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Common Purposes

What are the Common Purposes? I've dwelt on that question since first reading my alma mater's founding principle "for the purposes of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life". The question, more than any answer I may ever offer, has guided me through many personal and professional endeavors. And, if I have learned anything it is that I have derived my greatest joy when I, as part of a team, have made a lasting difference to improve the lives of others. Should the thoughts I share here and the ensuing discussion lead others to ask the same question, to seek their own answers and to experience the same joy as I, then I shall consider this effort of value.

Image: "The New Shoes" by Jane Bucci. This work is based on the touching photo snapped by Gerald Waller in 1946, in Austria. The little boy, who lived in an orphanage, had just been given new shoes by the American Red Cross.

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Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

Posted November 06, 2006 5:23 PM by MillMatt

Over the past week, there has been a vibrant discussion in my blog entitled: "At Colleges, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust" (but NOT in engineering). My thanks to Tamar Lewin of The New York Times whose article of July 9, 2006 provided the inspiration. And, thanks to all who have contributed and are continuing to contribute!

While the focus of attention in Ms. Lewin's article is the wonderful strides and accomplishments women have made on college campuses across the United States while men have, to some degree, languished, what intrigued me was her acknowledgment that women have excelled at most schools with the notable exception of engineering schools. I asked: Why is that and what does it mean? While many posts to the blog referenced the choices women have made for a variety of cultural, social, intellectual and personal reasons (which all seem more reactionary to me than enlightening and hopeful), others referenced real and perceived academic issues and other shortcomings of the engineering schools to entice women (which seems to shine a light on something we can change not only for the benefit of women but for all who might now be attracted to engineering as a career foundation and, indeed, for the benefit of all society).

And so it is, on that note, I wish to build on the contributions made to the other blog by AnnafromA2. This week I would like to delve on what is right with engineering schools as a basis for building professional career that make a difference to a world full of of opportunity for contribution.

Here are some questions for discussion:

  • What were your favorite classes from an intellectual standpoint (that does often include the spirit of the professor, I'll acknowledge)?
  • What classes have been the most valuable in your career?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently from a scholastic standpoint?

Just to get the ball rolling, I'll share a few quick insights of mine.

  • I loved a senior level course in Chemical Engineering Principles where we applied Laplace transforms to all manner of process conditions. I can't say I did very well in the class, either! But, I knew that I now had tools that would allow me to make things happen and, very early in my career, I did just that.
  • The most valuable course was Engineering Economics which I took during an extremely hot summer when I was a co-operative education student. Most of us treated the class as something just to get done and move on. Little did I know just how much that knowledge would impact my ability to work in corporate development and appreciate the thought process and criteria used by senior management; I had leverage.
  • Knowing what I know now, I would have taken more courses that challenged me to appreciate the world around me (Western Civilization, Classical Literature, Political Science) so that I could have a better understanding of my humble place therein. The world is a VERY competitive place (for good reason!) and I was not prepared for that reality sufficiently.

Don't forget to vote On Tuesday in the United States' general elections. And, I look forward to your votes and contribution here, too.

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Anonymous Poster
#1

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/08/2006 8:30 AM

Most engineering problems have a large "people" component. The ability to understand what customers want and sell your project or recommendations is at least as important as the technical aspects of the problem. "People" classes should be included in Engineering curricula in much the same way that bedside manner is taught in medical school.

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#6
In reply to #1

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 9:55 AM

Great input!

I don't know how you teach bedside manners (although I'm sure much of it is about good listening skills and compassion), but the best course I ever took that really addressed the matter of collaboration and communication with co-workers in engineering and throughout a business was about Quality Function Deployment (QFD). After three days of training and working on a rather simple exercise, we addressed a more challenging project related to our business and our customers' needs. Not only did sales/marketing talk to customers but engineers, machine operators and administrative staff spoke with product users, gathered user information AND we had a means to share that information amongst the team to reach our collective goal.

To me, it was one of those moments that was as enlightening as the first time I tied my own shoes.

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#2

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/08/2006 11:45 AM

My favorite classes, in retrospect, were the ones which called for "hands on", team projects in those cases where the team was pretty functional. For example, once I and two friends built a compound crossbow ballista to launch cream pies for a Machine Design class. I say "in retrospect", because the work of those teams was very intense at the time.

