Looking Back at my Educational Experience; Reflections on Wired Engineering’s "Top 5 Reasons it Sucks to Be an Engineering Student"

I don’t know how many of you took a look at Michael Ivanovich’s
Wired on
Engineering Education
post, but in it, he points you to a
blog article on the Wired magazine’s website
titled “Top 5 Reasons it Sucks to Be an Engineering
Student”.  The article has generated a flurry
of responses (the most recent was posted on April 19th, which is
the day I am writing this) and as I read through some of them,
I had mixed feelings about the article and responses. On the one
hand, I was encouraged that folks were dialogging about what they
thought the problems were with the learning process;  you
can’t fix a problem that nobody is acknowledging.  But on the
other hand, I was sad because it seemed like so many students found
the path to their chosen career to be so distasteful.  In some
ways, I found that I could appreciate some of what they were
saying.  But perhaps because I am now 32 years away from
my college experience, I may have a different perspective on it
all, which I decided might be worth sharing.  So,
here I go on another one of my philosophical posts instead of my
normal technical focus.  But I guess in some ways, that’s one
of the purposes of a blog.

When I went to school, I took a course of study called Aircraft
Maintenance Engineering.  The curriculum was structured so
that the  first four trimesters were spent gaining your
Airframe and PowerPlant Mechanic’s license followed by several
years of engineering fundamentals and electives.  When you got
out, you were somewhere between a mechanic and a full fledged
aerospace engineer and targeted at being a liaison between the
two.  I had a passion for airplanes that went back as far as I
could remember.  For my birthday when I was four, I asked
simply to be taken to the airport to watch the airplanes, a request
I repeated in subsequent years.  So, when at the age of 17, I
found myself on a campus full of like minded individuals with my
hands in the guts of pieces and parts of airplanes, I found myself
in heaven and immersed myself in my studies.  After two years
of what was for me, bliss, I became a full fledged A&P and
started my engineering classes while working part time for the
school doing maintenance on the flight line and assisting with the
flight line lab instruction.  I quickly discovered that at
work, I was in heaven while in the class room, I was faced with
some of the same challenges I found many of the folks posting on
the Wired blog writing about.  

My first year physics instructor was a retired military officer
and every problem was an artillery problem.  Even the one you
somewhat joyfully though was not – “… a freight train leaves New
York headed west at 50 mph …” – turned into one  – “… and
20 miles out of Albany, the top of the box car opens revealing a
cleverly disguised artillery piece which, while the train is in
motion, fires a round at 60 degrees to the horizontal and a
velocity of …”. 

My first year calculus instructor was from India, and while
obviously brilliant was so difficult to understand that several of
us did not recognize our names when she called roll and were being
marked consistently absent even though we were there. 

By the end of the semester, I told John Moyn, my mentor on the
flight line, that I was dropping out to follow my passion and be a
mechanic full time.  He cautioned me to think carefully; 
he felt that while I was a great mechanic and would certainly go
far in the field, at some point I would hit a wall where  I
knew the corporate jet I would be crew chief of inside out and find
myself bored, with the rest of my life before me and not many
options for moving forward.  On the other hand, he felt I had
some talent and a future as an engineer  and that my mechanic
skills would only be a boon to that.  Bottom line, he
encouraged me to stick it out another semester.  My Dad did
the same when I went home and talked about it with him.  So I
did and, to my surprise, things changed remarkably.

Dr. Monfort, my 2nd year physics professor was dynamic, as
passionate about physics as his students were about airplanes, and
constantly found ways to hook the two things together.  He
would spend time with us one on one if we needed it and turned
something that I dreaded the first semester into something I
anticipated with a bit of eagerness the 2nd. 

In a similar vein, Dr. Roberts, the head of the Math department,
had started sitting in on my first year Calc class when he noticed
the high level of absenteeism and heard some fairly vocal
complaints from those of us taking the class.  After about
three lectures, he had the new professor take some language classes
while he took over the lecture.  Both were great decisions
because the first year class turned around; we all passed as I
recall, some with better than average marks, and the original
professor went on to become one of the better instructors once she
had some experience speaking America’s version of
English. 

