Why is EE education mainly glorified math?

Of course EE is not about solving glorified math problems. But the EE
educational system is set up in such a manner.
Most of an EE student's GPA consists of the ability to solve problems
on paper for mid-term and final exams. There are laboratory sessions,
but the objective all too often is to just plow through the lab
exercises to earn a grade, and any learning that takes place is all
too likely to be accidental. The only practical experience all too
often doesn't happen until the SENIOR project, and that's just ONE
class. Being able to design and build electronic devices is just a
small part of the GPA. The end result is too many technically
illiterate EE graduates. If you have complained about interviewing or
(worse) working with EEs who looked fine on paper and could solve any
textbook problem but couldn't even solder two wires together (much
less design and build something to actually work right), now you know
how they became that way.
I read that EE education had more emphasis on practical experience
until about the 1950s and that there are now generations of EE
professors and department heads who couldn't engineer a circuit if
their lives depended on it. I read that the demands from the space
program caused the change to almost all theory and very little
practical experience. Why?
I've also heard industry and academia pass the buck on training EEs to
be productive on the job. Industry says that academia is responsible,
but academia says its job is to just teach the basics and that
industry is responsible for training EEs to be productive on the job.
I get the impression that EE departments are stuck in the 1950s and
1960s, when the average person was much more likely to have built a
crystal radio. I say that since industry and academia keep passing
the buck (like Ford and Firestone on the Ford Explorer tire problems),
it's really the EE student's job to get training. And this training
can only come from practical experience: co-ops, internships, HOBBIES
(like amateur radio, audio, electronics, etc.), competitions, etc.
This practical experience is FAR MORE important than GPA. In fact, if
your GPA is ahead of the know-how it's supposed to convey, you're up a
creek. You're just a more intellectually advanced version of the
functionally illiterate high school graduate.
If I were the head of an EE department, I would offer something that
none (as far as I know) currently provide: An unpressured introduction
to PRACTICAL electronics for first-semester freshmen. This would be a
non-credit or pass-fail class that consists of building simple
projects. Projects would include things like an electromagnetic field
monitor, car battery monitor, crystal radio, and lie detector. (There
are books with projects like these.) There would be NO required
problem sets, exams, or lab reports. Students would get a chance to
work with ICs, resistors, capacitors, transistors, and other
components and put them together to form a device that works. This
would help motivate students, improve retention rates, and encourage
students to pursue the practical side of EE. The students who don't
get hooked on EE as a result of this class would know that the time to
leave EE is now, BEFORE they flunk out, and BEFORE they become
miserable, underperforming EEs. Thus, the students for whom EE is not
a calling can move on to something else faster instead of subjecting
themselves to misery. The students who remain (which I suspect would
be a majority) will be better EE students AND better EEs. The EE
department won't have to waste as much time and resources on marginal
students, and employers would get more productive EEs in the end.
So why don't EE departments offer this non-credit or pass-fail
practical introductory course?
Jason Hsu, AG4DG
usenet AAAAATTTTT jasonhsu.com
Reply to
Jason Hsu
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Electrical Engineering (as opposed to the employment of uppity technicians) is about predicting the future behaviour of your creations.
Mathematics is the language for that prediction.
You need to go at least as far as 3D vector calculus and as far as Laplace Transform Theory, if you are going to discuss problems with engineers rather than with opinionated uppity technicians whose creations are based upon one or two folklore examples that they have come across and may or may not understand.
Reply to
Airy R. Bean
I sit on the Technical Advisory Board for two colleges. Our function is to determine curriculum and suggest real time hands on experience so that when these kids graduate, we, the employers and engineers that make up the advisory board have fresh new faces to hire that are fully trained in the disciplines and skills that we the active industry require.
I would love to see educational institutions around the country try this method...it has worked extremely well. Graduates are not must paper skilled, they have an in depth understanding that only comes with experience because we provide these two colleges with actual work. The students work as engineers at their universities, and deliver finished goods/designs. At one of these colleges, one of us (advisory board members) is always in attendance at their labs to ensure they are learning in a real working environment.
Reply to
EEng
in article snipped-for-privacy@posting.google.com, Jason Hsu at jason snipped-for-privacy@my-deja.com wrote on 1/7/04 8:22 AM:
Do not look pejoratively at math. Try to understand the relationship between the mathematics and what it means in real circuits at devices. The faculty should help you do that but often is not capable. Really brilliant tinkerers such as Faraday and Edison did good work. But it took a Maxwell to put Faraday's work on a firm quantitative basis.
