It is certainly a truism to note that when engineering or computer science graduates obtain their first jobs, they will do so primarily on the strength of their technical knowledge. However, when they seek to advance in their careers, they will need to rely on a different set of skills, what many in the educational arena refer to as the “soft” technical career skills: having the ability to communicate ideas well to non-technical people, being aware of societal and global issues, and knowing how to manage people and motivate them to work well with one another. Those attributes cannot be gained through understanding complex mathematical equations or computer programs. Instead they are nurtured through an education that exposes them to literature, history, culture and even art and music.
The old ideal of the liberal arts education that inspired much of American and European education in previous centuries, suffers the risk of being marginalized in a job-focused collegiate experience. It still has value, even at the utilitarian level of job advancement. Not that cash value should be reckoned its true value, but it is somewhat ironic that technology’s centrality in much of the world economy cannot replace the humanist treasury of knowledge and wisdom. People still need convincing that while some new technology is important, we need to weigh the effects of that technology on society and be aware of the cultural context in which technology is deployed.
We at the DeMatteis School have striven to preserve a strong liberal arts component in our programs, encouraging students to take courses in ethics, history, literature and other subjects that will help them to graduate as more intellectually rounded persons. (Interestingly, our students are twice as likely as students in other majors to be in the Honors College, an intensive liberal arts inculturation program at Hofstra.) We take seriously the task of examining the entire range of educational experiences we offer our students.
Of course the same holds true for our colleagues in other institutions. Therefore, it was a pleasure to be able to host the Fall meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional American Society for Engineering Education Conference in late October. Representatives from over 20 different schools offered stimulating thoughts about how they are innovating in the classroom, in the assessment of their student outcomes, and a multitude of other topics. Informal gatherings of faculty and school administrators rounded out the two days of discussions and sharing of ideas. We would like to think that we showcased our programs well through several workshops highlighting interesting initiatives we have undertaken in first year engineering and in the expansion of mechatronics through sequences of courses taken by our mechanical engineering students.
The point is that we cannot stagnate as programs. Obviously technology itself is dynamic, and curricula must continually address new developments. But I am talking more about the bigger picture of how we educate new generations of students. The balance between the humanities and the sciences constitutes an ever-present tension that must be maintained in a college education if graduates are to take their place in the world. That is a challenge, but it is one of the many challenges that makes participation in this enterprise so enjoyable for me and for my colleagues.