The college of engineering and the college of liberal arts unite to offer a new major.

Very few majors offer students the chance to work in both the arts and sciences simultaneously. In fact, at Cal Poly there is only one: liberal arts and engineering studies.

Liberal arts and engineering studies (LAES) is an interdisciplinary program that combines skills from the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Engineering to give students a more personalized education and career path.

Graduates from the program have gone on to work in fields as varied as audio and visual filmwork, community development, gaming and even theme park technologies, according to LAES co-director David Gillette.

“It’s a hybrid program for students who are interested in the technical aspects of engineering but want to match it with the liberal arts,” Gillette said. “Our students are getting a very good liberal arts education, as well as a very good engineering education.”

Who are LAES students?

Most students who switch into the department come from engineering backgrounds, Gillette said, where the coursework is very regulated and strict. LAES offers these students the chance to expand upon what they are learning and apply it to real-life jobs that require a more artistic mindset, he said.

It also helps to hold onto students who are unhappy with their original major, such as LAES senior Jessica Riccio.

“I thought about leaving Cal Poly until I stumbled upon LAES,” Riccio said. “At the time, (it) seemed like a way that I could still do what I loved with computers, but branch out and make it work for me.”

Riccio, who originally majored in computer science, said she heard a lot of criticism of LAES from fellow engineering students, as well as some faculty.

“(They said) that ‘It’s not a real engineering major,’” Riccio said. “Most of them who have a very traditional view of engineering, put (traditional engineering) as slightly more prestigious than the other engineering disciplines.”

Despite the initial criticism, Riccio said her education in the program has given her a lot of experience she would not have gained otherwise.

Among these experiences was her time in Guatemala working on community development; unlike other majors, LAES students are required to study abroad. To satisfy her requirement, Riccio traveled with Guateca — a Cal Poly-partnered project that aims to increase sustainability and quality of life in Guatemala by building new businesses — for two months last summer.

“Studying abroad was something I had always wanted to do, regardless of my major,” Riccio said.  “I definitely have a different view of the world (now) and what I’m doing here at home and how all of those overlap.”

LAES senior Jacob Stringfellow has also had memorable experiences in the program.

For a class, Stringfellow and a group of students traveled to Los Angeles to visit the Warner Brothers Studios and Disney Imagineering headquarters. He said one of the most exciting moments of the trip was seeing the Disney audio room, where imagineers manufacture audio for the theme park rides.

“They had speakers completely covering all four walls of the room,” said Stringfellow, who wants to go into audio engineering and sound design. “It was like a dream.”

The early years

Five years ago, Stringfellow’s dream experience could not have happened. At that time, Cal Poly had already tried and failed to implement an interdisciplinary program similar to LAES, and no further projects were on the horizon.

Then the LAES program began in 2008, mostly due to the efforts of former engineering dean Mohammad Noori and College of Liberal Arts Dean Linda Halisky. According to Halisky, the program was created as a way to solve a problem with retention in the engineering department.

“Even though you really, really have to be smart to get into Cal Poly engineering, we were losing a lot of engineering students,” Halisky said. “It is not unusual for engineering across the country, so it wasn’t that anything was terribly bad here, but what was happening to all of these really good students?”

After some analysis, the college found the majority of those students leaving engineering were students who were either no longer interested in their major, had not really understood what their major was about upon coming to Cal Poly or didn’t have the math skills to compete, Halisky said. Halisky and Noori decided the best way to combat this was to create LAES, where students who were not enjoying their traditional engineering education could broaden their focus.

Once the program was established, Halisky and Noori assigned engineering associate dean Fred Depiero and Gillette (from liberal arts) to be co-directors of the new program and come up with the format for it.

“At first, there was confusion over what the program would do,” Gillette said, “but all of that went away once students started taking classes.”

In the beginning, LAES students had to have a lot of trust that the new major would work out, Halisky said.

“Those first students were pretty gutsy,” Halisky said. “I mean, who knew with this thing?”

One of these “gutsy” early students is LAES alumnus Daniel DeKlotz. DeKlotz switched to LAES from computer science at a time when the major didn’t have any graduates.

“I did have some reservations,” DeKlotz said. “I didn’t know that many people with a bachelor of arts in liberal arts and engineering studies that had jobs. In fact, the program didn’t even have any graduates at the time, so the big question for me was, ‘Will this degree hold any weight in the real world?’”

It turns out it did. Upon graduation, DeKlotz received a job offer from Microsoft to work on the next version of Windows. He still works there today.

“While it is true that I don’t have as strong of a technical background as some of the other university hires, … the LAES program really helped prepare me well for virtually every other aspect of my job,” DeKlotz said. “Being a good engineer is about much more than simply knowing how to do technical stuff.”

Into the future

Despite the uncertainty at first, after four years of work, students in the major are becoming more sought after, Halisky said.

“(Graduating students) almost all have jobs,” Halisky said. “They’re not only getting jobs, they are creating jobs in places when they leave here. We had a student here who was an intern at THX, a studio in Burbank, where they basically offered him a job before he had even graduated and told him to make it up.”

Though the program has been well-received for the past few years, it could be in for some changes in the future.

Budgets are tight, and as a result, some classes had to be cut from the curriculum, Halisky said. This led to students relying more on advisers in the program, creating a larger workload for those advisers.

“We’re going to have to do something because we are kind of at critical mass,” Halisky said.

Despite budgetary constraints, Halisky said Cal Poly is looking into expanding the program.

“The idea is that this will be one in a number of things under this umbrella we’re calling ‘expressive technologies,’” Halisky said. “It could really be a starship on campus, highlighting that comprehensive polytechnic that we’re going toward.”

Expressive technologies, which according to Halisky represents the intersection between art and technology, is already being implemented. Cal Poly offered a new interdisciplinary minor for the first time last fall that is slowly gaining ground: media arts and technologies. The minor combines classes from within the liberal arts and engineering colleges and gives students even more of a chance to tailor their curriculum, Halisky said.

Another change coming to the program, as well as the College of Liberal Arts, is Halisky’s announcement of her impending retirement. Halisky said the possibility of change within the program would then depend on the new dean.

“It shouldn’t affect it at all, as long as we get a new dean that supports it,” Halisky said. “The principle players and our directors here essentially run it all themselves now, so I don’t do much. I just sort of stand in the background.”

As the program progresses, current LAES students such as Riccio said they hope more students will become aware of the major.

“To me, the LAES program is really all about letting the students use every part of us, both the engineering and the arts,” Riccio said. “If someone thinks that there is a part of them that isn’t fully satisfied with their current situation, then LAES is the place for them.”