Saturday, November 12, 2011

a former engineering student speaks out about the cruelty

Douglas Kern thinks that engineering schools are doing a bad job of teaching (link from Instapundit). His main complaints revolve around the fact that it is so hard to retain a good GPA and that the teaching tends to be poor. A similar article by Kenneth Anderson recently talked about how inflated grades in other disciplines are making it less attractive to go into science, math and engineering disciplines where grade inflation has not happened.

I don't think I agree with either assessment. People who hire engineers know about engineering classes and take it into account when they evaluate GPAs. The comparison of GPAs between departments is primarily of concern to extroverts and career climbers, but people like that would not typically make good engineers (there are exceptions of course).

Good engineers are people whose self image is bound up in the difficulty and the quality of their work, not on their level in the company hierarchy. They are people who focus on the problem, not on whether their customers or employers like them. Anecdote time: once upon a time, a sales rep told me a story about "successful" problem solving; it went something like this:
once upon a time, there was a tall building with a slow elevator. The building manager was beset with complaints about the slow elevator, so he installed mirrors in the elevator lobbies. People were distracted by the mirrors and stopped complaining about the slow elevators.
The sales rep thought he was telling me about a clever, out-of-the box solution to a problem. I, an engineer, was horrified. That building manager had completely misinterpreted the problem. Being a self-centered little prick (this is my engineering-based assessment of the building manager), he thought the problem was that people were complaining about the slow elevator. He didn't want to be bothered by the complaints. His solution was to reduce the complaints.

But the complaints were not the problem. The complaints were only an indicator of the problem. The problem was that the elevator was too slow. What occurred immediately to me, is that I hate slow elevators but have never complained to building management about them. I also don't enjoy looking at myself in the mirror. Yes, I am awesomely good looking but I don't get distracted by awesomely good-looking men. Now if he had put some good auto and hardware cheesecake calenders in the lobby, ... wait. I'm getting off of my point here.

The point is that I suspect there is a strong correlation between people who complain about slow elevators and people who are easily distracted by seeing themselves in a mirror. You may call this an introvert prejudice if you like. Yes, I do think extroverts are both the kinds of people who think that their minor inconveniences merit complaints more often than introverts do, and also that extroverts are the kinds of people who tend to be distracted by seeing themselves in the mirror. Also by small shiny objects. But regardless of who these people are, the manager only solved the trivial problem that some people were nagging him, while ignoring the real problem that was causing the nagging. It would probably have been cheaper for him to just ignore the nagging if he could not afford to fix the elevators.

So with that background, I'd suggest that engineering schools are doing a pretty good job at selecting for people who will be good engineers --namely introverts who love math, science, and making things work.

The hard grading and lower GPAs select for people who don't care much about how other people evaluate them. This will not be good for their career in general, but it makes them better engineers because it means that they tend to focus on solving the problem rather than on avoiding complaints. Good estimates (rather than optimistic ones), taking the time to get the job right, spending the money needed to do it right --these things tend to get complaints from customers and managers, but overall they make you a better engineer.

Even the poor teaching is beneficial at weeding out people who are not self learners or are not interested in the subject matter. Most of my teachers in math and science were horrible but I learned from the textbooks and from doing the problems. In fact, I preferred it that way. This is a very useful attribute as an engineer because modern science and technology change at a dizzying rate. If you aren't a self learner or are not personally interested in the subject matter, you have little chance of keeping up with it.

So you guys who where driven out of engineering should not feel that you got a raw deal. More than likely, if you were not cut out for an engineering education then you were not cut out for an engineering career. You should be glad that you found this out early rather than late.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that I ought to tie this in with Instapundit's crusade on the education bubble. Glenn Reynolds has been arguing that some higher-education schools have been deceiving students with highly optimistic promises of career success to get their money. Now he is linking to these two posts that criticize engineering schools, effectively for not taking money --by forcing people out of the program. Aren't the engineering schools doing the ethical and honest thing by making a serious attempt to weed out the kids who aren't cut out to be engineers? Do law schools do that?

I just did a quick DuckDuckGo search and found rates of passing the bar exam listed anywhere from 40% to 80%. I think that's appalling given how much the people taking the bar exam have spent on law school. From this (admittedly sparse) information, it looks to me like law schools are either making no effort to weed people out or they are doing a piss poor job of it.

Former law students are complaining about law school because they didn't have the career success they thought they should have, and former engineering students are complaining that they were forced to go into another field, while the engineering students who were able to graduate are all pretty happy with their educations. Who is doing things right here?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

another melancholy milepost

I went to see a movie yesterday and the guy at the ticket counter asked me if I wanted a "senior" ticket. First time for me. Made me so depressed I had to go buy dark chocolate.