Engineering Education

This past week, an interesting article hit my radar from Wired magazine, titled simply "Top 5 Reasons It Sucks to Be an Engineering Student". As a former engineering student myself*, I thought I'd share some perspective on this one…

First, yes, most of the textbooks are awful. Some of them are beyond awful.. some of the worst ones are written by your own profs.

I remember getting chewed out by my Department Head and having to apologize to another Department Head when I publicly criticized the choice in a text book change and would not allow usage of the old book. Yes, because apparently thermo tables changed somewhere in the last year… oh wait, it was that Department Head's book. 😉 That said, the single best "book" I had was a 90 page super cliff-notes guide to circuit analysis written by another prof. I still keep that one on hand.

Next, the quality and engagement of your professors depends on your school. When I did my degree, I had a best friend in the same program at my #2 choice. He had entire semesters where he saw the prof but never met directly. The professor was completely disengaged from the day to day of the classroom.

On the other hand, at Rose-Hulman we didn't have TA's for anything more than grading papers (not even tests!). In many classes, the professors would hand out their home phone numbers on the first day… along with a cryptic message like "remember, I have a family and don't live student's hours". I worked directly and regularly with a number of profs, was on a first name basis with a number of them, and have kept in touch with a few.

Couseling… it's the toughest parts of any engineering school. And here's why: You're immediately employable! We all have those friends who spent four years getting a degree and had a simple choice: managing the Gap or grad school. I personally have nothing against either option, but for someone who's just spent $100k getting a degree, one of those looks much worse than the other.

An engineering grad is a bit different. Most programs pound you into nothing intellectually, mentally, and sometimes physically and then rebuild you into something that can learn quickly, double checks assumptions, and solve problems creatively. If we choose to go to grad school, it's because we choose to, we're not forced into it. The options are wide open and limited only by what we're willing to learn and what we get/make the opportunity to try. How do you counsel that?

Inflated grades… do we want inflated grades? Do you really want the person designing that bridge, pacemaker, or missile to have a false sense of confidence? I didn't always get the best grades, but my grades were my doing and entirely up to me. Suck it up and quit your whining.

Every assignment feels the same? Yes, that's because there are certain engineering principles that every dicipline boils down to. At Rose, we had the dreaded "Sophomore Curriculum" where all the mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers would be thrown into the grinder where we learned that the same principles determine everything from fluid and electrical flow to statics to dynamics to everything in between.

It wasn't until our third and fourth years that the programs diverged. While the civils were off building their concrete canoes and the mechanicals were performing materials analysis, we were building signal filters and light-based communications systems. In Senior Design – another place where Rose excels – we went as far as solving real-world problems submitted by companies. I did a CD unwrapping system for Columbia House and a web-based fax management system. (This was years ago, give me a break.)

Finally, and most importantly, I think they stopped too soon with five.
Just sitting here, I had flashbacks that included no less than 38 different reasons. When I head back in May to speak on Software QA to one of the classes – when did I become respectable!? – I suspect I'll find another 25 within 5 minutes of getting on campus. 😉

And all joking aside, I was accepted to numerous engineering schools – names which you would recognize – and don't regret my choice in Rose-Hulman a single bit and would recommend it to anyone who wants a rigorous – and sometimes painful – understanding and grounding in engineering.

* My alma mater – Rose-Hulman – is a little school you probably haven't heard of, but has been ranked #1 in US News and World Report nine years in a row for engineering schools without a PhD program. It also led the way in issuing laptops to all students… starting in 1995.