhaps more distracted and the competition for their attention is more intense than it has been in the past.  This may be a bigger piece of the puzzle for higher education to deal with, more so than a given model of an education system.

Table 2 – Recorders: Jim Kenney and Ashraf Ghaly
Re adaptability of institutions: 
Marketplace signals should motivate changes in engineering education—if prospective employers value interdisciplinary academic experience institutions will respond
Faculty can be incentivized to develop and participate in interdisciplinary academic activities, and these need not require significant curricular reform—engineers and liberal arts faculty can exchange one-week modules in one another’s courses and co-direct interdisciplinary projects, as well as team-teach courses—much evidence of this at Union College
Tenure is a constraint only if an institution allows it to be—there are lots of ways to motivate faculty to focus on interesting interdisciplinary questions, both in the classroom and in their research
There could be organizational barriers, institutional resistance, or a prevailing mentality against change. ABET requirements for accreditation may also constrain the ability to change.
Major change is only possible if there is a wide recognition that there is a problem.
The thought that it is possible for technology to entirely replace human interaction, especially if the goal is deep learning, is flawed.

Re “practical problem solving”:
More emphasis needed throughout curriculum on complex, open-ended problems (and attendant ambiguities) that cannot be solved by abstract modeling—sustainability is a necessarily ambiguous concept that often must be defined within the context of a problem
Web should be exploited for what it can do best (gathering and presentation of information) and classroom activity should be focused on effective ways of sorting and processing information and understanding the value (and limitations) of modeling relationships
Development of “practical solutions” is not anathematic to a liberal arts education—understanding the impacts of technology and the design of technology in response to social, cultural, environmental, and economic forces is at the heart of a liberal education
“Practical solutions” should not be viewed as improper approach to teaching and learning because this should be the ultimate goal of the educational process.
It is important to define what “sustainability” exactly is. The use of this word without precise definition imposes a context that is different from what this word was intended to mean.

Table 3 – Recorder: Ellen Foster
Table 3’s discussion in the afternoon ranged widely.  We agreed that the engineers of tomorrow will have to deal with more complex issues, and that some restructuring of engineering programs might be desirable.  Points made include the following:

  • There is no consensus about what “sustainability” is or what a “sustainable engineering education” is.
  • Smaller engineering programs at liberal arts colleges may have more opportunities for restructuring their curricula to incorporate concerns with sustainability than large state institutions do.  A couple of group members were pessimistic about the possibilities for revising engineering programs at large state schools, and pointed out that change at large institutions is very difficult (but is it easier at smaller institutions . . . ??).
  • Self-selection means that students at liberal arts engineering institutions may be different (i.e. have broader interests, more willing to consider alternative perspectives) than students at large engineering schools.
  • Engineering programs need to include more liberal arts, especially ethics, in their curricula.  Students need to better understand the responsibilities of being a citizen of the world.

Table 5 – Recorder: Suthathip Yaisawarng
Our group began with a general discussion about sustainability, instead of focusing on specific questions.  We tried to answer what sustainability really means.  Should there be one definition that everyone agrees upon?  Should the definition be very precise?  We believe that it will be extremely difficult to come up with a unique and precise definition for sustainability.  A definition of sustainability should take into consideration openness and diversity in terms of other individual values, complexity, global thinking and decisions.  Perhaps, we can come up with a broad and vague definition of sustainability and allow each institution to customize its mission within this broad definition of sustainability.  This would enable each institution to offer unique and more focused programs such as environmental sustainability, nanotechnology, and robotics.

We also discussed whether the tenure system prevents institutions from adjusting to the confluence of emerging technologies, sustainability concerns and accelerating change.  The majority of us do not want to give up our tenure status.  Rather, we agreed that the tenure system enables us to have academic freedom and become risk takers in doing creative and innovative teaching and scholarly work.  We believe that institutions should create working environments that help break down “silos” and nurture creativity.  This would enable institutions to adapt to the changing world and offer sustainability in curricula.

Table 6 - Helen Hanson
We touched upon several of the discussion questions, but two generated the most substantive and interesting discussion. The first was question 3.1, specifically the part that questions whether tenure impairs the ability of an institution to adjust to changing times. One example is the current economic crisis, to which schools might adjust more rapidly without tenure. Smith College is cutting 30 faculty positions, but because of tenure it will be by attrition, and thus the adjustment is slowed. However, it was pointed out that if an institution loses tenure, it loses other things. The purpose of tenure is to allow the faculty to take risks, not only in terms of academic freedom, but also in terms of speaking out on controversial issues. From this perspective, the expected “personality” of a faculty member is to be rebellious and independent, and to have the freedom to control their time. Nevertheless, it was questioned whether taking risks helps or hinders getting tenure. If the latter, tenure may result in academia attracting faculty members who are risk adverse rather than risk takers. 

