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Engineering and the Liberal Arts

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Designing the Future: A Summit on Engineering Education
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

Saturday, March 31, 2001


Good morning. Thank you Dean Director for that warm introduction. And, thank you, President Simmons and Smith College for inviting me to be with you today, and offering us the opportunity to hold this discussion. I esteem the talent assembled here, and I look forward to a lively conversation.

Before I begin, I would like to congratulate my colleague and friend, Dr. Ruth Simmons, for guiding Smith College to this exciting juncture where engineering education joins the liberal arts. As Dr. Simmons moves on, she leaves a fitting and commendable legacy, and I wish her Godspeed as she accepts new challenges at Brown University.

Many aspects of our mission this morning reside close to my heart. Titled "Setting the Challenge: Engineering Education at the Crossroads," our discussion centers on new approaches to undergraduate engineering education especially with regard to encouraging women and other underrepresented groups to pursue careers in engineering and technology.

As I prepared for this mission, I could not help but notice that the Web page for the Smith College Picker Program in Engineering and Technology opens to a photograph of a magnificent bridge. A caption identifies the bridge as "an appropriate metaphor for the Picker Program's linkage between the sciences and the humanities."

The bridge is, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge designed by John Roebling. Mr. Roebling was killed during the construction and the project was turned over to his son, Washington A. Roebling, an 1857 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. At the time it was completed in 1883, the uninterrupted span vaulting the East River and connecting Brooklyn with lower Manhattan was an engineering marvel. The towers that hold the bridge stand on immense pneumatic foundations that rest on the riverbed — a technology that was then in its infancy.

It is significant, as we mark the creation of the Picker Program, that Emily Warren Roebling received recognition for her role in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although not an engineer by training, Emily Warren Roebling served the project as adviser, aide, and emissary, and her partnership with her husband was responsible for the successful completion of the gigantic enterprise.

I like to think that her participation heralded the future, because this weekend we celebrate a program that will enable future Emily Warren Roeblings to participate fully in the transformational technological undertakings that are to come.

The bridge metaphor is especially apt for the Picker Program's link between the "liberal arts" and engineering education. This link is the subject of my talk this morning. To provide a context for our discussion, I will explore the origins of what we call the liberal arts and the origins of engineering education. I will discuss why these two apparently became estranged, and why now we are rethinking some old assumptions. Finally, I will look at what engineering and technology have wrought, and how we might assess and improve engineering education.

The equal and equitable nature of the arts and the engineering sciences was somewhat more accepted in the Renaissance. The artist Leonardo Da Vinci, who, as you know, painted and sculpted some of the world's greatest art treasures and designed machines for human flight, called himself simply an "engineer." In engineering, his intellectual abilities found the broadest opportunities for their creative expansion. There is a delightful description of his skills in what is essentially his application to Duke Lodovico Sforza for employment on the construction of the Milan Cathedral. In it, Da Vinci described himself as a man who:

" . . . knows the rules of good building from their origin, and knows into how many parts they are divided, what are the causes that keep together an edifice and make it last, what is the nature of weight and of energy in force, and in what manner they should be combined and related to one another, and what effect they will produce when combined."

In yet another bid to yet another prospective patron, he lists items and services he was capable of providing relating to war, including fortifications, siege machinery and mechanisms for escaping siege, artillery, and armored vehicles, among others. But, at the end, he adds, as if in afterthought:

" . . . in time of peace, . . . I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also, I can do in painting whatever may be done..."

There is another example: one of the two most notable design and construction projects of the Renaissance was the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The engineer was another brilliant Renaissance artist — Michelangelo. The original design, including a dome, was crafted by architect and engineer Donato Bramante, who did not live to see the project completed. Before he died, Bramante recommended his nephew, the painter Raphael for the job. Raphael was neither architect nor engineer, but knew enough to strengthen the dome's support columns, which, it is generally acknowledged, was needed to prevent the proposed structure from collapsing under its own weight. Raphael stayed on the job only five years and, eventually, Michelangelo succeeded him, redesigning and ultimately building the dome. Today, the dome of St. Peter's ranks alongside other Michelangelo masterpieces, the Pieta, the Statue of David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling."

