A team of seniors from the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering outside of Boston collaborated with Mitsubishi Electric to use technology to encourage older adults to cook together remotely. Users can share recipes and…
A team of seniors from the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering outside of Boston collaborated with Mitsubishi Electric to use technology to encourage older adults to cook together remotely. Users can share recipes and techniques, in part through networked wristbands that let them demonstrate to one another their special touch for whisking eggs or flipping crepes.
Students farther west at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have helped an Australian not-for-profit collect data on microplastic pollution in the ocean, which lawmakers can use to help create policy for a cleanup effort.
And undergraduate business students at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania have designed play areas for a local children’s museum that teach about concepts like air and gravity, which they have presented to the museum’s board.
Each of these activities is a class or project incorporating two key elements that many undergraduate institutions are increasingly building into their engineering and business curricula. First, the work combines technical study in preprofessional fields with approaches often associated with the liberal arts, such as nurturing big-picture thinking and developing analytical and writing skills.
In addition, colleges are asking students to apply their efforts to real-world needs, working in teams and with actual clients just as they will after they graduate.
Engineering and business are common “get-a-job” college program choices, with about 1 in 5 college graduates in 2016 majoring in business and 5 percent earning degrees in engineering, according to federal data. The fields also command some of the highest average starting salaries, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
But many such programs have traditionally centered around teaching the technical nuts and bolts of business and engineering. Now, as automation, new technology and other forces transform the global workforce, many schools are responding to the demands of employers who are putting a premium on graduates who have both technical know-how and creative and communication skills.
Emily Gross, a 2018 Bucknell grad who was part of the children’s museum play-area design project, says it helped her break out of her comfort zone and gain confidence in her creative abilities. She worked closely with the museum’s board and staff, and had to juggle conflicting feedback — giving her a taste of real business settings.
“Even if you have the most beautiful design and model, your idea won’t be chosen unless you can communicate clearly and persuasively to your client,” she says.
Madison Healey, a senior mechanical engineering major at WPI who was in the group that went to Australia to study microplastic pollution, also found the project sharpened her communication skills and ignited her passion to pursue a career in environmental sustainability. Healey was expecting primarily to solve math problems in her college program, just as she had in high school, so she was a little surprised that most of her engineering courses have included writing reports and making presentations.
“Professors are always saying how the industry values writing and people skills as much as the technical skills we are learning,” she says. Plus, emerging evidence shows that integrating the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math — plus medicine — with the arts and humanities at the higher ed level can improve problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills, according to a report released in May from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Indeed, through partnerships with and feedback from employers, many schools are increasingly recognizing that, while narrowly focused technical curricula may help students get that first job, they will need broader skills to move up, to start their own businesses or to blaze an unconventional career path.
At Franklin and Marshall College, a liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, business is approached more as a cross-disciplinary social science than as a preprofessional major, which helps to develop students’ big-picture thinking, says Bryan Stinchfield, associate professor of organization studies and former chair of the school’s Business, Organizations and Society department.
“Students want a program that’s going to allow them to blend their intellectual curiosities with their passions, and business education at a liberal arts school really allows that,” he says. Every course in the department, even statistics, involves plenty of writing, and class sizes are capped at 16 to 25 to allow faculty time to provide feedback and individualized help.
Bucknell’s management majors take the same core liberal arts classes as English majors, and they also must complete at least three writing-intensive courses in the management school or elsewhere in the university, says Raquel Alexander, dean of Bucknell’s Freeman College of Management.
Innovative engineering programs often encourage students to apply their skills as they acquire them instead of making them achieve a certain level of overall mastery before they’re let loose in the lab or the workshop.
“Students are tired of the math-science death march: two years of courses when what they really want to do is make stuff,” says Khanjan Mehta, vice provost for creative inquiry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, which offers a variety of ways to pursue integrated studies among its three undergraduate colleges: arts and sciences, business and engineering. The overall objective is to steep students in ideas like design thinking, global citizenship and evidence-based problem-solving.
