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Stuck on the Verge or Perpetually Reinventing? What Papers from the 2018 Annual Conference Tell Us about Change and Continuity in Liberal Education for Engineers

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education Division Technical Session Session 10

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Kathryn A. Neeley University of Virginia

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Kathryn Neeley is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Engineering & Society Department of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She is a past chair of the Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division of ASEE and is particularly interested in the role of liberal education in developing engineering leaders.

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Some of the earliest discussions of “soft skills” within ASEE suggested that the term was outdated. In one sense, that assertion was accurate. The earliest recorded use of the term occurred in a 1972 report from a conference sponsored by the U.S. Continental Army Command. Even at that early stage of the terminology, participants in that conference recognized “that the use of the terms ‘Soft Skill’ and ‘Hard Skill’ [should] be discontinued” (p. I-2). Over forty-five years later, we seem not to have accomplished that discontinuation. The paper we propose is a historical and philosophical inquiry into why the terminology of soft versus hard skills has been so persistent, why it is problematic, and how we might be able to move beyond it.

The 1972 report defined soft skills as “job-related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper” (p. II-4) that could not be done by machines and tellingly concluded that “Those job junctions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little are soft skills” (p. II-7). This conclusion bears remarkable resemblance to a remark made to one of the authors of this paper at an ABET annual meeting in the late 1990s: “Soft is what an engineer calls anything he [sic] doesn’t understand.”

In this paper, we propose to delineate the history of the term “soft skills” as it has been used in engineering education and consider how we might move beyond the limitations of that terminology. Both the “soft” and the “skills” elements of the concept have been called into question. In both categories, alternatives have been proposed, but none has become widely accepted. What has become clear is that, whatever these “soft skills” are, they are significant predictors of future success both inside and outside of engineering. In a recently published paper, Donaldson (2017) has suggested that understanding and influencing sociotechnical systems requires both understanding the “ilities”—“repeatability, predictability auditability, quality, reliability, flexibility, scalability, etc.” and the “ologies,” which “emerge from the interaction of people in the systems and have profound implications” (p. 467). The concept of “ologies” captures the numerous ways in which the social sciences and humanities provide an intellectual foundation for a meaningful, operational understanding of the ability to act within and to influence (rather than control) sociotechnical systems.

Neeley, K. A. (2019, June), Stuck on the Verge or Perpetually Reinventing? What Papers from the 2018 Annual Conference Tell Us about Change and Continuity in Liberal Education for Engineers Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33288

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