In addition to the dome of St. Peter's, Michelangelo rebuilt and refurbished the defensive walls of his native city, Florence, and bridges in Rome and Venice. In those days, a sculptor also had to oversee the quarrying and transport of the marble he intended to carve, and Michelangelo spent years in the Carrara Mountains in this way. The work entailed building mountain roads and often devising special mechanisms to move the huge marble blocks. In the Renaissance, to be an artist required being an engineer.

In today's culture, we have very nearly lost the distinction between "the arts" and "the liberal arts." It would seem that one is much akin to the other, and the term "liberal" has acquired various meanings at various times. But the original term, "liberal arts," derives from the Latin word "liber" which means "free." From the Middle Ages onward, this meant, essentially, freedom from manual labor — or, the freedom conferred by scholarship and the acquisition of knowledge that signified one's competence to enter any learned area, and to be freed to work with one's mind rather than solely with one's hands. This is why study of the liberal arts achieved the reputation of bestowing the status of gentility.

This freedom was accorded by study of the seven traditional liberal — or liberating — arts that were organized into two sets. The first set — the foundation — was the "Trivium," comprised of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Contemporarily, this equates with achieving mastery of the thought processes, specifically the skills of communication, organization, and persuasion. Mastery of this material constituted the Bachelor of Arts degree.

More advanced study encompassing further content, was comprised of the "Quadrivium." The Quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. At the time, it included the basic sciences of the day, with emphasis on mathematics. Acquisition of these skills conferred the Master of Arts degree.

Notice, if you will, that technology and engineering were excluded. "Technology" traces its etymology to the Greek word "techne" meaning "art or craft" and to an even earlier Sanskrit word meaning "hand" and connoting manual labor. Throughout much of the 19th century in Anglo-Saxon cultures technologists were not automatically candidates for genteel society. You may recall, for instance, that the clowns in Shakespeare's play "Midsummer Night's Eve" — local craftsmen by trade — are referred to as "mechanicals."

This schism flourished in Victorian England, and ironically, alongside the Industrial Revolution. And, while the British prepared their leaders with a classical liberal arts education, on the European continent, leaders were nurtured in the great "polytechnique" institutions where mathematics and engineering — and not the classics — were the core curriculum. The term "polytechnique," which distinguishes several noted engineering institutions in this country and in Europe — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute among them — is much admired in cultures whose educational heritage comes more from the French or the German models than the British.

This same schism between technology and the liberal arts apparently was packaged for shipment next to British common law and English social culture as the British colonized the a young America. There are numerous underlying explanations for the vocational nature of engineering education as it unfolded in America. I do not presume to be a scholar of the philosophy and history of education. But, it is safe to say that dissatisfaction with the rupture between the liberal arts and engineering is high, and it is changing.

Nor it is new. Engineering education began in America under circumstances that differ substantially from those of the other leading professions. Medical schools, for example, were established by individual physicians, and then loosely affiliated with universities.

By contrast, engineers were first trained by apprenticeship, particularly on canal construction projects. This tradition was perpetuated on railroad construction projects, and later in factories and machine shops, long after college engineering programs were established. Eventually, engineering schools in the United States were sponsored by the federal government (the U.S. Military Academy in 1802) and the land-grant colleges (beginning in 1862). They were also fostered by public-spirited citizens who fostered the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and from within established universities in response to interest or demand.

Sylvanus Thayer, for instance, introduced a formal engineering curriculum at West Point in 1817. Fifty years later, he endowed a graduate school of engineering at Dartmouth College, intending that students enroll in the Thayer schools program after obtaining a traditional college degree. Eventually the school combined the senior year with the first year of the engineering program, and Dartmouth's curriculum, still in existence, requires students to achieve a Bachelor of Arts degree on the way to engineering degrees.

Recognition of the importance of liberal studies in engineering education dates to the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges. Since that time, there has been continuing concern that engineering education does not sufficiently incorporate liberal studies. Reports over the years, and their recommendations for incorporating the liberal arts, echo each other: the report of Dr. Charles Mann, University of Chicago, 1918; the Wickenden Studies (1930); the Jackson report (1939); the Grinter report (1955); the Olmsted report (1968), to name a few.

