Engineering a reality check

June 14, 2007, 12:18 pm

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks resurrecting the moribund 3+2 program in engineering that my college is proposing to the local Big University. My goal is to get the agreement with the BU completed and get the program on the books and advertised at our place by the end of the summer. It looked like things were on track to meet these goals this time last summer, but a bunch of things — heavy fall workload, the discovery of major scheduling issues with the proposed course plans, and so on — conspired to drive the whole project to “inactive” status. But I’ve revamped and streamlined the five-year plans, and it looks like we’ll be able to have the thing up and running soon, barring any other weirdness.

I’ve also been advising a student who came in as a freshman last fall wanting to major in Applied Math and then go to grad school to become an electrical engineer, who had never heard of our plans for a 3+2 program. This student was very interested and so, although we still have no official agreement with the BU, I put the student on the proposed five-year plan and had the student take courses on faith that the program would eventually be completed.

I’ve learned a few simple but important facts about engineering programs, and being a student in one of them, as a result of all this work.

1. You really have to be making A’s and B’s in pretty much everything at the freshman and sophomore level — including the year-long sequences in Calculus, physics, and chemistry — in order to have viability as an engineering student. Engineering is an intense discipline to study. It’s even moreso in a 3+2 program where students are working on two degrees — one in engineering from the BU, the other in Applied Mathematics from us, each of which would be intense enough on its own — in five years. Your level of skill in basic science and math has to be above suspicion. If your grades are merely lackluster in these basic areas, it’s unlikely you’ll improve over time as the courses get harder and harder.

2. Of all the courses in the program, it seems like Calculus II is the real make-or-break experience. Lots of students in this program will do fine in Calculus I because most of them had it in high school. But when you get to Calculus II, you typically reach the limit of the math you learned in high school. And it’s here that you have to move from remembering math to learning it. If a student can successfully pick up Calculus II and understand even just 3/4 of what goes on in the class, I’d give that student a good shot at doing well in the other math, science, and engineering courses as well. They are showing that for the most part, they can learn new tricks in a complicated technical subject. But if the student is making a C or below in Calculus II, I get very worried. If they make below a C-, I am really worried, because that’s not a passing grade in most departments. And if you need to take a year of Linear Circuit Analysis in your electrical engineering program, and the first of that requires Calculus III, and that requires Calculus II which you didn’t do very well in…

3. Your performance in a science, math, or engineering class should be determined only by your work if you are going to have a chance at making it in an engineering program. What I mean is that your academic skill and intellectual focus on these classes needs to be such that external factors don’t make much of a dent on your performance in those courses, even if the factor is serious. “External factors” include boy/girlfriend problems, family problems, part-time jobs, athletic or Greek involvement, and — this seems to be awfully common in engineering — an inability to understand a professor who is not a native English speaker. The students who go on to success in a program like this do sometimes have serious external problems in their lives, but they can focus past them and get the job done anyway.

Those three points fit not only my experiences from working on this agreement and the students in it, but also my experiences in going to an engineering school for undergrad and in having a dad, a sister, and two brothers-in-law who are professional engineers. Got anything to add to these?

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