Discussion Topics

Saturday morning parallel sessions, June 6, 2009  

BA in Engineering

Interdisciplinary and Team Initiatives

Intellectual paradigms at the intersection of engineering and the liberal arts

The Two Cultures Problem  

Faculty Development

Sustainability in a Global Context/ Curricula and courses for sustainability  


BA in Engineering

Facilitator: Ian Baker, Dartmouth College

What is the value and place of a BA degree in engineering? What is the value of a BA in engineering with respect to sustainability? Would a BA in Engineering allow for more flexibility in acquiring, for example, expertise in environmental studies and sustainability from disciplines outside engineering? Would this be good for students? for the discipline of engineering itself? Can institutions with BA degrees benefit from collaboration around assessment or other areas?

This session’s primary focus was on discussing the question of the value of a B.A in Engineering and how a B.A in Engineering could accommodate the study of the environment and sustainability.

First of all, it was noted that there are two types of B.A.  The first type is epitomized by Dartmouth’s A.B. in Engineering Sciences Dartmouth College, which serves as a prelude to an accredited engineering degree (called the B.E at Dartmouth).  This A.B./B.E. sequence is a five-year program.  This approach is unusual if not unique.  More usual is the B.A as an alternative to a B.S.  At some institutions students who are not doing well or have lost interest in an accredited B.S are switched to a B.A. in engineering.  In other words, it is not a well-regarded degree.  However, at a growing number of institutions a B.A is being started as an alternative to a B.S. for students who want to study engineering but do not want the rigidity of a B.S. degree or do not intend to become engineers. 

The discussion focused on the latter type of degree.  The potential value of a B.A in engineering is many fold.  First, it serves as the basis for a higher degree, not necessarily in engineering.  Second, it provides the basis for a job that requires a numerate, problem solving person, who does not want to be an engineer.  Thus, various jobs in the environment, policy or some government positions may be appropriate.  And, third, the B.A. in engineering produces a numerate liberally-educated person to be part of society and the workplace.

The B.A in Engineering has great flexibility since it is not constrained by ABET and has a significantly lower course count than a B.S.  Thus, a student taking a B.A can not only become technically educated, but also can take courses to examine “big picture” issues.  This B.A. degree allows flexibility to pursue courses in sustainability, environmental studies, and policy issues.  It was pointed out that a new B.A in Engineering at California State Polytechnic expects students to have some other focus than engineering and that the engineering B.A is not meant to be a “watered down” B.S but aims to equip someone for a job.

Finally, a minor in Engineering was discussed.  As an example, the minor in Engineering at Dartmouth requires three prerequisites and four courses in the major as opposed to eight prerequisites and ten courses for the A.B.  Minors in Engineering are available at a number of other institutions. 


Interdisciplinary and team initiatives

Facilitator: Catherine Peters, Princeton

What team-based activities (curricular or co-curricular) work to bring engineers and liberal arts students together?  These can range from experiences in introductory courses to capstone courses.  They can include joint laboratory experience in mid-level (sophomore and junior-level) courses in which students with different backgrounds come together to investigate interdisciplinary topics (environment, biomedical, infrastructure, etc.)  Other examples include entrepreneurial activities, service learning, and international programs.

One way to accomplish liberal education of engineering students and technical education of liberal arts students is to bring them together to work on complex problems that require interdisciplinary approaches. In this break-out session, we discussed multi-disciplinary team projects taught collectively to students from different disciplines. We talked about the value of, strategies for, and challenges involved in such interdisciplinary initiatives.

There was universal agreement that the primary value of bringing students together in multidisciplinary teams is acknowledgment that multiple perspectives are needed to develop optimal solutions for today’s complex problems. By working together, students from different disciplines are exposed to multiple and diverse viewpoints, and learn to use a rich set of inputs to shape optimal solutions. Also, students learn more about what others can “bring to the table”, and foster respect for people from different fields. Finally, students learn how to communicate with a diverse audience because they have to explain their reasoning to people outside their field of study.

