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  • Confessions of an Engineering Washout

    QUOTE
    Confessions of an Engineering Washout
    by Douglas Kern

    I am an engineering washout. I left a chemical engineering major in shame and disgust to pursue the softer pleasures of a liberal arts education. No, do not pity me, gentle reader; do not assuage your horror and dismay at my degradation by flinging a filthy quarter into my shiny tin cup. Instead, hear my story, and learn why the United States lacks engineers.

    Not long ago, I showed up for my first year at Smartypants U., fresh from a high school career full of awards and honors and gold stars. My accomplishments all pointed towards a more verbal course of study, but I was determined to spend my college days learning something useful. With my strong science grades and excellent standardized test scores, I felt certain that I could handle whatever engineering challenges Smartypants U. had to offer. Remember: Kern = real good at math and science. You will have cause to forget that fact very soon.

    I had three options for a chemistry class: the intro course, the accelerated course, and the genius course. My high school chemistry background made me a good fit for the accelerated course, but my academic advisor warned me not to take it. The course instructor was a legendarily incompetent teacher, even by the dubious standards of Smartypants U's engineering department. He was so incoherent and capricious that academic advisors were warned to steer students away from his courses. So why was he kept on staff? His research was outstanding. My tuition dollars at work.

    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.

    In high school I had grown accustomed to math classes that featured clear, helpful instruction from teachers who liked to teach and excelled at teaching. At Smartypants U, the jewel in the crown of American academia, my math instructor was a twenty-something teaching assistant whose classroom style never deviated from the following pattern:

    1) Greet class.

    2) Ask if there were any questions about the previous evening's problem set.

    3) If so, work out the problem in question on the chalkboard, without further explanation.

    4) Repeat step 3) as needed.

    5) Announce the pages in the textbook from which the next problem set would be derived.

    6) Perform a sample problem from the new problem set.

    7) Ask if anyone has any questions.

    8) Give the problem set assignment.

    9) Dismiss the class.

    Total elapsed time: never more than 25 minutes.

    Clutching the shredded tatters of my pride and dignity, I trudged to the office hours of my math instructor every week, seeking an explanation for the increasingly mysterious problems in the textbook. My instructor welcomed my presence as she would welcome the Angel of Death. Irritated? She was terrified. Explain…the problems? Articulate…the steps? Relate…the concepts? I would ask questions, and she would respond by completing yet another sample problem as fast as she possibly could, blushing nervously. I felt like I was on a Star Trek episode. "Captain, I think I understand…the creature communicates through multivariable calculus problems!"

    I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. She was as American as I am. Spoke perfect colloquial English.

    Engineering physics was only marginally better. The harried teaching assistant could actually explain the occasional physics concept. But he made sure you understood that a poor grade on any assignment reflected upon your merit in the eyes of God. "If you get a 60% below on ANY quiz," he wrote on the chalkboard on day one, "YOU ARE NOT STUDYING HARD ENOUGH." I wondered what would happen if you got a 30% on a quiz. Were you branded? Expelled? Excommunicated?

    The social-life-killing workload was the stuff of gallows humor among the three or four upper-class engineers who could still laugh. "Sleep is for the weak!" they bellowed, when gathering at the listless engineering parties. "Your underwear has two sides," they whispered, pressing their furry acne-ridden faces into the ears of bewildered freshmen. "Use them."

    Reader, let us not dwell upon the endless problem sets, the wretched grades, and the weary nights spent screaming at my inscrutable textbooks. Compose in your mind a montage of quizzes covered in red ink, classes wasted in the stupor of incomprehension, and frowning instructors muttering strange incantations in their eerie scientific argot. And of the hands-on laboratory portion of the chemistry class, I will say only that I still hold the record at Smartypants U. for most failed attempts at that hateful titration experiment. ("No - not dark pink! You filthy godless soul-eating beaker! Damn you to hell!") They assigned grad students to watch me after failure number six. And I still screwed it up.

    Meanwhile, my friends majoring in the liberal arts pulled dandy grades while studying little. "You just wait," I thought, gazing upon them like the ant regarding the grasshopper in the summer. "You party and blow off homework now, but in ten years, you'll be making merely wonderful money as investment bankers and consultants, while I'll be getting laid off from a great job at General Electric."

    My first-semester GPA was the engineering major average: 2.7. But to a former academic superstar, a 2.7 GPA was akin to a public flogging.

    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?

    Exhausted and demoralized, I stumbled into my next semester of engineering. My new math T.A. had all of my old T.A.'s inability to teach, but half of her mastery of English. 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." The T.A. stared at me across a void that seemed increasingly unbridgeable.

