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Paul Penfield, Jr., What is a Discipline?, ABET Board of Directors, Baltimore, MD; March 16, 2002.

What is a Discipline?
Paul Penfield, Jr.
D. C. Jackson Professor of Electrical
Department of Electrical Engineering
and Computer Science

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

(617) 253-2506
penfield @

discipline n, . . . 1: punishment . . . 3: a field of study . . .

". . . number one issue . . . the blurring of boundaries

between traditional disciplines and the creation of new
disciplines and programs with new names seeking

"Emerging technologies, changing disciplines and the

blurring boundaries among technological disciplines
challenge traditional approaches to educational delivery
and assessment."

A timely topic . . .
On Feb 20, 2002 (the very day Jerry Yeargan invited me to
give this talk) the MIT Faculty Meeting voted to change the
name of the "Division of Bioengineering and Environmental
Health" to the "Biological Engineering Division."

A field of study

Disciplines, departments, and programs can be viewed in

various ways:

1. Overriding mission
2. Underlying science
3. Discipline-based or sector-based
4. Inclusive or exclusive
5. Warranty period
6. Future prospects

1. Assumed overriding mission

Help your students be successful individuals
. . . in both their personal lives and their careers.

They need (this is my list -- what is yours?)

Personal strength and confidence
Understanding of human nature
Social skills
Communication skills
Global perspective
Ability to learn independently
Leadership skills
Technical breadth
Engineering sciences

They will have multiple, unpredictable career paths.

2. Underlying science

Most engineering disciplines have one.

Electrical Engineering -- Physics

Chemical Engineering -- Chemistry
Mechanical Engineering -- Physics
Computer Science -- Mathematics, Brain Science

Often applied science is similar to engineering.

The vacuum effect: if no engineering discipline exists,

scientists become engineers.

3. Discipline vs. sector -- What is the issue?

Are graduates defined by their skills or their industry?

With a sector-based education,

Graduates plug right in to a company.
They start a career faster.

With a discipline,
Graduates can work in many industrial sectors.
They have greater career flexibility.
They can adapt to changes more easily.

3. Discipline vs. sector -- Examples

At my university, disciplines include
Civil Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Electrical Engineering
Computer Science

Sector-based departments include

Ocean Engineering
Aeronautics and Astronautics
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Urban Studies and Planning

3. Discipline vs. sector

Sector-based research and graduate programs are popular.

Sector-based undergraduate programs are not popular.
Students want an education that opens many doors for them,
not one that directs them toward fewer doors. Students
like to keep their options open.
Sector-based programs fluctuate with the economy.
They risk excessive industrial influence on curriculum.
Risk of too much contemporary technology.

Discipline education has staying power (40 years).

Discipline education may not be holistic enough.
Risk of excessive specialization.
This brings us to the next topic . . .

4. Inclusive vs. exclusive disciplines

Ages ago, engineering split into factions:
Mining Engineering
Ocean Engineering, Naval Architecture
Materials Science
Aeronautical Engineering
Automotive Engineering
(consistent with attitudes of professional societies)

But Electrical Engineering took the opposite view.

In 1963 IRE and AIEE actually merged!
IEEE succeeded in retaining specialties (microwaves,
semiconductors, controls, communications, power, . . .).
Even computer science is close to E.E.
Are E.E. and C.S. actually a single discipline?
Operational test: are there E.E. products without C.S. "parts?"

4. Should EE be together with CE and/or CS?

Most think so.
Almost all E.E. departments have C.E. or C.S. activities.
Graduates need both E.E. and C.S.
Modern products are information-intensive.
Functionality can be realized in hardware, software, etc.
Designers need to optimize across moving boundaries.
E.E. and C.S. face the same fundamental limit.
Among engineering disciplines, E.E. is blessed:
Simple components (R, L, C, gate, . . .)
Linear connection laws (Maxwell, Kirchhoff)
Models accurate over wide dynamic range
Low manufacturing cost
What is it that limits an electrical system? Complexity.
Software is man-made; no manufacturing, distribution cost.
What is it that limits a software system? Complexity.

4. Are other major fusions possible?

Are M.E. and Aero really different, deep down?

How about Ocean Engineering and Civil Engineering?
Perhaps Nuclear Engineering and Material Science?

