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.