Liberal arts and engineering studies revolves around project-based learning and the fusion of two traditionally separate disciplines. | Photo Courtesy of Kamryn Fall

Benjy Egel
[follow id = “BenjyEgel”]

Tyler Whipple wasn’t happy as a mechanical engineering junior. His homework involved calculating equations and moving A to B — not the Learn By Doing approach he wanted from Cal Poly.

Fortunately for Whipple, an adviser heard about a program called Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies, or LAES, which revolves around project-based learning and the fusion of two traditionally separate disciplines.

“I found the program, and one quarter into classes I was like, “This is the perfect fit for me. This is exactly what I want to be doing,’” Whipple said. “Yeah, I could make it as (mechanical) engineering, but I didn’t really want to be stuck at a desk doing eight hours of advanced physics and calculus every day for my job.”

Flash-forward four years, one semester abroad, two Disney College Programs and one LAES degree. Whipple has just celebrated his one-year anniversary as an entertainment technician at Universal Studios’ Superstar Parade.

Any Cal Poly engineering degree looks good when applying for a job, but Whipple said his LAES degree provided him with a technical background as well as the communication skills associated with liberal arts.

“I had a background in mechanical design and stagecraft at Cal Poly, so I knew a lot about show business,” he said. “But I’m also very mechanically inclined.”

LAES was created as a pilot program seven years ago and became an official major at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, interim co-director Jane Lehr said. Lehr, an ethnic studies professor who is filling in for director David Gillette while he is on sabbatical, complements computer engineering professor Michael Haungs as the major’s liberal arts and engineering heads.

The program, which is independent of an academic college, has approximately 30 current students and 10-15 more waiting to transfer within the next two quarters. Prospective students cannot list LAES on their Cal Poly application; they must switch into the program once accepted into another discipline.

LAES senior Kamryn Fall came to Cal Poly as general engineering student before an adviser recommended she combine her writing and technical skills. Fall, who thought about switching into everything from mechanical engineering to business administration, fell in love with LAES.

“It’s really a community-based program. We’re all very close with each other and can build off of everyone’s experience as students,” Fall said. “(We’re) able to help each other out and discover how we want to go about making the most out of our experience at Cal Poly.”

While Fall said many of her classmates want liberal arts skills to go with their engineering backgrounds, she has used the program to get better background on her film production career dreams.

One of Fall’s LAES classes this past year involved creating a documentary of the Cal Poly Theater and Dance Department’s production of Trojan Women 2.0. Other video-related projects for class got her a number of professional contacts at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Fall completed an internship at San Luis Obispo-based Aspects Studios before landing an internship with Fox Studios in Australia this past fall. She recently accepted an offer to work for Disney throughout summer and fall after her upcoming graduation.

Other graduates have accepted jobs at places like audio company USL, Inc., Lehr said. The former students are now creating a new form of surround sound where speakers direct audio waves to certain points within a room.

In a 2013 analysis of the program, LAES graduates’ employers nearly universally said they were pleased with the employees’ critical thinking, moral compasses and ability to work efficiently.

While all LAES students have a certain curriculum they must complete, the major’s breadth of projects allows students like Fall to be involved in multiple subject areas.

Students design their course loads with College of Engineering and College of Liberal Arts advisers, meeting multiple times before finalizing their concentrations. Liberal arts-leaning students can create their own concentration or pick an approved College of Liberal Arts minor, while the College of Engineering has three engineering concentrations.

“It’s a balancing act, I think, between the types of structure that exist and that drive towards flexibility,” Lehr said. “We have a really hands-on advising model within liberal arts and engineering studies to maximize opportunities for both choice and success.”

LAES classwork itself is difficult but fairly manageable, Fall said. The program is designed in part to allow students the flexibility to receive real-world experience, an opportunity Fall said most take advantage of.

“We don’t have to be running around all the time, but I have four internships on my résumé and four-plus years of career-related work experience because of LAES’ ability to go out there and the most that you can from experiences,” she said.

Major classes max out at 25 students, Fall said, allowing her to receive the focus of a small liberal arts school while paying CSU tuition rates. Students get to know each other and often collaborate on projects, Fall said.

“I know most people who have been in the major for the last three years,” she said. “Several of them are working with me on my senior project right now, and I’m helping them out on their senior projects.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified LAES senior Kamryn Fall as Kamryn Hall.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *