The Paradox that is the Undergraduate Engineering Education

About two years ago I had a crisis of thought. As some most at the pinnacle of their undergraduate electrical engineering education, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t considering a change in major to anything else, not just because I was too far in already, but I actually did enjoy most of what I was learning.

I asked myself this often because I found that I seemed to quickly forget material learnt from previous semesters. Once the semester was done, I let out a sigh of relief and promptly sold some of my books.

I sold fewer, though, as I progressed through my program for a couple of reasons. The first, and more compelling reason, was that the books became invaluable references in subsequent classes. The other was that the geniuses at the school bookstore would usually buy them back for the almost criminal rate of 50% of my purchase price! Now, just so you understand, I bought all my books out of pocket which stung, and each hardly cost under $100 so offering $49.99 was tantamount to a very classy No Deal. What sort of investment will, with predictable consistency and without fault, depreciate to half its value in a 16-week time span? The same book is then unassumingly decked on the shelf the following semester retailing at, predictably, 7/8ths of the price of a new book. Clearly, I’m in the wrong business. Then I found the Amazon seller account, somewhat more reliable than eBay, where on a good day I could almost recoup my investment.

But I digress.

So I would ask myself: if I’m in school to learn engineering ‘content’, and if I’m supposed to remember the content, is this model failing because I’m not or is it that I’ve not understood the model, how it applies to me and what I should be getting out of it? When I say I don’t ‘remember content’ it means I usually have to find a book or writing on the topic somewhere and refresh my memory. It’s still sitting in memory, albeit in one of the further recesses.

Fast forward to today. My roommate, currently an EE sophomore in a large public school in the California State University system, and I get to talking about all things engineering. The issue of course material and remembering is broached and a subsequent ‘so then, what is the purpose of going to school?’ quickly follows. Having graduated and had time to reflect, my response was that the purpose of an education in EE is not so much to retain the content as much as it is to develop and improve one’s analytical and problem-solving skills.

What does that mean? Unless you’re exceptionally gifted, you can’t really remember everything you learn on the ready. In the so-called ‘real world’, if you need to find out about something that you once knew or is new to you, you just look it up; google it! (Sorry Redmond, bing it is not yet quite as catchy). Dwight-Schrute-style, you say ‘False: content is important’, and I say yes, that’s true. Content is important, because mastery of the content is what cultivates the skills you learn. That’s the paradox. Without getting good at solving engineering problems and the accompanying challenges of the learning process, you won’t amass the skills. All else being equal, you can’t directly get to the seed of a mango fruit without first munching though its fibrous flesh. In other words, excel in your classes.

In my senior and super-senior years at school, majority of the classes were fashioned around projects and groupwork. That was where most of the real learning happened. Some of the projects were guided – specifications provided, milestones set, deliverable is clearly specified. Others were not – a simple set of ideas, often quite abstract in nature, were set on paper and based on that a team would be required to write the project specifications, suggest a roadmap, milestones and specify the deliverable – a software and/or hardware prototype or a proof-of-concept research paper.

All sorts of problems always came up. Cracking the project specifications and getting them accepted by the panel of judges was the toughest at the onset. Then people-management issues, especially for the project managers. Then hardware and software breaks, for the technologists and specialists on the team. Continues ad infinitum to project completion. But we still got it done. The process and discipline involved in meeting these objectives produced intangible, yet conspicuous changes in one’s way of thinking and approach to issues.

There seems to be a structured approach to hacking a problem – what is the root problem? what approach can be or has been used to solve this problem? what are the variables/parameters? solve. My math instructor in high school always said this after writing down a problem: get the concept. This mindset inadvertently spills over into one’s day-to-day life and consequently engineers are sometimes found to be rather brief and somewhat impatient with others that talk way too much have a lot to say. That’s why many avoid overly extraneous word problems. Somewhere in there, there’s a problem statement.

So what’s all this to say? The purpose of an undergraduate education in electrical engineering, I’ve found, is not so much to try and retain all content learnt, but rather to develop and improve skills of reasoning, analysis and problem-solving. These skills will probably only be realized during one’s final months in school or upon graduation. While in the midst of it, you probably won’t even care because all you’re trying to do is get that project done. And that’s what you should be doing, as it keeps the wheels of skills-dev turning. So don’t fret about not remembering how to do integration by parts or how to modulate a signal. Just look it up and get what needs to be done next. Soon the project, semester, year and graduation will be over. Looking back and, as Steve Jobs would say, connect the dots, you’ll see what really mattered in the pursuit of the degree you have in hand.

If you would like to become a subject matter expert in a particular engineering field, well, that’s why we have the PhD program. And it works at that level because you’re decidedly focusing on a single topic, an antithesis to the mile wide, inch deep adage.