Types of Schools for Science and Engineering

You're heading off to college and you want to study science or engineering (or both!). There are countless colleges and universities to choose from.

To help you decide, here’s a breakdown of different kinds of institutions and what they have to offer students in these fields.

Science and engineering at universities

What it is: Though the terms are often used interchangeably, colleges and universities are actually different. A college is usually smaller, has a four-year program, and focuses on undergraduate education. A university, on the other hand, is typically a cluster of colleges or schools operating under one administration. Universities are often larger, have a range of majors and graduate programs, and have a strong emphasis on research.

The benefits: Universities offer a wide variety of majors and programs, so if you decide that science is not your thing and want to switch fields, or you want to combine your scientific study with another discipline, it’s relatively easy to make the change. Also, large universities tend to attract big-name professors with whom students can collaborate on research projects. And universities have a lot of diversity in their student population, so the lab rat can interact closely with the English major.

The downside: The science and engineering undergraduate curriculums at universities are generally broad and foundational, so if you are certain that you want to study something specific like environmental engineering, you might not be able to find the exact major you are looking for until you reach grad school. Also, those big-name professors probably will not be as accessible as the professors at a smaller school, so you’ll likely have a lot of graduate students as teachers.

Institutes of technology

What it is: An institute of technology focuses primarily on engineering and the sciences, and it provides a research-intensive experience. These schools should not be confused with technical colleges or institutes, which generally provide vocational training in the technical and mechanical fields.

The benefits: Institutes of technology offer very specific majors and intense science and engineering curriculums. The faculty is comprised of world-renowned scientists and engineers, and students working with these professors are often exposed to cutting-edge research. Institutes of technology are also often on the forefront of integrating technology into the classroom and exposing students to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. You’ll find plenty of clubs and organizations with a specific scientific focus to exactly match what you are looking for.

The downside: These schools are primarily grounded in science and engineering, so if you’re not sure you want to study a super-specific scientific major, you may not have many alternatives. (Try checking out the other programs offered at that institution to see if there are any backup majors you would be happy with.) Also, the diversity of the student body’s interests isn’t as great because most students are focused on a science or engineering education.

Science and engineering at liberal arts colleges

What it is: Liberal arts colleges are usually smaller four-year institutions. They emphasize a broad undergraduate experience, which includes taking classes in history, philosophy, art, and the sciences. At a liberal arts college, the focus is on the student and study, rather than professional training.

The benefits: At a liberal arts college, you will most likely take a class in every discipline (e.g., history, English, math, science, etc.) to get a well-rounded experience. Though you can focus your studies in science or engineering, you can also take a class on Shakespeare or modern art. You’ll gain life skills in teamwork, critical thinking, and writing/communication. Professors are generally very accessible, which gives you more chances to interact and develop mentor-mentee relationships.

The downside: Most liberal arts colleges do not offer engineering programs, so be sure to check the college’s majors if that’s something that is important to you. However, many have 3+2 programs with other institutions, so you can take your general education and prerequisite courses in a liberal arts setting and transfer to a different school for your engineering courses. Also, smaller schools, like liberal arts colleges, generally do not have access to refined technical equipment for research.

Keep in mind, this is just a general outline. Liberal arts colleges, universities, and institutes of technology are all different and unique. Check with each school you’re considering to find out what they offer and if they can match what you’re looking for.

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