Mastering Engineering

July 28, 2006

Unlike doctors and lawyers, engineers are ready for work right out of college. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a hot topic of debate among engineers and engineering faculty members.

C. Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, and a professor emeritus of chemical engineering, wants to see a change in the way undergraduate engineers are educated.

He sees engineering as a discipline in renaissance, as engineers increasingly enter the public policy, business and law sectors, or at least work more closely with professionals in those fields.

"I would like to see people with an engineering education go into government," King said. But King argues that the narrow, rigorous program required for an undergraduate engineering degree limits the amount of education engineering students get in other disciplines. King hopes to see the master’s degree, rather than the bachelor’s, become the true entry level degree for professional engineers.

In King’s view, the undergraduate engineering program -- “pre-engineering,” he calls it, like pre-med or pre-law -- should have a lighter engineering load so that students can get a broader liberal arts education. “The abilities of engineers to move into other areas … [is] limited by the narrowness and inward-looking nature of their education,” King says in a paper titled “ Engineers Should Have a College Education,” on the Berkeley center's Web site. A version of the essay appeared in the summer 2006 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. “Engineering is typically the one undergraduate area that is not subject, or is much less subject, to the general education requirements that are common for other undergraduates.”

Making the master’s degree the entry level degree would open up room in the undergraduate curriculum, King said, which is now chock full of the requisite science and engineering courses for professional practice. King makes some very similar suggestions to those made by the National Academy of Engineering in its 2005 report, “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” which calls for a more liberal education for engineers, and greater prevalence and recognition of the worth of professional master’s degrees.  “We’re recognizing that, because of the very fast expansion of knowledge in science and engineering,” said Richard Taber, a program officer at the National Academy of Engineering, “there’s too much for a student to learn in that area in a four year degree.”

But critics cite students’ past resistance to five-year B.S./M.S. programs, and say that graduate study is often unnecessary for engineers, and would turn many students away from engineering altogether.

Don P. Giddens, dean of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering, said that he’s “asked a number of people in industry if they’re unhappy with the bachelor’s degree students, and the answer is ‘no.’ I have certainly not seen anything in my conversations that would indicate that industry sees the master’s being the entry level degree.” Because of that, Giddens added, engineering shouldn’t be compared with medicine, a discipline in which there once was a call for greater training.

Giddens noted that members of Congress, business leaders and faculty members have been discussing whether America has enough engineers. “Everybody agrees that we don’t have enough U.S. students,” Giddens said. He added that he thinks it would be a counterproductive recruiting strategy to tell high school students “how great engineering is, but by the way you’ve got to go the extra year before you can do engineering.”

King said that some students may be discouraged by the prospect of an extra year or two, but that other students would be encouraged. King said that more students might give engineering a try if it wouldn’t preclude them from investigating other interests in college. He noted that many Berkeley engineering students who responded to the University of California’s Undergraduate Experience Survey “bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t take other classes.” King added that, like pre-med and pre-law, pre-engineering would draw more people -- and perhaps more women and minorities -- to engineering. “Then they can decide later in their education if they want to go on to the master’s degree,” he said.

Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, said that “there are good arguments for making the master’s degree the key professional level degree,” but that, when it comes to technical expertise, “even a master’s degree is of no use when you’re 10 years past it.”

Huband said that it is more important to make sure that students develop a commitment to lifelong learning and updating their skills. He said he supports the notion of giving engineering students a liberal education, or even having broader engineering majors for people who do not intend to be career engineers. Huband noted that, already, half as many master’s degrees as bachelor’s degrees are awarded each year.

George Peterson, executive director of ABET, which accredits engineering programs, took exception to King’s suggestion that undergraduate engineering programs are narrow. Peterson said that there’s a clear national trend toward making undergraduate engineering education more interdisciplinary. “I do understand we need to add more,” Peterson said,  but using the “pre-engineering” label, or demanding a master’s degree, he said, “has the potential to turn a lot of people away.”

As for the cost of the master’s degree to students who take a broader undergraduate engineering program and then later decide to be engineers, “it has to be recognized as an investment,” King said. 

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