Columns

Brundage ’15: Why aren’t there more engineers?

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, March 15, 2012

On a strictly academic basis, the number one reason I chose to attend Brown over other more or less academically equivalent universities was the open curriculum. I appreciate that the open curriculum, along with the S/NC option, gives students the freedom to take classes in unfamiliar subject areas without being concerned about fulfilling general education requirements or damaging their grade point averages. Still, the biggest appeal for me was that I could take classes in a variety of fields because I had no idea what I wanted to study.

I originally indicated an interest in engineering, idealistically and quite incorrectly imagining that I could take classes in engineering, politics, economics, biology and cognitive science among a number of other fields before selecting one of them as my major. But upon first meeting with my assigned engineering advisor, I learned that this was not nearly as plausible as I had naively assumed.

In order to be reasonably on track with other students in engineering, it is necessary to take ENGN0030: Introduction to Engineering, a math class, and ideally CHEM0330: Equilibrium, Rate and Structure, a course that assumes you have some sort of quality high school background in chemistry, or at least a friendly hallmate who will help you take the placement test. These introductory courses leave very little room for academic exploration for even the most committed engineering students, let alone a student such as myself, at a complete loss for what he might want to study at Brown. I eventually determined on my own that income potential and outside influences skewed my perception of how much I would actually enjoy engineering, but I felt forced to determine this without ever knowing what an engineering class is like.

Most students entering their first year at Brown, myself included, have no real understanding of exactly what an engineering class entails. They have simply been told after years of excelling in math and science courses that they ought to study engineering, and the idea of studying engineering seems appropriate to those who enjoyed math and science classes in high school. 

The problem with this thinking is that because nobody has taken an actual engineering course, the students who are driven into engineering by their performance in math and science might end up disliking the field entirely since it is quite different from anything taught in core math and science courses in high school. Conversely, students who never enjoyed the theoretical approaches to math and science courses in high school might miss out on an opportunity to be great hands-on engineers because they were unwilling to sacrifice three of their first four classes at Brown to a field they assumed they would not enjoy.

Clearly, colleges have few options left to help students with this predicament because it is still a problem even with the open curriculum at Brown, which I saw as the best answer to the dilemma from my perspective. The change, therefore, needs to happen earlier.

High schools ought to allow for a bit more flexibility in their curriculums. As of now, the best way to be accepted into a competitive college is to take a challenging, well-rounded course load of core requirements in English, mathematics, science, history and ideally a foreign language. By taking this standardized approach to my own education, I was left with a limited knowledge of what sorts of academic work I did and did not want to pursue. Upon entering college, it was much easier for me to cross out which sorts of fields I was not interested in than to circle which ones I might be interested in, simply because the former required less ink. 

What if high school students were given the option to take Honors Engineering instead of Advanced Placement Physics, or an Honors Physiology or Immunology instead of AP Biology? Students would have the chance to delve into courses more relevant to the popular fields foisted upon them when they excel in math and science, namely engineering and medicine. This would be a smart alternative to entering college with a hefty list of requirements for their first semester to concentrate in something they are hardly sure they would enjoy studying.

If the process doesn’t begin at least somewhat in high school, at what point are we supposed to discover what we are passionate about? It is unfair to ask students who have little idea what sort of work is even involved in engineering to devote their first semester schedule to precisely that. Engineering students enter college blindly, and after being asked to take the majority of their classes in a relatively unfamiliar field, they might very well fail to find a concentration about which they are truly passionate. Thus, with the way public education currently works, first-year engineers can only gamble that they will be happy in their academic pursuits. 

 

 

Matt Brundage ’15 has no idea what he is doing and can be reached at 

matthew_brundage@brown.edu.