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An Optimal Engineering Education: The BSE at a Liberal Arts College

W. Wayne Wentzheimer, Gayle E. Ermer, Jennifer J. VanAntwerp,
Steven H. VanderLeest,
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan


How best do we educate an engineer whose career could last over 40 years? This paper examines the structure of the BSE program at Calvin College, a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Midwest. This engineering program emphasizes breadth, contextualization, and normative design.
For several decades, most engineering schools followed a trend of ever increasing focus on the details of one particular sub-discipline of engineering. Our program emphasizes breadth not only across engineering disciplines, but also uses a solid foundation in the liberal arts that provides the broad worldview on which effective leadership arises. Our outcome-based assessment of recent years appears to reflect an industry need for more breadth and thus less depth. While depth provides good preparation for entry level positions and the first 5 years or so of a career, contextualization better supports the full career span, which requires continual self-learning and often has leadership opportunities in technical and non-technical areas.

While engineering analytical skills are important, good design requires good communication, critical evaluation, creativity, and integrative multidisciplinary problem-solving approaches – skills that a liberal arts foundation provide. Integrative design implies normative design, i.e., design with ethical considerations intrinsic to the entire process.

The emphasis on broad fundamentals and normative design is not without challenges. This approach tends to generate programs that require more courses, are less flexible, and are less recognized than more specialized programs. We conclude by addressing the challenges and opportunities faced by our and similar programs.

W. Wayne Wentzheimer, Gayle E. Ermer, Jennifer J. Van Antwerp, and Steven H. VanderLeest, “An Optimal Engineering Education: The BSE at a Liberal Arts College,” Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June, 2004.

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