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Author Topic: "Confessions of an Engineering Washout": how does it compare to your experience
gr8fulreader
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http://www.techcentralstation.com/092105B.html
As a mother of a freshman in one of very expensive "Smartypants U.", as the author puts it, I am very interested if the Ornery regulars share this experience? By the sound of it a lot of regulars are thechies. I'll appreciate the input...

Edited by OrneryMod to fix link.

[ September 28, 2005, 02:46 PM: Message edited by: OrneryMod ]

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IrishTD
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Engineering is hard work, yes. I went to a school that didn't typically have TA's teaching and decent teaching was expected out of the faculty, so it was a pretty good experience. I think a lot of it depends on the school.
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Digger
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Ah, memories.

I, too was a Chemical Engineering major at a school noted for its science and technology disciplines. I don't know if it would qualify as "SmartypantsU", because it was a state school - in the South. But it was certainly challenging enough for me.

The freshman year engineering experience is harsh. And it's harsh by design. At my alma mater, during the time I was there (late 80's), specific engineering majors (Chemical vs Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, etc.) were decalred at the beginning of the sophomore year. For the freshman year, all Engineering majors were enrolled in "Freshman Engineering" and we all took the same classes.

By the end of the freshman year, about a third of the students changed majors. I don't know how many were slated to go to each discipline the following year. At the start of our sophomore year, there were about 100 Chemical Engineering majors. By the time I graduated, my class size was 35. We were grizzled veterans of the academic meat-grinder at that point.

My longest stretch without sleep was 72 straight hours while debugging a chemical plant simulator for our senior design project. There was a point during my sophomore year where I actually picked up a change of major form and sat down on a bench in an open area to comtemplate my new future. Only after horrifically realizing there was nothing I'd rather study than ChemE did I toss the form, grit my teeth, and head over to the library to tackle my next day's assignment.

The first couple of years is when most of the attrition occurs. The experience is ego crushing, to say the least. Experiences where teachers don't really teach are the norm. You are thrown in the pool and dared to swim. Some might say you are thrown off the cliff and dared to fly.

In many ways it's a lot like boot camp - first they convince a bunch of former academic all-stars that they are actually worthless addle-brained morons and then, once properly broken and receptive to indoctrination, the process of building them back up into a capable, mold-fitting version of a 'proper Engineer' takes place.

Somehow, I never quite fit completely into the mold and I managed to graduate anyway. My grades were not outstanding. I refer to the grades in my undergraduate years as, "The hardest f***in' 2.8 I ever earned." I got into graduate school based mostly on the recommendation of our department head, who took a liking to me during the aforementioned senior design project. I doubt I could have gotten into a decent graduate program without his stamp of approval.

Was it worth it? I think so. Graduate school (also in Engineering, though Environmental flavored) was a comparative breeze. I learned a lot about discipline, organization, and time management. The fact that I never worked as an actual Chemical Engineer never bothered me. I went on to do environmental consulting, IT project management and executive management, and eventually started my own business. I think a lot of what I learned in ChemE helped me in all the various things I've tried.

Edited to add: I see the thrust of the article is to proclaim that the meat-grinder isn't the best way to produce good engineers. I don't really have an opinion on that. The way it was justified to me is that when engineers make mistakes, people die. Bridges fall down, chemical plants go up in a ball of fire, machines fly apart while in operation, and so on and so forth. So, much in the same way that doctors have a patient's life in their hands, engineers create the infrastructure of society and they have the lives of many in their hands through the products of their work. Teaching tomorrow's engineers to take that responsibility seriously is a significant part of the educational experience.

P.S. - There's an extra "." at the end of the URL - take it out to see the article.

[ September 28, 2005, 02:33 PM: Message edited by: Digger ]

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javelin
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Link isn't working for me.
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The Drake
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So, when I arrived at the University in 1988, they had all the students pursuing a BSEE in one lecture hall. Within the opening remarks:

"Only 20% of you will leave this University with a BSEE degree."

It set the tone. The intials of the business school were jokingly called the "Whittemore School of Bad Engineers (WSBE)"

You were under no illusions that it was going to be easy or that anyone would hold your hand through the process. The first year courses were largely designed to weed out anybody who couldn't handle themselves, and the ECE Department didn't even offer access to coursework in the discipline until the second year. Many of those 80% dropped before ever having a course taught by an Engineering professor.

