A liberal engineering education

115-1547_IMGFredrik Sjoberg points out how the lives of Darwin and Linnaeus have become models for generations of natural scientists.  Youthful travels followed by years of patient, narrowly focussed research and finally the revolutionary ideas and great books.  Very many scientists have followed the first two steps but missed out on the last one, leaving them trapped in ‘the tunnel vision of specialised research’.  As our society and its accompanying technology has become more complex, more and more tunnels or silos of specialised knowledge and research have been created.  This has led specialists to focus on solving issues that they understand best and communicating little or not at all with others in related fields.  At the same time, our society and technologies are becoming more interconnected, making it more appropriate to cross the cultural divides between specialisms.

One of the pleasures of teaching my current MOOC is the diversity of learners in terms of gender, geography and educational background who are willing to cross the cultural divides.  We have people following the MOOC in places as diverse as Iceland, Mexico, Nigeria and Syria.  We have coffee bean growers, retired humanities academics, physical chemists and social historians.  In most of the western world, engineering is taught to male-dominated classes and this has remained a stubborn constant despite strenous efforts to bring about change.  So it is a pleasure to interact with such a diverse cohort of people seeking to liberate their minds from habit and convention.

The original meaning of the term ‘liberal studies’ was studies that liberated students’ minds from habit and convention.  Recently, Vinod Khosla has suggested that we should focus on teaching our students ‘liberal sciences’.     This seems to connect with the ’emotive traits’ that David Brooks has proposed will be required for success in the future, when machines can do most of what humans do now (see my post entitled ‘Smart Machines‘ on February 26th, 2014).  These emotive traits are a voracious lust of understanding, an enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist and an empathetic sensitivity for what will attract attention.   We don’t teach much of any of these in traditional engineering degrees which is perhaps why we can’t recruit a more diverse student population.  We need to incorporate them into our degree programmes, reduce much of the esoteric brain-twisting analysis and encourage our students to grapple with concepts and their broader implications.  This would become a liberal engineering education.


Fredrik Sjoberg, The Fly Trap, Penguin Books, 2015

Asish Ghosh, Dynamic Systems for Everyone: Understanding How Our World Works, Springer, 2015

Vinod Khosla, Is majoring in liberal arts a mistake for students? Medium, February 10th, 2016

David Brooks, What machines can’t do, New York Times, February 3rd, 2014





  1. Couldn’t agree more. I feel the situation is exacerbated in the uk because students are forced to specialise so young. A lot of the perspective broadening social sciences and humanities are lost to the more physical science/engineering undergraduates, because the last time they may have studied them is as young as 16.

    Incorporating these subjects back in at undergraduate level is probably the best way forward.

  2. Liberal Engineering is very much in the Zeitgeist. There is a national project (see nmite.org.uk) to establish a new university dedicated to engineering, awarding degrees in “Liberal Engineering”. The aim is almost exactly as you articulate in your blog: to educate professional engineers who are sensitive to the impact and importance of engineering in society – not just the application of maths and science to problems defined by others. NMiTE has already received the blessing of government (in the Chancellor’s autumn statement) and should accept its first students in 2019. Tell every 15-year-old (and older potential students too).

  3. One of the pleasing features of your current MOOC on thermodynamics is that I feel comfortable in it even though my background is largely in social sciences. I know some students are griping about the math being too difficult, but you have made it clear several times that non-engineering students can gain from the course without being able or required to work all the equations. What I like about the course is that it is giving me a new “thermodyanimic” lens through which to view the world around me. With that comes an increased appreciation or respect for engineers who can quantify what is seen through that lens and design a better world accordingly. Additionally, “energy” in one form or another is frequently in the political and environmental news, so being a more informed citizen/voter is beneficial. And, by a bit of persistence, I’ve even managed to desensitize myself to a few of the equations and work through them a bit.

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