Dr. Roberts also became one of my mentors and guided me through
many mathematical dilemmas as I sorted my way through the rest of
my engineering studies.  It was not all heaven and
bliss.  I almost flunked thermo (my problem, not the
instructors). Some stuff seemed almost incomprehensible and of no
practical value, and my favorite part of the day was still when I
got to the hanger and got my hands inside and airplane.  But a
lot of days, an assignment from one of my classes would be a close
second, despite the fact that it just about drove me crazy trying
to figure out the answer. 

So, what are my points here?

1.     You’re going to have some bad classes
and professors;  don’t let a couple of bad ones turn you away
from something you believe you should be doing.  And, if you
are having problems with understanding what is being taught, talk
to them about it.  They can’t change what they are doing if
they don’t know whats wrong with it. And, if they’re doing a great
job, tell them that too.  Both messages are important. I teach
technical hands on type classes on occasion, and when the reviews
get handed  in at the end, the ones that make me feel on top
of the world are the ones that say “this was a great class,
thanks!”, but I suspect the ones that I take to heart the most –
and that sometimes cause me to sit up at night thinking about what
I’m doing when I teach – are the ones that say “here’s
what you could have done to make this class more meaningful to
me”.

2.   The early classes in any course of study can be
brutal and boring and seemingly pointless.  But they often set
up the foundation for the exciting stuff and are priceless in terms
of allowing you to understand something that you have a passion
for.  The wrong time to discover that is after the passion has
been ignited and you wish you had paid attention before.  If
you’re really blessed, you’ll run into some folks who can make even
the fundamental stuff seem interesting. And understanding and
believing in the fundamental stuff in your gut will give you the
courage you need to do what ever it is you are destined to do and
do it well.   I learned more about design out in the
field starting up my own systems (some  of which was quite
sobering) than I ever learned in a class room.   But I
had the courage to go out in the field and start up my own systems
because I  believed in the fundamentals AND because I had some
really great mentors (on the average, I suspect about one a year
over thirty some years – I work for one of them now) standing
behind me saying some version of “get out there, we believe in you
and if something goes wrong, we’ll help you figure it out.”

3.   If you’ve been at it for a while and it STILL
seems brutal and boring and seemingly pointless, then frightening
as it may be, consider the possibility that maybe you need to
explore a different option.  Maybe its the same course of
study at a different school.  Or maybe its a totally different
course of study.  If you are convinced that the technical path
if for you but just are not inspired by the classroom, try to find
a way to get your hands involved in it, not just your brain. 
The best thing I ever did as an engineering student was learn to be
a mechanic and then go work on airplanes and cars and houses and
buildings.  If you want a bit more of my perspective on that,
take a look at “Try this
at Home, Please”

4.    If you think you have found your passion
and died and gone to heaven, be open to the possibility that there
might even be something better than that;  that maybe you have
yet to find your true calling.  I mentioned my passion for
aviation earlier and how I thought I was in heaven when I got to
school and started working on planes.  The bottom line is that
I have spent 32 plus years in the buildings industry (how that
happened is its own story) with aviation as a hobby and know
in my heart of hearts that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and
doing it pretty well.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t days
when I wonder to myself exactly why it is that I’m not in aviation
given the fact that I can not ever remember a time when I didn’t
have some sort of awareness of airplanes.   But then I
look at the truly great folks in the aviation business, I conclude
that I could have likely been good in that, but I suspect I am
even better at what I’m doing now, and making more of a difference
and doing more good and that my role in aviation may be to get some
young kid who never thought about airplanes  to think about
them so she or he can go be great in that field.

5.  Having the opposite sex in your classroom is a good
thing and all of that, but I personally believe that you should
consider the possibility of romance outside of your field of
interest.  Where  ever you find it, it will give you
balance and perspective and insight that you will never find with
out the mirror of a totally different perspective by your
side.  I’m married to an artist and I can tell you for a fact
that I would not be a fraction of what I am as an engineer or
person were it not for Kathy.  She grounds me and centers me
and supports me and gives me perspective and confidence and insight
that simply would not have been there with out her sharing her life
with me.  Does that mean I don’t think you can find the love
of your life across the aisle in an engineering class room? 
Absolutely not;  I’m sure you can and many probably
have.  I guess what I’m really saying is that you probably
should be in the engineering classroom because you have a passion
for what is being taught there and if that happens to get you
caught up in some of life’s other passions in the process, then
that’s truly wonderful and even better.  But, as frightening
as it is, you’ll likely have to find life’s other passions in other
venues.  And having the courage to explore those venues
in search of it will be well  worth the challenge that
confronts us somewhat introverted engineering types when we venture
outside the technical arena.

