September 21st, 2005

Beware the Engineer

Engineering Education

As a counterpoint to the previous lament about the lack of American engineering students, Tech Central Station printed someone's description of being an engineering student. High demands, incompetent teaching, huge classes. Yeah, that probably drives a lot of good would-be engineers out of the profession. I was lucky that I went to a small school where the professors teach instead to a huge one where they never talk to undergrads. The feedback on the article was a mix of "me, too" and "that's normal, suck it up, crybaby." The latter pissed me off enough that I posted this:

It's amazing how so many working engineers tolerate a level of incompetence in teaching that they would consider criminally negligent in a co-worker. If good material is ground up and spat out by a machine tool, that's a problem to be fixed, not a standard cost of doing business.

One thing I'd like to change in engineering education is changing the focus from easy to grade formal math and analysis (thermodynamics, aerodynamics, advanced stress calculation) toward dealing with the fuzzier parts of the job. Figuring out requirements, designing something that meets them, and testing whether it does the job right once built is what engineers spend most of their time doing. Damn few engineers do calculus on the job.

The creeping increase in math-intensive required courses has been making engineering degrees harder to get and driving out useful material (design, drafting, communication skills) that don't have the same calculus-driven prestige. Unfortunately that's what we use on the job the most, not calculus. This trend has been going on for a long time. Hopefully we can turn it back before it destroys the profession. Or maybe we'll just have to create start-ups that train their own engineers through apprenticeships, bypassing the accredited universities completely.