Why engineering at a liberal arts school?

That’s the real question, isn’t it? Consider the response in the box from William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineers and George M.C. Fisher, retired CEO of Eastman Kodak and Company, writing in Issues in Science and Technology.

What’s needed is a major shift in engineering education’s “center-of-gravity”, which has moved virtually not at all… Today’s student-engineers not only need to acquire the skills of their predecessors but many more, and in broader areas. As the world becomes more complex, engineers must appreciate more than ever the human dimensions of technology, have a grasp of the panoply of global issues, be sensitive to cultural diversity, and know how to communicate effectively. In short, they must be far more versatile than the traditional stereotype of the asocial geek.

 – William A. Wulf and George M.C. Fisher

This is exactly the sort of education that liberal arts schools excel at delivering. For engineers, the advantages of liberal arts education are clear. Fifty or sixty years ago, an engineer could choose to design something new out of a few metals, two or three kinds of plastic, wood, or glass. Today, advances in materials and manufacturing techniques have virtually removed the physical constraints on design. To a good approximation, we can build anything we want. The constraints on design are now cultural, economic, psychological, sociological, or environmental — the stuff of the liberal arts. On a more practical level, there is good evidence that liberally-educated engineers get promoted in large firms more quickly than their peers with degrees from technical institutions.

This is not to say that the technical side of your education will be neglected. Here at Augustana, we will provide prospective engineers with a rigorous base of knowledge in science and mathematics. Students will then be prepared to benefit from the resources of the larger schools we are affiliated with in the program. In short, the dual-degree course of study allows one to get both a well-rounded education that can address the types of problems described by Wulf and Fisher, and to develop outstanding technical skills both here at Augustana and at our partner institutions.

Besides the classroom, we offer many other opportunities for aspiring engineers. The physics department provides a number of possibilities for research, and many projects include problems that are relevant to engineers. Many engineering students have found internships during the summer at such places at NASA’s White Sands test facility and the Johnson Space Center, Peter Kiewit and Sons, Avery Weigh-tronix and the South Dakota Department of Transportation. The College has recently reached an agreement with POET, which establishes a long-term plan for Augustana students to intern with the ethanol company. Engineering plays a key role for POET as they develop new manufacturing techniques, and future students will benefit from the experience.

We close with a case study. Ashley Chipman '06 left Augustana and went on to complete her degree in Aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. During her stint in engineering school, Ashley and her Micro Gopher team (shown above) won the prestigious payload-to-weight design challenge at the International Aerowest Competition. Ashley was an essential part of the team not only for her technical abilities, but also because of her liberal arts skills, which aided her as the primary author of the award-winning design report turned in by the team. Ashley has since gone on to work with Schlumberger Limited.