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Engineering program adds options

By Sally Jongsma

Students who enter the Dordt College Engineering program next fall will have an expanded list of emphases to choose from in their major. In addition to mechanical and electrical, they can now opt for civil-environmental, computer, or bio-engineering.

"The fields of civil and environmental engineering have a lot in common," says Dr. Ethan Brue, chair of the department. Public works projects aren't just about beams and trusses and foundations or about roadbeds or bridges. Civil and environmental engineers help supply the world with clean water, clean air, safe structures to live and work in, and effective networks of transportation.

Matt Ruter, Don Stenberg, and Travis De Jong measure how much energy is available from the sun at different times during the day.

Matt Ruter, Don Stenberg, and Travis De Jong measure how much energy is available from the sun at different times during the day.

"Civil-environmental engineers help provide society with some of their most basic needs and in so doing can bring shalom to both the human and non-human world," says Brue. He notes that as Dordt's engineering department becomes more involved with projects in developing countries, a civil-environmental engineering emphasis could be a valuable addition to the department. Kevin Timmer, who joined the engineering faculty last fall brings both experience and interest in commercial building design and environmental engineering.

The new computer emphasis overlaps significantly with the existing electrical emphasis and so will be the easiest to implement. It is made up of current engineering courses in electronics and microprocessor design and computer science courses in programming and software development.

"As computers and computer systems continue to crowd our cultural landscape, we need Christian computer and software engineers who use discernment in their development activities," says Brue. "The world needs Christian computer engineers who reflect on how the systems they design faithfully meet real needs in our world."

Bio-engineering or bio-medical engineering is a rapidly growing field. It, too, is an area that needs Christian guidance and direction and in which Christians can bring healing, Brue believes. "Engineers are enabling the medical profession to do many of the things they now do," he says. And while previous Dordt engineers who pursued a mechanical engineering emphasis have gone on to study bio-medical engineering in graduate school, this new option provides opportunity for such students to get an introduction to bio-engineering while studying at Dordt College.

Even as he explains the new emphases, Brue is quick to point out that like the existing electrical and mechanical emphases, the new ones are just that, emphases within an ABET-accredited general engineering program. They are not new majors but "new flavors" of the same program.

"These emphases should be viewed as new paths for students to explore within an already established broad-based engineering major, giving students more flexibility in shaping a program of study in engineering that reflects their talents and interests," says Brue.

Brue also believes that women students may be better served. Across the nation, the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering graduate only fifteen percent women. That figure rises to more than twenty percent in civil-environmental engineering and over forty percent in bioengineering.

"All of these areas need the influence of both men and women serving as Christian engineers," says Brue.

The changes Brue describes have been under consideration for the past two years. Department members reevaluated what they want to do in their program and how they could better serve their students. For twenty-five years the department has seen its task to be training followers of Christ to obediently serve in the field of technology. It remains committed to that mission. Professors continue to believe that such training is best done through a broad-based engineering program, set in a liberal arts context, in which students learn critical thinking and problem solving skills, broad engineering science know-how, communication skills, historical contextualization, and the philosophical framework from which to work.

Increasing the number of emphases does not change this vision. Faculty members determined which additional areas they felt had both a clear need for Christian involvement and that would complement the mechanical and electrical emphases already offered.

"My experience in industry showed me that engineering demands breadth. As a task, engineering is always interdisciplinary," says Brue. "I had to know much more than mechanical engineering in a job that required working with managers, technicians, customers, consultants, scientists, and other engineers." When he worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Brue says his job required him to know something about electrical controls, business management, technical writing, and even plant physiology in addition to his mechanical engineering expertise. His liberal arts undergraduate education and his foundational engineering major gave him the tools to make these connections. His more specialized graduate work helped him work out the details as a mechanical engineer.

The general engineering major at Dordt, with a strong core of courses that every student in every emphasis takes, tries to help students see the diverse tasks and problems that engineers face. The emphases give them an introduction to areas they can specialize in.

"Many first year students don't know what engineering is really about," says Brue. "Committing to a narrow program early can be a trap because they don't know the options. A broad-based engineering program can provide students with the opportunity to see how their gifts and interests fit best in the diverse spectrum of engineering careers." He can cite several mechanical engineering graduates who have gone on to work and study in electrical, bio-medical, or other fields of engineering.

"If there is a message that the department is trying to send with the new emphases, it is not that more specialization is important, but rather that a broad-based program has its merits," says Brue. "The new engineering emphases are in one sense not new at all. They are simply part of the original task the engineering department embarked on twenty-five years ago, to 'witness to Christ's kingdom' to the very end of the earth. We have only scratched the surface."