Could Less Math Make Better Engineers?

Recently an interesting argument about academic programs for engineers was brought to our attention. There's long been the stereotype of the engineer who lack social skills as well as the ability to discuss non-technical topics and deal with people not in a technical field. An article posted on suggests that the answer is fewer required courses--such as advanced mathematics, for example--and more free electives.

The argument goes that engineering students would be exposed to different subjects and would have a chance to interact more with students in non-technical fields, making them better prepared for dealing with the real world. There would still be plenty of technical courses to weed out students with no aptitude for engineering. Plus, how many times does a student land a job because of the specific courses they took? That's one way to see it, but what do you think?

Do you think there is a need for improvement in engineering programs?


More liberal arts is a plus, but less math is not. Whenever I am asked to assist fellow engineers with technical matters, it is nearly always a mathematical problem. I really don't want to see more engineers not able to cope with math as soon as it goes beyond basic...

My guess is that the author of the original article ( chose math simply to be a bit controversial. I can't see how less math would really result in better engineers. I could see the point of allowing/encouraging chemical engineering majors to take a few classes outside their major. I think it wouldn't necessarily be bad to have liberal arts students also dip into the sciences a bit more. I think intellectual curiosity should have no limits. The kind of orderly, systematic thinking involved in the sciences would often suit the liberal arts well, and the freer, creative thinking of liberal arts might be a bonus for science majors.

Miami U ChemE's picture

I am not a fan of Differential Equations or Calc 3, but they're vital for so many other classes. I have a hard time seeing how cutting those would help engineering majors. Even with computer controlled systems, engineers always need a backup plan for solving problems.

BSDaly's picture

I really don't think that forcing an engineering student to take more liberal arts courses would help anything. I mean how are they going to socialize if they're skipping that class all the time (I mean that's what I did it, forgive me 'History of the Novel')? Besides, engineers can be social, I've seen them do it plenty. It's just a matter of developing their leadership skills more than anything.

May's picture

I don't think that by trading math classes with liberal arts classes is the solution. The heart of engineering is problem solving - so the program should focus on providing enough background/theory/tools to arm the students to solve real-world problems, and provide the students the opportunity to succintly present their ideas. To me, the teamwork/relationship dimension of our profession can be fostered by encouraging students to be active in student organizations - AIChE comes to mind.

ehorahan's picture

I highly enjoyed the elective courses I had, though I did have few. The issue is that I was one of 5 people who showed up to the 25 person courses. There isn't much interaction possible if the liberal arts majors skip all their classes. I never really understood that - I loved the classes and went to every single one!

Douglas Clark's picture

That's a great response to this. While I think it's good to expose people to new things, I also feel that there's a limit to what one can achieve--personalities are often pretty much what they are. That said, you're absolutely right--a lot of engineers aren't the social misfits that stereotypes would make them out to be!

Mike Petrik's picture

There is an option offered by many liberal arts colleges called a 3-2 program in which the engineering-minded student studies for 3 years at the liberal arts college, obtaining a BA in a scientific area while completing the liberal arts core courses and many of the engineering core courses, followed by 2 years at an engineering school focused essentially on the technical courses required for the engineering major. The first 3 years, though very rigorous, is at a school with a totally different atmosphere than the engineering school - liberal arts schools are generally smaller with self-exploration and intellectual interaction more broadly encouraged. Here, the student has the opportunity to "find one's self" - generally a necessity of most college kids. The engineering school is then usually easier - study habits are in place as well as a greater self-confidence. The course work is also slightly lighter, particularly since the engineering degree is completed in 5 years, and the student ends up with two degrees - a BA from the liberal arts school and a BS from the engineering school. From personal experience, this can be the best of both worlds.