Computer scientists really are engineers, honor society concludes at meeting

At the national convention of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi (TBP), held Oct. 7-9 in Orlando, Fla., a proposal from the executive council threatened to exclude computer science majors from membership—a decision that would have had serious ramifications for Stanford students. After a protracted and contentious debate, the issue was resolved with a compromise: Individual chapters can decide which disciplines should be eligible.

As originally worded, the amendment to the TBP constitution would have excluded students majoring in any discipline that does not have the word "engineering" in the title or is not accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Computer science, which satisfies neither of these two criteria, is the discipline of choice for a considerable portion of both engineering students and TBP members at Stanford. About 55 percent of students eligible for TBP membership here are computer science majors.

"It is just not tenable to have an engineering honor society at Stanford that does not accept a good half of engineers," said Stanford TBP Vice President Jason Bay, an undergraduate in electrical engineering.

The question of what defines engineering fueled passionate opinions in the debate, the outcome of which affected many engineering schools across the country that confer computer science degrees.

"The original amendment addressed a systemic problem," said Matt Ohland, national president of TBP and professor of engineering at Clemson University. "Computer science is one of many disciplines that are not universally recognized as a part of the engineering community."

Computer science originally developed as a math discipline, but has since evolved to encompass engineering activities such as design of silicon chips and computer networks. Up to 60 percent of computer science programs across the country are now housed in engineering schools, Bay said.

"In some other peer institutions around the country, computer science and electrical engineering are combined in an electrical engineering/computer science department," Jim Plummer, dean of Stanford's School of Engineering, said. "The recent debate was fundamentally about whether people who engineer things using ideas from computer science are really engineers. Our answer is that of course they are."

The resolution, reached with unanimous support of student members and the executive council, allows chapters to appeal to the national board when they decide a certain degree program is worthy of inclusion. The three-step process requires a three-fourths vote among chapter members, a five-sevenths vote by the chapter’s advisory board, and then an appeal to the national convention.

By allowing individual chapters to decide eligibility criteria, engineering schools and TBP will be able to adapt to the changing landscape of engineering. The resolution provides a framework for making decisions about any discipline, not just computer science.

"This represents a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix," Bay said. "We ended up settling on a package that deals with far more than computer science and could basically become a template for how TBP decides on eligibility in the future."

The resolution was well received by members of the Stanford chapter of TBP. Had the issue not been resolved, the future of Stanford's chapter may very well have been in doubt.

Stanford TBP President Justin Sabet-Peyman, an undergraduate in electrical engineering, is pleased with the solution. "This was a long, hard-fought battle that wouldn't have been resolved without the persistence of our students and active support from the dean's office. This compromise saved our chapter."

Matthew Early Wright is a science writing intern at Stanford News Service.