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Engineering school will mean balancing act

With a New Curriculum that offers nearly unadulterated academic freedom and a Division of Engineering that requires 21 courses from its bachelor of science concentrators, the University is in the midst of the same difficult balancing act as several other schools nationwide: expanding engineering offerings while maintaining a commitment to the liberal arts.

After the faculty voted last week to approve the creation of a new School of Engineering, which would replace Brown's current division, that balance is set to become a little more complicated.

‘Training whole people'

"It's very important that students have choice here," said Iris Bahar, director of undergraduate programs in engineering and associate professor of engineering. "You can come in, kind of explore and then make your decision about what you're going to concentrate in."

Without strict distribution requirements or a core curriculum, engineering students have "an exceptional opportunity" to discover other disciplines, Rodney Clifton, interim dean of engineering, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

"That's what the open curriculum is for," said Francois Baldassari '11, an electrical engineering concentrator. "I wanted to do more with college than just be an engineer."
Baldassari said he took five classes in each of his first five semesters in order to make room for courses outside of engineering that he "would not have been able to take anywhere else."

Harvard, like other liberal arts universities offering engineering, strives to maintain a similar balance between hard sciences and liberal arts, according to Cherry Murray, dean of Harvard's recently created School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"We are not training engineers, we are training whole people," she said, because global issues "can't be addressed adequately without the entire body of culture, laws, sociology, business acumen and policy that is part of a liberal arts education."

Shakespeare and thermo

Because of Harvard's undergraduate distribution requirements, Murray said that Harvard's engineering school reaches many students outside of the department.

Engineering is a vital part of any liberal arts education, since without a basic understanding of math, science and technology, students cannot understand how the world works, said Venkatesh Narayanamurti, former dean of Harvard's engineering school.

"If I'm supposed to know Shakespeare, you should at least know the laws of thermodynamics," he said.

In redefining Brown's engineering division as a school with more lab space and course offerings, Bahar said she thinks more students outside of engineering will be encouraged to venture into Barus and Holley and explore the discipline.

"We want to make engineering more accessible," she said, explaining that a school of engineering would be better able to reach out to other departments than the current division. "It's not just a matter of giving more to engineers."

Over the last two years, the number of students at Harvard choosing engineering as a concentration has increased by 57 percent, and there has been a 30 percent rise in the number of applicants interested in engineering, Murray said. Since its redefinition as a school, instead of a division, Harvard's engineering program has also gained more faculty and more facilities, she said.

Because Brown's engineering program is still too small to offer most introductory courses both semesters, it can be very difficult to switch into the division, said Allison Palm '12.

Palm applied to Brown as a prospective engineer, but said she was not ready to take engineering courses until her freshman spring since her high school had not offered upper-level math and science. Since the courses she needed were only available in the fall, she could not begin the engineering track until her sophomore year, which means she will have to take five classes for most of her remaining semesters, she said.

A field on the rise

Not only would more introductory classes help the engineering program welcome outside students, but they might also be necessary in order to handle the increasing number of concentrators.

Of the class of 2009, 240 students — about 17 percent — graduated with degrees in the physical sciences, among them 64 engineers, according to the Office of Institutional Research's Web site.

Nearly twice as large a proportion — 30 percent — of the students accepted to the class of 2014 indicated an interest in the physical sciences, according to an April 1 press release from the Office of Admission.

"Brown is not unique in its students' expressing a larger interest in engineering," Bahar said.

Federal initiatives are pushing engineering as an answer to climate change and other global issues, contributing to some of that rise, Baldassari said.

Many minority students, including low-income and first-generation college students, are also being drawn to the field because "they know they can get a job," Murray said.

Partly in order to accommodate the growing body of engineering applicants, many universities with a traditional emphasis on the liberal arts are expanding their engineering offerings.

Every Ivy League institution except Brown now has its own school of engineering, though according to the University's Web site, Brown was the first among them to offer any engineering program.

Stanford University boasts an engineering school second only to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to U.S. News and World Report rankings. In fact, only three out of U.S. News' top 10 engineering schools are solely technological institutes, suggesting that more engineering students want to "understand not only how things work, but also how the world works," according to Narayanamurti.

Other departments

As Brown and other liberal arts schools change the nature of engineering to include more of a focus on the liberal arts, Professor of Anthropology and former Vice President and Provost William Simmons '60 worries that Brown will lose "part of its identity as a university college," he said.

"I would have to wonder the degree to which the engineering curriculum is compatible with the rest of what Brown is doing," he said. "They're basically becoming a professional school."

Elena Albright '11, a biology concentrator, said she was happy with the proposed growth in engineering.

"Brown is plenty prestigious, but if it's going to attract another set of the country's brightest students," she said, "it's a good thing."

Neither she nor computer science concentrator Joseph Browne '10 said they thought that placing more emphasis on engineering would take away funding or interest in their departments.

The faculty's resolution last week discouraged the idea that other departments would be hurt by the change, as it insisted that "steps will be taken to ensure that the move to school status increases rather than impedes faculty and student teaching and research collaborations between Engineering and the rest of the University."

Drop it low

The faculty's resolution did not contain any reference to one of the major problems within the current division: attrition.

Students and faculty gave varying estimates of the number of students who leave the department, but Bahar said she thought it might be around 20 percent.

"I don't think that's higher than other schools," she said. "Attrition is a fact of engineering."

The advising program and course structure may be partly to blame for the attrition rate, said Gregory Lowen '12, a Meiklejohn adviser in engineering.

He said that he thought his advising partner was too focused on "trying to force engineers to stay in" to really help explain all of the different options — including restructuring some of the standard course schedules — to his advisees.

They're confused, they don't know what to do," he said.

Baldassari said he was also underwhelmed by his advisers, and said that his freshman adviser "gave me my PIN number, and that was it."

Universities need to continue working to address attrition, both by providing more flexible course modules and by reworking their curriculums, Narayanamurti said.

"We need far more engineering graduates than we actually graduate," he said.


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