How to Boot Up a New Engineering Program

Starting a new engineering program at a university is no simple task. But that’s just what Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is doing. By 2026, the university will offer an undergraduate engineering degree—but without creating an engineering department. Instead, Brandeis aims to lean on its strong liberal arts tradition, in hope of offering something different from the more than 3,500 other engineering programs in the United States accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). IEEE Spectrum spoke with Seth Fraden, one of the new program’s interim cochairs, about getting a new engineering program up and running.

What prompted offering an engineering degree?

Seth Fraden: We saw that we had 90 percent of all the elements that are necessary for a vibrant engineering program—the basic sciences, math, physics, computer science, life science, all put in a social context through the liberal arts. We see our new program as a way of bridging science and society through technology, and it seems like a natural fit for us without having to build everything from scratch.

Seth Fraden

Seth Fraden is a professor of physics at Brandeis University. He is serving as one of the two interim cochairs for the university’s new engineering degree.

Brandeis’s engineering degree will be accredited by ABET. Why is that important?

Fraden: Being the new kids on the block in engineering, it’s natural to want to reassure the community at large that we’re committed to outstanding quality. Beyond that, ABET has very well-thought-out criteria for what defines excellence and leaves each individual program the freedom to define the learning objectives, the tools, the assessment, and how to continuously improve. It’s a set of very-well-founded principles that we would support, even in the absence of this certification.

What is the first course you’re offering?

Fraden: We’re doing an introduction to design. It’s a course in which the students develop prosthetics for both animal and human use. It’s open to all students at Brandeis, but it’s still quite substantive: They’re working in Python, they’re working with CAD programs, and they’re working on substantive projects using open-source designs. The idea is to get students excited about engineering, but also to have them learn the fundamentals of ideation—going from planning to design to fabrication, and then this will help them decide whether or not engineering is the major for them.

How do you see liberal arts such as history and ethics being part of engineering?

Fraden: Many of our students want to intervene in the world and transform it into a better place. If you solely focus on the production of the technology, you’re incapable of achieving that objective. You need to know the impact of that technology on society. How is this thing going to be produced? Who says what labor is going to go into manufacturing? What’s its life cycle? How’s it going to be disposed of? You need to have a full-throttled liberal arts education to understand the environmental, ecological, economical, and historical consequences of your intervention as a technologist.

How will you develop an engineering culture?

Fraden: We’re not going to have a department. It will be the only R1 [top-tier research institution] engineering major without a department. We see that as a strength, not a weakness. We’re going to embed new engineering faculty throughout all our sciences, in order to have a positive influence on the departments and to promote technology development.

That said, we want there to be a strong engineering culture, and we want the students to have a distinctive engineering identity, something that a scientist like myself—though I am enthusiastic about engineering—doesn’t have in my bones. In order to do that, our instructors will each come from an engineering background, and will work together to build a culture of engineering.

This article appears in the April 2024 print issue as “5 Questions for Seth Fraden.”