Bait and switch in engineering education

It seems that many children have never considered the possibility of an engineering career. Well-meaning programs therefore attempt to nudge students toward engineering through exposure to engineering-like projects. These activities most often involve the manipulation of physical objects, such as constructing toothpick bridges, building LEGO models, preparing for an egg drop, or working with robots. Youngsters may alternatively be presented with a simulation of working with physical objects. As I’ve stated before, the role of an engineer is to implement new methods, devices, or systems. For an engineer working in the physical realm (a physineer), this means constructing something novel in the material world. So I have no problem with these introductory programs attempting to capture the imagination of students with physical-realm activities. My concern is the abrupt switch to purely abstract thinking that we impose on those who have expressed a desire to pursue an engineering career.

When students are sent off to college, they are immediately thrown into a series of math and physics courses that can seem wholly irrelevant to the activities that enticed them to enter the engineering curriculum. Although my undergrad experience took place more than thirty years ago, I remember struggling to rationalize how my knowledge of integration techniques was going to help me design production machinery. I had seen industrial equipment being built in a local machine shop, and I was fascinated with the banks of electrical relays that automated mechanical movement. (This was prior to the time that PLCs came into wide usage.) I wanted to learn how to design such machinery, and so I enrolled in my state’s largest engineering school, taking both mechanical and electrical engineering courses. Although I’m not sorry that I learned calculus along the way, I can safely state that knowing how to integrate by parts was never of benefit in my industrial career. In fact, over the two decades I spent in industry as a design engineer, I never found myself needing to solve an integral equation.

Given that several decades passed before I returned to my alma mater for a PhD, I presumed that the situation had improved. But my conversations with students currently in the middle of their undergraduate studies suggest that things are marginally better, at best. They are learning techniques of solution, but have little engineering insight. Children of my college buddies are now enrolled in various engineering schools around the country. When I talk with them I hear similar stories of being led blindly through math-heavy courses that appear to have little relevance to what they’ve heard at home about real-world engineering duties.

Is it any surprise that students are dropping out of this type of curriculum? Some claim the subject material is simply too hard. However, I think that Robert Talbert correctly identifies the problem:

Students aren’t put off by hard work. They are merely put off by any kind of work that doesn’t appear to be worth the effort.

I’d go further and say that engineering students can’t see the connection between the abstract and physical realms. This confusion is reflected in the following illustration, which has been floating around the internet. (Click on the image to see full size graphic.)

[The upper graphic seems to be from Valve's Team Fortress 2. If someone knows which textbook the lower derivation is from, I'd be happy to give appropriate credit.]

The sad part is that this graphic is wrong. While research engineers may work in high-level abstractions, a great many engineering activities do not need such advanced mathematical acumen. In fact, many engineering problems are solved with spatial or experiential skills that require little mathematical prowess. So while I see nothing wrong in teaching abstract thinking, I think that engineering studies should advance from the physical realm toward the abstract realm, rather than the other way around. Otherwise, we’re promising to teach students one set of skills (to entice their enrollment), and delivering something else entirely. It strikes me that we’re teaching them how to be graduate students, rather than employable engineers. I suspect that this misalignment has real costs for students, employers, and the nation.

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One Comment

  1. ferd
    Posted February 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I fully agree. When I was in school I switched from traditional BSEE to a Bachelor of Technology in Electrical Engineering degree because I felt that I was wasting time. Both programs were 4-year BS engineering degrees (my degree was changed retroactively from BT to BS the year after I graduated because it became fully accredited). The difference was the BT removed some of the high level theoretical physics and math (as well as some liberal arts credits) and replaced it with hands-on laboratories. The university claimed that the BT was necessary because businesses were complaining that too many BSEEs could design things that looked great on paper but were impractical. Us BTs were supposed to fill in the gap between theory and real world. Sounded promising.

    But when I entered the working world I found that those same businesses kept hiring traditional BSEEs instead of BTs. One explained that although my credentials were great, they felt that they needed to present traditional credentials to their customers. In effect, I was not a “real engineer”. However I was invited to work as a 2-year associate and fix the problems that those BSEEs created.

    I’ve met several brilliant people who are great at abstraction but terrible in execution. Some of them bombed out of engineering, some morphed into management (where they do not engineer), and others returned to academia. I think that academia pushes their abstract programs because that is what their staffs are comfortable with. When choosing an engineering school I caution students to research how up-to-date the professors and laboratories are. We all need the basics (which rarely change) but we also need to understand modern tools. If the school wants to sell you hours of abstract math instead of exposure to simulation tools and the hows and whys of using them, you’re wasting time and money.

    As far as reasons people drop out of engineering school, I agree that abstract-ism is part of it. But they also see a weak economy with low prospects, as well as how poorly their parents’ generation has been treated. Until companies are willing to again accept the risks of design and development instead of short-term profit there is little chance for lifetime engineering careers.