[VIEWPOINT]The Importance of Being Well-Rounded

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[VIEWPOINT]The Importance of Being Well-Rounded

When I meet fellow professors of natural sciences and mechanical sciences, there is one topic that never fails to come up. It is that the amount of content to be covered in lectures is increasing exponentially. Four years is a short time to cover not only the accumulated scientific knowledge of 400 years but also the new discoveries of the 20th century. At the University of Toronto, where I work, most engineering professors now assert that the university engineering course should become a five-year course. Four years is just too short a time to produce engineers who meet current work standards.

Lectures for science and engineering courses have become more intense. The demands on time of the major subject and lab practice increase. Due to the increasing number of credits needed for majors, science students don't have time for their humanities minors apart from the compulsory cultural classes. And time constraints make it impossible for students to attend classes of different, but related, majors on the graduate course. I give lectures on science history to students majoring in engineering, but the time assigned to me is between noon and 1 p.m., which is lunchtime. That is the only time students have. They listen to my lecture with sandwiches in hand and then run to the lab for practical experiments, which go on for several hours.

That there is more to learn is related to the fact that science technology has become specialized and fractionalized. In the 1950s the number of theses done jointly by two researchers first surpassed the number done by a single researcher. Nowadays it is hard to find a thesis written by as few as two researchers - four researchers cooperating on one thesis is the prevailing trend. Science papers are expanding their scope into interdisciplinary fields, which address different interests with no obvious common connection.

As science improves, the overlapping of different sectors and methodologies becomes more widespread. Environmental studies is a fusion of science, engineering, social sciences and humanities. Biology is finding more and more points of contact with humanities and social sciences, such as studying the social impact of the human genome project and bioethics. Many engineering projects require an understanding of humanistic topics and the world.

It is crucial, therefore, to provide young scientists and engineers with the chance to deliberate on the social values of research and projects in their education. Meditating on the history of scientific technology, its social impact, the relationship between science technology and art, and evaluating the social meaning of one's work and major, are becoming matters of vital importance.

But here lies the rub. Taking into account the increased amount of education needed to bring up scientists and engineers possessing the basics of special knowledge in four years, how will they provide education for comprehensive knowledge?

At this point a sea change in thinking is demanded. What if the current method of science/engineering education stems from the misapprehension of professors who want to lecture on advances they weren't able to study in their undergraduate days, and feel they owe their students an education in every new area? If learning by oneself is truly important in the age of the information revolution, is this overload of information for students really required? Maybe it means that students graduate from universities without attaining key skills - to communicate, to understand and reconcile different opinions, to grasp the meaning of one's work and how one's major is linked to the world.

For a "balanced" education, it is essential for scientists and engineers in academic circles to ponder these issues and redress the imbalance. Limiting specialists' view of "the big picture" could have dangerous implications for society.

In the long view, educating specialists to have a balanced outlook is the primary way to minimize this social danger.


The writer is a professor of science history at the University of Toronto.

by Hong Sung-ook

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