engineering in college

As sort of a continuation to my post on a similar topic, I wanted to ask about people’s college experiences.

Engineering’s really hard. It seems that most people have agreed on that. The fact that I’m in the middle of finals might be skewing my perspective, but I’ve been thinking about how masochistic you have to be to go into engineering. I pointed out before that I don’t think it’s impossibly hard. Although, I might have been in it for so long that my definition of “hard” has been skewed. I want to point out that I’m not complaining though. I understand the need for what I’m being taught. I also understand that I’m being tested on information that I need to know. Well, for the most part anyway… I can think of several examples of unnecessary material, but I don’t want to get into that right now.

People are failing tests and even classes left and right. When I took thermodynamics, I got a 70-something on the final, which ended up being an A-. A couple of my friends were telling me about one of their classes where the average on their midterms was in the 40’s. Granted, those classes covered material that was particularly hard, but still.

A few of us were talking about the decrease in classes being offered and someone mentioned that enrollment is down. In response, someone off-handedly said that they must be failing too many people. I have a feeling that the class cuts might be more money related, but I think he had a point there. I know a lot of people that have had to retake at least one engineering (or engineering related) class, some have failed several. Most of them just keep on chugging, but a lot quit. (Interestingly, it seems that about half of those that do quit change to business.)

So, what’s my point? Well, I think there’s a few issues here. Are the low grades just an inherent part of a hard subject or are people just not learning what they need to be? You’ve also got the professors that curve to the point that a 40 is passing. Is this alright? Are they letting bad engineers by, or are they making it possible to produce engineers at all? Lastly, is this common everywhere, or is there just something wrong with my school? (Again, I’m in the middle of finals, so I might be exaggerating the difficulty in all of this.)

At my school, from what I hear it is quite common for half of a class to fail the (engineering related) class. If that isn’t the case, most likely the professor is lowering the standard so that something like a 55% would be considered passing. I don’t think either way to go is the answer. There is a definite problem arising with education, and I don’t think anyone has a clue how to fix it.

I see a deficiency in the quantity of quality instructors and new, innovative, and creative ways of teaching. For some reason, I get an awful fear that engineering professors ended up teaching because they didn’t succeed in the real world. Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes. Another problem is that I believe a school will hire an instructor, that instructor will put in a good effort for maybe a year while they get all their materials prepared, maybe put on a little show to get promoted or to get some more classes, then the school thinks they are great, then the professor kind of kicks back and does just the bare minimum necessary to keep his job and then the school can’t ditch him because he’s been their so long and they don’t have any compelling reason and they don’t want to bother finding somebody new. At least that’s my take on it.

I don’t think 50% should be a passing grade, but I don’t think half a class should fail.

I think schools need an extensive course/instructor review program which can target and correct problems in the classroom. Lowering the standards of grading is not a solution to the problem of an ineffective instructor.

As a side question to this one, how many engineering students at your school actually graduate compared to the number who enter? The program I went through started 147 and graduated 47 four years later.

At some time in college there is a change from learning the basic tools to solve problems to actually solving real world problems. Not all colleges address this well but colleges that do usually have a couple killer courses where they make this transition and they hit it hard. For me it was a computer science course on simulations programming. This course used all the tools that we had studied - calculus, probability, statistics, programming, sciences, and even geography, and applied them to setting up computer models to simulate real world systems. There where 15 students in the class 9 passed, 6 failed and that was a good class. I suffered that semester, spent all my time on that class, lost the girl friend and my part time job, felt isolated and frustrated all the time but I passed and would not want to change the experience. If your college has a good curriculum they’ll have courses like that. You’ll be a better person for surviving it.

The low grades are produced by many factors. I’ve seen this happen way too many times in my courses and know exactly what you’re talking about. They typically happen in the tougher courses that try to bring together multiply topics, like Gdeaver mentioned. Thermo, Diff Eq’s, upper level engineering design courses, and hardcore CAD classes are typical of this trend. Way too much information is thrown at the students in a short period of time. Also, a lot of professors tend to forget that their students are taking “other classes” and have other work to do besides theirs. This combined creates an environment where it is hard to adequately absorb the information, process it mentally, and then learn it well enough that you can apply it to your work.