There are intellectual advantages to broad programs

Students better prepared for an uncertain future.
There are marketing advantages as well.
Students like them.
EECS is more popular at MIT than ESE and CSE.
There are also practical advantages.
An EECS department can shift resources between E.E. and
C.S. easier than separate departments.

5. How long does our "product" last?

We used to think in terms of a 40-year warranty.
Back when the world changed more slowly.
Disciplines always push aside old ideas to make room for
the new. Otherwise they cannot change. Our curricula
must do the same.
It is all too easy to stick with the existing curriculum.
"How can we graduate an E.E. who can't use a Smith chart?"
"How can any C.S. not know assembly language programming?"
How do we discard what is no longer important, to make
room for new material? It's easier said than done.

E.E. is not what it used to be.

Neither is Ch.E.
Biotech, semiconductors replacing chemicals, fuels.

5. Where do Ch.E. graduates go?

Breakdown of Industrial Employment for PhD Chemical Engineers

Initial Plascement of Chemical Engineering Graduates, Academic Year

'00-'01, AIChE Career Services Department (9.05.01)

6. What can we expect in the next 20 years?

Some trends
More general education. More appreciation of the role of the
humanities in engineering education. More attempt to
prepare students to be leaders.
Better communication skills. (MIT has a new Communication
Requirement displacing some technical material.)
Continuing education to cope with faster changes in society.
Broader science base.
Master's as first professional degree.
Something's gotta give.

These trends are in addition to the biggest trend of all, the

600-pound gorilla

6. The 600-pound gorilla

First, some history.
Have you read . . .
The Bit and the Pendulum, by Tom Siegfried.
Siegfried is a science journalist. This is a trade book.
The book is about information physics, but it starts with a
very interesting view of major epochs of scientific thinking.
Some grand scientific paradigms are so compelling that they
inform non-scientific discourse by supplying metaphors,
tools, machines, and everyday objects.
These scientific "superparadigms" are an important part of
contemporary culture.
He cites three, each having a scientific theory, a set of
metaphors, and a quintessential machine.

6. Siegfried's three superparadigms, plus one

Siegfried did the first three. The fourth line is mine.

Science Who Quantity Machine

1700s Mechanics Newton Force Clock
1800s Thermo. Carnot Energy Steam Engine
1900s Comp. Sci. Turing Information Computer
2000s Biology ???? Cell, protein ????

You know about the industrial revolution.

You are living through the information revolution.
Now, prepare for the biological revolution.

6. Biology: this century's 600-pound gorilla

What are the implications for engineering education?

There will be a discipline of biological engineering -- B.E.

Not bio-medical engineering. Biological engineering.
It will be based on molecular and cell biology.
It will impact all existing disciplines just as computers do now.
This discipline is not here yet.
We should be planning for it today.
The best way to define it would be to develop and teach an
undergraduate curriculum.

6. B.E.
Program discipline-based, not sector-based.
It will replace today's sector-based biomedical programs.
Opportunities for fusion?
Chemical engineering is the obvious candidate.
Will it be inclusive or exclusive?
More to the point, will chemical engineering be inclusive?
The experience of E.E. and C.S. suggests B.E. would be best
if joined with Ch.E.
Strong intellectual synergies.
Many (but perhaps not all) system functions could be
implemented either chemically or biologically.
System designers will need both skills.

6. Will it happen this way?

Not necessarily. ABET could kill it. Here's how.
Support and encourage exclusive attitudes in AIChE and the
chemical industry.
Be sure programs retain traditional material. Remember,
"Every chemical engineer needs to know process control."
Accredit biomedical engineering, not B.E., programs.
Make programs in "chemical and biological engineering"
satisfy all the Ch.E. and all the B.E. requirements (like
"computer science and engineering" today).

The way things stand now,

Chemical engineering is the laughing stock of engineering
departments because their curriculum is so constrained.
For example, at MIT, it is theoretically impossible to satisfy all
the ABET demands and all the general MIT requirements.
Surely this inhibits innovation.
Whose fault is this? Whatever happened to ABET 2000?
Will the recently started top-level AIChE strategic study help?

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Created: Mar 13, 2002 | Modified: Mar 18, 2002
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