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Engineering and the Human Spirit

Domenico Grasso

Melding the Two Cultures

Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson once asserted that "the greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and the humanities." At Smith, this challenge has become the organizing principle for our engineering program. We make it clear to our students that engineering is the application of science to enrich the human condition. Indeed, a sense of social relevance and social responsibility pervades the entire engineering curriculum.

But how can we teach these students everything they need to know in just four years? By handing out a lot of homework? Probably not. Instead, the faculty tries to help students hone their critical thinking using techniques usually associated with study in the liberal arts and through structured problem solving, which is typically associated with an engineering education. In this way, we provide students with the tools and the desire to be continuous learners. Thus, long after their detailed recollections of the Navier-Stokes equation and the Pieta have faded, Smith engineering graduates will still retain an ability to think critically and to learn more about a subject on their own.

How do we teach them those skills? The Smith faculty does not apply one particular method, recognizing that there are a variety of modes of reasoning and styles of presentation that prove to be effective. We feel that the more exposure students have to various ways of thinking, the better equipped they will be to succeed.

So, rather than forcing them to pick one specialty from a smorgasbord of engineering degree programs, we offer a single degree, a B.S. in Engineering Science, which focuses on the fundamentals of all the engineering disciplines. With rigorous study in the three basic areas—mechanics, electrical systems and thermochemical processes—students learn to apply first principles to structure engineering solutions to a variety of problems. Complementing this technical rigor, our faculty expects that the students' work will be informed by the diversity of thought that they have acquired from their classes in the humanities and social sciences. In short, the engineering program at Smith is designed to diversify the ranks of America's engineering professionals (and of those who sit at the highest levels of government and corporate America) in intellect as well as gender.

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