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Larson: The engineering program allows flexibility

Matt Brundage '15 asked a very good question in Thursday's column ("Why aren't there more engineers?" March 15). I've been an engineer for over 30 years, and I honestly can't imagine doing anything else. "Engineers create the future" is a well-known saying, and what could be more fun and fulfilling than that? I wonder: Why isn't everyone an engineer?

But Matt is voicing a real concern that almost every student in engineering faces at some point. Engineering has a lot of challenging required courses that leave less room than is desirable for the wide-ranging intellectual exploration that students come to college for. How is a young person supposed to figure out areas of interest and, yes, passion if there is limited freedom to explore? Many students get discouraged by all the requirements. It's true.

Engineering has a lot of requirements for a good reason: to have the ability to create something genuinely new demands a deep understanding of the natural world, and this deep knowledge requires lots of math and science. There's no other way.

This is the opportunity offered through higher education. A future engineer's time at college, devoted to this intensity of learning the requisite depth and breadth of material, is the only period when there actually is this availability of time, as well as the freedom from distractions needed to master the fundamentals of these subjects. So if engineering is a chosen concentration, students can expect to work very hard and be required to make tough choices about forgoing other activities that may inspire equal joy.

The good news for Brown students is that the engineering curriculum here is more flexible than that at most other universities. In fact, the opportunity to explore a wide range of subjects is built into our curriculum. We have plans in place for students who might not start engineering until sophomore year, allowing for wider exploration as a first-year. It's true that it is helpful to take three courses (ENGN 0030: "Introduction to Engineering," math and chemistry) in your first semester, but it's not required. By senior year, most of our students are able to take two electives per semester. Finally, if there's an interest to explore even further outside of the traditional engineering curriculum, a bachelor of arts in engineering is an option for all of our students.

There are many possible paths through the engineering program here at Brown, and our engineering faculty advisors would be happy to discuss these wide ranging options with you.

The actual practice of engineering can be utterly thrilling. In my own field of electrical and computer engineering, there are many beautiful intellectual constructs - like Maxwell's Equations, Shannon's Coding Theorems and modern solid-state physics - that are so simple and elegant, and yet have a profound impact on our everyday lives. Every branch of engineering has similar fundamental results, whose creative application touches the lives of every person in the modern world.

Engineering is not just for the math or science genius. It is a field most open to intensely curious learners who strive to work hard, create new innovations and make a difference in the world. Brown is the perfect place for the engineer who wants to explore the broader intellectual feast that our curriculum provides.


Lawrence Larson is the dean of the School of Engineering.


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