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2013 May 12

Engineering is liberal education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:08
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The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, in a blog post Who Needs A Liberal Education These Days? pointed me to a survey of employers by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.  That report has several unsurprising observations:

  • Nearly all those surveyed (93%) agree, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
  • More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
  • More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
  • Employers endorse several educational practices as potentially helpful in preparing college students for workplace success. These include practices that require students to a) conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; b) gain in-depth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem solving, and communication skills; and c) apply their learning in real-world settings.

(I guess they don’t care whether students learn proper punctuation, though, as the colon after “including” is incorrect.)

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education uses this report as evidence that a “liberal education” is what students need, though it sounds more like what a good engineering school teaches than anything I’ve seen in the humanities.  In fact, the CFHE carefully omitted the major findings that are first in the summary of the report:

  • Nearly all employers surveyed (95%) say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.
  • More than nine in ten agree that “innovation is essential” to their organization’s continued success.

Not all innovation is engineering, nor does engineering education guarantee that the graduates will be innovators, but innovation is at the heart of engineering and of art, but is not so central in the humanities and sciences.

Of course, the definition of “liberal education” used in the report is one that few employers would say no to:

This approach to a college education provides both broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest. It also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Again, it sounds to me more like a good engineering school than a liberal-arts degree: particularly the parts about practical skills, analytical and problem-solving skills, and ability to apply knowledge and skills.  The areas that many engineering schools traditionally fall down on are the “sense of social responsibility” and communication skills.

But good engineering schools do include social responsibility and communications skills in the training that they provide. The engineering undergrad curricula that I’ve had a hand in helping design (computer engineering, bioinformatics, and bioengineering at UCSC) have all included both an ethics course and a technical writing course.  Communication is also a major part of engineering senior design projects and senior theses, and there are several social impacts and sustainability courses in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC.

[Disclaimer: the ethics course was not part of our original design for the computer engineering curriculum, but was added later when the faculty was large enough to staff an engineering ethics course—the other two curricula included a bioethics course from the beginning.]

The report provides a detailed list of “selected learning outcomes”, sorted by how much more of each the employers wanted to see:

  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
  • The ability to effectively communicate orally
  • The ability to effectively communicate in writing
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources
  • The ability to innovate and be creative
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings
  • The ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions
  • Knowledge about science and technology
  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics
  • Proficiency in a language other than English
  • Knowledge about global issues and developments and their implications for the future
  • Knowledge about the role of the United States in the world
  • Knowledge about cultural diversity in America and other countries
  • Civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement
  • Knowledge about democratic institutions and values

The priorities given by this list of learning outcomes seems to match the priorities of an engineering school pretty closely (though most engineering curricula put knowledge about science and technology, innovation, and teamwork higher on the list and oral communication lower), while most liberal arts curricula address the items nearer the bottom of the list.  This is not to say that those topics should be ignored:

While employers may not be clamoring for colleges to increase their emphasis on civic learning or in teaching about global issues, they widely agree that all students should receive civic education and learn about cultures outside the U.S. Fully 82% agree (27% strongly) that every student should take classes that build civic capacity, and learning about societies and cultures outside the United States (78% total agree; 26% strongly) is widely valued for all students. Additionally, four in five agree (32% strongly) that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, regardless of a student’s chosen field of study.

Some of the other standard educational practices in engineering also are highly supported in the report:

Employers express the greatest confidence in the following practices to help students succeed beyond graduation. Large majorities believe that colleges that set expectations for students to achieve these learning outcomes will do the most to prepare them for success:

  • Develop research questions in their field and evidence-based analyses (83% will help a lot/fair amount)
  • Complete a project prior to graduation that demonstrates their acquired knowledge and skills (79% will help a lot/fair amount)
  • Complete an internship or community-based field project (78% will help a lot/fair amount)
  • Develop the skills to conduct research collaboratively (74% will help a lot/fair amount)
  • Acquire hands-on or direct experience with the methods of science (69% will help a lot/fair amount)
  • Work through ethical issues and debates to form their own judgments about the issues at stake (66% will help a lot/fair amount)

Some other fashionable memes in the education world were not so popular with employers:

  • Using new approaches that de-emphasize lectures in the classroom and instead have students listen to lectures online and devote classroom time to dialogue, debate, and problem solving in groups or alone, and with guidance from the instructor (59%)
  • Expecting students to learn about the points of view of people in societies other than those of Western Europe or North America (47%)
  • Expecting students to learn about cultural and ethnic diversity in the context of the United States (44%)
  • Expecting students to explore challenges facing society, such as environmental sustainability, religious tolerance, or human rights (42%)

Something that we at UCSC have not been preparing students for is creating an electronic portfolio of their accomplishments:

Four in five (83%) employers say an electronic portfolio of student accomplishments would be very (43%) or fairly (40%) useful to them in ensuring applicants have the skills and knowledge to succeed in their company or organization.

Overall, I feel pretty good about the match between what the engineering curricula I’ve helped design teach and what employers are looking for in college graduates.  I think that both oral and written communication skills need to be given more emphasis across the curriculum (too many faculty are unwilling to take the time to provide feedback on written work), and that the bioengineering curriculum needs more design courses, but that the basic goals of the programs I’ve helped create are in good agreement with what employers are looking for.



  1. I’ve heard the term “critical thinking” used a lot, but I don’t understand what that really means. It seems that you can’t think critically unless you have an deep understanding about the topic. But critical thinking itself as something to be learned…I’m not sure.

    Comment by Vida John — 2013 May 13 @ 20:56 | Reply

    • The term “critical thinking” gets used a lot in the humanities, often in ways that seem a bit vague. Sometimes it seems to refer to logic, sometimes to appeal to authority, sometimes to being able to order one’s sentences into a smooth flow. It always seems to have something to do with being able to create a convincing argument. In engineering, we don’t often use the term “critical thinking”. The popular phrases are “problem solving” and “engineering design”.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 May 14 @ 06:49 | Reply

  2. […] Engineering is liberal education ( […]

    Pingback by A major overgeneralization | Michelle Moriarity Witt — 2013 June 24 @ 11:25 | Reply

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