The Mechanical Engineering faculty see many positive elements in the Task Force report, and we are actively considering how some of its recommendations may be used to improve our program. Here, I write to present our concerns about a single aspect of the Task Force report: the “take 5 out of 6 columns” proposal for the new Science, Math, and Engineering (SME) requirement.
A typical undergraduate program includes four subjects per term for four years, for a total of 32 subjects. Our experience has been that a substantial number of students get into academic trouble if they go beyond this level of effort. As a result, we regard 32 subjects as a reasonable maximum size for a degree program. The three SB degrees in our department each require 32 subjects, plus a ½ subject taught during IAP of the sophomore year.
After deducting four unrestricted electives and eight HASS GIRs from a 32-subject program, 20 subjects remain: eight within the new SME GIR, and 12 within departmental programs.
For any accredited engineering degree, ABET requires the equivalent of 12 engineering subjects and eight basic math and science subjects. Here is where difficulties arise.
The SMEs as proposed contain two columns in which some subjects may have engineering content (Computation/Engineering subjects and Project-based subjects). In the 5-out-of-6 variant of the SME requirement, students could take zero, one, or two GIR engineering subjects; and students may have anywhere from 6 to 8 basic math and science GIR subjects. Engineering departments are therefore challenged in using a 12-subject program to ensure that the ABET mandated engineering and math/science content is present. The solutions are unattractive and largely contrary to the Task Force goal of increased flexibility:
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In contrast, a 5-out-of-5 model could allow a predictable mixture of science and engineering preparation at the GIR level, while retaining student flexibility within some columns and without driving the departmental programs toward growth. This is most easily explained by examples.
These arrangements would each allow us to meet accreditation standards without completely eliminating flexibility. In each example, by the way, the Course 2 degree would have to give up one or two 2.xyz subjects to avoid growth; however, the new GIRs in computation and engineering projects have the potential to mitigate programmatic damage. Note that: each example separates engineering from the computation column; each retains 8.02, Chemical Science, and Life Science as GIRs, the last two reflecting the general consensus of ME’s faculty; and each requires 18.03 either as a GIR or as a departmental subject.
A final variation that I will mention are the 4-out-of-4 models that have also been suggested. The deterministic nature of such models would allow us to construct departmental programs meeting the essential requirements outlined above.
In its 5-out-of-6 proposal, the Task Force specifically recommends against letting departments specify all five options. Indeed, a 5-out-of-6 model in which departments may specify all five columns looks a lot like a 5-out-of-5 model. It differs from a true 5-out-of-5 model in its increased opportunity for freshman to choose SME subjects that would not be applicable to a departmental major chosen later on. It would also allow departments to exclude some fundamental areas, such as Chemical Science, in favor of areas that are less obviously fundamental, such as Project-based subjects.
In summary, the ME faculty strongly endorses a reduction in the number of columns in the SME GIRs. From our perspective, each of the 5-out-of-5 examples described above can be made to work; and as it becomes clear what subjects might go into the four proposed new SME GIRs (Math, Computation, Engineering, and Projects), we will undoubtedly develop a preference for one or two of them.
John H. Lienhard is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
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