That Tom Friedman guy was on to something. His "world is flat" thesis has all kinds of educators thinking more about the role of science in society. It also reflects a growing sense in science -- and one that is not new to engineering colleges -- that the next generation of technology trail-blazers needs a broad education.
Norman Fortenberry, director of the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education, said that the move toward interdisciplinary engineering curricula is definitely a trend. “It is in response to an increasing consensus within the engineering education community,” he said, “but more importantly in the employer community.”
In a significant sign of the growth of interdisciplinary engineering approaches -- and of the profile of the discipline of engineering itself -- Harvard University is no longer content to allow that other Cambridge institution be the only one with engineering in lights. Harvard this week announced plans for the creation of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Harvard expects to approve the new school by the end of fall.
Harvard will add 30 faculty members to the 70 already in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Perhaps most importantly, as Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard said in a statement: “It marks our recognition of the profound importance of technology and applied sciences for every aspect of our society.”
Or, as Paul S. Peercy, dean of engineering at the University of Wisconsin and chair of the Engineering Dean’s Council at the American Society for Engineering Education put it: “I used to say, ‘look around, everything except the plants are engineered.’ Now I say, ‘look around, everything and some of the plants are engineered.’”
The new school of engineering will remain within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where Harvard hopes the new school will be the source of interdisciplinary work. “Engineering is becoming a liberal art,” said Michael Rutter, an engineering spokesperson at Harvard. “It’s much more broadly connected with law, finance, economics.”
Rutter added that Harvard’s approach -- which comes after over four years of discussions -- is in line with a 2004 National Academy of Engineering report: The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century . The report forecasts a 2020 where engineers are leaders in everything from government to medicine. Rutter said Harvard, along with other institutions that have seen 2020 in their minds’s eyes, seek “to alter the way engineering is taught and the way engineering is perceived, and to connect it to real world applications.”
In his opening note in the most recent issue of the DEAS newsletter , Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti quoted a question that the report posed: “Do our engineers understand enough culturally … to respond to the needs of multiple niches in a global market?”
James D. Plummer, dean of Stanford School of Engineering is working hard to make sure the answer will be “yes.”
In his recent “State of the School” address, Plummer emphasized efforts to create what he -- and at least several other deans who have apparently adopted the term -- calls “T-shaped students.” The vertical part of the T represents the traditional math and science education of an engineer, and the crossbar is all the other stuff, from marketing to sociology, that students need so they don’t end up as deep but narrowly educated toothpick students.
In an interview, Plummer said that a big part of his push is to inspire more students to turn to engineering. One of the ways Stanford is doing that is by getting freshmen and sophomores into the lab, and putting them in intro seminars of 15 or fewer students that Stanford hopes will bring students into engineering, rather than weed them out, as is the norm in cavernous g-chem lecture halls.
Plummer said that getting underclassmen in the lab where “they can get excited about pushing the state of the art,” has changed the traditional undergraduate experience from one where incoming students are faced with surviving two years of calculus, chemistry and physics before they learn what engineering is all about.
Plummer also noted Stanford’s Institute of Design  – a.k.a. “d.school,” -- where engineers can partner with students from across the university to take on big picture problems. Rather than the typical senior project where four electrical engineers collaborate, a team in the d.school might be made up of an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, a sociology student and a business student.
“They’d take a problem like thinking about designing a product useful for making lighting for people in the developing world,” Plummer said. “Together they’d think about what the product ought to do, with cultural input.”
On the heels of the National Academies of Science’s “Rising Above the Gathering Storm"  report, engineering competitiveness has been all the rage in the halls of Congress of late. But, like Stanford, the Georgia Institute of Technology didn’t need the “Storm” report to see the future.
Georgia Tech created an Office of Interdisciplinary Programs in the 1980s. “I’m not sure I can think of a building [that has been built at Georgia Tech] in the last 10 years that has been purely a disciplinary building,” said Don P. Giddens, dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering.
Giddens said it’s all part of an attempt make sure that “our students don’t become ‘commodity engineers,’” or the type who can do a calculation or technical drawing that is easily outsourced. “That means staying at the cutting edge of new knowledge,” he added.
In his book, Friedman talks about Georgia Tech , quoting the president, and mentioning the institution's push to recruit engineering students with interests in things like music and film.
Richard Taber, a program officer at the National Academy of Engineering, pointed out that interdisciplinary approaches also help to tap the nation’s reservoir of female talent.
While in a single generation women have entered the formerly male-dominated arenas of law and medicine, the numbers are still lagging in engineering.
Taber pointed to the University of Colorado at Boulder, which he said has had some success recruiting women by focusing on interdisciplinary work in the first year. “After two years of calculus and chemistry, you can get the feeling you’re a number cruncher,” he said. “Female students don’t see the impact on society. It’s easier to see when, during the first year, you’re designing a prosthetic arm for an Afghan child who had it removed rather roughly by a land mine.”