The planet could use more engineers. The simple act of driving a car, for instance, is influenced by almost every field of engineering available in Canada from the processing of raw materials, to the design of the car, even to the layout of the road system and materials used to build it.
And yet a world full of only engineers would be terribly dull. Engineering students have long been associated with inter-faculty rivalries, particularly with the arts – in reality, arts and engineering have much to offer each other.
The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board is in charge of setting the standards of engineering education and ensuring that those standards are met. It is currently adapting the guidelines for teaching so that by the time they have graduated, engineering students have to prove they have developed according to a specific list of 12 graduate attributes. Half of these attributes are easy to measure and develop in a classroom – attributes like design, use of engineering tools, and problem analysis.
The other half are vague, and mastery in them is admittedly difficult to measure. These are attributes like impact on society, life-long learning, and, perhaps most importantly, communication. Without these, universities can produce engineers who are able to get the job done, but who fit specific molds and aren’t remotely well-rounded academically. These are also attributes that could be classified as soft skills, and may be brushed off by impudent engineering students in a rush to get their degrees and start their careers.
So far, in order to address the CEAB’s requirements for engineering education, universities have tended to insert a handful of optional courses into the required lists of courses. Optional engineering courses offered at the University of Alberta, for instance, are designed to include “exposure to the central thought processes of the humanities and social sciences,” a phrase that has more in common with the laboratory vaccination of rats than an open-minded approach to learning about a new field. Instead of allowing students to choose any artistic courses that fascinate them in order to pursue new interests, universities offer specific courses such as “Sociology for Engineers” or “English for Engineers.” Optional courses for engineering students must operate within a narrow window of rules regarding exam and assignment frequencies to match with engineering courses, leading to a woefully short list of courses available.
ENGL 199, for example, is English for Engineers. English courses are typically a great opportunity for students from various faculties to discuss great works of literature, share opinions and learn from those of others, and gain an appreciation for a new field, all while developing and improving their communication skills. Instead, English for Engineers lumps together students who already spend 30 hours a week in class with each other and teaches them basic grammar and punctuation.
Students in these classes are certainly unlikely to appreciate any of the value of literature, and may even delude themselves into thinking that English degrees are easy and unworthy pursuits. It also doesn’t help that the professors teaching the classes often teach in a manner that presupposes a lack of interest on the part of students.
Specialized arts courses for engineering students provide a convenient solution to faculty planners as they offer easy scheduling solutions and a comfortable environment for students. But learning about the arts should never be comfortable, and should certainly not be taught in the same structured approach as an engineering class. Instead, engineering students should have no choice but to mingle with students from across campus in order to gain an appreciation both for the arts and those who study them.
The world needs truly well-rounded engineers, and in order to develop them, universities have to scrap the rigid requirements on the optional courses available to them. Let us learn what it’s like to read three essays and discuss them in 2,000 words every week. Show us how to debate philosophy or political theories. Teach us to paint pictures, or play music, or write a play. The fact that these may seem irrelevant to an engineering education is precisely why they must be offered in the curriculum. Being good at calculus and physics isn’t any good unless we can communicate with others, and a methodological and mechanistic world isn’t any good unless we can all enjoy it.
Michael Ross recently graduated from the University of Alberta with a master’s in structural engineering, where he was involved with the Engineering Students' Society, Students' Union, and the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students.