While the low numerical grades being translated into higher letter grades will pass the class more successfully, it is only a band-aid covering up a problem with the curriculum, teaching skills, or the students learning capacities. I know at WPI, the courses (undergrad, atleast) are 7 weeks. If you miss one class, you end up being behind for days while you try to catch up. If you’re trying to do this while having massive amounts of info crammed into your brain, it’s a good chance that you’ll learn it well enough to pass your next exam, but you’ll forget it shortly afterwards.

I don’t feel there’s an easy solution to this issue, but it would be nice to see school’s heading in the right direction in solving the problem. Some possibilities would be: more classes for each course to lower the prof-student ratio, increase the length of the course, make the hw more like grad courses (less problems, but more in-depth problems that require real world thinking), etc.

my $1/50

I tried looking up the graduation rate for EE at my school, but couldn’t find anything conclusive. For one thing, there are 3 times as many seniors as there are freshman. I can think of several reasons for this, but it says nothing about how many of those freshman make it. By mere observation, however, I think that about half of the people in my freshman engineering class made it past the second year. Most of my friends are around the same place I am. At this point, nearly everyone talks about changing majors next semester, but we’ve all come too far to turn back now.

Now that you mention it, I just realized that my school does that. Last semester, I was learning some math, learning some physics, and doing some stuff with fairly simple circuits. This semester, I’m suddenly trying to figure out whether or not the sample of germanium that was thrown at me would be suitable for aerospace purposes. I also took digital design, which, obviously, is geared toward being able to apply what we’re learning. One of the questions on my Materials test actually asked me why InP is used in high frequency electronics. He never explicitly went over it in class, but there was enough data in the charts that were given to us to figure it out and the previous question hinted at it. There was this sudden shift from collecting knowledge to being able to apply it. Even if we don’t have to do so directly, all of the classes that I’m taking now are geared toward knowing how this knowledge is used in the real world.

My Digital Design professor mentioned an important point though. He admitted that we are being taught a lot of information very quickly. On one occassion, he made it apparent that if he were taking the class, he’d probably have as much trouble as us. He claims that the reason for this is that the curriculum is designed for transfer students. My school has a lot of people transfering in from community colleges. He said that, ideally, we would have learned some of this material a few semesters ago so that we wouldn’t have to learn so much right now. I’m not convinced that this is the whole reason though.

I had to take four semesters of physics, four semesters of math, and a handful of liberal arts classes. That was already full time right there. In order to add extra engineering classes, other lower division classes (i.e. liberal arts) would have to get cut out. They already cut out several liberal arts classes for engineers and we still have to take more classes than everyone else. I can only think of three of these classes that could be cut. The others, like english and history, are probably just as important as thermodynamics and electromagnetics.

There’s just too much to try and learn in four or five years. I think that the only way to make it easier would be to spread it out by making it longer. A lot of people wouldn’t be too happy about this, but it might be the only way to fit all of this in without driving engineers-to-be to the brink of insanity.

I know what you mean when you say people are failing it left and right. All my tech teachers discuss their peers always failing, and not being able to do anything about it, or even my favorite, when one of my teachers said she made money by teaching a class to other students right before the exam with an admission fee. High school technology classes (at least in my school) tend to be extremely easy and not fatiguing at all. I remember not studying for my last years final and getting in the mid nineties. I dont think its a good thing either. I’m afraid that when i go to my college, I’m not going to know all that i should.

Im shooting for Worcester Polytech right now, in central Mass. The nice thing about it is that it is really hands on and works on the time constraints of prototyping more than anything, one of the reasons ive been getting really x-core with CAD lately. They are known for not having a lot of exams as well. Team projects makes t harder to push yourself above others. One of the coolest thing about it though is that their “final project” (they call it the “capstone project”) is where you are assessed on a design problem, and ave to have a working prototype by the end of 48 hours. I find these parts of their cirriculum, along with their professors, a good oppening into a career. Especially with rising competition in the field in the last few decades.