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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Liberal Arts and Engineering, An Effective Collaboration

 by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS

Although many engineering students may not appreciate required liberal arts courses, more students, and more hiring companies, are recognizing the benefits.  In fact, there are several collaborative programs between school whereby students can earn a BA and a BS in five years.  Numerous schools, from California Polytechnic to Augustana to University of Dallas, offer such programs and dual or combined degrees.

In fact, per person, liberal arts schools provide more PhD candidates in the sciences and engineering, per the National Science Federation.  Their list of the top 50 science and engineering PhD producing undergraduate institutions includes 28 liberal arts colleges and universities.  For the mathematically challenged, that is more than half!

From a 2012 story on Union College’s website, the former head of MIT had this to say: "The integration of engineering and the liberal arts is essential to compete in a highly competitive and technology-based global economy, one of the nation’s top engineers told a group of educators this weekend. Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also said the liberal arts must take charge of the online learning revolution sweeping across campuses today.

Per Christian Knutson, Professional Engineer and Project Management Professional, “Communication skills are absolutely essential to our existence and they are the foundation for our success.  If your skills are lacking, begin first by focusing on your listening skills.  Strengthen these and you’ll be in a very solid position."  Mr. Knutson is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional internationally and the author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.  

By their very nature, liberal arts programs hone their students’ communication skills since they demand extensive reading, writing, and many oral presentations.  Collaborative projects are common as well.  Consequently, strictly from the perspective of enhancing essential communication skills, liberal arts foundations are excellent foundations for scientists and engineers.

Additionally, the smaller campus and class sizes typical of liberal arts colleges and programs enable their students to form close working relationships with their professors.  For students desiring to pursue advanced degrees in any field, these sorts of relationships lead to research and internship opportunities which are critical for successful graduate school admissions.  They also facilitate the requisite recommendations whereas students from larger schools often find themselves struggling to meet their professors furthermore developing working relationships with them over time.  

Lastly, given the state of current engineering developments, the ability to examine a problem from multitudinous perspectives is essential.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is commonplace and essential for progress.  The problems engineers are now addressing are multifaceted and extremely complex.  Hence, excellent communication skills (listening, speaking, and writing) are essential as are the various skills which support thinking outside the box.  Liberal arts programs very ably develop this sort of elastic thinking in their students.

Consequently, the combination of a liberal arts education with a scientific or engineering program forms just the sort of engineers and scientists needed at this point in the 21st century.  It also happens to open the door for more young women to enter these typically male dominated fields.


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