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Liberal Learning Revisited: A Historical Examination of the Underlying Reasons, Frustrations, and Continued Prospects for Engineering and Liberal Arts Integration

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Liberal Education Revisited: Five Historical Perspectives

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1015.1 - 22.1015.20

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Paper Authors


Atsushi Akera Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Atsushi Akera is a historian of engineering education and an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer. His publications include Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineering, and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research (MIT Press, 2006).

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“Liberal Learning Revisited: A Historical Examination of the Underlying Reasons, Frustrations, andProspects for Engineering and Liberal Arts Integration”Atsushi Akera (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)AbstractIn December of 1968, the American Society for Engineering Education issued a report, Liberal Learningfor the Engineer, as directed by Sterling P. Olmstead. Olmstead’s report was just one in a series ofreports—organized studies, carried out within in the society’s well honed investigative tradition—thatsought to bring about greater integration between engineering and liberal education. Earlier studiesincluded the 1956 Burdell-Gullette Report, while subsequent investigations included the 1975 O. AllanGianniny Report, which rejected the critical and yet hopeful recommendations of the 1968 OlmsteadReport. Less well-known, historically, is the 1944 “Conference on the Humanities,” organized by a figureof no less stature than William Wickenden, whose subsequent efforts were instrumental in the foundingof the Liberal Education Division’s precursor, the Humanistic-Social Division of ASEE.Given recent calls once again to “broaden” engineering education, as espoused by the NationalAcademy of Engineering, and encoded into national accreditation standards via ABET’s EC 2000, it isworth reexamining the many past attempts to do so. A careful study of the past reveals the differentobjectives of engineering and liberal arts integration, and the practical difficulties associated with itsexecution amidst different historical circumstances having to do with changing national needs,accreditation standards, and the engineering’s profession’s distinct professional configuration. Amongother things, this talk will demonstrate how disciplinary and professional fragmentation in engineeringcreated competing pressures on undergraduate curricula in a way that prevented any significantincrease in liberal education content; how quantitative accreditation standards, adopted during the1950s also contributed to disciplinary developments within the humanities and social sciences that wereinconsistent with the goal of engineering and liberal arts integration; and how engineering educators’more recent espousal of the notion of “integration,” as articulated initially at the juncture of engineeringand liberal education, has in turn created some unexpected opportunities (at least in principle) forovercoming past barriers to effective integration. The paper will then close with a tie-in to discussionsabout the current efforts, led by Union College’s Dean of Engineering, Cherrice Travers, to pursue newpedagogic experiments in engineering and liberal arts integration through a broad network ofengineering colleges.(Dean Travers will be submitting a separate panel proposal; if both are accepted, it may be helpful toschedule this historical talk before Travers’ Panel.)

Akera, A. (2011, June), Liberal Learning Revisited: A Historical Examination of the Underlying Reasons, Frustrations, and Continued Prospects for Engineering and Liberal Arts Integration Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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