"Our students always have had the advantage of a
liberal arts education through the core curriculum," said Morton B.
Friedman, Vice Dean of the School, "but we are taking it several steps
further by bringing the skills of writing and speaking into the
Engineering curriculum and by offering first-year students an
introduction to engineering with a human dimension."
"We want to give students more than just technical ability," said Dean Friedman, "We want to give them communication skills and an opportunity to sample engineering in a global context."
The new courses are part of the School's response to a National Science Foundation initiative to improve engineering education. In 1992, the NSF established the Gateway Coalition, a group of seven engineering schools (Polytechnic University, The Cooper Union, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, Drexel University and the University of South Carolina) to share information and educational initiatives.
"The NSF, through the Gateway Coalition, provided the impetus for change," said Dean Friedman, "and Columbia Engineering is in a unique position to implement these changes immediately. We have the liberal arts resources of the University at our fingertips." The changes are being made using NSF's funding of more than $1.5 million, and an even greater investment of money from the University and School, with gifts of hardware from several industry sources.
First- and second-year engineering students now have a choice of nine introductory level engineering courses to help them focus on their interests. "These courses present the discipline in the broader context," said Dean Friedman, "not just the technical aspects but also the social ramifications. Even the course names, such as Physics of the Human Body; Materials for the 21st Century; Design of Buildings, Bridges and Spacecraft; Electrical Engineering Laboratory; Engineering in Medicine, and Chemical Processing in Modern Society, indicate that social issues will be addressed as well as the obvious scientific ones."
Venturing outside the traditional engineering areas, the School is involved in two non-engineering courses: ChemWrite, part of the first-year required chemistry course to strengthen written communication skills, and Professional Presentation for Engineers, an elective course to improve public speaking skills.
After reading books such as T. Rex and the Crater of Doom and Atoms in the Family, students write a brief essay that is submitted to a graduate student in the English Department for review. After revision, the student resubmits it to the teaching assistant for a grade. The goal is to improve the writing ability of engineers at the beginning of their college career.
Students in the speech course give an oral presentation weekly and receive feedback and suggestions for improvement.
"Our alumni survey results show how important our alumni think communication skills are in the modern workplace," said Dean Friedman. "We know that employers want engineers who can write and speak well. We're trying to prepare them to do that."