Engineering students and faculty members weigh in on core curriculum review process


While most of the current debate on the core curriculum is centering on the theology requirements and their effect on the Catholic character of the university, students and professors in the College of Engineering are also voicing their opinions about the core curriculum in general and its particular role at a Catholic university.  The College of Engineering is one of the two colleges that is not represented in the current core requirements, the other being the Mendoza College of Business.

Professors and students recognize the tension between their engineering requirements and the core courses, which often results in little flexibility when it comes to classes outside of their majors.

“I think the issue the core requirements pose for engineers is two-fold,” Catherine Pieronek, a Notre Dame alumna and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, explained to the Rover.

“First, our students have a tendency to front-load core requirements, and there becomes a ‘getting them out of the way’ mentality toward fulfilling the requirements.  Second, because our major-required courses are usually scheduled during prime-time hours, as they should be, our students often search for core requirements classes that fit their schedule.  These two things together, I think, make core requirements more of a box-checking exercise rather than a developmental process whereby students think about what they want to get out of their education and work to take classes or gain other experiences to meet both the spirit of the core requirements and their own educational goals.”

Ethan Swan, a senior computer science major, expressed a further concern that too many required courses can interfere with internship searches.

“In my experience, unfortunately the late start on engineering classes does substantially disadvantage Notre Dame students in the job market.  In interviewing for internships after my junior year, I found that many of the other interviewees were a year younger than me and yet had a good deal more relevant coursework under their belts,” he explained to the Rover.

Elizabeth Kerr, Assistant Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, disagreed in part.  “Notre Dame engineering students are very competitive in the job market.  The core curriculum requirements do not hamper them from fulfilling their engineering curriculum,” she shared with the Rover.

“However, many students take 18 or 19 credits in several semesters in order to fulfill their engineering requirements, the core curriculum requirements, and a minor.  It would be nice to reduce the load of the University Requirements in some way in order to either allow students to delve deeper into an engineering topic or to include a minor without having to take as full of a course load,” Kerr added.

“I certainly don’t think our engineering students are less competitive as a result of core requirements,” Pieronek explained.  “Many of our peer institutions have similar sets of requirements for both engineering and liberal arts courses, but most have around six liberal arts classes rather than the eight we have, and allow their engineering students a little more freedom to explore things of interest to meet their credit-hour requirements.  I do think that our liberal arts core makes our students differently competitive, because a solid liberal arts core, well done, helps develop a different set of critical thinking skills in our students that helps them to be very successful in their professional development, beyond an entry level position.”

Joe Powers, Professor, Associate Chair, and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering added in an interview with the Rover, “The only thing we are choosing to do is, instead of taking less constrained choices that students have at other universities, in engineering our electives are assigned to philosophy and theology … Different universities are going to have different degrees of that.  I just don’t see that as being a hindrance.  I see other things being a hindrance but not that.”

Credit from Advanced Placement (AP) courses earned in high school often greatly influences the degree to which students can pursue their interests outside of their chosen major and core requirements.  The way in which AP credit will be administered is another question for the review committee.

“If you don’t come into [Notre Dame] with any AP credits, you have very little flexibility in your schedule,” Chris Clarke, a fifth-year chemical engineering major and MBA candidate, told the Rover.  “I’d say [the core curriculum does not take up too much time] because, in my mind, the problem is more a result of having too many necessary engineering courses.  Realistically, everything companies want you to know they will teach you on the job.  They need you to know the basics and how to think critically, and everything else you’ll learn there.

“Personally, even with the core requirements, I’ve had a lot of flexibility and will probably graduate with close to 30 credits of class work aside from both engineering and core requirements,” Fernando Garcia, a junior chemical engineering major, responded to the Rover.  “This is with a decent amount of AP credits, which helped give me that flexibility, but I think many students are in that same position.  Even without the AP credits, I don’t think the core at all gets in the way of the engineering curriculum; there’s just a little less flexibility.”

Despite some of the potential hardships of crafting a schedule without many AP credits or of having many credit-heavy semesters, most students and professors recognize the essential benefit of having a core curriculum.

“It’s one of the few chances engineers get to interact academically with non-engineers.  I think this is critical because engineers have a very specific, straight-line, logical way of thinking.  Exposure to ways of thought different than our own expand our view of the world and make us not only better students but better people,” Clarke said.  “Also, the reason I’m an engineer is because I’m good at the hard skills, like math and science.  The core classes help me to improve in the areas I’m the weakest in.”

“I think a lot of our students like the idea of being able to take classes outside their engineering discipline,” Pieronek added.  “Many of our students are multidimensional, and find that they need the creative outlets that the liberal arts classes provide.

