The Truth Behind the BSE Major

By Kavya Udupa (BSE ’19)

During the first couple of weeks of this year, the most common questions I, along with the entire freshmen class, received were “what’s your name?” and “what’s your major?” Students and professors alike were confused when I responded with my name followed by “General Engineering.” After all, General Engineering isn’t one of the four conventional engineering programs offered at Cooper. And I am being completely honest when I say that, until a couple days ago, I myself was pretty confused about what being the General Engineering major was.

The General Engineering program, or Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE), was created for students who want an education in engineering but plan to specialize in a non-engineering field, like mathematics, chemistry, finance or medicine.  A lot of students confuse the BSE major with the famed “undecided major.” This is incorrect. In truth, the BSE major should be thought of as a major that students choose because what they want to study is not something Cooper currently offers. If a student desires to leave the BSE program, he or she would have to transfer into another department through the same process followed by students from any of the four traditional engineering majors.

“In theory, it sounded great. But, in practice,
that’s not what really happened.”

Each BSE student is assigned an advisor based on the field the student wants to pursue.  This advisor is part of a committee of professors, one from each of the four traditional engineering majors, who work to help the student plan his or her four years at Cooper. According to the Office of Admissions, for the class of 2019, 182 students applied to the BSE program, 30 were admitted, and 8 enrolled in the fall. But, if one were to look at the class of 2018, one would see that no BSE students were admitted.  

About four or five years ago, the full time engineering faculty decided to dissolve the BSE program—making the BSE graduates of 2015 the last group of such students. According to Professor Ruben Savizky, former BSE advisor, the fact that Cooper’s BSE program was not accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) combined with the fact that it was not possible for students who received a BSE degree to stay at Cooper and get a Master’s degree all contributed to the termination of the program.

Like with any other major, there is a spectrum of success for the BSE major. Some, according to Acting Dean Richard Stock, have “grabbed the ball and ran with it” whereas others “barely managed to get out with a degree.” As a result, many consider the program almost as a “dumping ground” for students who didn’t fit into the traditional curriculum or weren’t academically strong. Such students would take a smattering of courses and graduate, but were unable to find a job upon graduating as they weren’t trained in one specific field.  According to Stock, the main problem with the BSE program is that students “learn about all the crazy and great stuff in engineering but don’t learn how to actually do it – it’s like the documentaries on Channel 13, you come away saying ‘wow that’s really terrific’ and you talk about it but you are unable to actually do it.” When asked to explain what he thinks are the flaws of the BSE program, Savizky responded, “In theory, it sounded great. You had all this flexibility to take whatever courses you wanted and the ability to combine engineering with a field of your choice.  But, in practice, that’s not what really happened.” Students would try to take courses of their choice, but would wind up having conflicts with course schedules or would not meet the prerequisites. And by the time they met the prerequisites, they could have easily gotten a degree in one of the traditional majors.

So, why was the program brought back? According to Dean Stock, former engineering Dean Teresa Dahlberg brought up the idea of reinstating the program in a faculty meeting and stated that if the faculty were not in favor, it would not be brought back. On the one hand, faculty members felt that students are better off enrolling in one of the four traditional degrees because there is room for learning about fields outside of engineering in the form of electives and a minor. On the other hand, it was felt that if done properly, the BSE program could be of aid to students. As the staff was divided over the idea of bringing it back, an official decision was never made—until last year.

The admissions for the class of 2019 was controversial because a number of students were accepted to the Computer Science program, a separate attempt at creating a flagship program in a new design school spearheaded by former Dean Dahlberg—all without faculty approval. When the CS program ultimately failed to launch, the 31 students who had accepted placement in the CS program were instead offered admission in the four existing engineering majors or to the interdisciplinary BSE program that was quietly reinstated—once again, without faculty approval. Among all the other allegations raised over the CS program, this particular bait-and-switch of admitted students was especially egregious. Moreover, it was a matter of concern for the Attorney General, as evidenced by the cross petition in early September.  This all contributes to the confusion associated with the revival of the BSE degree and there haven’t been any attempts to clarify it.

Will the program be continued in the foreseeable future? As of now, nothing is certain.  Since there are students currently enrolled in the BSE program, it would have to be sustained at least until 2019. But, there is no certainty that the class of 2020 will even be offered the chance to apply to the General Engineering program. And, like Professor Savizky said, if the dean had the power to bring the program back without faculty approval, then subsequent deans can “activate or inactivate the program as they see fit.”

I don’t know if I, myself, am a believer in the program.  On paper, it seems perfect—the idea that a student can receive an engineering education while pursuing a non-engineering field.  But, there is a reason why the BSE program is offered in such a small number of institutions nationwide.  To succeed as a BSE major requires having a legitimate plan for a student’s four years at Cooper which can seem, and is, daunting to a freshman. To this day, I still receive questions about the BSE major and though there is much confusion associated with the program, it is safe to say that ultimately, the program is designed to aid those who feel like they are unable to pursue an education in the four traditional majors and that if sought out carefully, can be one of the greatest assets to an individual’s career. 

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