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Certificate program to enhance engineers' liberal arts education

With both the physical distance and differences in curriculum, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students and those in the humanities, arts and social sciences might feel like they attend different universities.

But next fall, a few UW-Madison professors hope to show engineering students that they have a bigger place in the non-engineering parts of campus. The team is creating a certificate program that will encourage engineering students to fulfill their humanities breadth requirements with a series of courses that relate both to one another and back to the role of engineering in society.

The program, Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society (ISSES), will be run out of the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies. While the certificate program is open to all undergraduate students, it is designed specifically for engineering students, who are generally required to take 15 credits in humanities and social science.

Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell (large image)

“Instead of taking these courses in smorgasbord fashion, we are being more intentional in terms of getting students to think about what courses may mean in a coherent group and then how they can build on each other,” says UW-Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Jeffrey Russell.

After submitting a declaration of intent, ISSES students will be required to take STS 201, Where Science Meets Society, before moving onto a cluster of courses relating to a specific focus. Students choose from a list of focuses that include design, leadership and ethics, while also having the option of proposing their own theme.

ISSES coordinators Russell, Sarah Pfatteicher and Daniel Kleinman began brainstorming ideas for the certificate program this summer, motivated by a College of Engineering effort to redesign their undergraduate program. The proposal has been submitted for campus approval and they hope to start the first cohort in fall 2009.

Sarah K.A. Pfatteicher

Sarah K.A. Pfatteicher (large image)

“Part of a college education ought to be about developing a well-rounded set of skills and exploring different ways of making your brain work,” says Pfatteicher, member of the Holtz Center and an assistant dean in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “The kinds of skills you develop in a highly technical, scientific or quantitative class just don't use the same brain muscles that you use in a sociology class or a philosophy class or a history class.”

Amanda Ward, a first-year graduate student in sociology who has helped gather information for the proposal, agrees. She says the program will benefit “engineering students who must fulfill their liberal arts requirements but may not know what courses they want to take and may need a little direction in figuring out how these courses will be useful to their engineering careers.”

Providing engineering students with a broader understanding of the humanities is also predicted to benefit their career paths in a changing world.

“The problems that engineers explore are never strictly technical,” says Kleinman, Holtz Center director and rural sociology professor. “They always have social implications and social precursors. To get engineers to think about these in advance of actually engaging in the technical task at hand is going to produce better engineers, better educated citizens.”

Russell points out that the challenges the world is facing today require solutions that combine the knowledge of several fields and disciplines.

“I think the role of science and technology is much different than it was 25 years ago, because if you look at the scale of the problems we have looking forward, they are very significant,” Russell says, adding that the energy crisis, sustainability and water are some of the biggest issues. “That's what we're about, we educate leaders who are going to go beyond the boundaries of this institution and this state and actually make a difference in the world.̵

Furthermore, Kleinman hopes the certificate program will allow students whose interests go beyond the technical aspects of engineering to fulfill their learning potential.

“It's not just about engineering, it's about science, it's about humanities,” Kleinman says. “Neither world really understands the other. ... They could benefit by a bridging of cultures quite considerably.”

Pfatteicher remembers a talented freshman leaving the engineering program because she felt she wouldn't be able to cultivate her interest in philosophy along with the credit requirements of the engineering curriculum.

“I want a student like that to see engineering as a place where they can do technical stuff and philosophical stuff,” Pfatteicher says, “where they can think about social issues and technical issues and don't feel like they have to choose between this side of campus and that side of campus.”

Kiera Wiatrak