Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Confessions of an Engineering Washout

I didn't wash out, but Doug Kern has hit the nail on the head in his "Confessions of an Engineering Washout." His four-month experience can be extrapolated to describe my four-year experience, except my school had no TA's (which made it even worse) but it did have many hands-on type of instructors who WERE good teachers. It was the theory side of engineering that was so bogus. This particular bit hit home:
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?
In my Physics class, 35% was passing. (Incidentally, I didn't...the first time ;) Anyway, here's the bottom line:
The United States contains a finite number of smart people, most of whom have options in life besides engineering. You will not produce thronging bevies of pocket-protector-wearing number-jockeys simply by handing out spiffy Space Shuttle patches at the local Science Fair. 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.

None of these things will happen, of course. Engineering professors are perfectly happy weeding out undesirables with absurd boot-camp courses that conceal the inability of said professors to communicate with words. Fewer students will pursue science and engineering majors, and the United States will grow ever more reliant upon foreign brainpower to design its scientific and manufacturing endeavors. I did my part to fight this problem, and for my trouble I got four months of humiliation and a semester's worth of shabby grades that I had to explain to law schools and employers for years. Thousands of college students will have a similar experience this fall.
It's an old engineering joke that "I went to School X to be an Engineer and now I are one." This reflects the general acknowledgement that many engineers aren't very agile with their communication skills. Yet, as Kern points out, we need to expect more, especially of those who are supposed to teach the succeeding generations. We shouldn't gear all of our engineering schools toward the prodigies. Instead, a bit of the practical needs to be "engineered" into the system so that smart kids can be nurtured and not scared away.

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