I had a Calculus professor that was near useless, visting from China, who was brilliant as I understand it. I stopped attending the class after three weeks.

We had a Chemistry lab marathon that lasted nine hours. Heating - cooling - measuring - heating - cooling - measuring....

After that first year, you have proven your mettle and professors spend a lot more time with you, if that is your thing. Personally, I never had more than ten conversations outside of scheduled class time with my Professors in the whole of my University experience.

To me, the trial by fire coupled with relative grades is a good thing. Just like the medical and legal professions, a bad engineer is dangerous to the public at large. It is important to graduate quality, independent engineers - not to increase the number of engineers.

If you can't learn from a book without assistance, you shouldn't be an engineer. The author of the article shouldn't be an engineer, and isn't.

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A. Alzabo
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quote:
Was it worth it? I think so. Graduate school (also in Engineering, though Environmental flavored) was a comparative breeze. I learned a lot about discipline, organization, and time management. The fact that I never worked as an actual Chemical Engineer never bothered me. I went on to do environmental consulting, IT project management and executive management, and eventually started my own business. I think a lot of what I learned in ChemE helped me in all the various things I've tried.
I have to agree. While I never did get my ME degree (I reached a health/time/financial impasse halfway through my senior year), I'd have to say that the problem solving (really problem identifying), time management, and project management aspects that I learned have stood me in good stead in areas I've worked in (I'm currently a computer programmer).
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A. Alzabo
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quote:
My grades were not outstanding. I refer to the grades in my undergraduate years as, "The hardest f***in' 2.8 I ever earned."
A funny engineering Tshirt I saw while I was at R.I.T. had the equation $60,000 = 2.0 GPA on it.
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The Drake
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Oh, and my favorite story is the grad student/TA for Physics who came from Eastern Europe and didn't know the English word "length". His weekly game of charades was quite interesting.
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A. Alzabo
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quote:
Being too arrogant to waste my gifts in some kiddie intro course, I enrolled in the genius course. Memo to freshmen, wherever you are: unless you are a certified, card-carrying prodigy with a four-digit IQ, do not EVER EVER EVER sign up for a chemistry class whose informal nickname contains the word "Turbo." "What happened?" said the comment on my second test. I wish I knew.


This is hilarious: it's exactly what I did. Bored by my first semester of chemistry (I'd already taken chem and AP chem), I fought to get into the even-harder-than-honors-chemistry-chemistry class. No exams, just quizzes, lab experiments, and one very absent-minded professor. Wow. I enjoy it more in retrospect than I did at the time.
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A. Alzabo
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quote:
Oh, and my favorite story is the grad student/TA for Physics who came from Eastern Europe and didn't know the English word "length". His weekly game of charades was quite interesting.
I had a Statics professor from Eastern Europe that would loudly ask the class in a thick accent: "Why? Why are you Americans so stupid?".
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A. Alzabo
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quote:
I nearly fainted when I learned that I received a 43% on the Physics final. I nearly fainted again when I learned that the class average was 38%. A sub-50% grade on a science test is a curious creature, as much the product of grader whim as academic achievement. "Hmmm…looks like he understood a tiny bit of this question. I'll give three points out of ten. Or should I give four? Whoops…tummy rumbling…better make it three." Having allegedly mastered 43% of the course material, I was now deemed fit to take even harder Physics classes. I wondered: at the highest levels of physics, could you get a passing grade with a 5% score on a test? A 3% score? A zero? Could drinking from a fire hose actually slake your thirst?


Ha! This is familiar, too! I took an electrophysics exam where the high score in the class was a 38%.

If anything an engineering/science major will break most folks of "4.0 attachment disorder".

