Starting this semester, for the first time in Wheaton’s history, students interested in studying engineering will now be able to complete a degree in the field in four years on campus.
The four-year major pathway, which has been in the works for more than two years, is now open to first-year students as an alternative to the 3-2 engineering program, which Wheaton has offered since 1972.
Students in the 3-2 program study basic engineering courses (math, physics, chemistry) for three years before transferring to another Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)-approved school, such as Illinois Institute of Technology or Northern Illinois University for two years, taking the higher-level classes needed to complete the degree.
In 1972, back when Wheaton began its 3-2 program, only 15 schools nationally offered a four-year general engineering program. Geneva College in Pennsylvania was the only such school from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a council that Wheaton joined in 1976.
Nationally, 99 schools now offer a four-year general engineering program. These include 16 of 22 accredited CCCU schools with ABET engineering programs. At the CCCU schools that have four-year engineering programs, more than 6% of graduates earn degrees in engineering. At Wheaton, this rate has been about 1.6%.
According to Jeff Yoder, the engineering program coordinator at Wheaton, the plan for a four-year option was put forward in 2020 in response to a desire for “strategic initiatives” that could help drive up enrollment at the college. But Yoder said the program also fits with a desire to better serve student interests.
“It’s wonderful that it may be bringing more money for the college, but it’s not our main concern,” he said. “Our main concern is students.”
Prior to the announcement of the new major, the college made many efforts to support the engineering 3-2 track. Wheaton hired David Hsu in 2016, Wheaton’s only full-time engineering professor, and invested in a new engineering lab space in the basement of Meyer Science Center.
For engineering students, the new program is a cause for celebration, even though it doesn’t apply to most current students’ degree tracks, other than first-years. This semester, there are 54 total students in the 3-2 program, 33 of whom are in years 1-3 on Wheaton’s campus, and 21 in years 4-5 who are studying away from Wheaton.
“I love Wheaton’s community and the biggest reason I would love the four-year [engineering] program would be that I will be with Wheaton people, and that I would learn a lot more directly from Wheaton professors,” said junior Taehee Park as an advocate for student desire for the program in the program development draft sheet.
To combat Wheaton’s declining student population and yearly enrollment and amidst significant budget cuts, the college has a need for enrollment-generating programs.
“We have students who right now are in the 3-2 program who finish at engineering schools instead of here. So that revenue walks out the door with them when they go to the engineering school, when we could pay our own faculty to teach them instead,” said Darren Craig, chair of the physics and engineering department.
In preparation for the expected increase in enrollment, the projected program plans include the creation of two new engineering classroom spaces in the Meyer Science Center, a project that, according to Yoder, will cost the school around $500,000.
“It’s been a point of discussion,” Yoder said. “If we bring in more students, then how can we bring them in and then not serve them? They will need the new laboratories and space. We’re justifying that all based on additional students coming in — and that’s the same with faculty.”
Yoder and Craig both said they believe that the new spaces will pay for themselves as enrollment increases.
While the program is not yet accredited by ABET, the program’s draft document provides a list of requirements and a timeline of when the program will earn the accreditation. One requirement states that “a major must include a minimum of 30 appropriate math and science credit hours, 45 engineering credit hours and a sufficient number of general education credit hours,” the official ABET standard. This means that the engineering major would have to exceed Wheaton’s current 64-credit hour maximum — in other words, this area of study would become Wheaton’s most demanding major. Requiring a full faculty vote, approval for this exception was granted at the faculty business meeting held on Oct. 25.
Hsu said that with Wheaton’s liberal arts focus integrated into the four-year engineering curriculum, the new track will be one of the most “liberal arts-heavy” engineering programs in the country.
“Our students will have these unique skills that are rare to come by, like interpersonal communication, being great critical thinkers, being students who are able to collaborate well with their classmates both within and outside their major,” he said. “They’ll be more adaptable.”