The primary strategy for team-based work that was discussed at the session was to have students work on real, not abstract, problems. The phrase “experiential learning” was used to describe this. The session participants felt that hypothetical problem-solving is of limited value because deadlines are not real, societal impact is only hypothetical, and ethical issues are artificial constructs.

Two types of real-world, team-based projects that were discussed favorably by the session participants are film productions and community service projects. Film productions, for example, require both creative input and technical problem solving. Community service projects, such as energy efficiency in low-income houses, require technical solutions and in a complex policy and economic arena.

The issue of whether such educational experiences should happen early in college or later was discussed. The advantage of having students involved earlier is that the experience will add meaning to their studies and shape their endeavors in later years. Also, early on, students are less differentiated and biased in their viewpoints. The advantage of having students involved later is that they have more to offer in terms of expertise.

Numerous challenges were discussed, and the session participants shared suggestions for addressing these challenges. For example, avoid a hierarchy that places one discipline above another. Each student should see himself or herself as equally valuable, and equally responsible for the project outcome. Also, in evaluation of student work, make expectations clear, such as by using rubrics for what constitutes excellent work. Finally, make students individually accountable for their work within the team project. A number of specific suggestions were discussed such as the use of journals, portfolios, and design notebooks.


Intellectual paradigms at the intersection of engineering and the liberal arts

Facilitators: Diane Michelfelder, Macalester College; Sharon Jones, Lafayette College

What are the fundamental concepts or philosophical questions that are of relevance both to engineering and to a wide range of other disciplines throughout the liberal arts. If we can identify such a set of fundamental concepts or philosophical questions, then we might ask if the perspectives of engineers who address such questions might be interesting and useful to scholars and students from other disciplines who address such concepts/ questions -- and vice versa. To what extent are these areas explored in the research areas of groups such as the Liberal Arts Division of the ASEE and the Society for the History of Technology? Would it be helpful to form a new group to explore this intersection?

The objective of this session was to determine the fundamental concepts that are relevant both to engineering and to a wide range of other disciplines throughout the liberal arts. Such a set of fundamental concepts may allow us to better explore if the perspectives of engineers who address such concepts are interesting to scholars and students from other disciplines and vice versa, and how best to facilitate such exchanges.

Framework for Discussion:  We chose not to immediately plunge into a discussion of our primary question, thinking that an indirect approach might prove to be a more promising inroad into identifying concepts common to both engineering and the liberal arts. We began, then, by sharing our pre-conceptions and perceptions—both positive and negative—about engineering and the liberal arts. How do engineers perceive the liberal arts?  How do those in the liberal arts perceive engineering?  During the course of our open and spirited exchange, a number of other questions arose. Could inductive reasoning point us in the direction of identifying commonalities? Does the concept of a “system” or a “problem” or “efficiency” or “failure”, mean the same thing to an engineer as to someone in the liberal arts?  Could commonalities in the definitions and use of these concepts serve to help integrate the liberal arts and engineering? Our discussion of these questions led us to begin to develop a “concept map” as a platform for thinking about the integration of engineering and the liberal arts.

Pre-conceptions and perceptions:
On those in the liberal arts (from engineers): The liberal arts (humanities and the social sciences) involves reading, talking about problems and issues, exploring questions, broadening one’s horizons, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Those involved in these “soft” disciplines are scholars, experts on the literature of their field, NY Times crossword puzzle solvers. Questions in the liberal arts often miss the point and skirt around the periphery of what is important. The liberal arts are closed to outsiders; those in the liberal arts tend to come from families with higher incomes than those in engineering. The liberal arts represent the ideal of an educated person. They can also be seen as a “morass of postmodern sludge.” Liberal arts scholars work with materials that are less predictable and take theory to be a construct.

On engineers (from those in the liberal arts): Engineers make stuff (within a social context) and are interested in the direct practical applications of theory. They cut to the chase and like getting out of the meeting early. Engineers are very methodical, risk-averse, have a keen perception of physical and material phenomena, and are not good in dealing with ambiguity. They view words as clutter and strive to be economical in their use of “resources”. Mechanical errors and a lack of style define their writing, and they have a limited awareness of the impact that their words have on others. They seek to understand everything through the lens of a limited number of principles, work with materials where behavior is more predictable, and take theory to be something that is provable.

Preliminary Concept Map: As part of (or because of) the discussion of preconceptions, the group explored the possibility that the components of the various disciplines can be described as a) tools/techniques, b) conceptual frameworks, c) knowledge, and d) values. Perhaps the actualization of each of these disciplinary components is what differs from discipline to discipline. Exposure to multiple ways of thinking about each of these components may contribute to a more complete person who is not just better prepared to tackle complex problems, but receives comfort through enhanced knowing.

Concept Map

Next steps:  We felt we were just getting started by the time our session was over. Completing and refining our concept map would be a natural next step. Other next steps might be a “white paper,” an ASEE LED session, and perhaps a session at the 2010 Workshop on Philosophy and Engineering.


The Two Cultures Problem

Facilitators: Hans-Friedrich Mueller and Andrew Rapoff, Union College

What is the myth and the reality of an engineering vs. a liberal arts "culture"? How does it pertain to "teaching style" or "research methods"?   If there are two cultures, should this be viewed as a problem or an opportunity? And, if faculty have trouble talking, how do we develop curriculum for students? What is the place of interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary work at the undergraduate level? Is it required that one first be disciplinary before being multidisciplinary? Is interdisciplinarity a "discipline" in and of itself - that is, is there a science to acquiring and synthesizing knowledge from a variety of fields? To what extent are we biased by our choice of profession (academia) in responding to these questions? To what extent does sustainability require a multidisciplinary perspective?

Two Cultures or One?
Our workshop began with a question deriving ultimately from C.P. Snow's famous essay: is there really just one culture, but some colleagues do not participate fully in it? Put another way, do those on the technical, mathematical, and scientific side suffer from unrequited love for the humanities? Does one side appreciate, and know about, both sides, whereas the other side fails to make an effort to reciprocate? Our group felt that this may indeed be generally true. What then can be done to bring humanists, both students and faculty, into larger debates where technical and scientific awareness is essential?

Challenges and Obstacles
Before turning to possible solutions, we examined some challenges and obstacles. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers water down courses for non-majors, and non-majors do not collaborate with majors in these courses. Students are not made aware of connections across the disciplines. There is no reward structure in place to encourage faculty to branch out of their sub-disciplines to assist students in making wider connections. Faculty are often resentful towards faculty in other disciplines because of perceived inequities in resource allocation.

Some Possible Approaches
If we assert the proposition that "engineering is a liberal art," and we have done so, then the question arises: what should the dance major know about technology, and how will she learn it?

  • Boot camps. We might offer one-week intensive seminars or "immersion experiences" in disciplines that all students should have some acquaintance with.
  • Newspaper practicum. We could require all students to meet regularly in small groups that would combine students from various majors with faculty from divergent disciplines to read and discuss current events from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Schools would have to make this mandatory, but, because a practicum is not a course, students would not receive a letter grade, nor would curricular committees need to worry about rigor or content. To what purpose? As mandatory chapel once helped forge a community for a previously more homogenous student and faculty body, perhaps we need to think about ways for the diverse secular college or university of today to create a communal realm where thought, contemporary issues, and discussion can come together in a way informed by, but apart from, disciplinary content.
  • Certification of courses for technology and math across the curriculum. Colleagues outside science, math, and engineering can help students become aware of connections in their courses in a way analogous to the work that all departments now make to writing in courses certified as providing an experience in "Writing Across the Curriculum" (WAC). Colleges should consider mandating that students take courses from a variety of disciplines that offer "Technology Across the Curriculum (TAC) and “Mathematics Across the Curriculum” (MAC). We must encourage faculty and students to become aware of the cross-disciplinary connections that already exist. Course labeling can help.
  • Revise merit for teaching. Teaching undergraduates and conducting research should be treated as separate categories. Higher merit should be awarded to faculty who work to help students make the interdisciplinary connections that so many strategic plans state are essential for educating students for the 21st century.