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javelin
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I must say that I agree with what Drake said - engineering is HARD. It's harder than getting an MBA or a degreee in literature. You have to KNOW stuff before you start school. If you aren't following what's happening your first year, then look at those who are succeeding - they either already know the basic concepts well enough to understand, or they know where to go to find out more about the new concepts. My major was Architecture. Most of my friends were engineers. We were ALL overworked, but I helped them with their assignments, and while they were hard, they weren't impossible. And after the first year, they had plenty of staff resources and excellent professors to figure out the actual NEW stuff they were learning.
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A. Alzabo
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quote:
I must say that I agree with what Drake said - engineering is HARD.
The coursework is hard, but the other thing seems to be that it's a killer for those "academic super-stars" whose self-esteem is tied up in getting that 4.0 GPA.

SP

[ September 28, 2005, 03:01 PM: Message edited by: A. Alzabo ]

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javelin
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quote:
Originally posted by A. Alzabo:
quote:
I must say that I agree with what Drake said - engineering is HARD.
The coursework is hard, but the other thing seems to be that it's a killer for those "acedemic super-stars" whose self-esteem is tied up in getting that 4.0 GPA.
Good point.
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philnotfil
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quote:
One day in class I heard myself saying: "If I understood what I didn't understand about the problem, I would understand the problem, and therefore I wouldn't be asking a question.
Yep, someone who shouldn't be in engineering. Possibly someone who wasn't well prepared for engineering, but from their self assessment, just someone who shouldn't be in engineering.

One of my favorite stories about teaching comes From Henry B. Eyring, his father was Henry Eyring who has science buildings named after him at BYU and Utah. His father would work with him on various things in the basement. At one point they were working on a particularly tough problem that the couldn't finish in one day, so they left it on the chalkboard and went about their work. When they next came down to work on it his father asked him what he had come up with since they last worked on it. He told his father that he hadn't even thought about it. His father then told him, that the sciences were the wrong place for him and he should be doing something else.

Sorry about the paraphrasing, it was much better when he told the story, but the point is still the same, not everyone is good at the same things, find what you are good at and do that.

quote:
If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way for America's engineering programs to retain students like, well, me: people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can't learn math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored T.A.s choose to dole out. Write textbooks that are more than just glorified problem set manuals. Give grades that will make engineering majors competitive in a grade-inflated environment. Don't let T.A.s teach unless they can actually teach.
These things won't change until they stop working.

From an article about the engineering shortage:
quote:
In short, enough with the shortage talk already, says Schweber, unless you define an engineer as someone highly skilled with two to five years of experience and is willing to put in long hours and tackle complicated challenges for so-so pay and little recognition. Then we're looking at a real shortage, says Schweber, in the same way that you'll have a hard time getting a supply of gold for dirt cheap.
http://news.thomasnet.com/IMT/archives/2005/06/newsflash_there.html
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Adjudicator
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It seems to me that the whole self-esteem destroying thing Digger mentioned is the absolute truth. I had my self esteem destroyed differently. I did the pre-med zoology route in my undergrad, and they certainly designed all of the gateway classes (basic biology, chemistry, physcis etc) as weed-out classes.

I think that perhaps the whole paradigm for college learning is based around the basic premise of charging people enough money that they have to motivate themselves. College professors are often incomprehensible or incoherent. That forces the student who wishes to learn the subject matter to do it on their own.

By the time I got around to doing electrical engineering I already had an undergraduate degree under my belt and one ugly semester of graduate school. At that point the engineering classes were actually fairly easy, in part because they were so interesting to me. I am fairly good at learning things on my own at this point, but I still take the occasional graduate course because in the corporate world certified education has dollar signs attached while learning on your own does not.

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gr8fulreader
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...my son is doing pretty well so far - 100% on multivariable calc homework and 104% (wtf?) in logic... But his impression of his TA's are very much like the ones described in the article....My question is: why make studying artificially hard and frustrating? I am paying the full tuition for his education, isn't the money good enough for colleges to do their part and impress on their professors that teaching well is part of their job responsibilities? ....
As far as shortage of any "hard" sciences graduates... I've been in IT for some time now, have seen the good, the bad and the ugly...This centrifuge approach to teaching future engineer is deeply faulty: So let's knock the living juice from American students who aspire to be engineers, and then get whoever from 3rd world for cheap - who cares how they came to be in the field??? (Btw, I was not born/educated in this country myself.)

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Digger
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My personal favorite engineering moment had little to do with any classroom experience. I had a buddy who was a year ahead of me and had started grad school while I was finishing my undergrad. He had an office in the building and we would hang out there when I had time to kill.

