Humanities & Engineering: ABET Criterion 3

The proposed revisions to ABET’s Criterion 3 suggest a step in the wrong direction.  Members of non-engineering departments at engineering schools, as well as many engineering educators  per se, are up in arms.  Here is how the possible changes are described on the ABET website:

The standards currently specified in Criterion 3 under this proposal would be reduced 11 to 6.

Draft Outcomes (from the ABET website):

“The program must have documented student outcomes that prepare
graduates to enter the engineering profession.
Student outcomes are outcomes (1) through (6) plus any additional outcomes that may be articulated by the program.
1. An ability to use the principles of science and mathematics to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems.
2. An ability to apply both analysis and synthesis in the engineering design process, resulting in designs that meet constraints and specifications. Constraints and specifications include societal, economic, environmental, and other factors as appropriate to the design.
3. An ability to develop and conduct appropriate experimentation and testing procedures, and to analyze and draw conclusions from data.
4. An ability to communicate effectively with a range of audiences
through various media.
5. An ability to demonstrate ethical principles in an engineering context.
6. An ability to establish goals, plan tasks, meet deadlines, manage risk and uncertainty, and function effectively on teams.”

A key comment indicates the proposed connection between engineering and “general education” and presumably is meant to justify the elimination of more specific language regarding the need for engineering students to learn in fields typically included in contemporary liberal arts curricula.

“(c) a general education component that complements the technical content of the curriculum and is consistent with the program educational objectives. Students must be prepared for engineering practice through a curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple constraints. One year is the lesser of 32 semester hours (or equivalent) or one-fourth of the total credits required for graduation.”

Here is how in part, on the July 4 dated webpage, *Inside Higher Education* described the announcement of the proposed changes:

“ … Cut to last week, in Seattle, when a presentation on proposed changes to the accreditation criteria stunned many attendees at the American Society for Engineering Education’s annual meeting. Small groups of faculty members, administrators and members of professional societies already had been briefed on the changes. But for many faculty members, the conference was the first time they’d heard about them — just two weeks ahead of the end of a public comment period.”

My own department at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering submitted a protest comment:

[The department is] “shocked and saddened to see the proposed redraft of criterion 3, which seems to eliminate the requirement for non-technical education.   Engineering skills are a form of power, and also an instrument of power. Engineers in a democracy must be active and virtuous citizens who understand the relationship of the profession to capital, labor, the state, and to culture.  Design skills are required, but design itself is a cultural activity that is empty without artistic and literary knowledge.  …  The proposed criteria will stifle, rather than promote innovation in engineering education.  In our program at the NYU School of Engineering, the current guidelines have stimulated  scholars in the department of Technology, Culture and Society to work closely with our colleagues in the engineering departments to develop programs geared to providing engineering undergraduates with humanities and social science approaches to their disciplines. The result provides our students with additional tools for understanding the historical, social, and cultural context of the work they will do in the profession.  The proposed changes would weaken this important and innovative role for the humanities and social sciences in an engineering school. 

We need engineering professionals for the next century who fully understand the historical context and political, moral and artistic implications and consequences of their work.   I urge you in the strongest possible terms to rewrite the current proposal for criterion 3 and return the language that guarantees that engineers in the United States will continue to understand the broad social and political implications of what they do.”   

I can only speculate on the motives for this proposal but two seem obvious. The first is the current obsession with innovation and entrepreneurship together with the belief that so-called STEM education enables both.  This is how engineering education serves its role as handmaiden to global free-market capitalism. Within this well meaning but ultimately misguided worldview thrive several subordinate misconceptions about literacy, communication, and democratic participation in all levels of governance.  The frustration with the i2e + STEM formula has contributed to the rise of STEAM (adding the arts) and SHTEAM (the further addition of humanities) programs, a way to present the concept of broad arts and science education to the savants of technology.  I will discuss my own assessment of STEM education in a future posting.

The second is the real and practical concern about how to incorporate an appropriate level of exposure to the new engineering technologies into an already jammed curriculum. Whether or not engineering education is best served by including such exposure is open to debate, but the desire to include it from both students and faculty (with obvious support from industry) is strong and engineering programs like to showcase their new technology as  prima facie evidence of their excellence. What do the traditional humanities, literature, history or philosophy, offer that can secure their ongoing position in a dynamic and crowded curriculum?  The claim asserted by my department, that we need engineers who understand the historical context and the political, moral and artistic consequences of engineering work, is far from obvious. To many engineering and technology faculty who are not involved in the academic disciplines of the humanities the argument seems counter factual.

Is the future of engineering education to be determined completely by the growth of technology and the explosion of information and data? The current practice of cutting up the pie to include a healthy portion of the humanities courses is unlikely to survive.  Is there an alternative approach that will insure that the kind of knowledge and insight valued in my department’s comment can be integrated meaningfully into a modern engineering curriculum?  I think this is the big challenge facing all forms of professional education and which accrediting agencies like ABET are duty bound to address.

In my opinion engineering and humanities education has to become much more fully integrated.  Engineering, after all, is one of the humanities. If one only considers that it is engineering that conceives, designs, builds and maintains the actual lived environment of humanity  then the kind of understanding mentioned above becomes axiomatic.  But in this case it is also clear that the humanities must be recognised as an essential aspect of engineering practice.

To achieve this kind of recognition, rather than debating how much time and space each discipline gets to control within the four year curriculum, I suggest that engineering schools become centers of discourse, of teaching, learning and research, concerning the engineering of human well-being.  To start with, for example, there is no reason why standard civil engineering courses in structures or materials couldn’t include significant discussion of the ethics, aesthetics, historical context, macroeconomic choices, political priorities, social environment, and the list can go on.  The big questions are how to teach this all in an integrated way and what teams of experts are needed to do so? 

I have suggested that new alliances between faculties in engineering and the humanities need to be formed.  These alliances might take the form of public centers that would explore how through such strategies as collaborative project based and experiential learning the needed level of integration could be achieved.

I welcome your comments.  This is a theme to which I will return frequently.