Engineering and the liberal arts at Principia

 

Principia College has had a dual degree engineering program for over fifty years. It has long sought a way for students who are interested in engineering to remain on campus for all four years, instead of only spending two years at Principia and two elsewhere.

Following the announcement of a new four-year engineering program beginning fall 2015, the student body learned of the sociology major’s demise. Though the two events were unconnected, they raise the questions: How does Principia justify the development of an engineering department while it simultaneously reduces the number of majors that are traditionally part of a liberal arts program? And how does it still maintain its designation as a liberal arts college?

The decision to create an engineering program was largely based on growing demand from college applicants. According to Dean of Academics Dr. Joseph Ritter, prospective students have often requested a four-year engineering program. In 2001 alone, nine out of 10 prospective Trustee Scholars chose not to attend Principia, at least in part because they found its engineering offerings wanting.

Humanities United head and philosophy professor Chris Young corroborated Ritter’s assertion, saying, “We have, over the years, heard from many students who wanted an engineering program, and went elsewhere because [Principia was lacking].”

Principia is not alone in its decision to cater to applicant needs. Since the economic downturn in 2008, small colleges across the country have turned to the creation of career-based programs like engineering as a means of drawing greater numbers of applications.

Already, Ritter said, a class that details career options in the engineering world has far more registered participants than it has in previous years. The experiences of other similarly sized colleges, such as Benedictine College, indicate that engineering programs can significantly swell admissions numbers.

Engineering is not the only program with that sort of appeal to students. Other career-based programs, such as business administration or mass communications, are increasingly appealing to students (and parents) who are concerned about job prospects.

According to Young, the largest majors on campus are currently business administration, education, and mass communications, all of which cater towards teaching specific career skills. As College president Dr. Jonathan Palmer said, “The US Department of Education, which provides federal financial aid dollars, is getting tighter and tighter about finding proof of your utility [as an education institution]. So I think it is getting harder and harder to prove that for majors like a history major.”

Some wonder what the consequences for changing student major choices and shifting Principia’s course offerings will be. While the engineering program might be beneficial for college admissions, does Principia lose something from pursuing a more technically based program instead of bolstering existing departments like the art history department or the economics department?

As Palmer says, Principia’s curriculum choices are “not a zero-sum game.” The funds that created the engineering department would not necessarily have been used to add additional language classes or hire another professor for a floundering department. However, it is difficult to believe that there is not at least some spillover.

“I think this is a conversation we always have. Is [Principia’s program] a liberal arts education? Or is it liberal arts plus?” asked Palmer. Traditional liberal arts educations also do not include computer science or business administration course offerings. The introduction of an engineering program is merely one part of a trend at Principia.

Some, Palmer and Ritter included, would argue that engineering curricula often contain important elements of a liberal arts education. Ritter said, “The skills that are valued in the liberal arts are exactly the skills that are valued in engineering: whether it’s aesthetics, critical thinking, problem solving, or teamwork.”

However, Young said that other countries recognize the importance of the liberal arts, even as the United States has begun to shift away from that model. “China is recognizing that people who are really good at STEM are not always the most creative and innovative thinkers, so they [China] are not always moving forward. They look to our old model of education, which we seem to be fleeing away from, as the model that they need to adopt. So somewhere we need to find a balance. I think we do need engineering, but we don’t need it at the cost of something else.”

However, an engineering program still presents certain risks, despite all of its potential benefits and the argument that it can have a symbiotic relationship with a liberal arts curriculum. Despite the early interest that they garner, both Ritter and Young said that engineering programs traditionally have massive dropout rates. Even engineering professor Chris O’Riordan-Adjah said, “We have a lot of [students] transition [from engineering] into either business or education.” The interest in engineering may be present, but in order for the creation of the program to be worthwhile, that interest must persist in the long term.

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