Can one come in as a physics major and try classes in engineering? What’s the quality of the engineering classes?
The reality is that if you are considering it, you should take at least one engin class at Swat in the fall of your freshman year for 2 reasons.
The size of the school makes it a bit harder to schedule classes when they are only offered once per year (as is the case for many majors…not just engineering). At Swat, you will also be doing your first year essentially pass/fail. If you want to try out something (anything…to take advantage of the diversity in a LAC), the first year experience at Swat is built for that.
As for quality, obviously everyone with a connection to any engineering school who posts here is biased as to their opinions. I think Swats department is underrated, as enginnering comparisons tend to look for scale and total resources. Swat’s department is still rather small, which I see as a major benefit.
If you look at the backgrounds of the professors, you will see a lot of Ivy, Swat, MIT, Hopkins, CMU in the CV’s. Beyond that, they all made it very clear that they are at Swat because they like the direct contact with the students. They know them all, and have very personal relationships with them.
If interested, you can consider USN’s peer assessment ratings, by which Swarthmore places 17th in the non-PhD granting undergraduate engineering category, with a score of 3.5 on a 1–5 scale. For context, this score places Swarthmore just below Lafayette (3.6) and just above Union (3.4).