One of the single most useful classes i've EVER taken was one titled "Human/Computer Interaction". This was joint-listed in the School of Business and the School of Engineering, and for good reasons. What I learned from that class has been critical to the success of much of my work on process and system design for sysems which integrate human beings in any role. (And very few systems engineers work on don't integrate with humans in *some* role.)

In hindsight, I would probably have started my engineering graduate work sooner, (I also have an MBA, obtained on the theory that if I knew what the accountants knew, they couldn't kill my projects) and would have skipped what turned out to be "for me" a career dead-end of training as a 6 Sigma Black Belt. Not that 6 Sigma isn't valuable as a discipline. It's just that, in the organization I was in, the middle-management didn't ever really try to operate based on data. They just waited out the craze. WHich has much to do with why I'm outta there.

I had a lot of fun with my communication classes, but I didn't learn much in them. More like started my first cycle of "learn-do-teach". I was already a fast, clear writer when I hit college, and I had been on-stage and back-stage doing community theater since I was 10 years old. I understood making presentations, playing to an audience, and staging for meetings *very* well.

FWIW,

Anna

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/08/2006 7:21 PM

Wow, Human/Computer Interaction. What a concept. When I received my BS there were 24 desktops in the college of engineering at my school, 286 machines and reserved for the Double E's, no thought of cross discipline education.

The intersesting aspect I see in this discussion is the difference between application of engineering discipline in the presumed real world which requires personal interaction at a level much different than what may be required internally at the project development level. It takes different focus based on the requirement of the interaction. Communicating on a technical level does not necessarily require understanding a non-technical perspective as one might encounter in a client contact relationship. Different gender as well as personal perspective chart paths which succede differently in differing situations.

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#8
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Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 10:40 AM

Pepper, I have a hunch that most of us could share a story similar to yours. As in the 'presumed real world' (your term), departmental fiefdoms and other considerations do not always work to the benefit of the students. As critical as that statement may sound, my intent is to suggest that things are what they are; Sometimes things that are worth doing do require an extra effort. Where there is a will, there is a way. And, for those with fortitude, it sets the stage for many good things to come.

As for the different communication and collaboration requirements that you mention between applied engineering work versus project (product?) development work, there may be truth to your comment. In my experience, the level and kind of communication and collaboration does from one program to the next. But, NO project succeeds in a vacuum.

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#13
In reply to #3

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 7:54 PM

Hi Pepper -

The Human/Computer Interaction class was new when I took it, taught by someone who had done usability and interface testing at Bell Labs before ducking back into academia while her spouse pursued his PhD. The year was either 1983 or 1984.

I agree that you have to be able to understand at least some of the points of view of the other team members / disciplines required on a project, and also the persective of users or customers. I often find that I feel like a translator among the various interest groups so that we can eventually turn all the reqirements into a finished, verifiable design.

Anna

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#7
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Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 10:31 AM

I should have read your post before replying to guest, above, where I comment about Quality Function Deployment (QFD)! I'm not a Six Sigma green belt, much less a black belt or master black belt so I can't comment about the overall program but I believe that QFD is a component of Six Sigma and I highly recommend this 'chapter' in the 'book'.

It is too bad that your organization didn't embrace Six Sigma but it's also a good thing that you opted out when you knew there wasn't the alignment in your intentions/expertise/goals with those of the organization. Certainly, I know many Six Sigma Black Belts who have gotten very good mileage on their resumes and careers because of the Six Sigma qualification. I've thought, at times, that it might be more valuable to an engineer than an MBA!

As for the MBA, I didn't complete mine (with two kids in 18 months, I purposefully chose to focus my attention there and have NO regrets about that), but I did take a number of courses in Finance and Marketing that put me on the same footing as the accountants and marketing folks. As in your career, knowing their language, I was able to work WITH them in a more constructive, beneficial way AND was also able to have my projects get/keep approval. Selling an idea within an organization is often more difficult than selling products to a new customer!

FWIW, while my kids have done well academically and in sports, I've noted that the top students with experience in theater arts are more likely to be accepted at Ivy League colleges or Little Ivies. Being able to 'play' to an audience (as you write), being able to capture an audience emotionally and being able to communicate intellectually separates the leaders from the followers. The schools know that, political and industrial leaders know that; do most engineers? I dunno...

