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


3 thoughts on “Why engineering should be EASY…

  1. This is a very good post and I agree with your reasoning. The only thing I see is that not all students have much, if any, intrinsic motivation to work with. Many students chose engineering because their parents, grandparents, and so on are engineers. Others are pushed by their parents to go into engineering. And still others may be in it “for the money” so to speak. I suppose those can be slight intrinsic motivators (to please one’s parents and to make money) but it leaves little intrinsic motivation in the actual course material.

    Another thing is that engineering is a very broad topic. I teach one of the so-called “weed out” courses here and it is nearly impossible to find an engineering topic that every student is interested in. It would be nice if there were a way to break down the classes into more sections so the students who know what they like to do and are motivated to do can pursue those interests. If a student had no clue, then there could still be the broader “undecided” class so they could experience a little bit of everything to discover what they like.

    I would love to see you add more to your Conceptual Engineering site. The topics you have are great, but seem directed more at the students who survive the “weed out” courses. I think this would be a great approach to take to present freshmen with a bunch of the broader topics and actually problems solved by engineers in the real word and connect the material covered in class (sketching, programing, etc) to a more real word use.

  2. really great post, and awesome website. I’ve often thought about doing something similar with a bias towards my own field, control systems and electrical engineering. Maybe this is the motivation I need to dust of ye ol’ website and get going.

    And I would agree with the previous comment that all too often students go into engineering because their parents did, or because “I can get a high paying job after I graduate”. But I agree with you that the intrinsic motivation will come if we can connect the real-world concepts more closely to the theory.

  3. This a great post. Simple, understandable explanations can do wonders for the curious mind. We all want to feel empowered, and when material is so hard that one doesn’t even know where to begin, it’s a huge turn-off.

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