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Monday, March 24, 2008

Top 5 Reasons it sucks to be an Engineering Student

From Wired's Science blog.

5. Awful Textbooks
Thick, dry, black and white manuscripts are rarely a source of inspiration and sometimes can cause loads of confusion. Often, the text is poorly written and interrupted by lengthy equations with symbols that are different from those used by the professor during lectures.

4. Professors are Rarely Encouraging
During each class, a professor that would rather be tending to his research will waltz up to a blackboard or overhead projector and scribble out equations for an hour without uttering a single sentence to create some excitement.

3. Dearth of Quality Counseling
College students may not have a sense for how to build their resume and they might be clueless about the variety of career opportunities that await them. Unfortunately, some academic advisers do little more than post fliers about internships and hand out a checklist of classes to take. They should make some projections about the future job market, learn about the interests of each young scholar, and offer them tailored advice for how to best prepare themselves.

2. Other Disciplines Have Inflated Grades
Brilliant engineering students may earn surprisingly low grades while slackers in other departments score straight As for writing book reports and throwing together papers about their favorite zombie films.

Some professors view undergraduate education as a type of natural selection, but their analogy is flawed. Many of the brightest students may struggle while mediocre scholars can earn top scores because they have a larger group of supportive friends to or more time to dedicate to studying.

1. Every Assignment Feels the Same
Nearly every homework assignment and test question is a math problem. Only a few courses require creativity or offer hands on experience.

Every one of these rings true for me. The core engineering curriculum (at least as it was in the 80's at RPI) is designed to batter your brain into a particular mode of thinking that's particularly useful when solving engineering problems. The thing is that it's stifling. For ninety percent of the questions you are asked, there is but one correct answer. What is the fun in that? It breeds orthodoxy in thought and I despised that. It's repetitive. I can remember thinking several times, "this is the same class I took last semester. Only the crib sheet of equations I get to take to the exam has changed."

The teachers can be awful. With regards to #'s 4 and 5, I recall one professor that stands out. His name was Marcelo Crespo Da Silva - Machine Dynamics. He seemed to hate us, well not me in particular. He liked me. Seemed to hate almost everyone else.

Reason #5 mentions bad text books. This "textbook" was probably the cheapest textbook I ever bought. I think it cost $15 bucks but I had to go to the copy department of the library, not the bookstore to get it. That's because it was a bound copy of Crespo Da Silva's long-hand written text and hand written drawings. The dude's handwriting was damn near impossible to read and the drawings were shit. The book was worthless. See, ol' Crespo couldn't get it finished and published in time. So we used his notes. Terrible.

Reason #4 is that professors are discouraging. Well, I'll never forget the day that Crespo walked into the class and said, "How many of you are second semester seniors?" About 2/3 the class raised their hands. He followed by saying, "That's very dissapointing. First, it's disappointing that we can produce engineers that cannot understand this material at a basic level. Second, I'm disappointed that I can't give you the failing grades you deserve because too many of you would fail and it might impact graduation." Not the most nurturing environment.

Note that this is not to say that other disciplines don't have tough/distant teachers. But, in as much as Engineers in general trend toward lacking social graces, their professors can be doubly so. The core curriculum is seen as a necessary evil or a bridge that must be crossed. It's too bad, because while they're beating this stuff into kids heads they're stifling creativity.

It certainly did me. Eventually, I had a meltdown, stopped going to class before I finally withdrew and went home. I felt that "I wasn't an engineer. It's just that I'm cursed because I'm so damn good at it." I worked in a restaurant. Then a factory. Then a pragmatic desire for good pay sent me back to school to finish the engineering degree. Still, I sneered at my chosen profession. When I graduated, I blew it off entirely and opened a bar with my Dad.

It wasn't until I jumped on the 90's computer bandwagon, which became the dot-com explosion that I really became an engineer in practice. It's not at all like engineering school. I can be creative and do my job, in fact, the results are far better when I do. There are a hundred different choices in solving a complex problem and there is no single "right answer" (of course, some answers I prefer greatly to others). Even so, it took many years for me to understand that I really AM an engineer and I'm not be disappointed in that. I'm an excellent engineer. I like being an engineer. I never would have imagined that during my junior year at RPI. That's too bad.