Oberlin Blogs

Major Improvement

April 7, 2010

Joe Dawson ’12

I, at long last, have a major. I am coming up on the summer of my sophomore year, which means that I am required by universal law to declare a major before I come to school next fall. Luckily, I happened upon the Oberlin 3-2 Engineering program, which vibrated on just the right frequency for me, and I hopped on the tiny, little known Engineering 3-2 bandwagon (pulled by liiiiiiittle bitty horses) a few weeks ago.

What be the ferocious and intangible 3-2 Engineering Program, you ask? Aye, for one as young as you, it is a thing most mysterious and, again, intangible. Sit down, children, and I'll tell you a story that would burn the hair right off your chest to hear. The 3-2 beast was created centuries, nay, even decades ago by a scurvy wizard determined to create an army of engineers capable of thinking in ways that were unnatural and strange to the engineers of the time. This wizard thought that engineers needed to be able to enjoy readin' books by Shakespeare, be able to talk about the hetero-normativity of Jerry Springer, and be able to tell a hominoid from a homid. Demented, he was. A twisted, sick maniac who took the heart and guts from a small liberal arts college and the brain and urinary tract from an engineering program and put the organs from the arts college inside the rib cage and skull of the engineering program and breathed life into the terrible abomination. There was no brain, I guess. No, he actually didn't do that! The brain stayed in the engineering program, but he replaced its heart and guts with the viscera from the liberal arts program. The liberal arts program didn't notice too much because it had such a big heart to begin with. Sure, let's say that!

Thus, the freak, two-headed Chimera named Oberlin's 3-2 Engineering program emerged from its smoky lair centuries (decades) ago. The Engineering program/major works like this: Oberlin has no big Engineering department and no specific Engineering classes, although there is a substantial Physics department. For a person wanting to be an engineer, especially one who really likes going to school at Oberlin, this creates a problem. While it is possible (and realistic) for an Oberlad or Oberlass to get a degree from Oberlin in Math or Physics and go on to an Engineering school for grad school, really good grad schools would prefer their students had some background in specific engineering-type classes. The program (and other similar programs around the country) lets Oberlin-type students go to Oberlin-type schools (including Oberlin itself!) and take classes in a wide range of subjects, experience Winter Termy experiences, and spend as much time in Mudd womb chairs as they can in three years, then spend two years at another school that does have an Engineering program, finishing with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin as well as a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the partner school. The idea is not just to let students enjoy Oberlin's academic scene while preparing to be an engineer or to attract students that may be turned off by Oberlin's lack of a large Engineering department, but to help broaden the scope of engineering, to help engineers learn how to apply lessons from the sciences, humanities, and broader society to engineering problems.

Currently Oberlin is hooked up with Case Western University in Cleveland, Columbia University in NY, Washington University in St. Louis (SHOW-ME STATE y'all!), and CalTech in Pasadena, CA as schools Oberkids can go to to finish undergrad degrees. These schools are great, but if a student finds a school they would rather go to than one of these, they can find out if the school has any partnerships with other undergrad institutions for 3-2 or 4-2 engineering programs and negotiate a deal between the deans of the two schools to finish their degree. Some schools that also have engineering partnerships: University of Texas at Dallas, University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, Duke University, Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvey Mudd. Not only are students a little older and perhaps broader by the time they get to engineering school, the schools also seem to like 3-2 students for research and other opportunities, especially at schools that see a good number of 3-2 students like Columbia and WashU (both are near the top of my list of possibles).

I felt good after declaring a major, even though I was hesitant filling out the paperwork. The deal is, if I am an Engineering major, I probably can't have any other majors, namely Biology, which is my thing. While this is a little sad, it certainly doesn't mean that I can't take upper level Biology classes or do research with a member of the Biology faculty, a small part of which I have gotten to know rather well.

A group of students involved, interested, and disgusted with the program met during midterms last week for a dinner and a chat with two alums of the program. Present were a swell guy named Cole in his second semester at CalTech, a young woman who works as a structural engineer in Cleveland named Angela, and about a dozen prospective engineers. We talked over pizza and Oreos about engineering, school, work, and just life, man. It was a really cool chance to chat with two people who had been through the program and had some insight as to how the program works for those of us who had little to no idea beforehand.

There was a fair bit of swashbucklin, some drinkin, and a bit of swabbin the deck, but it be done. The one known as Wispy-Chest Willy, sometimes called Joe, has come back from his journey to defeat the elusive major and has come back with the head of the fierce 3-2 Engineering Program beast hoisted high above his head. Not only has he come away with a major before his 56 credit-hour major indecisiveness period was over, but he learned that it's darn near impossible to talk in Pirate Speak for more than a single paragraph. Arg!

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