Faculty Development

Facilitator: Andrew Guswa, Smith College

Many of us value the integration of engineering and the liberal arts.  The skills of being able to communicate across disciplines are critical for tomorrow’s engineers and individuals committed to sustainability.  Therefore, as educators, we must find ways of modeling such communication and interactions and of creating such opportunities for our students.  Given the traditional expectations and rewards for faculty, however, it can be difficult to get them to engage in inter- or multidisciplinary efforts.  How can faculty and administrators help foster a culture that promotes and rewards the integration of engineering and the liberal arts?  What specific obstacles exist that currently deter faculty from engaging in such efforts?  What incentives could be put into place to overcome these obstacles?  To what extent should such integration fall to the initiative of individual faculty versus a more programmatic approach?

In our breakout session, we discussed how faculty might serve as role models by exemplifying the integration of engineering and the liberal arts in both their teaching and scholarship.  Presuming that such integration is valued by a program or institution, we identified various means by which faculty could be encouraged and supported in their pursuit of these efforts.  The approaches we discussed generally fell into four categories: acknowledgement by an institutional leader, financial compensation, compensation in time, and presentation of pathways to success.  Acknowledgement was recognized as essential to the process; through cultural shifts its impact over the long term can be very high, though it may be less effective in the short term.  Examples include explicit inclusion in mission and vision statements, public celebrations of integrative activities, inclusion in efforts of centers for teaching and learning, and appointment of an administrator to champion such efforts.  Financial compensation is important both for the clear statement of value it conveys along with the reciprocal obligation it creates in the grantee.  While a tangible reward was viewed as significant, amounts could be modest.  Integrative projects can also be supported by recognition of the time required for such efforts, and compensation could be in the form of a modified teaching load, reduction of service expectations, and other strategies.  Lastly, engagement in interdisciplinary scholarship or teaching can be a risky endeavor, and faculty will benefit from examples and models of pathways to success.  An important component of all successful pathways was creating situations in which faculty dedicate time to talk with each other.

Due to the (real or perceived) riskiness of interdisciplinary scholarship, a significant challenge to faculty engagement is the traditional process of tenure and promotion.  This topic was too large for our group to take on, and we focused on motivating and supporting tenured faculty.


Sustainability in a Global Context/ Curricula and courses for sustainability

Facilitators: Atsushi Akera, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute;  Braden Allenby, Arizona State University

Definitions of sustainability include words like “connectivity”, “interconnectedness”, and “interrelations”. How should courses and curricula be designed to develop both the disciplinary skills (science, policy, engineering, and others) and an understanding of the relationships required to work on the challenges of sustainable development?

Sustainability refers to the ability of a system to perpetuate itself. Evidence suggests that many aspects of modern life, including some tied to technology, are not sustainable due to the way materials are used, fueled, and disposed of.  Many of the effects of modern life, while being developed locally, have global consequences.  How can future leaders (i.e. today's students) learn to coordinate technology and global politics to ensure a just and sustainable future?

Our session worked to develop a prioritized and evaluated list (in terms of impact, resource requirements, and barriers to implementation) of concrete actions that would address the question:

“What can we do at the nexus of engineering and liberal education to foster a greater focus on sustainability in a global context?”

Our top 10 ideas, groups in terms of what all institutions “must do” and “should do,” consisted of the list below: (The full list, along with our evaluations of each item, can be found in the attached excel spreadsheet.)

Must Do

1.    ABET requirement or strong encouragement for semester abroad.

2.    Using graduate students from other cultures; particularly India and China in undergraduate classes. Not in the way we usually do, but in modules that draw on their unique talents, cultural background, and experiences.

3.    Develop a course in global issues.

a.    For example, take an existing global leadership program, and encourage them or make them add a required course in global issues for all students.

4.    Teach engineering students about complexity; and surprise (radical contingency).

a.    Concrete case study in a probability and statistics course

b.    Senior level course on earth systems engineering and management, where we treat social and economic factors with the same significance as carbon, nitrate systems, etc… Develop other courses and course modules of this nature.

c.    Assign 4-5 articles on emerging technologies and technological change (not a new “product”; but something like robots that can be operated by telepathy; ‘social robotics’ in Japanese medical culture); introduce more challenging/complex problems in engineering design courses.

d.    Develop an interdisciplinary gen ed course on systems approaches to complex problems; explicitly recruit both non-engineering and engineering students; support faculty collaboration in the development of such a course.

e.    Engineering ethics case study that pushes against an engineering student’s assumed practice for engineering problem solving (that doesn’t take into account complexity). E.g., a plow for Mexican farmers.