    The course was called "Discrete Mathematics." Many people thought that the course was called "Discreet Mathematics." Wrong. To clarify: "Discrete Mathematics" is "the mathematics in which Kern was getting a D at midterm." "Discreet Mathematics" is "how Kern dropped that class along with the rest of his engineering course load and signed into liberal arts classes, all on the last day he was eligible to do so, because he couldn't stand the stress, abuse, and lack of comprehension anymore." No one waved goodbye to me at the engineering door.

    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.

    So engineering is suffering in this country? It deserves no better.[/b][/quote]
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  • #2
    Damn.....when I saw the title of this post......I thought of my early college years at Missouri-Rolla when I was majoring in electrical engineering........ [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/laugh.gif[/img]
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    • #3
      So while the foreigners get the job done, he's bitching?

      It's the instructors' fault?

      Oookkay.

      The other thing is, discrete mathematics is EXTREMELY difficult.

      There's a lot of people who can't hack it. I would argue it's the crappy liberal arts education he received before coming to this college (Harvard, I gather) that caused him the most pain.
      The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life. -TR

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      • #4
        My math professors...math T.A.'s...and other instructors sucked as well. Luckily, a 50% or higher on most math tests was considered to be "B" work.

        Comment


        • #5
          QUOTE(lasvegasreb @ Sep 27 2005, 10:21 PM) Quoted post

          So while the foreigners get the job done, he's bitching?

          It's the instructors' fault?

          Oookkay.

          The other thing is, discrete mathematics is EXTREMELY difficult.

          There's a lot of people who can't hack it. I would argue it's the crappy liberal arts education he received before coming to this college (Harvard, I gather) that caused him the most pain.
          [/b][/quote]

          I doubt it's Harvard he's referring to - not exactly known for their engineering curriculum...

          He's dead on right about TA's, though - these are people wholly unqualified to teach, forced into it to pay for their own education (or, in my case, to provide some income to pay the bills, since I was getting free tuition [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/biggrin.gif[/img] ), and so overworked and burdened by their own problems and curricula that the students they are teaching end up a distant second or third on the list of considerations...

          The root cause of all of this, as he points out as well, is that professors no longer teach anything - the big $$$ and prestige comes from research...I witnessed this first hand through my thesis advisor at U of I, who I made the mistake of telling I had no intention of pursuing a PhD, thus guaranteeing that I would not get an office, any help from his staff, or any consideration from him when problems or questions arose on the work I was doing FOR HIM...he was 100% devoted to whatever and whoever was behind the multi-million dollar DARPA grant that was bestowed upon him and his army of sociopathic research zombies...

          Bottom line - this shit IS hard. I was lucky - I had some very very cool teachers along the way that actually gave a shit about their students and went the extra mile to provide supplemental instruction and guidance that deviated from the "regurgitate the textbook" format of so many of my other engineering classes.

          Plus, I'm a smart motherfucker. [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/biggrin.gif[/img]

          But what the article describes IS the way it is for so many other people that start out as engineering students...some can't hack it, and they are weeded out, but there are others that just need some help from time to time to get through a rough spot...not getting that help there puts you behind...and if you miss even one or two basic concepts in the curriculum, you are fucked...that's what I've seen happen to countless peers and many of my friends who are happily now doing something completely unrelated to their engineering degrees...
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          • #6
            I'm not nor do I have any ambition to be an engineer, and I go to FAR from a "smartypants U" school, but college teachers as a whole are grossly imcompetant.

            I feel really sorry for the people that spend their lifes fortune to go to a school & get no education back out of it. I highly doubt I would have gone/continue on if I weren't going for free.
            FML

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            • #7
              Random reactions:

              1. Maybe -- and I'm not really going out on a limb here -- many kids get to college wholly unprepared for the rigors of a high-shelf technical education. Are we really going to argue that school should be easier? Higher education is the only product in America that people want to get less for their money.


              2. To wit, does anyone really think its a good idea to make it easier to be an engineer? Think about it -- these guys build airplanes, bridges, and whatnot. I, for one, take some comfort in knowing that only the smartest, hardest working people can get through the curriculum.


              3. To the person who said college professors as "a whole" are incompetent teachers...you couldn't be more wrong. Obviously some of them suck. But most of them do not. Maybe there is another explanation for student struggles?


              4. To wit, maybe the students are lazy, unprepared, and incompetent. I can tell you through first hand experience that many students -- at places ranging from a large state institution to a prestigious private institution -- are incapable of writing clearly, are lazy when doing research for papers (even when given explicit instructions on how to improve), refuse to try even simple mathematics, bristle when they are expected to attend class (what would the instructor know that I don't already!?), and frequently put in something less than their maximum effort.