Edison is a more complicated subject. Although a tinkerer, he understood much that more mathematical folk did not. He knew not to add armature resistance to match his generator to the load even though the math said that the load resistance should match the source resistance to get maximum power transmission. The people who knew that mathematically and proposed adding armature resistance just did not know how to interpret the mathematics. That seems to be where you are now.
If you are not the Armstrong who knows with FM does even before the math describing FM became available, engineering may not be for you.
Bill
Reply to
Repeating Rifle
Ask some of my past employers what skills they want in their engineering graduates and their response will be 'MS Word and PowerPoint'.
Experience in a field is good, but that is something that engineers share with technicians. Problem solving skills and the ability to apply the basic principles of physics to practical problems are important, too.
Experience is good in that it gives employers a supply of employees who can come up to speed rapidly in a certain field. But without understanding the underlying principles (and the math), that employee will have trouble adapting as technology changes. Some employers can afford to toss out people with outdated skill sets. Other employers get stuck with outdated technology (or processes) if these employees become too tightly woven into the companies infrastructure. In the end, this second group winds up out of work anyway when their employer fails.
Its better to have employees who have learned to absorb new ideas rather than have employees who understand one particular field very well but only on a technical level.
Reply to
Paul Hovnanian P.E.
Agreed. One of the things we try to get these students to understand is that employers are not looking for something who knows it all. We are looking for engineers who know how to find out all the info needed and can then work with it....extrapolating technologies, figuring out what needs to be done. The saying we use is "The best engineer is NOT the one who knows it all, but rather the one who knows how to find the info and can figure out what to do with it" THAT is an engineer.
Reply to
EEng
I do a lot of fault calculations for power systems. I t would be fun to just build them and let the blue smoke out of them but then we'd have to rebuild and them and try again. If I owned a building or factory I would want an engineer that knew a zero sequence phasor from an impedance network doing my calc. Bitching about the math is mostly by the people who can't get it. If you can't do it go for the BET degree.
Reply to
B J Conner
Glorified Math? Don't flatter the EE departments. They morph math and call it problem solving. Any trick works. But it is not math; is is a modified, crude, but practical application of mathematics. If you want math get a mathematics degree from the mathematics department. After getting a degree in pure mathematics I took some EE courses and had to cringe at the way they break the formal rules, but I was utterly amazed when they found quick answers to complex problems that were formal mathematical challenges.
Reply to
Gerald Newton
Boy, I don't know if I completely agree with that assessment. Many EE graduates are very skilled at mathematics. I took a senior level math class as my final math elective. The class began with about 2/3 math majors and 1/3 engineers. After the last add/drop day it was nearly 1/2 math majors, 1/2 engineers. After mid-terms it had shifted to 1/3 math majors and 2/3 engineers. What was amazing was that the math majors were pretty much all seniors while the engineers were all 1st semester juniors. We suffered in that class, but many of us earned A's. We were made fun of by some engineering students who selected a much easier math class for their elective. We had the last laugh when we all took Magnetics the next semester. Talk about a math intensive course!
Charles Perry P.E.
Reply to
Charles Perry
Jason, try to focus in on the difference between a senior technician and an electrical, and on the difference in the work they are expected to perform on the job. Hint: It has a great deal to do with the difference between their abilities in analysis and math. I've know in my life a great number of technicians and radio amateurs that could do a great job of designing a piece of equipment based on things they had seen before, or had been shown how to do. Their shortfall always was, that because of their lack of an analytical and math backgound, they were unable to analyze and optimize the circuit, its operating parameters, or component selection...and in many instance didn't really understand how the equipment they had constructed really functioned at any level of detail.
This is why the focus in any credible engineering program is math and analysis. Without mastery of these tools, you are actually a technician pretending to be an engineer.
You raise a valid question in asking "how do I get practical experience"? In my case, I was a ham radio operator, licensed FCC broadcasting engineer, and general electronics hack long before I attended college. (Kids like I was are still around and likely in your class.) Then I went to a COOP university, where you spend half of this year working as what they would today call an "Intern" in industry. The downside of these programs is that the good ones add a year to the time required to earn a BS (4 years becomes 5). MIT had a similar program, but at the end of 5 years you received a MS rather than a BS. (I'm not sure if this program still exists at MIT, although they do still have what amounts to a COOP program under a different name.) A large number of our technology and science oriented universities offer similar programs.
I went out into industry on 6-month assignment, my first two were with a company called Barker & Williamson that maded both ham radio and military communcations equipment. My industry job there was to run their calibration lab, but in my spare time I learned the then esoteric technology of designing d.c. to d.c. power supplies, became proficient in machine shop and machine tool operation, and learned a bit about electro-plating. On my second assignment, I actually designed a product line of r.f. dummy loads marketed to the government, plus designed the modulator electronics for the GRC/T-368 transmitter for the US Army.
As a physics major, I lucked out on my 3rd and 4th coop periods, and was assigned to work for Princeton University (at Forrestal Research Center) on the design of their 3-GEV Proton Synchrotron. During my first 6-months there, my assignment as to duplicate things that had been already built, but this left me with enough free time to play with their computer (an IBM1620). Consequently, I became rather proficient with Fortran.
This paid off big time during my second assignment there, because I was assigned to compute the performance and tuning parameter for the machine itself. Fortunately, I had previously purchases Livingston & Blewett's book on particle accelerators, so the math was largely cookbook, and since I was already proficient in Fortran, this assignment left me with a lot of spare time. Being only 20 at that time, and my priorites being what they were, I spent a lot of time in Princeton's fantastic machine shop, where between 9 PM and 6 AM the machines there were mine. A kindly machinist even one spent 3-hours with me (after hours) to teach me Heliarc welding plus refine my lathe technique! Oh, by the way, while there I also learned how to design and trouble-shoot high vacuum systems, and more practically how to design and analyze magnetic circuits and systems.
Then too, I lucked out. The COOP system is (at least it once was) a bit of a crap shoot. I had a good friend studying chemical engineering, as his COOP assignment for 4 years involved the inspection of rest rooms and general sanitation on restaurants.
Then too, nothing in life is dependent on pure luck. I employed my network of friends to point me to the desirable assignments, then lobbied the COOP department of my university to point me to these assignments.
It is by mechanisms like these, my friend, that allow you to gain practical experience while you are learning the theory and the math in a classroom structure.
Realize that you only learn the theory in the university, and have to get your hands a bit dirty to learn the practical applications of what you are learning.
I wish you the best of luck, but you are coming across to me as not really wanting a career in engineering.
Harry C.
Reply to
Harry Conover
Hey- It's an Art and Science. Math will take you through a lot of the science, the art is know when and what trick to use. Too much math is like polishing a turd, after a point it'a as good as you'll ever get it.
Reply to
B J Conner
YOu're asking the wrong people (or bigshots want Lotus Notes and Freelance ;-). Seriously, the direct engineering management is a lot sharper than this, though they do put a lot of emphasis on programming skills rather than engineering skills. (I refuse to admit that I know how to spell 'C').
Sure, but so is being able to understand the realizable from the bunkum. The guy selling FTL cables is a good example. One can put *anything* into spice, but understanding that the output (thus the input) is crap takes some understanding of the realities of life. Then once the simulator says it's good it takes more experience to know whether it can be manufactured!
Simple theory teaches none of this. Hideous mistakes do. The earlier the mistakes are made the more humble (and better) the student. Minor burns teach far better than mommy's "NO".
Others are smarter. Training a good employee is always cheaper than hiring the unknown.
I can't argue here. A good engineer *shouldn't* be falling in this trap though. It's an easy trap though.
Adapt! Sure, I've changed jobs a dozen or more times and relocated twice for my employer in the 30 years. One must be flexible to survive. Change is inevitable. Nothing has changed.
Reply to
Keith R. Williams
in article 1073530547.215757@prawn, Gerald Newton at senior snipped-for-privacy@alaska.com wrote on 1/7/04 6:55 PM:
I will repost something I had posted some time ago. It is from the preface of the second edition of Static and Dynamic Electricity by William R. Smythe. Ostensibly, the book is very mathematical. Exams he gave could typically answered with no more than two sides of a 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of paper. If you did not know what you were doing, five sheets would not be enough. It is late, and my typing, although fast, deteriorates in accuracy.
"That the successful solution of electrical problems depends on physical rather than mathematical insight is borne out by the author's experience with the first edition, which shows that graduate students in electrical engineering and physics greatly excel those in mathematics."
Much of the value of this book has disappeared as computation rather than insight has taken over much of the electrical field.
Bill
Reply to
Repeating Rifle
Well, back "when" most EE students were interested in electronics in high school. Many were hams or otherwise has practical experience and could easily has served as techs.
It just wasn't necessary for the schools to teach them what they already knew. What this didn't know or appreciate was math and hard science (plus stuff like english composition and history.)
