The June Vancouver conference of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASCE)provided an ideal opportunity to find out how North American universities are addressing issues of civil engineering education.
For me, most striking was the way in which US academics are integrating humanities and social sciences in civil engineering courses. Those familiar with UK civil engineering undergraduate courses will know how difficult it can be to change any aspect of existing courses. Currently there is a debate about how to incorporate low carbon in the requirements of the Joint Board of Moderators.
History in curriculum
The ICE’s Panel for Historical Engineering Works have been urging departments to incorporate history in their curriculum.
Similarly the Health and Safety Panel have been pushing for more health and safety content.
The push back from departments has been around compromising the existing curriculum, and reducing the time to teach engineering principles.
Guidance in the US is provided by the ASCE’s civil engineering book of knowledge. This places much more emphasis on the teaching of humanities and social sciences.
Typically this is 20% of course content, and one challenge for US students on exchange programmes is obtaining access to such course modules at UK universities.
The stimulus is a broad view of what ‘liberal education’ means in the context of civil engineering. The Association of American Colleges and Universities defined this in 1998.
“What matters in liberal education is substantial content, rigorous methodology, and an active engagement with the societal, ethical and practical implications of our learning,” it said.
For the ASCE: “The need for humanities and social sciences in civil engineering education is supported by the concepts of liberal learning and the concept of critical thinking […] For civil engineers education exclusively in the areas of mathematics and science the most prominent questions are likely to be mathematical and scientific questions.
” Alternatively, a civil engineer whose education includes humanities and social sciences will bring more to the critical thinking process.”
Communicating to society
Moreover, knowledge of history and heritage helps communicate the importance of civil engineering to society.
These concepts are not unknown in engineering education.
Herbert Hoover, writing on the education of mining engineers in 1904 spoke of a “thoroughly broad groundwork of education in the humanities, as well as the sciences”, prior to the entrance to technical schools, followed by four years of theoretical education, combined with practical training, and exposure to commercial and administrative experience.
Even earlier, in his 1866 presidential address, the 13th President of the ICE John Fowler spoke of the need for “a liberal education; special education as a preparation for technical education, technical knowledge, preparation for management of works.”
Papers at the Vancouver conference gave rise to a lively discussion about how far one can take incorporating these themes in courses, with some very bold assimilation of ASCE’s guidance.