              On this score, I can provide literally hundreds of examples. (a) My alma matter -- I'm providing fodder for Tiger fans here -- had remedial math on the curriculum. If you don't know and can't do algebra without hand holding, don't get a college degree. [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/cool.gif[/img] The big challenge for textbook publishers? Students aren't buying their books anymore. They are not buying the books! Ummm...how can you pass when you don't read the books? © I've seen masters theses than contained...wait for it...giberish. Literally, words strung together that didn't make any sense.


              5. So what if the professor is interested in research? In a nation that has built its economic, military, and social strength on technological innovation and intellectual curiosity, we probably shouldn't bite the hand that feeds. Cancer doesn't cure itself. Space ships won't find their own way to Mars. Species won't fend off extinction. Energy problems won't solve themselves. Voter turnout won't increase just 'cause. And so on. Research (in the aggregate) is good. To obtain that good, we have to put up with some idiosyncratic individuals and at times unusual sounding research projects.


              6. Finally, the U.S. has the world's finest higher education system...for now. The world's best and brightest regularly attend US universities over those in their own countries. And, our higher education system has always been one that focuses one on (a) a liberal arts education -- its not training, its education --, [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/cool.gif[/img] a higher degree of self-learning, and © rigorous study. That means more of the responsibility is supposed to fall on the shoulders of the student.


              Now, I don't really disagree that we can do a better job of educating students in universities. I also understand the pressures for more "training" programs, etc. But the kind of argument offered by this douche bag is always swallowed whole cloth with very little consideration into other reasons the process looks the way it does. In sum, I contend that much of the problem rests with unprepared or lazy students and a failure to recognize what a college education is intended to be, rather than what people simply think it is.

              Have at me.
              On my mind: How can I shut up the singing English graduate student? How many more lossess will KU's basketball team have than its football team? How will the Rams front office screw up this year?


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              • #8
                QUOTE(COACH REGGIE @ Sep 28 2005, 02:24 AM) Quoted post

                I'm not nor do I have any ambition to be an engineer, and I go to FAR from a "smartypants U" school, but college teachers as a whole are grossly imcompetant.[/b][/quote]

                Unintentional comedy?
                On my mind: How can I shut up the singing English graduate student? How many more lossess will KU's basketball team have than its football team? How will the Rams front office screw up this year?


                Official lounge sponsor of Will Witherspoon, Russell Robinson, and all other things Jayhawk at the lounge (which ain't much).

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                • #9
                  The problem seems to be self perpetuating. With our parents generations success, we have become less driven. When you are given a lot in your life, you tend to be less motivated. I feel sorry for the next few generations, it will only get worse before it gets better. How can you argue with the facts that our greatest time as a country was during the 60's when we had a smart and motivated country.

                  Next!

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                  • #10
                    In case you didn't sense it, chiguy's a bit sensitive about this topic, folks.

                    I, however, would welcome the adventure associated with wondering whether the bridge I was about to cross, spaceship I was about to pilot, or Flowbee I was about to use to cut my wispy, and rapidly thinning hair, was designed and built by "C" students.

                    Moon

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                    • #11
                      Totally agree.

                      As I said, this guy should take his beef up with wherever he attended high school.

                      And shut the fuck up and stop whining.

                      There's a CJ major in my Thursday night political science class who gave a junior high class presentation in lieu of a professional literature review. I was embarrassed for her.
                      The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life. -TR

                      OFFICIAL LOUNGE SPONSOR OF NEW YORK CITY, TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE MARYLAND TERRAPINS

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                      • #12
                        QUOTE(fzjjfk @ Sep 28 2005, 06:50 AM) Quoted post

                        The problem seems to be self perpetuating. With our parents generations success, we have become less driven. When you are given a lot in your life, you tend to be less motivated. I feel sorry for the next few generations, it will only get worse before it gets better. How can you argue with the facts that our greatest time as a country was during the 60's when we had a smart and motivated country.

                        Next!
                        [/b][/quote]

                        I don't agree with that.

                        Our problem: we've let idiots run our Colleges of Education, which acutely affects the qualify of high school in this country.

                        Although they have advanced degrees, chiguy, my Dad, being another example, probably couldn't teach at the high school level because they aren't accredited and haven't sat through curriculum classes with the bunch of apes they're sending out into secondary schools.

                        More than whatever I'll learn in my political science program, taking that graduate education course was an eye-opener.

                        "Because you're all so brilliant, you all get As!" It was the biggest waste of my time other than the Lounge.

                        Eh, chi, you know Teddy Gurr retired to Las Vegas?

                        Probably UMD's most distinguished political scientist.
                        The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life. -TR

                        OFFICIAL LOUNGE SPONSOR OF NEW YORK CITY, TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE MARYLAND TERRAPINS

                        Madyaks2 Thought Of The Day: I'm just as dumb as madyaks1.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          QUOTE(lasvegasreb @ Sep 28 2005, 05:58 AM) Quoted post

                          QUOTE(fzjjfk @ Sep 28 2005, 06:50 AM) Quoted post

                          The problem seems to be self perpetuating. With our parents generations success, we have become less driven. When you are given a lot in your life, you tend to be less motivated. I feel sorry for the next few generations, it will only get worse before it gets better. How can you argue with the facts that our greatest time as a country was during the 60's when we had a smart and motivated country.