He also had a computer attached to this newfangled thing called the 'internet'. WAIS, FTP, e-mail, that was about it. One day he shows me hypertext using this program called 'Lynx'.

My reaction? I said, "You know, I could see this catching on someday. Yeah, I think this could be popular." Then I brushed it aside and went back to whatever time management crisis I was currently facing.

A few years and one really big self-inflicted head-smack later, I realized how out front I could have been with all things WWW related, and I had completely blown the opportunity.

C'est la vie. [Smile]

[ September 28, 2005, 03:40 PM: Message edited by: Digger ]

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javelin
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quote:
Originally posted by gr8fulreader:
...my son is doing pretty well so far - 100% on multivariable calc homework and 104% (wtf?) in logic... But his impression of his TA's are very much like the ones described in the article....My question is: why make studying artificially hard and frustrating? I am paying the full tuition for his education, isn't the money good enough for colleges to do their part and impress on their professors that teaching well is part of their job responsibilities? ....
As far as shortage of any "hard" sciences graduates... I've been in IT for some time now, have seen the good, the bad and the ugly...This centrifuge approach to teaching future engineer is deeply faulty: So let's knock the living juice from American students who aspire to be engineers, and then get whoever from 3rd world for cheap - who cares how they came to be in the field??? (Btw, I was not born/educated in this country myself.)

Because if you want to be an engineer, you need to learn to learn - know your resources, find them, and use them. The university supplies the curriculum, to show the basics of what you need to know, and it helps you learn to find that information, along with providing the resources for finding that information (including professors). Some information will be given. Some won't. If you don't learn to find out for yourself, then you are in the wrong place.

[ September 28, 2005, 03:39 PM: Message edited by: javelin ]

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Digger
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"...104% (wtf?) in logic..."

Your son is apparently so logical it defies logic.

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gr8fulreader
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either that or I forgot my math [Smile]
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philnotfil
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Oh yeah, personal experience. I started out as an engineering major. Then I found what I really love doing and changed majors. I ended up in a major that does things in a very similar way, we call it "teaching by attrition" but if you really are good at it and you love doing it, it really doesn't seem bad at all. If you aren't so good at it and you don't really love it you will struggle, and then you will find something else to do. My last two years of college were awesome.
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Kosmic_Fool
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quote:
Then I found what I really love doing and changed majors.
This is really the crux of it. Out of the total number of students, the number of students who actually like engineering is miniscule. Engineering is so popular because (and I'll try to find my source, but so far the search has been futile) of the top ten most highly paid jobs right out of college, seven of them have the word 'engineer' in them, including most, if not all, of the top five.

I went to a kind of math and science half-day school my last two years of high school, and pretty much everyone who went there wanted to be an engineer. Why? "I want to be a Petroleum Engineer because I want to get paid a lot." That's it.

Oh, and there's the laziness. Can't forget about laziness with these kids today. [Big Grin]

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gr8fulreader
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Digger
quote:
My reaction? I said, "You know, I could see this catching on someday. Yeah, I think this could be popular." Then I brushed it aside and went back to whatever time management crisis I was currently facing.

A few years and one really big self-inflicted head-smack later, I realized how out front I could have been with all things WWW related, and I had completely blown the opportunity.

Coincidently, those who did not missout on BIG things were college drop-out. They are the SMARTEST people, and also, coincidently, the richest [Wink]
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simplybiological
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As a BS in Zoology, I had to take all the pre-med weed out courses. The problem with pre-meds is that, rather than take their impending bad grades lying down, they will lie, cheat and steal to get an A. Often literally. I have an ever growing mental list of people to avoid should they ever actually have a career in the medical profession. I experienced having my homework stolen, having partners in labs deliberately tell me the wrong thing so my answers would be wrong, I've been cheated off and lied to... Jerks.

A lot of professors, having witnessed this behavior, hate pre-meds and treat all Bio majors as such. Organic chemistry and Physics were my worst experiences with this. I always wanted to wave my hands around and say, "But Sir, I don't need to be weeded! I'M NOT A WEED!"

