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.