What an engineering education lacks - Embedded.com

What an engineering education lacks

Rich Nass of embedded-computing.com interviewed me about my thoughts on engineering education. Now, first, it’s important to note that the university experience is not an engineering education; it’s merely the start of that process. Too many of us practitioners figure we can stop learning after graduation. It’s disturbing that the average firmware person reads just one technical book per year; this in a field where change is the very foundation of our profession.

When I went to college, a very long time ago, I felt the University of Maryland had a great engineering program. But it did suffer from an over-emphasis on theory. We were not allowed to solder, as the school feared we’d burn ourselves!

The school offered too little guidance. I got caught up in too many math classes, finding the subject interesting. But most of those classes, like abstract algebra, were a waste of time. Calculus was worth learning as it is the basis for most of science. I’m glad to have learned it, though it’s surprising how infrequently I have used it in my career. When my son told me he needed help in his high school calculus class I had to re-study the subject to stay a step or two ahead of him. It was humbling to find my skills so degraded.

Circuit design classes were awful. There were only two: one on circuits, and another on transistor theory. Both were highly theoretical, and neither covered much about actual circuits. There was a lot of difficult math, like impulse response, which hasn’t been useful at all over the last 40 years. There wasn’t a peep about Darlington pairs, op amps, push-pull, classes of amplifiers, hetrodyning, and all of the rest that has been so important over the decades.

Looking over syllabuses today it appears EE requirements are more realistic, though it’s hard to know how practical a class is by the descriptions. But more electronics appears to be taught than in the early 70s. The University of MD still requires two electromagnetics courses, and I’ll bet those are just as incomprehensible as of yore. That material is more important than ever in this world of high-speed communications links, but it should be more accessible to students who will go on to design systems, not practice arcane mathematics. Today only one chemistry class is required, which is a good thing. I thought the second class we needed, organic chemistry, was mere memorization.

Today the U of MD requires one English class, on technical writing. Back in my day a composition course was mandated, though one could test out of it. We also had to take a literature class.

Engineering curricula are packed with too many classes in too short a period of time. Few manage to get out in four years, and that fifth, at an astronomical cost per year, can be financially devastating. But I sure wish we could wave a magic wand to squeeze in some much-needed additional classes.

Number one on my wish list: Written and spoken communications. I think students need a number of classes on the subject. They simply must learn to write, and to write well. This is the communications age, yet too many techies have no communications skills.

There’s a growing gulf between the technically-competent and those, our customers, who don’t understand the difference between a zero and a one. We need to bridge that divide. Unless we can explain what our creations do, how to use them, and their benefits, no one will buy the products. When we’re gathering requirements, negotiating with customers and suppliers, or doing the give and take that characterizes a lot of engineering work, we’ll be communicating in speech and the written word with others who don’t understand the basics of our field. Those who can do this effectively will succeed; the others will be left in a sort of limbo, buried in pure technical roles with no prospects of advancement.

In developed countries engineering is in decline. That means developers will increasingly be working with engineers in other, lower-cost, countries. English may be a barrier; toss in an inability to use it effectively and development will stall as both sides spend more time scratching their heads in puzzlement over the latest email or report essentially encrypted by poor exposition.

Engineering students should be writing every semester. The only way to master this is the same way one learns to differentiate equations: constant practice. Calculus is easier than writing in that there is a single correct answer; prose is much more qualitative. That’s actually a good thing, because in the real world most of our problems involve decisions that are based on a lot of complex factors. There often isn’t a right answer; there’s the least worst. Or there’s an answer that satisfies no one, but that causes the fewest objections. Looking over the EE requirements at the University of MD there’s only one class, “Social & Ethical Dimensions of ECE Technology,” that deals with non-quantitative results.

I well remember at age 20 talking to my dad, a mechanical engineer, about the purity of engineering, at how the results are so clear. He laughed. And he was right.

Public speaking should be required as well. Most of us hate it. But it’s an essential part of our profession. We all know the developer who is afraid to speak up in a meeting. That means the team loses the benefits of that person’s knowledge and experience.

We have to learn to be comfortable giving short presentations in front of a group. Team up with PowerPoint and get your point across, with clarity and forcefulness. (Many condemn PowerPoint, but the problem is the poor use of that application, not the application itself).

People object that they may not be natural public speakers, but who is? Demosthenes suffered from a speech impediment, so practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth. He went on to become one of history’s great orators. Winston Churchill had a stutter, when younger, that was called “agonizing.” Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well: “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

On another subject, I’m giving my Better Firmware Faster seminar in Baltimore (Nov 7) and Santa Clara (Nov 14). More details here .

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded developmentissues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companieswith their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness onembedded issues. Contact him at . His website is.

12 thoughts on “What an engineering education lacks

  1. “I'm increasingly thinking that we should not strive for formal engineering educations that teach people what they know.nnTo be an effective engineer you need to be a life long independent learner. You should not need to rely on universities to teach you

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  2. “Also a UofMD graduate, I can relate to all you have to say here. The organic chem class was a waste. nnOdd thing was, what turned out to be the most useful classs were periperal ones I took for other reasons. Phil 170, Introduction to Logical Reasoning,

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  3. “”Teaching most specific skills is pointless. By the time the professor has learned them, they're probably obsolete.”nnAgreed. I like to think of it as a three-level hierarchy:nn1. Science (e.g. Physics, Calculus, Sorting Algorithms)n2. Technology

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  4. “Happily, my undergrad chemistry course emphasized quantum theory, and provided nice insights when I moved on later into solid-state physics.nnMy Economics elective turned out to be a pleasant surprise; the material was more interesting than I expected,

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  5. “BobSnyder, you are absolutely spot on !! I have lost count of the number of job ads wanting “at least 3 years VB.NET” or “minimum 5 years SQL Sever” etc etc. In one of my past jobs I was the principal hiring manager for a medium-sized software develo

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  6. “Yup, I never look for specific skills. I might use it as a deciding factor between two equal candidates though.nnOne of the best embedded programmers I ever hired had a business degree and could program in VB and SQL. We hired him because he just had so

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  7. “Jack, interesting how almost all of the comments are anecdotal about their past schooling experience. But I going to buck the trend. The truth as I see it is that you can only pack in so much learning in four years of school. People you solve cookbook pro

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  8. “Jack, I'd love to know what you think about engineering continuing professional education (CPE). Other professions, like doctors, accountants and lawyers, mandate that their members receive a certain number of hours of education every year.nnThis is tru

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  9. “”the average firmware person reads just one technical book per year”.nnYou can also join in the newsgroup discussions, standards deliberations, conference papers, blogs, and web sites that are discussing the best in your field way before it is so codi

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  10. “Some basic understanding of other areas of science and engineering can be useful, and organic chemistry can even be of practical interest to those curious about OLCD and OLED. If nothing else, such knowledge prepare us for a quick sanity check when faced

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  11. “Jack – Sorry to hear your EE program had poor circuit classes and few writing opportunities or requirements. Not all programs are like that, and I believe the ABET accreditation does require core courses in the humanities and a social science (at least, t

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  12. “Even though I'm a Spanish Industrial Engineer, specialized on Electronics and Automation, I can recognize many of the questions you all talked about here.nnI enjoyed / suffered a six-years educational plan, with room for a little more basic Science so

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