The View Out the Window

Bachelors Plus 30…

A recent effort to improve engineering education in the United States, led by several prestigious engineering societies, is the proposal for an additional 30 semester credits to be added to the current requirement of an ABET accredited bachelors degree as the minimum requirement for licensure. Out of curiosity, this old geezer decided to compare the current requirements for a bachelors degree in electrical engineering at his alma mater with the required education back in the “good old days…” The result, in terms of courses taken, is shown in the table below:

Subject Then Now Now-Then
English 2 2 0
Physical Science 7.5 5.5** -2
Mathematics 4 5 +1
Electrical Engineering 19.5 15.5 -4
Other engineering 4 4* 0
Non-technical courses 5 5 0
Professional relations 1.5 0 -1.5
Free electives 2 3 +1
Total 45.5 40 -5.5

*technical electives, may be EE
**Natural Science, not necessarily physical sciences

There are not a lot of surprises in this comparison, given that today’s requirements are somewhat fewer in terms of courses (17-20 semester credits) than those of decades past. What is more interesting is the differences in course types, or what has been cut. Clearly some work in humanities/social sciences/non-technical areas has increased, probably for the good in today’s global economy where understanding different cultures is critical. The professional relations section indicates cutting introductory coordination and a senior seminar in professional relationship courses. ABET requires an outcome on ethics and professional relations, so these topics are embedded in other courses. The math requirement has increased, but many electrical engineering courses teach a lot of math that is not in the math courses, so that’s likely a wash. The significant loss is in engineering major courses, which with the vast increase in knowledge since the “good old days” does not appear positive. In all likelihood, that is the reason for the bachelors plus 30 proposals.

The other losses are in the area of the physical sciences and allowing “free” technical electives instead of insisting on non-major courses. Likely students would choose courses in their major, as opposed to other fields of engineering. Couple this with the loss of physical science courses and it would appear that graduates may not have a wide view of interdisciplinary technical issues. That is somewhat worrisome for engineers in “responsible charge” who really do need to know enough about engineering outside their field of expertise to know when to call for assistance. I’m certain that most, if not all, of us can relate a situation when difficulties were unexpectedly encountered due to a lack of sufficient knowledge to foresee the problem and call in an expert for assistance. In fact, this is the very thing the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam is intended to check.

Back when ABET changed the accreditation requirements back in 2000 they got away from prescribed courses and went with a philosophy of each institution defining objectives for graduating students and then developing a curriculum to satisfy those objectives. At that time NCEES expressed concern about that approach as it would likely lead to a larger emphasis on major specific course work at the expense of a broader engineering background. This particular aspect is not negated by requiring a masters degree (or even a PhD), as graduate work tends to be specific, not the general background that has been abbreviated.

Of course this is but one anecdotal example, but perhaps it does raise an issue that may be important to the engineering community at large. I might add that my alma mater is still considered an excellent engineering school, so the changes haven’t had a negative effect on most of their graduates (who tend to continue to graduate school or industrial careers). If this tweaks your interest and you do a similar analysis, kindly let me know the results. Comments, of course, are always welcomed.

Eric Tappert, PE 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily correspond to positions advocated by the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers.