Engineering New Engineering Degrees

Harvard develops two new courses of study.

Evelyn Hu and Joost Vlassak

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)—continuing its accelerated growth as a locus of teaching and research since its 2007 elevation from a division to school status within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—has proposed two new undergraduate concentrations. At the April 10 FAS faculty meeting, McKay professor of applied physics and of electrical engineering Evelyn Hu unveiled an electrical engineering (EE) concentration (she is SEAS’s area dean for electrical engineering; her research focuses on nanoscale electronics and photonics) and McKay professor of materials engineering Joost Vlassak presented the planned mechanical engineering (ME) concentration (he is area dean of materials science and mechanical engineering; his research focuses on thin films and integrated circuits).

SEAS already offers an undergraduate concentration in engineering sciences, with options to pursue an A.B. or an S.B. degree (the former requiring 16 semester-long half-courses and the latter 20 half-courses), or an A.B./S.M. option. Within engineering sciences, students may pursue substantive “tracks” in biomedical sciences and engineering; electrical engineering and computer science; engineering physics; environmental sciences and engineering; and mechanical and materials sciences and engineering. Apart from the engineering-sciences program, SEAS also offers concentrations in these fields (each with A.B. or A.B./S.M. options):

  • applied mathematics;
  • biomedical engineering; and
  • computer science.

For those defined fields of study, the requirements vary from 10 to 15 half-courses.

The demanding S.B. program, accredited since 1962, has prospered of late; according to data shared with the faculty, the number of concentrators has risen from 13 in the class of 2009 to 47 declared concentrators in the class of 2014. With that growth, Hu explained, has come greater student interest in exploring the EE and ME fields more deeply. Both are considered foundational to the engineering sciences, she said, and are evolving rapidly as they engage with real-world problems. Hu noted that electrical engineers study not only traditional issues involving transistor design and operations, but also the operation of neurons, computer switches built with carbon nanotubes, signal processing in the brain, inkjet printers, and the microscopic sensors that control automobile airbags. An EE concentration, she said, would thus be consistent with SEAS’s expanded mission, with the field, and with demonstrated student interest—and could be created relatively easily from the current S.B. track. The new concentration could also make the S.B. engineering sciences curriculum more flexible for students who remain in it.

Vlassak echoed these points in presenting the proposed ME concentration. With the addition of a heat-transfer course, he said, SEAS would be ready to offer all the ME concentration requirements. The curriculum would aim to incorporate design practice more directly  than is now the case, and the discipline's applications—in energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, and other fields—are many and manifest.

From the student perspective, completing an accredited S.B. degree in EE or ME would be useful qualifications for professional licensure and subsequent employment as a practicing engineer. The accrediting body, now formally known as ABET (formerly, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), is the external source for the 20-half-course requirement.

Professional vs. Liberal-Arts Education

The ensuing fas discussion revealed a C.P. Snow-like “two cultures” schism—not exactly between humanities and sciences, but along an aligned fissure: the requirements for undergraduates’ professional engineering education versus a curriculum that exposes them  broadly to the liberal arts.

Among the faculty members who rose to speak, some voiced concern that the S.B. concentrations would require those 20 half-courses, compared to typical requirements of 12 to 14 such courses—the latter course load for those who elect to pursue honors within their concentration. (Undergraduates take 32 half-courses, including a semester of expository writing, eight General Education courses—some of which can be offset by concentration requirements—and in some cases two semesters of foreign-language instruction.) The faculty’s Educational Policy Committee has  pushed hard in the past decade for departments to pare concentration requirements so undergraduates are freer to explore diverse fields, take a freshman seminar, consider studying abroad, or assemble the courses needed to complete a “secondary field” (a minor, in effect).

Hu noted that S.B. has mandated the 20 half-course requirement for a half-century and, in her experience, students have managed both their engineering courses and their other interests capably. She added that, within the S.B. courses, students were exposed not only to engineering content, but also to design experiences, team-based problem-solving, and other kinds of learning and training that were generally applicable, and that corresponded to work done in other College courses. Nor, noted another speaker, are S.B. students exempt from the College’s general liberal-arts requirements (Expos, the General Education courses).

Another speaker noted that Harvard students choose their courses of study after enrolling: they are admitted to the College generally, not to SEAS or specifically for an engineering program, as at other institutions. FAS dean Michael Smith, a computer scientist, observed that for those who want both engineering-sciences training and more curricular freedom, the 16-half-course A.B. option exists.

Some faculty members requested data on S.B. students’ actual courses of study: whether they take a fifth course in some terms or an extra semester, or actually do go abroad (despite difficulties in finding comparable engineering courses if they wish to take a semester at another institution, as opposed to pursuing a summer research or internship experience). Some of those data will be brought before the faculty at a subsequent meeting, when a vote on approving the new concentrations is in order (the April 10 presentation was for discussion purposes only).

Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds, an historian of science, noted that engineering programs always involve demanding course loads. The key to making the program work in Harvard’s liberal-arts context, she said, was superb advising—so interested students will be able to pick the program that is right for them and make the most of the other course choices they have. Harvard, she said, is offering undergraduate engineering sciences within a distinctively liberal-arts setting; it is not, she reminded her colleagues, an institute, like MIT.

Hu, concluding the discussion, said students who come to Harvard to study engineering do so expecting to take advantage of the College’s broader curriculum, preferring it to those offered by institutions that are more, or exclusively, focused on professional engineering training. She urged her faculty colleagues to trust future EE and ME students to make the right choices in an institution where they could, in fact, receive a broader, distinctive kind of education.

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