5.    Develop subjects or modules that demonstrate that everyone has a stake in global sustainability.

a.    E.g. Bio-fuels; the ethical dimensions of converting food to fuel. (This creates debates; idealistic vs. SUVs…) fosters critical thinking, and the attempt to find a basis for making ethical decisions.

b.    Develop other case studies, etc… of this nature.

Should Do

6.    Fostering a greater global perspective; but also acting locally. Frustrated with students who set up recycling bins in Honduras, but don’t recycle within their own community. Keep at heart enacting/embodying what we’re trying to impose at a global level in our home country to begin with.

a.    Work with student ‘sustainability’ organizations to ensure that the values that we teach in our ‘sustainability’ courses are also being manifested in student campus life, and university operations.

7.    Show that addressing a problem before it happens rather than after it happens.

a.    Population growth / explosion. Hindering economic development in Africa. Demonstrate how different the engineering problem is at three different population/time periods in a scenario of exponential growth. (Also consider, for example, China’s one-child policy…)

8.    Modules within a sustainability oriented learning community that places students within a global, environmental/ecological context. (and a focus on social/global economic sustainability)

a.    Virtual field trips to foreign environments via student-directed projects. (In a study of the relationship between nature/technology/society.)

9.    Send faculty to sustainability camp! Let them get abroad. Change curricula by changing the views of our faculty.

a.    Rollins’ approach of sending faculty abroad on in teams, collectively develop better understanding of a foreign (non-Western) culture and economy.

b.    Send faculty abroad as part of student “experience the world as an (x)” initiatives

c.    In Japan, both academic and non-academic institutions developed a collaborative practice of “trip report writing” to circulate knowledge about a culture/economy (the U.S.) that they wished to emulate; develop the inverse in collaboration with American national academic institutions and professional organizations. (With a specific focus on sustainability)

d.    When you have non-US faculty, benefit from their knowledge and experience; draw on their cultural background; make their non-US experience part of the hiring process for new faculty.

10.    Develop effective faculty development programs for greater sensitivity to issues of both global socioeconomic change and social and environmental sustainability. Start with a provost’s office level commitment to a summer faculty development program, with summer supplemental income.

Other ideas

11.    LEED campus initiatives—leading by example.

12.    Curricular change: Specifically, courses, to minors, to majors, to graduate program.

13.    Major increase in support for Engineers Without Borders, with academic credit at all institutions.

14.    Develop a gen-ed course in sustainability. An internal curriculum innovation grants program designed to create new gen-ed courses across the campus that will strengthen the focus on global sustainability.

a.    Such as a GIS course with distinct modules that demonstrates this point: i.e, how burning fossil fuels impacts other cultures (use maps to demonstrate effects).

b.    Any fundamental environmental studies course is this kind of course.

15.    A campus wide workshop to “renew” existing courses and degree programs (majors and minors) in areas such as earth sciences, environmental sustainability, so they appeal directly to our current generation of students and their (sustainability)

a.    Integrate the following: We need to make sure that we cast the issue of sustainability as something that will not be addressed by engineers, by liberal arts, but as a collaborative effort that brings in various experts; stakeholders.

16.    Develop an interdisciplinary research capability which includes an explicit institutional structure / support organization that is focused on global issues of sustainability.

a.    Utilize an NSF IGRT in order to create such a center or institutional capability

b.    To encourage multi-institutional initiatives, across national boundaries, in engineering and sustainability. (e.g.: Alliance for Global Sustainability--UTokyo, MIT, ETH)

17.    Do the same at an academic (instructional) level

a.    An “Office of Sustainability” on campus with an explicit academic (vs. operational) component

18.    A focus on sustainable infrastructures. For example, roads designed to last 40-100 years.