Lehigh’s Mountaintop Initiative has repurposed a former Bethlehem Steel research facility into a 120,000-square-foot space where students can pursue such cross-disciplinary projects as making and testing 3D printed concrete or developing a Facebook widget that measures the political polarization of a user’s news feed.
“When you work on real projects and see why your knowledge is relevant, it makes you learn your math and science better,” Mehta says.
Many engineering programs, including Olin, WPI and Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, are taking their cues from the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program, a combined curricular and co-curricular effort designed to prepare students to address 14 global issues for the field, such as securing cyberspace, making solar energy economical and developing better medicines.
More than 50 undergraduate engineering schools have a program approved by the NAE, and dozens more are in development. They’re allowed to execute in any way they see fit — as long as the work is multidisciplinary, multicultural and designed to promote creativity, original research, social consciousness and entrepreneurship.
The multidisciplinary component is especially key, says Karen Oates, a professor of biology and immediate past dean of arts and sciences at WPI. “None of these problems will be solved just by an engineer, so we are interested in combining the very best of engineering and the very best of liberal arts and science.”
Rather than creating new interdisciplinary courses as some institutions do, WPI incorporates social context directly into its existing engineering curriculum, and pairs engineering and other faculty — for example, a biomedical engineer and a political scientist — to participate in one another’s courses.
Their joint course might cover the technical aspects of producing large amounts of a vaccine and a device for dispensing it, but also the social implications of getting it out to the populations that need it and providing it at a reasonable cost.
Robert Martello, associate dean for curriculum and academic programs at Olin, estimates that roughly 15 to 25 percent of the school’s classes combine liberal arts with technology in some form.
“Engineering for Humanity,” co-taught by an engineer and an anthropologist, has students devise solutions for the challenges of specific people: for example, designing measuring cups and a cutting board for use by a woman with macular degeneration who has lost the center of her field of vision, or creating videos and learning aids for new immigrants learning English.
Mary Martin, a 2018 Olin grad who was part of the remote cooking capstone project, was attracted to the school’s holistic approach and the freedom it offered to design her own education. That led her to projects like creating a laser maze that players had to navigate without breaking the beams and setting off an alarm.
The exercise gave her five-person team a technical workout and tested their design and budgeting skills. “It’s been a great conversation starter at networking events,” says Martin, who joins Bose Corp.’s new business development lab this fall as a mechanical engineer.
RIT has 30 students involved in the first year of its NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and the school is providing funding to help them cover the costs of design projects and international trips. Among the ways that RIT has integrated the liberal arts is a general education course for incoming freshmen that links engineering and other disciplines.
The current iteration is called “Clean Water,” and it brings together engineering and philosophy faculty to explore water management — both the technical, like removing salt from ocean water, and the ethical, like how to address the lead-tainted water system in Flint, Michigan, or allocate scarce water in the American Southwest.
Such courses are just the start of a multiyear, cross-disciplinary curriculum that culminates in senior design projects like medical centrifuges for places without electricity or 3D printing of prosthetics.
Even many large public universities, where students sometimes have to apply to be a part of business or engineering majors, are looking to broaden their preprofessional programs to include the development of critical thinking and writing.
San Francisco State is working to increase the breadth of its business offerings and researching a minor in sustainability to complement current undergrad business electives, says Denise Kleinrichert, director of the university’s Center for Ethical and Sustainable Business.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison is exploring ways to incorporate cross-disciplinary content across a school of about 31,000 undergrads, says Suzanne Dove, assistant dean for academic innovations at the university’s Wisconsin School of Business.
Recently the B-school used the common text from a universitywide reading program — the book “Just Mercy” by Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson — to spark first-year business undergrads to create visual representations of some of its civil rights and justice themes.
“One of our students said, ‘Gosh, I thought I was going to have to give up my artistic side when I went to be a business major!’?” Dove says. “It was great news for the students to know that we value all of these aspects of their personalities and want them to bring those out.”
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2019” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.