                          Next!
                          [/b][/quote]

                          I don't agree with that.

                          Our problem: we've let idiots run our Colleges of Education, which acutely affects the qualify of high school in this country.

                          Although they have advanced degrees, chiguy, my Dad, being another example, probably couldn't teach at the high school level because they aren't accredited and haven't sat through curriculum classes with the bunch of apes they're sending out into secondary schools.

                          More than whatever I'll learn in my political science program, taking that graduate education course was an eye-opener.

                          "Because you're all so brilliant, you all get As!" It was the biggest waste of my time other than the Lounge.

                          Eh, chi, you know Teddy Gurr retired to Las Vegas?

                          Probably UMD's most distinguished political scientist.
                          [/b][/quote]

                          Teddy? So, now that he's in town, are you spending any time with him?

                          Moon

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                          • #14
                            QUOTE(Moon Man @ Sep 28 2005, 07:01 AM) Quoted post

                            QUOTE(lasvegasreb @ Sep 28 2005, 05:58 AM) Quoted post

                            QUOTE(fzjjfk @ Sep 28 2005, 06:50 AM) Quoted post

                            The problem seems to be self perpetuating. With our parents generations success, we have become less driven. When you are given a lot in your life, you tend to be less motivated. I feel sorry for the next few generations, it will only get worse before it gets better. How can you argue with the facts that our greatest time as a country was during the 60's when we had a smart and motivated country.

                            Next!
                            [/b][/quote]

                            I don't agree with that.

                            Our problem: we've let idiots run our Colleges of Education, which acutely affects the qualify of high school in this country.

                            Although they have advanced degrees, chiguy, my Dad, being another example, probably couldn't teach at the high school level because they aren't accredited and haven't sat through curriculum classes with the bunch of apes they're sending out into secondary schools.

                            More than whatever I'll learn in my political science program, taking that graduate education course was an eye-opener.

                            "Because you're all so brilliant, you all get As!" It was the biggest waste of my time other than the Lounge.

                            Eh, chi, you know Teddy Gurr retired to Las Vegas?

                            Probably UMD's most distinguished political scientist.
                            [/b][/quote]

                            Teddy? So, now that he's in town, are you spending any time with him?

                            Moon
                            [/b][/quote]

                            No, no, I'm not. But I invited him to go to a few things.

                            Are you a political scientist, Moon?

                            This would clear up a great many things.
                            The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life. -TR

                            OFFICIAL LOUNGE SPONSOR OF NEW YORK CITY, TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE MARYLAND TERRAPINS

                            Madyaks2 Thought Of The Day: I'm just as dumb as madyaks1.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              QUOTE(lasvegasreb @ Sep 28 2005, 06:58 AM) Quoted post

                              QUOTE(fzjjfk @ Sep 28 2005, 06:50 AM) Quoted post

                              The problem seems to be self perpetuating. With our parents generations success, we have become less driven. When you are given a lot in your life, you tend to be less motivated. I feel sorry for the next few generations, it will only get worse before it gets better. How can you argue with the facts that our greatest time as a country was during the 60's when we had a smart and motivated country.

                              Next!
                              [/b][/quote]

                              I don't agree with that.

                              Our problem: we've let idiots run our Colleges of Education, which acutely affects the qualify of high school in this country.

                              Although they have advanced degrees, chiguy, my Dad, being another example, probably couldn't teach at the high school level because they aren't accredited and haven't sat through curriculum classes with the bunch of apes they're sending out into secondary schools.

                              More than whatever I'll learn in my political science program, taking that graduate education course was an eye-opener.

                              "Because you're all so brilliant, you all get As!" It was the biggest waste of my time other than the Lounge.

                              Eh, chi, you know Teddy Gurr retired to Las Vegas?

                              Probably UMD's most distinguished political scientist.
                              [/b][/quote]


                              Wasn't Mancur Olson at UMD? Surely he'd beat out ol' Gurr on the distinguished-o-meter. Ditto some of the political economists, though their names escape me at the moment.

                              To answer your question, I didn't no the relative deprevation king had moved to Las Vegas. If I'm not mistaken, that makes two Teddy's in the department. Or maybe my memory is failing there too.
                              On my mind: How can I shut up the singing English graduate student? How many more lossess will KU's basketball team have than its football team? How will the Rams front office screw up this year?


                              Official lounge sponsor of Will Witherspoon, Russell Robinson, and all other things Jayhawk at the lounge (which ain't much).

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