Reply to
John Gilmer
You are assuming that engineering managers have backgrounds in engineering (or software). A company I used to work for put its systems engineering group under the finance department. My direct supervisor's previous work experience was as a game operator at a carnival midway.
But what you'll have is an employee with practical experience dating from their school days. If a company isn't willing to let employees 'burn' themselves on the job periodically with new technology, they will have to (a) replace employees at every technology cycle, or (b) get stuck with older 'proven' technologies.
Cheaper still is contracting out your engineering work to third-world countries.
Its not up to the engineer. In some cases, management will dictate a particular technology based upon their skill inventory. In one case, I was working with some test equipment controlled by an HP-UX application on 700-series HP workstations. Management published a standard specifying these controllers as the preferred platform AFTER HP sent out a letter discontinuing support for these systems. Their decision was based upon the fact that the IT department staff had established experience with HP-UX systems.
Not understanding that one flavor of unix is pretty much like the next, a couple of sharper developers ported all the apps to Linux (its not likely that the Intel platform will be discontinued in the near future). They caught hell for doing it 'because of the risk', according to management.
Change is not company policy. Sometimes its better to change employers in order to keep up with technology.
Reply to
Paul Hovnanian P.E.
I agree with what you say. I know that my school's only worry was their "prestigious" ABET accreditation
Reply to
Steve Hajdu
Perhaps I'm spoiled. All of my managers have been engineers (one was a programmer). Most have been a pleasure to work for, in fact.
I worked for marketing at one point, though my direct managers were engineers. Though I cannot imagine engineering being done working for *finance* managers, of all things. I presume the company is no more! Stupid management deserves to die a painful death.
Good grief! What's the point of this?
If an employee isn't growing in the job, it's his responsibility to move on! One's career isn't to be left up to a carney! The company loses, not the individual.
Nonsense! This *hasn't* been shown to be cheaper. In fact there are many studies that have shown companies with such dreams just about being sucked down the drain after them. This is the latest management/popular press myth, along the lines of "the Japs are taking over" (was the Arabs, now Indians).
*WRONG* It *is* up to the engineer to take care of his career! No one else cares, nor *should*. If you hadn't noticed, indentured servitude went out some few hundred years ago.
Sure. That doesn't mean the programmers have to stay and watch the company scream into the ground. They have skills that are valuable. A company run by such morons isn't worth saving and no programmer had better pretend he can!
Of course not. It's Universal. Only a fool thinks he can stop it.
Only half right, and oh so *wrong*!. Sometimes it's better to change employers, sure. It's *never* right to sit back and pretend technology parade has stopped, just because you're too lazy to learn a new trick.
Reply to
Keith R. Williams
This is naive in the extreme. Engineering is governed by the laws of PHYSICS and mathematics models that world, oft as not imperfectly. Engineers know that.
As regards the maths needed to be an engineer, before you worry about 3D vector calculus and Laplace, I suggest you try and understand where you went wrong with 'negative frequency'. I would shoot any first year engineering student that came to my class with the notion of negative frequency.
Chimera
Reply to
Chimera
Do your students learn anything about symetrical components? The negative sequence is a negative frequency. Wheather it exist or not it is a useful concept in modeling power systems/
engineering
Reply to
B J Conner
operator
My previous employer was sold to a technology venture capital firm by the founding partners. The president/CEO retired at the same time. The first guy they hired for that position was a good enough engineer but the wrong one to run the company and spent a year running morale into the ground. The next one was a "turnaround specialist" who knew nothing about the business, didn't use a computer and upgraded his company car from a Plymouth Voyager to a Lexus RX300 even though we were still losing money. He lasted about a year and a half, and the investors sold the company soon after at a considerable loss. I left long before that, took some time off and have a much better job now.
Good management in _any_ field recognizes that professional growth benifits both parties.
When the company has a reseller agreement that includes two free seats at any course but management turns you down when you ask for yourself and another top engineer to take a four day intro course on the latest of the software we used, it's time to move on.
My current boss wants to send 2 or 3 of us to a week long course on a major product. It's expensive, figuring the fee, travel expense and lost billable time, but he sees it as a strategic investment because it fulfills Good Manufacturing Practice requirements with our clients.
My addition to "Who Moved My Cheese?": "In order to strategic corporate position in the marketplace, it will be necessary to reduce cheese distribution in certain areas." Who cut the cheese?? :)
Mike
Reply to
Mike Lamond

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