Engineering a reality check

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks resurrecting the moribund 3+2 program in engineering that my college is proposing to the local Big University. My goal is to get the agreement with the BU completed and get the program on the books and advertised at our place by the end of the summer. It looked like things were on track to meet these goals this time last summer, but a bunch of things — heavy fall workload, the discovery of major scheduling issues with the proposed course plans, and so on — conspired to drive the whole project to “inactive” status. But I’ve revamped and streamlined the five-year plans, and it looks like we’ll be able to have the thing up and running soon, barring any other weirdness.

I’ve also been advising a student who came in as a freshman last fall wanting to major in Applied Math and then go to grad school to become an electrical engineer, who had never heard of our plans for a 3+2 program. This student was very interested and so, although we still have no official agreement with the BU, I put the student on the proposed five-year plan and had the student take courses on faith that the program would eventually be completed.

I’ve learned a few simple but important facts about engineering programs, and being a student in one of them, as a result of all this work.

1. You really have to be making A’s and B’s in pretty much everything at the freshman and sophomore level — including the year-long sequences in Calculus, physics, and chemistry — in order to have viability as an engineering student. Engineering is an intense discipline to study. It’s even moreso in a 3+2 program where students are working on two degrees — one in engineering from the BU, the other in Applied Mathematics from us, each of which would be intense enough on its own — in five years. Your level of skill in basic science and math has to be above suspicion. If your grades are merely lackluster in these basic areas, it’s unlikely you’ll improve over time as the courses get harder and harder.

2. Of all the courses in the program, it seems like Calculus II is the real make-or-break experience. Lots of students in this program will do fine in Calculus I because most of them had it in high school. But when you get to Calculus II, you typically reach the limit of the math you learned in high school. And it’s here that you have to move from remembering math to learning it. If a student can successfully pick up Calculus II and understand even just 3/4 of what goes on in the class, I’d give that student a good shot at doing well in the other math, science, and engineering courses as well. They are showing that for the most part, they can learn new tricks in a complicated technical subject. But if the student is making a C or below in Calculus II, I get very worried. If they make below a C-, I am really worried, because that’s not a passing grade in most departments. And if you need to take a year of Linear Circuit Analysis in your electrical engineering program, and the first of that requires Calculus III, and that requires Calculus II which you didn’t do very well in…

3. Your performance in a science, math, or engineering class should be determined only by your work if you are going to have a chance at making it in an engineering program. What I mean is that your academic skill and intellectual focus on these classes needs to be such that external factors don’t make much of a dent on your performance in those courses, even if the factor is serious. “External factors” include boy/girlfriend problems, family problems, part-time jobs, athletic or Greek involvement, and — this seems to be awfully common in engineering — an inability to understand a professor who is not a native English speaker. The students who go on to success in a program like this do sometimes have serious external problems in their lives, but they can focus past them and get the job done anyway.

Those three points fit not only my experiences from working on this agreement and the students in it, but also my experiences in going to an engineering school for undergrad and in having a dad, a sister, and two brothers-in-law who are professional engineers. Got anything to add to these?

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Filed under Engineering, Higher ed, Student culture

3 responses to “Engineering a reality check

  1. Justin

    I add this: Disregard what is commonly called the college experience. An engineering program is tough enough that your time will need to focus on your homework, studying for tests, labs, projects, etc. If you spend your time doing things like attending games/pep rallies, hanging out with friends at the campus hot-spot, and other activities that make up “the college experience”, you’ll fall behind, and it’s very difficult to catch up.

  2. JimMc

    As an enginerding grad myself, I’ll add that students should NOT be afraid to sign up for non-engineering elective classes.

    My engineering adviser literally (and openly) scorned me for signing up to take a business/marketing class. He wanted to know why I was wasting my time in that – he felt I should be taking some esoteric class on advanced game theory or something.

    Anyhow, that’s it. Don’t be afraid to buck the system once in a while!

  3. I’m a few days late to the part on this one (having a five-week old means considerably less time to keep up with the RSS aggregator).

    From my experiences at the nearby engineering school that I attended, I think your observations are correct.

    I also think that Meyers-Briggs has a lot to say about the personality types that tend to succeed in engineering (and related) disciplines. The typical engineer is INTJ. (I am ENTJ.) While I don’t think the introvert/extrovert much determines success in an engineering discipline, I do think that the NTJ personality types are crucial: Intuitive/Thinking/Judging versus Sensing/Feeling/Perceiving rather concisely explains the thought processes and paradigm of the typical engineer.

    (I think the Intuitive versus Sensing contrast explains Calculus II – which I assume refers to Differential Equations – as a litmus test for prospective engineering students. DE just made sense to me, and masochistically as it may sound, I actually enjoyed it more than just about any other math/calculus course.)

    Engineers tend to be objective and analytical – not to mention, maddeningly literal. Assumptions must be explained up front (which can explain the frustration of someone with a different personality type who does not understand how the engineer-type cannot make the same “common sense” conclusions).

    It is likely for these reasons that engineer-types gravitate toward math/science disciplines, rather than humanities/social science disciplines.

    It is also likely for these reasons that engineer-types can be (seemingly) more successful at preventing “outside factors” from influencing progress/success in coursework. It is not that the engineer-type is insensitive or unemotional; rather, it is that the engineer-type can differentiate between the emotional and the intellectual, and can compartmentalize the two sufficiently to allow one not to influence the other.

    Well, I think I’ve taken up more than my $0.02 worth… 🙂