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Engineering students weigh interests, class requirements

Students describe concentration as restrictive but rewarding

The open curriculum has been a tool for students to look beyond their concentrations and explore other departments the University has to offer since its creation just over 50 years ago. But, to properly navigate the open curriculum, students within engineering concentrations must find ways to balance requirements with their non-engineering academic interests.

Adam Ritz ’24, who is interested in concentrating in mechanical engineering, said that while he has been able to take some non-engineering classes, his desired concentration’s prerequisites posed an obstacle. He said he can only take “all of the ... most interesting classes ... after doing a large number of prerequisites.”For the non-engineering classes he was able to take, Ritz said that he was unable to spend as much time as he liked on them due to the “time dependency” of engineering courses.

Jude Adelman ’23 said that he likes how his non-engineering classes differ from his usual workload. “With my gender classes, I’m reading about theory, or I’m reading some other article which is sort of like a break ... from all the problem sets and all the math,” he explained.

On the other hand, Lukas Scheidl ’23 likes the structure of the engineering concentration because he would feel “overwhelmed” if he had fewer prerequisites. Scheidl added that he likes only having to choose a few electives each semester. Despite his engineering workload, Scheidl said he has still gotten to explore academically through his limited elective courses, taking classes in the psychology, economics and computer science departments.

Adelman expressed similar sentiments. While Adelman acknowledges that he usually has to take three engineering courses a semester, he is still able to take one class outside of the engineering department. “Engineering is restrictive in that ... it takes up a really big part of my course selection, but it’s not enough that I can’t take what I want to,” he said.

Jennifer Casasanto, associate dean for programs and planning, said that the engineering department supports students navigating the open curriculum through Meiklejohn and concentration advisers. She also added that students in engineering are involved in the teaching process and are “always bringing suggestions to (the department) about what (they) could do differently.”

One of these student suggestions, she said, was assigning Meiklejohns within the engineering department to first-year students interested in concentrating in the field. “There’s a real value to talking with a peer and having them say ‘you know, I was going to take this, but I decided to do something different and here was my experience,’” she added.

Larry Larson, dean of engineering, views the open curriculum as a tool that students can use “to be the architects of their own education.” He added that while there is a certain “body of knowledge” needed to become an engineer, the department tries to find a balance between the core of knowledge and the freedom of the open curriculum.

All three students agreed that the engineering concentrations were rigorous and when compared to the concentrations of friends, Ritz stated that engineering was “noticeably more work.” Yet, Adelman said that engineering was “fulfilling” regardless of its rigor.

Scheidl said that the program was “as rigorous as you want to make it.”

“If you do things that you find interesting, they become less work and more fun,” he explained.

Scheidl also believes that the rigor is an “opportunity for growth” that allows students to find their strengths and weaknesses while also setting boundaries on what is important.

Casasanto said that the engineering department partakes in exhaustive external reviews every five years and accreditation reviews every six years. These panels, she said, contain experts from around the country ­— and sometimes the world — and have complimented the University’s engineering department for its rigor and its pedagogy. “We’re getting very strong, positive feedback in those areas,” she said.

Larson agreed and stated that he believes “all Brown concentrations are rigorous in their own domains.” He went on to say that the University “really (wants its) students to become experts in their field when they graduate” and that engineering is no exception.

Casasanto attributed the rigor of the degree program to the range of topics engineering students are exposed to during their time at the University.

“We’ve built into the program ... principles of all the other engineering concentrations that we offer,” she said, adding that employers value this breadth of learning within the field, since many people in the industry work on teams with those from other disciplines. Larson added that this was a “unique strength” at the University.

Yet, even with the rigor of the concentration, each of the students expressed positive attitudes toward it. Both Scheidl and Adelman stated that the professors within the department were great, with Scheidl adding that the professors have “always been very approachable and helpful.”

In order to navigate the curriculum, Casasanto encouraged students to look ahead at what courses are being offered and to speak with advisers on which courses to take. She also added that students should be creative in choosing the order they take courses in.

However, Casasanto acknowledged that the field of engineering is taught in a structured way throughout most of the world due to its status as a pre-professional program, like pre-medical programs. “There’s real serious ethical and professional expectations that are not applied to other concentrations at Brown,” she added, which is why there are many required courses.

Larson acknowledged the “incredible feast of amazing courses (and) amazing professors” outside of the engineering department which students are encouraged to take advantage of.

On what they would like to change about the engineering concentrations, both Ritz and Scheidl mentioned changes to course requirements which they felt were restrictive. Scheidl said that while he had placed out of a required math class, he was not able to substitute that class for another outside of math. To him, this “felt a little restrictive.”

Ritz proposed the idea of combining six upper-level engineering courses into fewer so that, while he would “still have the knowledge of all those subjects,” he would have to go less in-depth on each.

Adelman expressed excitement about getting to take two upper-level biomedical engineering courses.

“I don’t know anything else I’d change,” he said. “I’m just excited.”

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