“But again, the fact that they often have to select classes based on time of day rather than content or professor, makes the current configuration of core requirements less than perfect for our students,” Pieronek continued.  “Interestingly, we have also seen a decrease in satisfaction with the core liberal arts courses ever since the courses that satisfy the requirements were narrowed by the relevant core curriculum committees.  I think our students would like to be able to explore those subject areas in a way that is less restrictive than it currently is, especially given their already quite restrictive engineering course schedules.”

Kerr added, “I think that the core requirements are important to teach the whole person.  While engineering requires a lot of math and science concepts, it is also important that an engineer can write and communicate well, understand others points of view, and maintain a high ethical standard.

“Believe it or not, ethics are also a very important component of being an engineer.  In order to become a professional engineer in the United States, in addition to passing two 6-8 hour exams, one must also pass the state ethics exam for engineers.  While there are some engineering courses that cover ethics, the philosophy courses and others that can be taken in the core curriculum requirements are beneficial in that respect as well and can be used in our accreditation assessment process,” she concluded.

Peter Kilpatrick, the McCloskey Dean of Engineering, expressed his belief to the Rover that “one goal of the curriculum should be to help students understand better the unity of all knowledge.”

Kilpatrick explained: “Too often, we completely compartmentalize learning in a University, making it instead a Multiversity, which is inappropriate.  So, it would be good to have courses in our core curriculum that are truly interdisciplinary and serve to demonstrate that many disciplines must be brought to bear on some very important societal topics to ensure that we are addressing the topic comprehensively and appropriately.

“For example, many people do not realize that presuppositions that underlie the modern study of science are fully compatible with theology and religious beliefs.  As scientists, we believe implicitly in an orderly world that obeys beautiful and elegant laws, such as E=mc2 and F=ma.  These elegant and beautiful laws imply the existence of a ‘law-giver,’ which is of course fully consistent with theology.  It would be a shame to have students graduate not fully appreciating this complementarity.”

The Catholic character of the university places a special importance and a necessary focus on the theology requirement, even from the perspective of the engineering faculty and students.

“The passing of Father Hesburgh has given us a great occasion to reflect on all that he did for Notre Dame, and for Catholic higher education in general.  If Notre Dame, as a Catholic institution, does nothing different in a core curriculum than our public, secular, or nominally religious peers do, what is the point of being a Catholic university?” Pieronek questioned.

“Being Catholic has to matter here—for us as well as for the other 260 or so Catholic institutions of higher education in this country.  I hope that, whatever discussions continue to inform any transformation of the core curriculum, we keep this notion—and Father Hesburgh’s vision for Notre Dame—in mind,” she went on.

“While engineering classes do contribute (in some small way) to one’s understanding of the world in an ethical and meaningful way, I think a theology course is a vital part of education at a Catholic institution,” Swann explained.  “Even for non-Catholic students, studying theology offers the opportunity to explore moral questions and the meaning of our world.  The conversations begun in a theology class are often finished in other locations, carrying the ethical lessons over into everyday life.”

“I believe the core curriculum should aid in the moral formation of students, but only because we are a Catholic institution and that is part of our identity as a school,” said Clarke.  “I think these classes need to present moral quandaries and make students question why they would make each decision.  There’s none of this in engineering classes.  There’s no morality in thermodynamics, or heat transport, or solids.”

Kilpatrick continued, “I understand also (from some media attention to this as well as my conversations with persons on the core curriculum committee) that there has been some interest in possibly changing the two course theology requirement, perhaps integrating it with other courses into so-called Mission courses.  While this idea has some merit, I would not favor the doing away with of the two course theology requirement.

“Theology is something of a ‘category’ difference from other topics or disciplines.  It is grounded in the firm and principled belief that God has not only revealed Himself through nature and the transcendentals, but that He has revealed Himself preeminently through His Son Jesus Christ and has inspired through the Holy Spirit the Word of God (Holy Scripture).  Understanding this well, and the principled arguments that the Church and Catholic Tradition make for the veracity of Scripture, is essential at a Catholic university.  I think Notre Dame would lose something intrinsic to her identity should she decide to do away with the theology requirements.”

“I look at my colleagues in theology and philosophy and know that most of them are extremely strong scholars, and I’m proud to have my students taking classes and learning from them.  It is very resonant with a Catholic university, it is high quality, and I’m reluctant to move from that,” Powers concluded.

The way in which engineering students and faculty interact with required classes outside of their college will continue to be discussed as the review moves forward.

John VanBerkum is a junior studying philosophy who needs to start writing creative bylines.  He can be contacted at