The New Liberal Arts Initiative, launched by the Sloan Foundation in 1980, was a visionary effort to stimulate a broad range of colleges and universities to integrate technology and quantitative literacy into the liberal arts disciplines. Sheila Tobias has now provided a review of current efforts to integrate the discipline of engineering into one of the new “liberal arts” for 21st century education.
Here it is important to distinguish the concept of engineering as an academic discipline from that of engineering as a learned profession. The unique tools that engineers master to develop and apply technology to serve society, e.g., structured problem solving, synthesis and design, innovation and entrepreneurship, technology development and management, risk-benefit analysis, and knowledge integration across horizontal and vertical intellectual spans, today have become important skills for all citizens in an increasingly technology-intensive society. Much in the way that the liberal arts of classical learning, the trivium and quadrivium, have evolved over the past two centuries to include the natural and social sciences, as well as topics derived from professions such as law and medicine, today the intellectual foundation of engineering, of creating solutions, systems, and practices to apply technology to address the needs of our society, have become a true “liberal art”. More specifically, one should contrast technological literacy with scientific and quantitative literacy, noting that everyone needs to know something about the process by which the knowledge of science is used to find solutions to human problems. But everyone also needs an understanding of the larger innovation engine that applies technology to create the wealth from which everyone benefits.
This was recognized by the Sloan Foundation in funding innovative projects to integrate elements of the engineering discipline into the curriculum of an unusually broad array of colleges and universities, from research universities with established engineering programs to liberal arts colleges and women's colleges. These projects were highly diverse, involving many different approaches, strong faculty and student engagement, and strong support by the many participating institutions.
Part of the challenge then and now has to do with the fact that early efforts were driven by a small group of faculty as noted in Tobias' documentation. For example, Michael Littman's course at Princeton, which has been taught for twenty years, attracted both liberal arts as well as engineering students. Similarly David Billington's course on Structures was taught for many years and then picked up and modified by Maria Garlock. Although these Princeton faculty used summer workshops to launch efforts by faculty at other institutions, including some of their former graduate assistants, the effort required the unusual dedication of a few faculty over an extended period.
Recent efforts, such as those at Smith, Wellesley, Wesleyan, and Hope College are developing engineering courses in their areas of expertise into broader experiences for undergraduates in all liberal arts majors.
One of the most extensive current efforts is the University of Maryland's I-Series of courses in general education, aligned well with the University's efforts to involve faculty from professional schools more deeply in general education. A series of Marquee courses designed for non-STEM majors had led to the overhaul of the University's entire General Education program in recent years.
As Tobias' analysis demonstrates, many of the original objectives of the Sloan NLA were achieved. Grants were awarded to 41 different institutions. Over 200 courses were developed. A dozen monographs and textbooks were created for the MIT Press to publish. New links were established at many institutions between engineering faculty and colleagues in other disciplines, working together to bring engineering content into both general education and specific liberal arts curricula. In this sense, the program was quite successful.
However it is also clear that this major level of activity failed to mature into an engineering component in the liberal arts curriculum of most American colleges and universities. In part this is probably due to the limited capacity both to document and distribute information about successful projects, since the earlier grants came well before the emergence of the Internet and digital distribution. Another constraint was likely the significant effort for course development that limited participation to a small number of dedicated faculty at most sponsored institutions.
But perhaps the most serious flaw in the Sloan project was its inability to couple with other organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the National Academies (both the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), and academic organizations (e.g., the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Council of Graduate Schools, etc.) that could have helped to assess progress and propagate successful elements. For example, during the 1980s following a study by the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation made major investments in a Division of Education and Human Resources, which could have been highly effective in evaluating and propagating successful efforts to the broader higher education community. Similar efforts to address STEM education have been conducted by the various National Academies and higher education organizations over the past three decades.
In fact, currently the Board of Higher Education and Workforce of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has projects underway that would be highly appropriate for re-evaluating these earlier efforts within the context of the studies of the changing nature of undergraduate and graduate education. Furthermore, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just launched a major project aimed at improving the quality of undergraduate education in our colleges and universities.
Several years ago, Dr. Wm. A. Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, warned that: “Today we have a society profoundly dependent upon technology, profoundly dependent on engineers who produce that technology, and profoundly ignorant of technology.” Yet, as Tobias' analysis demonstrates, we have a wealth of earlier examples and current efforts by individual colleges and universities on how to address this. But it will take national leadership and investment by federal agencies, higher education associations, national academies, and philanthropic foundations to extend their experience to address this major shortcoming of the current higher education curriculum in America.