There have been a few efforts besides those of Dartmouth to incorporate liberal arts and the engineering sciences. But now comes Smith College and the Picker Program, an effort that is especially noteworthy. Smith is a college for women, and women and some other excluded groups, traditionally, have not been encouraged to enter the engineering sciences. We have reached a point in the technological revolution at which engineering and technology are so critical to our national competitiveness that we have come to realize that we must encourage all, who have the interest and the desire, to pursue these fields. This is not about altruism. It is about the public good.

Technology is the primary driver of today's global economy. Engineers created the platform that sustains that economy. Engineers invented and constructed the globe-shrinking technologies that established and maintain this global immediacy — and most of those technologies wound up on the National Academy of Engineering's list of technologies that shaped the 20th century. These technologies include electricity and electronics; ground, air, and space transport; radio and television broadcast; telephonics and satellite communications; medical technologies and imaging; laser and fiber optics, microprocessors and the Internet; petrochemicals and nuclear technologies. And, all of it was accomplished within a mere 100 years.

Technology continues in the driver's seat. The value of easily accessed and conveniently formatted information remains extremely high. Advances in biotechnology promise medical therapies, augmentation of food supplies, life-span enhancement, and more.

We cannot get there, however, without sufficient troops to deploy. According to projections of the U.S. Department of Labor, 60 percent of American jobs in the coming years will require skills that only 20 percent of Americans have.

And now, on the cusp of our new millennium, as we adjust to a global economy and a growing global community, the need for new kinds of engineering education is yet more urgent. As engineering and the technological revolution continue to transform our world, we must assure that those who steer these changes understand the totality of the human condition, and that brings us back to the liberal arts.

The classic defense of, and case for, the liberal arts is made by John Henry Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University, as he set out to establish the National University of Ireland, also known as University College, Dublin. Roman Catholics long had been barred from attending the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and their sister institution, Trinity College, and it was Newman's task to establish an alternative. The Oxford-Cambridge-Trinity tradition offered a classical, liberal arts education. At this time — in the middle of the 19th century — this same traditional education was being challenged by representatives of the new technologies arising out of the Industrial Revolution.

The liberally educated person, he maintained, "possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy."

For Newman, the single image that governs The Idea of a University is that "all knowledge forms one whole." Liberal knowledge is the end or "idea" of a university and consists in the awareness of the bearing of each on the others by which alone the "whole" can be perceived.

That view, that approach to education, is needed more today than ever. All fields of study narrow as specialization increases. And the totally narrow view is nearsighted and ultimately faulty. The antidote is a basis in the liberal arts, and in a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving.

Since, increasingly, engineers create the settings for, and means of, human interaction, this grounding in the liberal arts is especially necessary for engineers today. Here are some of the reasons:

  • There is a growing need for engineers to communicate in order to be effective in engineering itself. As technological complexity has grown, so has the need for engineers to collaborate, working in teams, where the need to understand, explain, persuade and emphasize pertain.
  • The technical graduate entering industry will spend more time explaining technology to lawyers, consumers, legislators, judges, bureaucrats, environmentalists, and the media.
  • There is a greater-than-ever need for broadly educated engineers to heighten respect for technological solutions, and to alleviate a cultural fear that occasionally challenges progress.
  • Engineers must be sensitive to the social consequences of their work. That surely translates into ethics and ethical questions — i.e. it, whatever "it" is, can be done, but should it, whatever "it" is, be done? This is an area that interests me greatly and one that could stand alone as the subject of inquiry and discussion. The fundamental message: ethics education is critical.
  • Broadly educated engineers will be better able to explain technology to fellow citizens involved in democratic decision-making.
  • This could lead to opportunities for leadership dominated by other professions. Our society needs technologically knowledgeable individuals in its highest councils.
  • A liberal education ultimately makes engineers more creative by expanding their minds and exercising their imaginations.
  • Finally, as Cardinal Newman said, a liberal arts education is an end in itself, bringing the individual delight in the arts and insights of literature, history, and philosophy.

At Rensselaer, we begin our engineering education with basic sciences and math that will change very little over the course of a career. We also offer a foundation that includes humanities and the social sciences, and the study of how the different disciplines work together to formulate solutions to complex problems.