The second question was 3.5, about providing incentives to faculty to behave in “interdisciplinary” ways and reducing “silo mentality” among faculty. One difficulty with getting faculty to develop and teach interdisciplinary courses is the necessity of spending valuable time on these courses, often on top of preparing and teaching regular courses.  One possible incentive is to pay faculty to develop and teach a module for another faculty member’s class, with the understanding that the next time the course is taught, the faculty member responsible for the course can do it themselves. That way, the time required can be perceived as finite (an end in sight!) and the faculty feel valued due to the compensation. A more subtle effect of the remuneration is that the faculty are more likely to feel obligated to develop the module and to do it well. Another incentive, to encourage team teaching of courses, is to give all faculty members involved full credit for teaching it the first few years, and then give them half credit after that.
An example of silo mentality in action is an Environmental Science and Policy program, which awards two degrees. Both degrees require the same introductory course on environmental science and policy. Who teaches this course, faculty from the science and engineering side or faculty from the policy side? The engineering and science faculty think that they can teach things outside engineering and science, such as policy, but they are averse to letting non-engineering and non-science faculty teach the course. Team teaching could be a solution. Faculty must now cooperate and compromise on teaching practices such as grading, assignments, labs, etc. The process of coordinating these tasks with faculty members from other disciplines forces them to address the way they do these things, and perhaps leads to insights and improved practices. Another way to reduce silo mentality is to require faculty to sit in on a course outside their division. As they sit in on the classes, they make connections between the respective disciplines, and begin to “know what they don’t know.”

Table 7 – Recorder: Mark Wunderlich
Changing technology demands flexibility, both in students and in members of the faculty.  New technology will redefine the questions students will address after graduation.  This is why students need a liberal education:  they need to learn how to learn.  While students may be adaptable, faculty might be some of the least changeable people on earth.  There is little incentive to take risks in academia, and faculty labor under the tyranny of taxonomy.
While members of the faculty are comfortable in a traditional classroom setting, we must be able to adapt.  First, we should recognize that many important contributions to education take place outside of the classroom.  Some academic programs integrate these contributions; some give students an opportunity to make a difference in their community during their time in college.  Second, while time in the classroom is valuable, we must recognize that students have different expectations and needs.  The factory model in which students take each class to get a standardized set of skills does not take seriously the diversity of the student population.
Compared to research universities, lIberal arts colleges have the advantage of greater interaction between students and faculty. Faculty can build on this advantage by tailoring their classes to meet the needs of the students.  Faculty can take advantage of online resources to cover some material (introductory lectures, for example), and devote more class time to discussing controversies.  A flexible calendar could be helpful:  some skills might best be taught by immersion.  There are also technologies that can make classes more interactive and accessible (class wikis, clickers, and Livescribe, for example).

Table 8 – Recorder: Anastasia Pease
Do we train our students to feel responsible for every outcome of their work? If so, this would be the case of “neuroticism.”  If we do not teach our students to take any responsibility at all, that would be the case of “sociopathic” behavior.  So what is a responsible engineer? In a complex, dynamic, global system, how do we define (and teach) ethical behavior and due diligence, especially if any assessment of this training would have to encompass alumni activities decades after graduation?

How can narrow specialists involved in narrow sub-system research and development be held responsible for the macro-scale results of their endeavors?  At what level does one’s “agency” become necessary or come into play? How do these concerns affect law, policy, and government?  How do they affect society at large?  Does it matter that most of the politicians in our country are trained in law, while in China, for instance, many more are engineers by training?

As global market forces regulate the distribution of labor tasks, is most of our design and engineering increasingly outsourced? Does that distribution go back to the ancient divide between the leisure classes and those who “get their hands dirty”?

Should tenure be abolished?  Most of the participants agreed that the tenure system, while not perfect, is necessary to guarantee academic freedom and to protect Faculty from Administration.  Depending on one’s personality and the institution where one works, the tenure system can lead to innovation.  Job security for life is an excellent motivator for junior faculty on tenure-track; pre-tenure does encourage hard work, research, and publishing, thus leading to aspirations of cutting-edge science, patents, books, etc.  Pre-tenure encourages faculty to stay involved in their fields and to keep up with current developments.  So the majority opinion was “no, tenure should not be abolished.” The minority opinion, however, was that tenure motivates by fear; publications, especially in the Humanities, too often lead to nothing more than the increase of the “noise to signal ratio” at the expense of good teaching and service. The life of the mind, which we as educators should model for our students, is unfairly measured exclusively by publications.  This trend leads to over-specialization (knowing more and more about less and less), which is the opposite of academic cosmopolitanism.  Tenure also discourages innovation because tenure-track Faculty have no incentives to experiment.  They follow established, “safer,” routes in curricular design and (for publications) follow established trends.  Tenure also discourages pre-tenure dissenting opinions, while encouraging post-tenure complacency. So the minority opinion was that the tenure system stands in the way of our goal of integrating Engineering and the Liberal Arts.

How do we define sustainability?  How do we teach it?
Sustainable is "any process that can exist in a steady state." However, humans do not function in a closed system, and a static relationship between our species and the environment has never existed.
Modeling, consideration of long time scales and broad range of phenomena, should be emphasized to “embrace sustainability.”
Engineers always deal with open-ended systems.  The question becomes more difficult with systems where cultural and social domains predominate.

Teach through intelligent use of real-world-based case studies that encompass social and economic considerations alongside design.
Focus on minimizing harm, not just on maximizing profits.