Benefits of an abstract engineering education

My prior post was critical of the abstraction-based, mathematics-heavy, and computation-focused eduction served up to today’s engineering students. It has been my experience has been that the most successful engineers in industrial practice are very hands-on, with years of practical experience, and insights that have little to do with academic equations. That’s not to say that the academic abstractions are unimportant, for they provide the language of discussion. An intelligent conversation about, say, a motor drive system, requires participants to understand that additional motor horsepower is not necessarily needed to produce greater output torque. (An engineer friend recently shared with me his attempt to explain this to a non-engineer boss. In the end, the boss said, “This doesn’t make any sense to me, but if you say it’s so, it must be.”)

Despite possible shortcomings in the current methods of engineering education, today’s graduates continue to be hired, and paid well-above average salaries—so employers obviously benefit from bringing on students who survive the current curriculum. Whatever modifications I might advocate for improving engineering pedagogy, I would certainly hope not to abandon these beneficial characteristics of today’s engineering programs. So what does an engineer learn from dealing with high levels of abstraction?

  • Perseverance — It often takes hours, maybe even days, to work through a single homework assignment. One has to look at each problem statement and begin trying to match the available information with potential methods of solution. Often times, roadblocks in understanding are encountered. The instructional material needs to be re-read, and re-evaluated to build a more comprehensive understanding of the solution technique. If the solution is not already known (from prior semester homework files, or found online), then a student has to at least convince themself that their path of deduction and computation is logical and rational. Shortcuts in this process are rarely rewarded in the long run, and engineering students rarely make it past their sophomore year if they haven’t acquired a healthy dose of perseverance.
  • Emotional suppression — Solving math problems is not a matter of nuance, or persuasion. It doesn’t matter how mad you get, or how optimistic you may be. Either your solution works, or it doesn’t. A successful student learns to keep cranking away at a problem until the correct solution is found, regardless of their emotional state.
  • Delayed gratification — Not withstanding the time spent working individual problems, engineers have to spend several years working on fundamentals before they can begin to solve higher-order engineering problems. Want to study photography? Grab a camera and go take some pictures. Want to be a writer? Start a blog. Want to be a civil engineer? Then expect to take four semesters of prerequisite courses to get to the point where you can begin seriously talking about bridge construction. In fact, your four years in engineering school are just a warm-up for going into industry, where you have to learn how engineering is carried out in the real world.
  • Humility — Solving complex math problems leads one to be wary of false optimism. A dropped sign, a transposed notation, a forgotten property, a misunderstood application—all can lead to an incorrect solution, even though the methodology seems correct. This aspect of the engineering education has been well-stated by Vivek Haldar:

    To be a successful software engineer (or indeed, any engineer), one first needs to be utterly and completely broken by failure. One must be so humiliated by a complex system that they give up and realize that the only chance of moving forward comes from being a supplicant to the complexity, by approaching it with humility and caution, not with hubris. You have to listen to the system, coax it into behaving. Commanding it does not work.

  • Sub-problem identification — Getting the hang of breaking complex problems into solvable sub-problems is an important engineering skill. My understanding of how this could be accomplished came in the second half of my sophomore year. No longer did I have to look for an equation or method that solved an entire problem at once; I could break the problem into smaller parts and solve the sub-problems individually. This was my first inkling that I might actually be able to “think” like an engineer.

Any other benefits to a traditional engineering education that I’ve missed?

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  1. Posted February 16, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I’d have to say another benefit of a traditional engineering education would be breadth. My own interests lie in analog design and if I had it my way in school I would have taken nothing but circuits courses. However, in order to graduate I was required to also take classes in electromagnetics, motor design, communications, controls, programming, and digital design to say nothing of the gen ed requirements. Coming out of school with all of that experience was great and definitely helped me to become a more well rounded engineer. All the various classes gave me some new insights into problems as well as a big picture view of EE. Had I struck out on my own to study engineering I would not have been exposed to nearly as much material.

  2. Posted February 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your insightful comment!

    So is the benefit of this breadth simply being conversant in different areas, or did you discover new ways of problem-solving in each new course? With the world’s knowledge increasing at an exponential rate, we can’t wait for students to study every new technology. So I’m interested in what we can do to maintain the “breadth” of engineering education, while moving toward just-in-time education, rather than “just-in-case” training. How do we best decide what to leave in the curriculum, and what to leave out?

  3. Posted February 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the delayed response; I forgot to hit the Notify button last time I commented.

    I’d have to say I’ve experienced both benefits you mentioned. Having breadth in my education has lead me to become conversant in areas outside of my main field while also providing new insights into problem solving. Being able to tackle a tough circuit deign from a controls perspective (more high level & abstract) or an EM view (lower level & physics based, though still some what abstracted) as the situation dictates has been a great help. It’s also helpful realizing that it may be beneficial to implement a feature digitally instead of through analog methods in certain cases too.

    To keep the breadth of education I’d have to say the biggest help would be to incorporate examples of applications into the courses. Showing how what’s learned in one classes relates to another would be a big step in the right direction in my opinion. That way it’s more clear why learning more gen ed type topics is important even though a student’s main interests lie elsewhere. I was always frustrated with the way certain courses were taught in a vacuum when it was clear there had to be some application for the material.

    As for deciding what stays in the curriculum, I’d say survey the student and potential employers. Get feedback from students after their internships and coops, alumni after 1 year of work, and employers every year or so. This way there’d be a good amount of (ideally) relevant data to base course decisions off of. For example, if 80% of the students/alumni say taking a required course on motor design hasn’t been beneficial and 15% of employers say it’s desirable the school could move that class to an elective instead.

  4. Posted June 3, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Quoted you on my blog. Let me know if it’s okay. Liked the paragraph that included “…one first needs to be utterly and completely broken by failure.” The whole piece is an exceptional blog post.

  5. Jeff
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Alas, the words about failure are not mine. That particular quotation belongs to Vivek Haldar, and it would be nice if you could link to his blog somewhere in your post, as I have in mine. Thanks!

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