I have yet to hear a compelling explanation for why I got a B+ with a 97% in Physics lab, and received that very same grade with a 72% in Organic.

Every field has their gate-keeping. Happens. If serotonin checks in on this thread, I'm sure he'll have something to add.

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Digger
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"I experienced having my homework stolen, having partners in labs deliberately tell me the wrong thing so my answers would be wrong, I've been cheated off and lied to... Jerks."

Wow. I don't recall that kind of thing happening in my program. We had much more of an "us/them" mentality in regards to the professors. Of course, we were still grade competitive - I just don't remember any shenanigans. I remember whenever someone who was lower on the intellectual totem pole changed out of the major, the thinking was, "well, that puts me closer to the bottom - time to buckle down". Conversely, if someone supposedly higher up left the major, it was an eye-opener: "So-and-so quit!?! Holy crap! They're 10x better than me! How am I ever going to get through this!" (I had this feeling often).

The worst student vs. student experience I had was when I took a particular religion course as an elective. This was a course that was not normally taken for that purpose and was a core course for History and Religion majors. When I got an A, the reaction from the other students was that I had taken one of THEIR A's. Apparently, competition for high grades was much more rampant in that program since graduate school admissions in that field are more grade-intensive in their selection process (or so I was told). One of the History majors in the class bitterly explained this to me over beers later in the week.

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Adjudicator
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This will sound arrogant, mostly because it is- how many of the rest of you engineering and science types found classes like history, english etc. mind-bogglingly easy?

[ September 28, 2005, 06:08 PM: Message edited by: Adjudicator ]

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javelin
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quote:
Originally posted by Adjudicator:
This will sound arrogant, mostly because it is- how many of the rest of you engineering and science types found classes like history, english etc. mind-bogglingly easy?

Well, I don't know if I'm defined as an engineering person, but I certainly found those classes to be the easiest.
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Digger
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Adjudicator - not touching that one. [Wink]

And I want to add that when I said "When I got an A...", I didn't mean to make it sound as if it were inevitable that I "would" get an A, but rather it is a matter of historical record that I "did" get an A...

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Adjudicator
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Digger- too late my friend. You are the one who inspired this question with your previous post.
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Digger
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I know - I realized it when you asked the question. I went back and re-read what I wrote and realized it could be interpreted in a very bad way. [Frown]

Sorry to anyone who read it that way - it was not what I meant.

I want to point out that the guy who explained the situation to me was a buddy. We worked at the radio station together and were friends all the way through school. He was nice enough to clue me in to what was going on.

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LetterRip
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simplybio,

quote:
As a BS in Zoology, I had to take all the pre-med weed out courses.
As someone who chose courses at random based on them sounding interesting - I took all of the Pre-Med, Engineering, Chemistry, and Mathematics weed-out courses. I was also of the idiot mindframe - well 18 credit hours means I can take more fun courses at the same time... (well actually I'd take 2 credit hours of real fun courses fencing and aikido usually, and also some psych courses - but some of the psych courses were tougher than anything but Physical Chem....).

LetterRip

[ September 28, 2005, 07:07 PM: Message edited by: LetterRip ]

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halfhaggis
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My Chemical Engineering degree was my favourite exercise in masochism.

Doug Kern obviously didn't hate himself enough to finish the degree. But what the hell was he doing asking TAs for help? The secret was to find someone in your class who actually knew what was going on, and get them to explain things to you.

In my class, we had a nickname for our top student: we called her "F**k."

Student A: How do you do you solve this hideous non-linear differential equation?
Student B: Ask F**k, 'cos F**k knows.

I can't remember whether we actually told her that that was her nickname or not.

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mdgann
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My experience in mechanical engineering was so similar to everyone else's. I think the system turns out good engineers. It's frustrating, humiliating, embarrassing and humbling. Maybe those are necessary to get the mindset that you don't know everything and need to always remember that.
Something that alarms me though is when I discover that all people in engineering positions don't have the background. People are called engineers without going through that refining process. I've had several experiences with this and been freaked out everytime. Anyone else?
One experience in school. Had a prof that wore a cotton glove on his left hand and as he would write on the board with his right hand, he would erase with the left. All the while lecturing into the board in an unintelligible accent and never facing the class. This was a fluids dynamics class and required for my specialty. Nightmare experience. We survived by video taping the class and taking turns transcibing the notes. Lots of more war stories, but once in awhile I would get a prof that really made it all worth while.

