Christian Engineering Education in Canada
Christian higher education in Canada traditionally offers degree programs in the arts, humanities, and natural sciences, but not in applied sciences such as engineering. What is the point of teaching engineering in a Christian college? Is there a distinctive Christian approach to engineering in areas like automotive design, bridge building, and power grids?
Many people assume that technology is neutral. The argument goes something like this: it isn’t about the technology itself, it’s what you do with technology that matters. This perspective leads to a philosophy of technology education in which the world of values is not part of the world of practical engineering. If this is true, then the case for a Christian engineering education is limited.
Questions like this are the focus of the annual Christian Engineering Education Conference (CEEC). This summer, we hosted the conference here at Trinity Western University (as it followed on the heels of a huge conference of the ASEE in Vancouver), and it attracted dozens of engineering professors from a wide variety of Christian colleges across North America as well as good number from South Korea. Together with Dr. Derek Schuurman, a computer science professor from Redeemer University College, I presented a paper entitled “Christian Engineering Education in Canada” (which appears in the conference proceedings). This paper could have been very short, since there are no full engineering programs at any Canadian Christian colleges. Nonetheless, we sketched the rationale for a Christian engineering program and proceeded to share our dream of establishing such a program in Canada.
The rationale for Christian engineering programs begins with understanding the nature of technology. Responsible Technology (a book edited by Stephen V. Monsma) defines technology as:
“a distinct cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes.”
This definition recognizes that technology is a human cultural activity; it is more than just machines and technical artifacts. When we do engineering, we are not just working with mechanical forces, chemical reactions or electric potentials. In our technical work there are other aspects at play – things such as cultural appropriateness, open communication, etiquette, stewardship, user-friendliness, justice, care for public health and safety, and the trustworthiness and reliability of our work. These aspects are associated with certain norms in which we exercise freedom and responsibility. To avoid running amok, these norms ought to be shaped by Scripture and by seeking God’s will for his creation.
Currently, only large publicly-funded universities offer degree programs in engineering in Canada. However, both Redeemer University College and Trinity Western University have recently begun attracting students with an interest in beginning their engineering studies at a Christian university. Both universities have now established pre-engineering programs in which students can begin their first year of studies at a Christian university before transferring to a public university. These pre-engineering programs provide an opportunity for students to develop their Christian worldview before pursuing further studies in engineering. Although there are established engineering programs at places like Baylor and Seattle Pacific in the U.S., Canadian students who attend these programs can face hurdles when applying for their professional engineering status in Canada. Furthermore, the Canadian culture and context is different than in the U.S.
Any effort to establish an accredited engineering program at a Christian university in Canada will face significant challenges. Establishing an engineering program requires specialized labs and equipment — an expensive proposition for Christian universities which face perennial issues of tight budgets and limited resources. Furthermore, it will be a challenge to attract qualified Christian faculty members, particularly when our faculty salaries are modest in comparison with typical industry salaries. Finally, any legitimate program will require recognition from the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB) in a context without any existing Christian liberal arts engineering programs. Finally, prospective students will need to be convinced of such a program’s quality and viability.
It sounds daunting, but Christian universities are used to such challenges. Stepping Forward in Faith and Cal Hanson’s On the Raw Edge of Faith tell the pioneering stories of the birth of Redeemer and Trinity Western respectively, where seemingly insurmountable challenges were overcome by God’s grace and providence. Christian colleges want to train Christians to be agents of change — culture-shapers. In an age of high-technology, perhaps it’s time that an engineering program is established at a Christian college in Canada in order to train young men and women to be faithful and responsible engineers.
Only slightly adapted from Derek Schuurman’s blog entry, based on his 8 August 2011 Christian Courier column entitled “Wanted: Christian engineering education in Canada”, which in turn is based on our co-authored paper delivered at CEEC 2011.
More information on preparing for engineering at TWU can be found here.