So, there they are, my “Top Five Reasons Why it May Turn Out
that it Doesn’t Suck to be an Engineering Student After All”;
a bit of perspective from 32 years down the road.

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9 Responses to Looking Back at my Educational Experience; Reflections on Wired Engineering’s "Top 5 Reasons it Sucks to Be an Engineering Student"

  1. Brian F says:

    Hey, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post, I hope when i
    graduated with my BSME this spring that I wind up as happy in my
    field as you seem to be. Thanks for the advice

  2. Brian F says:

    Hey, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post, I hope when i
    graduated with my BSME this spring that I wind up as happy in my
    field as you seem to be. Thanks for the advice

  3. Brian F says:

    heh, woops, sorry for the double post,

  4. Boatbuilder says:

    YOu are an apologist. Even in the office where I work, of the 38
    engineers, only 6, the owners of the firm,are happy with
    engineering. The other 32, including 3 Ph.Ds and numerous M.Scs, in
    hindsight would not have chosen engineering as a profession / job (
    (And for all you other apologist out there, it’s been many, man
    years since engineering was a profession.) As for pay and weekends
    free? ON what planet do you live? Every, and I mean every, BLS
    salary survey indicates that engineers are the lowest paid of all
    “professions”. People max out quickly at 80K.Accoutants, Lawyers,
    Bankers, Doctors, Physiotherapists don’t have an earnings cieling.
    Stock options? Yeah right, maybe 20 years ago, but not now. Oh, and
    I know engineers who work for some of the top 100 firms in this
    country, who get stock options and have weekends free, and who
    wholly agree with me and others that “engineering sucks.”

  5. Boatbuilder says:

    YOu are an apologist. Even in the office where I work, of the 38
    engineers, only 6, the owners of the firm,are happy with
    engineering. The other 32, including 3 Ph.Ds and numerous M.Scs, in
    hindsight would not have chosen engineering as a profession / job (
    (And for all you other apologist out there, it’s been many, man
    years since engineering was a profession.) As for pay and weekends
    free? ON what planet do you live? Every, and I mean every, BLS
    salary survey indicates that engineers are the lowest paid of all
    “professions”. People max out quickly at 80K.Accoutants, Lawyers,
    Bankers, Doctors, Physiotherapists don’t have an earnings cieling.
    Stock options? Yeah right, maybe 20 years ago, but not now. Oh, and
    I know engineers who work for some of the top 100 firms in this
    country, who get stock options and have weekends free, and who
    wholly agree with me and others that “engineering sucks.”

  6. Hi Boatbuilder, Your comment inspired a lot of thought on my part;
    so much that I did a new post on the blog rather than here. So,
    thanks for commenting and see today’s blog post for my thoughts on
    your thoughts. David

  7. Mark says:

    I’m a fourth year aeronautial engineering student. I graduate this
    year. Our practical experience throught the whole course has been
    making a hinge. I did that in 2nd year of secondary school. I would
    hate nothing more than to be stuck with engineering for the rest of
    my life, hence the reason I’m training for an ATPL (pilot’s
    licence). For anyone considering Aero Engineering at Glasgow uni –
    stay the hell away, the department sucks, the course sucks, so if
    you really want to do aero, go elsewhere.

  8. japupie says:

    During my school years I enjoyed the challenge of engineering. The
    educational process was less than ideal, but with the knowlege
    since gained, so is everything else(less than ideal). I trained as
    an Electrical Engineer and resented, at the time, all of the
    courses outside of my major that I was required to suffer through.
    Now, looking back on 30 years of professional work I find that
    those seemingly ”

  9. japupie says:

    During my school years I enjoyed the challenge of engineering. The
    educational process was less than ideal, but with the knowlege
    since gained, so is everything else(less than ideal). I trained as
    an Electrical Engineer and resented, at the time, all of the
    courses outside of my major that I was required to suffer through.
    Now, looking back on 30 years of professional work I find that
    those seemingly ”

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