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Mariner
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After reading that and reading the responses from the people here, I am happier than ever that I went to the college I did for my undergrad. Yeah, it was Smartypants College. But not university - it's engineering and science only, and there's no graduate program. Which means:

- No TAs. Anywhere. I've never had one.
- The professors were there to teach, not to do research. Yeah, there was some research going on. But it was obvious what they're hired for, and what their primary interest is.
- Speaking of which, all professors had an open door policy. If their door was open, you could walk in at any time of day (and they were usually open).
- I'm almost positive all the profs had industry experience. When you consider the insular nature of Universities, and the need for technical training of engineering students rather than some liberal arts touchy-feely thing like broadening one's mind, you can begin to understand just how important this is.
- There was no weeding out program. Yeah, Freshman drop out, that's expecting. But the vast majority stay on. The only places where I've seen these crazy curves was in high school and in grad school. Never during my undergrad. You took the material. You learned it. You passed. No one was trying to fail anyone. And the vast majority of the people present knew that they wanted to be engineers.

So I don't have any of these horror stories. And this is why I love my alma mater.

Still, even at this school, I doubt this guy would have made it. Great grades in high school mean nothing in an engineering program. From my perspective, surviving engineering is more about a state of mind than about passing classes. You need to learn how to approach problems in specific ways, thinking like an engineer and immediately understanding how to analyze it. All the tricks and study habits of high school won't allow you to do that. The calculus and physics and general chemistry classes only provide a base and don't teach you what to do with it. Problem solving is key, and I don't remember a whole lot of that (certainly not to the extent needed in engineering) in high school.

I mean, look what he said about the need to find a way to teach math to people who are verbally oriented. Personally, I couldn't imagine how one can be an engineer without just "getting" the math. Yes, there's a lot to learn, and it generally takes a lot of work to get there. But if you don't have a mathematically oriented mind, how on earth do you expect to do well in a field that is overflowing with the subject? You need to have a basic understanding at some level of the reasoning behind the science, and of the language of math. You need to know where to begin, where to end, and how to get there. And if the math never just "clicks", it's going to be a long and painful process.

And the overacheivers probably do have it the worst, like Alzabo said. I never once worried about my GPA in my undergrad career, and ended up with one of the highest GPAs in my class. There's not enough time to get perfect scores in every class, so why worry about it? I had no problem accepting the occasional B in a class if it's something I felt I'd never use in life, or if it's a problem with the way the class is set up rather than with the concepts themselves. It meant I never had to pull the all-nighters and stress out on anything, since it wasn't worth it. And I get the feeling I learned more this way.

And just a question. Is there really a shortage of engineers here? During my senior year (2 years ago), it seemed like the job market for ChemEs was in the toilet. It's a major part of the reason I went to grad school in the first place, so I wouldn't suddenly become the most highly trained McDonalds employee or something. I suppose it could have improved since then, but it seemed like there were too many engineers out there for a moment.

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Gaoics79
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quote:
This will sound arrogant, mostly because it is- how many of the rest of you engineering and science types found classes like history, english etc. mind-bogglingly easy?
Speaking as a history/english major, I agree with you 100%. Most of my friends are med students, and one is an electrical engineer. They all worked ten times as much as I did throughout university. To be blunt, the arts are a joke next to the sciences. It doesn't even come close. For that matter, law school was a joke compared to what my science friends had to go through.

That being said, once you're in the work force, it more or less evens out. No one ever accused lawyers of not working hard. In fact, depending on the law firm, there are lawyers whose work hours put the hardest working doctor to shame. My engineering friend is now working on a PHD, and his hours are like 10:00 to 5:00. From what I gather, he does very little in his photonics lab every day. But then again, he held a near 4.0 gpa throughout university (and McGill ain't no bozo school) so maybe he's the exception, rather than the rule.

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Zyne
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My dad is a mechanical engineer. I never had any interest in anything other than playing with his drafting stuff.

