Students entering the engineering science (EngSci) program at U of T are often in for a rude awakening. Even those who attended Canada’s top high schools struggle to keep up with a program that requires spending about 30 hours per week in the classroom, nearly twice as many hours as the average student. First- and second-year EngSci students take a common set of six courses per year in order to expose them to as many subjects as possible, ranging from Newtonian physics to systems biology. In third- and fourth-year, they specialize in everything from aerospace to biomedical engineering.
EngSci is considered one of the most challenging engineering programs in the world. The drop-out rate far exceeds that of any other applied science discipline at the university. But EngSci also produces results. Employers and graduate schools alike seek out its graduates because of the skills they develop through the program and their exposure to a wide range of engineering problems. While the EngSci model is not appropriate for every student, it seems to be a good way to offer talented students an education that is at once broad and deep. So why is it that no equivalent program exists in the social sciences at U of T?
Even the most diligent and self-motivated students would struggle to find anything comparable to EngSci in the Faculty of Arts & Science. There are no programs of study or even combinations of programs in Arts & Science that could match the breadth of exposure to the humanities and social sciences that EngSci offers to applied science. Moreover, there are no programs that offer students the opportunity to develop the level of skill that EngSci students develop over the course of their programs.
There are programs at other universities that do a better job exposing talented students to a wide range of disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences. The famous Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program at the University of Oxford is a good example. Harvard University’s Social Studies, which offers students far more choice in the courses that they can take than either EngSci or the ppe program at Oxford, is another model. Despite their virtues, neither of these programs put the same emphasis on the fundamental skills of the social sciences as EngSci puts on the skills that define the applied sciences.
The next president of the university, whose appointment is due to be announced soon, should create a new flagship undergraduate social sciences program modeled on EngSci. The first two years of the program should be devoted to giving students a broad grounding in the key disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, especially philosophy, politics and economics, while the final two years should give them an opportunity to specialize in a particular discipline. The program should culminate in a capstone project, perhaps modeled on the small senior thesis program currently offered by the political science department.
The goal of the program should be to see students develop the kinds of skills they will need to solve problems and provide leadership, no matter what line of work they pursue after university. These skills include public speaking, quantitative analysis, as well as analytical and persuasive writing. At present, none of these are formally taught to a sufficient extent in social science programs. As with EngSci, not all students will be able to keep up with the pace that such a program will require, but those who can will benefit greatly. The next president would do well to give them that opportunity.
Patrick Baud’s column appears every two issues.