Why engineering should be EASY…

Engineering is notoriously a difficult major for undergrads.  Just think about the attrition rate, and discussions of “weed out classes”.  But I would argue that engineering shouldn’t be notoriously difficult, and that anyone with even a small amount of intrinsic motivation should be able to be successful as an engineer.  To make this change though, we need to make some modifications to the way that we teach engineering.

Engineering is the study of how stuff works and how we can turn this knowledge to our benefit.  And most of this study is built around phenomena that can easily be observed in everyday life.  For instance, did you know that you can’t push a rope?  Or did you know that water flows downhill?  These are the kind of principles that we learn as engineers, and then we combine a handful of these simple concepts to create more complicated concepts.

Now when these observable phenomena are typically presented in published paper, there tends to be a lot of field-specific jargon and high-level math involved.  The jargon is used because it conveys a lot of information quickly, and in a small amount of space.  And students rarely work directly from published papers, instead they receive the information second- or third-hand from a professor or author who has attempted to simplify the published work into easier math and jargon.  Unfortunately, every time that the material is translated, first by the initial publication, and then by the professor, the material is further and further separated from observable phenomena and real-life experiences.  By the time that the students see the material, it has been turned into a procedure to be followed, often blindly.

Many of us have heard the story of a daughter, while watching her mother cook a Thanksgiving turkey, asks her mother why she cut 6 inches off the end of the turkey.  The mother replies that she doesn’t know, but that her own mother always did that.  So they go and talk to the grandmother, who has the same response about just following her own mother.  When they finally go and talk to the great-grandmother, the great-grandmother explains that her oven was too small to fit a large turkey, so she always had to cut 6 inches off of the turkey.  Here we have a procedure that was blindly memorized, similar to how many engineering students are taught.

In response to this separation between jargon and reality, I have attempted to realign the two in a way that neither is compromised.  This way students can make use of the benefits of the jargon, while not losing the conceptual understanding.  Using an approach similar to glossy magazines, I have created a website that teaches primarily through colorful images, with text providing support to the images (counter to most textbooks and courses).  I know better than to claim that I have resolved this issue entirely, but I hope that I have pushed the discussion in a fruitful direction.

The website is called Conceptual Engineering, and I have some sample images shown below.  By clicking on an image, you will be taken to the page where that image lives.

Putting it all together for granddaddy equation from Conceptual Engineering

Here is a visual approach to a notoriously difficult fluid dynamics equation

The photoelectric effect from Conceptual Engineering

This topic was so difficult, that Einstein won a Nobel prize for it. In reality, it can be explained using baseballs and bottles


Creativity and anger

As both an engineer and an academic, one of the phrases that I hear very often is “thinking outside of the box”.  Creativity is seen as one of the most valuable tools for engineers and academics, but it is also one of the most difficult tools to teach or cultivate.  There have been many books and papers written on this subject, but there is still much that could be improved.  In an attempt to further the cause of cultivating creativity, I would like to enter a “case study” into the discussion.

This past weekend, I was with some friends, and I proposed a new idea that I had just come up with.  The idea had popped into my head that morning, and in my mind, had the potential to make a small impact on the world; I was proposing a separation platform that could be used to cure cancer and disease.  In my mind, this was an exciting topic, and even though I did not have any details worked out, I felt that my friends would share my excitement because these were the same friends that would tell me that my artwork was “good”.  These were some of my closest friends, who have supported me for years, but their reactions surprised me.  They got angry!

The hubris and ego that they perceived really set them off.  Who was I to come up with a solution that millions of people have been looking for over thousands of years?

After the anger settled, the next stage was criticism.  “Haven’t scientists used that technique before?”  “Do you know how difficult that would actually be to put into practice?” “Are you prepared to dedicate the time and energy necessary to deal with clinical trials?”  The questions went on for a little while, and the anger subsided (perhaps because my friends were beginning to feel like they were “winning” the conversation…).

Later that day, after I had had some time to think over the events that had unfolded very differently than I had expected, I began to see that this response was not that unusual.  So I began to question why this was the typical response, and I came up with a few ideas:

Societies throughout history have valued experience, and ours is no different.  So what is experience, but a long list of things that don’t work, with a few success stories sprinkled through?  And before we have had the time to develop our own experiences, we try build on the shoulders of our predecessors–some might call this an education.  Thus, much of our time spent in a classroom is learning how to put boundaries on our thoughts, a skill that is valuable in many areas of life (imagine if your boss decided she was going to make up the math used to calculate your paycheck).  But perhaps we need to develop a way to put these boundaries on hold every now and then, to produce ideas that will not be graded or evaluated.

I wonder how many people will get angry after reading this, and then settle into criticism…


Engineering vs. Teaching

So often, as an engineer in academia, I hear about the tension between research and teaching.  In most cases, it appears that professors tend to fall into either the role of teacher or researcher, and then they spend almost all of their time in this single role.  Ironically, engineering is a discipline that commonly finds ways to meet multiple objectives without compromise.  For instance, does anyone know of a phone, that also takes pictures, and lets you watch youtube videos?  Or for a more esoteric example, how about an alternative to CFCs (that aerosol that contributed to the hole in the ozone layer) that would be effective and economical (this solution worked out so well, that most non-engineers don’t even think about it)?  And even when it is not possible to meet every objective, engineers are taught to compromise, except we tend to use the word optimize.  And when we are trying to optimize a scenario, it is not typical that a solution involves all of one thing and none of another.  Therefore, I am proposing that the optimal role, as an engineer in academia, will involve a healthy amount of both teaching and research.