But I envy his hours--7am-3:30pm with every other Friday off, several weeks of vacation time, and travel that is expected and encouraged to occur during normal business hours. Me and the other lawyers I know are expected to be working 8am-6pm at least five days a week, and to do our traveling before and after those hours.

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Digger
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Gr8ful,

I've been thinking about your questions regarding the harsh nature of the process. I don't know if I have any good answers - I don't even know if I think this is the best way to create new engineers. But here are some thoughts anyway.

"My question is: why make studying artificially hard and frustrating?"

I don't know that it's 'artificially' hard. Reality is the harshest grader. Things either work or they don't and the real world doesn't explain why. The creative and inquisitive nature of the problem solver coupled with the bare-knuckled tenacity required to see a problem through to completion is a big part of engineering.

"...isn't the money good enough for colleges to do their part and impress on their professors that teaching well is part of their job responsibilities?"

Unfortunately, no. The system as it is currently designed favors research and publication over classroom teaching. While you may feel that your tuition dollars are keeping the University afloat, at the vast majority of research Universities the research funding vastly outstrips the revenue from tuition. Tuition mostly covers the administrative side of running things, the research money is where the prestige is for the University. Also, professors get tenure based on their research records, not on teaching. You can argue that the priorities are skewed, but that's the way it is set up today.

"So let's knock the living juice from American students who aspire to be engineers, and then get whoever from 3rd world for cheap - who cares how they came to be in the field???"

That's a real concern. There is a school of thought that says that engineering is becoming like other skilled trades - plumbers, electricians, and the like. I don't agree with that, but at the entry level jobs where most of the grunt work is done, that may become the norm. I've also seen great engineers come from other countries and poor engineers come from US institutions - including several that have sterling reputations (I'm not going to name them).

The reality is that no system of producing engineers is going to be perfect. Some good ones will be unfairly weeded out and some poor ones will slip through the system and get their degrees.

If it's any consolation, the weed-out stage usually does only last a year or two. If your son is aware of what is being done, he will be much better equipped to deal with it and will vastly improve his chances of getting through the rough times. You've been given a pretty good look inside the belly of the beast. If you pass on what you've read here to your son, it should be very helpful to him. He'll still have to hunker down and deal with the crap, but at least he'll have some idea what's happening and maybe even how to cope a little better.

Finally, there's no shame in dropping out of engineering if it isn't what you want to do. Sometimes engineers can be arrogant and rude (it's part of their competitive nature) and they can really put it to a 'washout'. But, the reality is that it is not a field for everyone. By the same token, finishing an engineering degree is not a trap that shunts you into a particular career path. Many engineering students use the skills they obtained from their education to bring a fresh look at other professions: finance, management, medicine, entrepreneurship, and ad nauseum. A talented problem solver with a knack for seeing things as they really are and approaching even the most formidable problems with a sense of confidence is a rare and valued find for any employer.

Wish your son luck. And remind him to get out in the sun once in a while. That lack of Vitamin D is a killer.

[ September 29, 2005, 01:34 AM: Message edited by: Digger ]

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FiredrakeRAGE
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I am graduating from a small University this year with a degree in (among other things) Computer Engineering. In my experience, the comments relating to teachers in this article are not applicable. Most of the teachers in the Comp. Eng. Dept. at my school are there specifically because they choose to teach. Some research is done, but the professors are at a smaller school because they wished to teach students, not publish papers.

With regard to 'weed-out' courses - I managed to skip many of the non-engineering core courses. The engineering 'weed-out' courses were difficult in that they used many skills that I had not used in a significant period - mostly mathematics that I'd not used in a year or more. The courses were difficult only in that they required you to work. You knew that when you decided to attempt an engineering degree a certain amount of work would be expected - there was no unfairness to the situation.

I will say that the miserable feeling one gets when they see a class average of 40% on a test is rather depressing.

--Firedrake

[ September 29, 2005, 01:55 AM: Message edited by: FiredrakeRAGE ]

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The Drake
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I never got a bad feeling when the class average was low. It taught me a valuable lesson - that none of us were as smart as we thought we were, and we will never "know it all".

The questions were always fair, if we had managed to learn everything, we would have had 100%. It wasn't tricks or traps, it was time pressure and extremely complex material.

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