On pre-professional courses


I was recently part of the discussion on a curriculum change in the Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), whose Committee on Instruction decided to remove the school-wide requirement for a so-called “pre-professional” course for all undergraduate students in the school.

Some history:

In the mid-20th century students entering SEAS commonly had a background of tinkering and technical ingenuity, with experience building things in workshops and dissecting electronics to determine their function. By the late 1980s, however, faculty began to notice that this was less and less common, in part because of the growing complexity of day-to-day technology.

Thus, the pre-professional course was created to help provide some of that engineering background, and to help prepare students for a rigorous course of study in a given engineering major. Students were encouraged to take a pre-professional course to help determine what subject of study to pursue, and this continued fairly successfully throughout the 2000s.

In the past few years, there have been two major changes to the SEAS curriculum that have, at least in part, made the pre-professional course redundant:

First, the traditional “gateway” course, originally intended to teach teamwork and project management, has been replaced by Art of Engineering, which focuses on getting hands-on experience with engineering. It also includes a 6 week project section with each department, which introduces students to some of the things that they may learn later on in their undergraduate careers.

Secondly, there has been a schoolwide push to standardize on a requirement for ENGI E1006, an introductory course in python and the applications of computing to engineering problems. This has served to introduce engineers to some interesting problems in simulation, statistics, game theory, and biomedical devices, with more subjects being added on every iteration of the course.

The initial push to take another look at the pre-professional requirement came as a side effect of curriculum changes across the school. Noticing that many majors required significantly more than the general SEAS requirement of 128 points, a strong focus was placed on reducing the number of required courses, so as to increase the flexibility of engineering majors.

It is important to note that pre-professional courses are intrinsically valuable, because students entering SEAS have even less hands-on experience than ever before. It’s no longer an expectation to know your way around a workshop, nor physics, chemistry, and math in rigorous forms. The disparity of education in the United States only makes this worse, as underfunded schools cut expensive lab programs that give the necessary experience and intuition necessary for further education.

As such, the pre-professional course can provide an additional source of experience to the B.S. program. Many of the pre-professional courses are incredibly education on their content alone — ELEN E1201 is required even outside the electrical engineering major — and they almost invariably enrich the SEAS education.

Yet, few of these benefits come to people who take the course solely for the graduation requirement. In the CS and IEOR departments, students looking to fulfill their pre-professional requirement often take what they feel would be the easiest possible course: neither of these departments offer them at all. Moreover, some departments require specific courses as part of the major, and thereby remove the exploratory aspects of the requirement.

On top of all of this, pretty much all engineering majors lack time during the junior and senior years to explore more advanced aspects of their respective discplines. Much of the first two years of the undergraduate program are focused in building up the essential engineering knowledge base, so that students can succeed in later coursework and in their careers down the road. Time is the biggest constraint on the ability of a student in SEAS to learn everything they want to learn.

Thus, the removal of the requirement represents the tradeoff between the focus on engineering basics and the depth of an engineering degree. Students now have a choice of building up their hands-on experience, or going on ahead and taking major-specific courses earlier, and freeing up time for a variety of in-depth, interdiscplinary projects at the end of their time at Columbia.

In essence, the difference is choice. Yes, fewer people will take pre-professional courses. But this will be a matter of personal choice, a conscious decision that between Art of Engineering and E1006, there has been sufficient focus on the basics.

I think that this policy change will be beneficial to the student body and the school as a whole. There is already a strong focus on engineering basics in the curriculum — not even those studying financial engineering can escape without knowledge of physics, chemistry, and mathematics — and for those in the class of 2018 onward, there will be more opportunity to take amazing courses with lecturers on the bleeding edge of scientific research.

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