In the March/April 2013 issue of GeoStrata, the official publication of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the following was noted in its review of geotechnical (soil mechanics and foundations) education:
The national trend of falling credit requirements for the attainment of a bachelor’s degree was cited by many as a challenge facing geotechnical engineering education. On average, in 1920, 151 credit hours were required to obtain a BSCE or equivalent, compared with 130 credit hours today. This downward trend, coupled with greater emphasis being placed upon teaching professional or “soft” skills, such as the ability to work on teams and communicate orally at the undergraduate level, has placed tremendous pressure on civil engineering departments to cut credits and technical content. The result of these trends is that most students have only one required undergraduate course in soil mechanics, and geology and foundation design are often electives.
This is an issue that doesn’t get a great deal of publicity, but it’s one that, with current trends, could adversely affect the quality of undergraduate engineers in the U.S. And it’s not unique to civil or geotechnical engineering either.
Let’s start with the credit hours limitation, which is primarily an issue with state universities (and most engineering schools are state schools). Most states give varying levels of subsidy to their universities, and the general trend of that share is declining. Usually the level of subsidy is based upon the number of credit hours being pursued at any given time. One way of limiting that subsidy is to limit the number of credit hours a student needs to get an undergraduate degree, and that limit is usually around 120. (A wrinkle on that solution is to allow students to take more courses but pay the out-of-state rate for them, but that gets very expensive very quickly).
Most engineering schools are clever enough to work with that limitation per se. But when they organise their curricula, they run into another roadblock to success: the upward creeping “GenEd” (General Education) requirements. As the quotation above noted, the virtue of these is touted as inculcating “to work on teams and communicate orally”, but this is also touted based on the need for “well-rounded” undergraduates, a phrase that’s haunted this blog before. Engineering colleges periodically go to the mat and oppose further expansion of GenEd requirements to keep their own space in the curriculum; it’s an ongoing issue.
To look at this from another perspective, consider the saga of the Brit (I can still say that, the SNP hasn’t succeeded just yet) David Clements and his saga of obtaining a Professional Engineering license in the U.S.. One impediment in his quest was the following, from the State of Florida:
So my evaluation essentially noted that I had more than enough hours is mathematics and engineering, but that I was slightly deficient in basic science (this is the stuff we learnt in secondary school, which doesn’t count in your accreditation) and deficient in humanities and social sciences. Apparently, history really is an important aspect of becoming an engineer!
An aside: he ends up getting his license in Texas. About this he says the following:
For a state that most of us might see as relatively archaic, they’re actually quite forward-thinking thinking when it comes to their board of Professional Engineers.
The reason for their progressive thinking is simple: the oil industry, which has been a multi-national affair from the start, as I noted here.
But I digress…a reasonable question is this: why is it that other parts of the world (and the UK isn’t alone in this regard) don’t see humanities at the undergraduate level as important for engineers (and presumably others in the hard sciences) as we do? Anyone who has contact with graduate engineering students in the U.S. who come from other places (and that’s about half of them) and were educated there know that they have high technical competency, which is the point of undergraduate engineering education. Their biggest obstacle is their English proficiency, which widely varies. So why are we so obsessed with larding their curriculum with the arts and social sciences the way we are, especially with the emphasis on STEM we have today?
The answer to that question isn’t simple but it isn’t very encouraging either.
The single biggest problem–and Clements unintentionally touches on it–is that much of our university curricula are designed to make up for the deficiencies of our primary and secondary education system. The ability to read and write effectively, to work in teams (if that’s a big deal, there are situations where it is not) and to learn about the world and culture around them, are things that should be done deals by the time students walk for their high school diploma. That’s especially true since even public schools have a “college prep” track. But that’s not happening, not to the extent it needs to.
Part of the problem, of course, is the trade unionisation of our teachers, which took place at the beginning of the last century, complete with sequestration of their higher education system. But another part of the problem is the way public schools in the U.S. are governed. If you’ve ever read American prose from the nineteenth century, it’s tough going. It’s even tougher when one considers that most of the writers never made it to university. As time has gone on and the country prospered, I think that complacency has set in with many of the long-time residents who inhabit the school boards. They just don’t see the value of a rigourous education at the (especially) secondary level, which itself is a way to run down merit. Americans have never been ones to define their culture by their literature and arts, so the forces that make Europeans pull their socks up and stand straight, so to speak, are very weak here. Unfortunately what we have now is a vast throng of functional illiterates, and the universities, who have sold the country on the idea that college is essential, struggle to bring people up to speed when it’s too late to do it right.
With engineering schools deficiencies in incoming reading and writing skills are compounded by deficiencies in math skills. Coupled with the limited curriculum space and you have the makings of a serious problem.
But there’s another factor at work here. For all the lip service people give to STEM these days, we’re not as scientifically minded society as we’d like to think we are. The left’s endless bawling over climate change and evolution come to mind, but there are plenty of other Luddite causes out there: anti-vaxxers, nuclear power fear-mongers (which make doing anything about climate change all that much harder), GMO fanatics, religionist environmentalists, and so on. One of the things the “New Atheists” promised us was the abolition of all else but science. I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of achieving that goal, but I think that, in the heart of hearts of the non-scientific community in and out of academia, there’s a fear that smart STEM people really could fix much of what they tell us is unfixable, or see things a different way and come up with a different solution (and turn some sacred cows into hamburger in the bargain). So they try to water down the curriculum to take the edge off the people who doggedly pursue an engineering education (and, trust me, it takes persistence to get through it).
The result is yet another levelling of a group of achievers. Throw in the fact that many of those achievers are Asians, and you have the making of yet another way in which merit is run down in these United States.
It’s tempting to round out this piece by calling for the restoration of STEM courses to STEM curricula, but as impervious as our political and bureaucratic system is to common sense, it’s probably not very useful.