New degree uses systems thinking and fosters connections across disciplines
A new bachelor of science in engineering (BSE) degree program will be offered beginning this fall, providing students with increased opportunities in emerging fields that cross the boundaries of the traditional engineering degrees offered at Lafayette. Development of the program was spearheaded by Lauren Anderson, associate professor and head of chemical engineering, and David Brandes, professor and co-chair of environmental science and environmental studies, and involved a large group of faculty from each engineering degree program.
The BSE provides a flexible framework designed to foster connections across disciplines. The foundation is a sequence of three courses based on systems thinking and engineering design principles, which will also be open to students from other degree programs. Such a foundation will encourage students to see connections across many fields and apply that knowledge to become problem-solvers, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Top-ranked engineering programs including Harvey Mudd, Olin College, and MIT use systems thinking as the cornerstone of their engineering programs.
“Systems thinking applies to a wide range of fields within and beyond engineering. It is a framework for understanding complex problems by focusing on the behavior of the interacting system of components rather than on the components themselves,” says Brandes, who will serve as chair for the new program. “This approach encourages students to think beyond the boundaries of a single discipline and often results in more successful and sustainable solutions.”
BSE students will have three options on which to focus during their junior and senior years—bioengineering, robotics, and environment & energy. In addition to engineering courses, students will have the opportunity to take courses from across the College in fields related to their area of focus. For example, a course in bioethics could be paired with the bioengineering focus, or a course in environmental justice paired with the environment & energy focus. Students may choose from many such courses that more deeply and intentionally connect the engineering programs to the humanities and social sciences.
“Meaningfully connecting engineering and the liberal arts is an essential element of providing graduates with the broad knowledge and mindset required to think, understand, and lead in these emerging multidisciplinary fields of engineering,” Anderson says. “The BSE program, with its flexible curricular framework and intentional integration with the humanities and social sciences, provides a support structure for both students and faculty to cross departmental and divisional boundaries, which will only enhance the types of multidisciplinary collaborations that are already a distinctive feature of Lafayette.”
The basic structure of Lafayette’s existing B.S. engineering programs has been in place for more than 100 years, and while disciplinary engineering is as vital as ever, many new and emerging fields of engineering require multiple perspectives and approaches, increasing the need for interdisciplinary engineering options. The move towards interdisciplinarity within engineering is evident at the national level with enrollment increases in bioengineering and environmental engineering exceeding 150 percent over the past decade.
“Faculty believe these connections and collaborations help engineering students broaden their knowledge of engineering methods and applications, and better prepare them for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary experiences in the future,” says Scott Hummel, William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division. “We’re excited about the BSE program, which marks another pivotal time of growth for engineering at Lafayette. It’s a natural extension of the division’s responsiveness to society’s need for engineers who can find solutions that often span traditional disciplinary boundaries.”