To this we have added a degree program in the electronic arts which augments the traditional performing arts, and we are building an Electronic Media and Performing Arts Center which will sit at the nexus of art and technology and will widen the campus outlook, creating a broader, richer sense of the world and its possibilities. Rensselaer will use EMPAC, as we call it, to create a renaissance at Rensselaer, synthesizing art and technology, embodying the qualities of Da Vinci — inquiry, imagination, scientific and technological rigor, vision and creativity.

Likewise, Smith's Picker Program recognizes that engineers must appreciate and understand the human condition to apply effectively the principles of mathematics and science in the service of humanity. In doing so, the Picker Program will perform a double service. First, it will help to heal an artificial rift that no longer pertains, and second, it will help to prepare new generations of women to participate fully in the economy of the future.

I believe that combining engineering and the liberal arts reflects an evolution to what I call the "blending" of the sciences. The sciences today remain discipline-based, yet are in the process of evolving from separate, discrete entities, into cooperative disciplines, utilizing the unique attributes of each for mutual advancement and progress. In fact, in key arenas such as the life sciences and biotechnology, there is a keen awareness that progress in understanding disease formation, progression, transmission, and treatment, as well as further understanding of the fundamentals of living systems — indeed what "living" means — require understanding, for example, gene expression in disease, protein interactions, etc. This will depend upon the application of engineering, the physical sciences and information technology, and the liberal arts, to the life sciences. In other words, interdisciplinarity will rule the day. That requires creating inter- and multidisciplinary experiences for students to learn in team environments, to parallel what they will experience in real-life technological situations. We are doing this at Rensselaer through technology-enabled interactive learning in studio classrooms, and through our multidisciplinary design laboratory, where students work on real-life engineering problems in maximally technology-enabled teams. They also work on joint problems with teams in industry over the Internet. In addition, they are able to design and build prototypes of certain technologies, and to scale them up.

These team approaches work well for all our students, especially our women students, by making them part of not only multidisciplinary teams, but multicultural teams.

This approach, together with a blending of the sciences with our contemporary equivalent of the seven liberal arts prepares graduates to lead, to communicate, to think, to plan, and to discern, and, we hope, to take the ethical view.

Most important of all, however, is the opportunity Smith's program provides for more young women to enter the engineering profession, and to emerge from a top-tier liberal arts college with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science. You may have read this week, as I did, that women are expected to be the majority of students entering law school this fall — quite a change from 40 years ago when women constituted just four percent of first-year law students.

Women accounted for about 46 percent of students who started medical school last fall. Women have dominated in the fields of education and veterinary medicine for some time, and the number of women entering graduate business school is up to 38 percent. But engineering has some catching up to do. The number of women entering the first year of engineering studies last fall was 19 percent.

Given these disparate numbers for women in engineering, pre-college intervention strategies are critical in order to capture and to build the imaginations and motivations of young women, and their attraction to technological careers.

At Rensselaer, we have several strategies for bringing more young women to our campus and into engineering. We have a "Design Your Future Day" geared for high school juniors. Faculty give several workshops and the high school counselors are told the requirements for students to get into engineering or science. We bring alumnae back, as well as current women students for face to face straightforward discussion with these high school girls. We also build in hands-on projects which can be done within the day.

Our summer "Preface" program is a two-week, all-expenses paid, residential program where women and minority students, who are rising seniors, learn about engineering in general, and work on various projects. All five academic schools are involved. Next year, for the first time, we will be bringing in young women from all over the country for this program.

Another program, "Mentornet," matches incoming freshmen women with upperclasswomen, and with women faculty, who work with them all year, starting with a social event and continuing throughout the year with regular meetings, real-time advice, and academic help. The mutual reinforcement this provides is critical. As a consequence, our retention rate for women is better than for male students.

These are three examples of necessary, successful interventions. There are others.

Smith College's Picker Program in Engineering and Technology has built a magnificent bridge, one that the field of engineering needs acutely, one that gives access for those on one side to cross over into full participation. Generations of young women will benefit from the access that this bridge provides. I know the engineering profession will flourish because of it.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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