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Advocating Breadth In A World Of Depth

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Multidisciplinary Engineering Programs II

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.138.1 - 10.138.7

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Paper Authors

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Steven VanderLeest

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Advocating Breadth in a World of Depth Steven H. VanderLeest Department of Engineering, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI

1 Abstract A typical four-year engineering curriculum is chock-full of courses, concepts, and ideas. However, four years is simply not enough time to explore the vast landscape of engineering knowledge thoroughly. Thus trade-offs are made selecting material within a course as well as selecting courses within a curriculum. One of these trade-offs is depth versus breadth. At the extremes, the specialist is too narrow while the generalist is too shallow. Most curricula locate themselves between these two poles, with general engineering programs leaning somewhat towards breadth. One might think that students who choose general programs would be appreciative of the breadth of the curriculum. However, even here some students object to required courses that are not immediately and obviously applicable to their anticipated career path. How can we convince students that breadth is just as important, if not more so, than depth? As a case study, I describe my approach in an introductory electrical engineering course that is taught to students interested in a variety of engineering disciplines – many of whom are not necessarily interested in electrical engineering per se. Using a variety of pedagogical and curricular techniques, I dispel a number of myths related to the breadth versus depth debate.

2 Introduction The classic trade-off between breadth and depth is sometimes summarized as follows: the generalist knows less and less about more and more, while the specialist knows more and more about less and less. In the extreme one either knows nothing about everything or everything about nothing. Every engineering program must stake its claim somewhere along this continuum, and general engineering programs tend to provide a little more breadth and thus a little less depth. This paper provides some justification for the choice of breadth. In section 3 some of the curricular constraints that force the trade-off are examined. Section 4 compares some of the advantages of depth to those of breadth. Sections 5 and 6 provide some specific methods of persuading students of the value of breadth. Section 7 concludes with some thoughts about the broader questions students deem vital.

3 Curriculum Constraints Four years is the expected time to attain the entry level degree in engineering. There have been occasional calls for five-year programs, but very few institutions have taken the leap. The extra year seems like a very long time to most high school students choosing a college, so in order to attract students, a five-year program must either have some special focus, must be from a well- known school, or needs very good marketing. Of the 683 degree programs in the ASEE college profile database for 20021, 438 provided both a nominal program length and indication of ABET-accreditation. (There were 245 entries in the database that either did not report their program length or were not ABET-accredited.) Of the 438 degrees with both items (from 109 institutions), only a handful indicated a nominal program length of five years – 15 degrees from

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

VanderLeest, S. (2005, June), Advocating Breadth In A World Of Depth Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon.

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