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#14
In reply to #7

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 8:15 PM

QFD is indeed one of the tools 6 Sigma uses to "decompose" the functions needed in a product or service so that you can focus on understanding and controlling the critical ones. Achieving team to consensus on the linkages between all 4 of the "Houses of Quality" requires a great deal of focused, constructive communication. And everyone who actually participates will learn something along the way, *if* you have the right team. I also really like the Pugh Controlled Convergence Concept Evaluation Matrix, where various product concepts are rated against criteria, and then you try to combine the best aspects of each concept. Before I was a 6 Sigma Black Belt, I spent some time teaching both techniques to Ford's Value Engineering / Value Analysis community. And before that, I was one of the people facilitating and teaching Design for Assembly / Design for Manufacture. I had heard from DFA/DFM colleagues at Motorola about 6 Sigma for several years before my then-employer adopted it, so perhaps I was expecting too much from them in terms of committment.

I quite deliberately finished my MBA before having kids, because I only had time and energy enough to do two things fairly well, and at that time my job needed to be one of them. So far I've done job+grad school, job+kids, and kids+grad school. But I recognize my limits and haven't tried to do all three at once.

I strongly suspect that relatively few engineers do understand that being able to communicate both emotionally and intellectually is critical to success. Several times, when I tried to give what amounted to "acting" coaching to peers or subordinates, I had my advice rejected because the recipients didn't want to engage in such "manipulative" or "overly political" behavior.

Anna

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#17
In reply to #14

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/13/2006 9:53 AM

Anna, There is so much more I have to learn about Six Sigma!! Thank you for sharing your inights. I'll have to do more research on 'Pugh Controlled Convergence Concept Evaluation Matrix (is there a simpler term for whatever this is?), etc.

You also mention how important it is to have the right team. How do you know when you have the right team? Or, what are the elements to seek when building a team? I know the importance of your point but the best teams where I have been a member were built over a period of time with fair amount of trial and error changes; along with a lot of "storming, norming, performing". I know a good team when I see it, when I'm part of it.

You mention "job+grad school, job+kids, and kids+grad school" and make a valuable contribution on the topic of personal/professional balance. I'll not respond to your point here. I think it's weighty enough for a future blog. Only with the benefit of hindsight can I see the value in the correct decisions I made and the damage from the poor decisions. Life IS an adventure!

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#19
In reply to #17

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/13/2006 8:57 PM

Hi Millmatt -

You said:

"'ll have to do more research on 'Pugh Controlled Convergence Concept Evaluation Matrix (is there a simpler term for whatever this is?), etc."

The short name of the technique is just "Pugh Matrix", and it's a Product Development technique I learned well before I studied 6 Sigma as a unified process. It's also one that most 6 Sigma BB's don't use and isn't, as far as I know, a standard part of 6 Sigma training. Though several of the Master BB's I know have it in their "toolbox" as a method to evaluate ideas for improvement, or for use when doing Design for 6 Sigma.

As far as telling when you have the right team or "what to look for in a team", in my experience the most important thing by far is the members' attitude toward the team and/or the task that's been assigned. You want enthusiasm, intelligence and open-mindedness to the greatest extent you can get them. Second would be the team members' knowledge relevant to the task. Last, the team needs a good mix of all the relevant disciplines, personality types (process or task-oriented, leader or contributor, conformist or gadfly, etc.) and backgrounds (product and manufacturing engineers, marketing people, designers, user representatives, financial analysts, etc.) with some respect for and understanding of each others' respective roles.

And yes, life is definitely an adventure. My work/life balance has been quite dynamic, even from moment to moment some days.

Anna

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#4

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/08/2006 11:32 PM

On the point of what I found lacking in my University education were the subjects of Technical Writing and Accounting. As has been shown in other discussions here on CR4 the failings of the current English curriculum to even touch on let alone teach it is not just confined to Australia but appears to be world wide problem. William Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright and social commentator but I doubt he would know where to start when describing something like the acceleration of a free falling body.

My personal view it that most accountants just look at things from a view of short term profit rather than the big picture. This makes it the engineers job to explain and convince the bean counter driven world of the flaws in their logic and without at least a basic understanding of accounting techniques is an up hill battle. Many engineers will have seen the results of short sighted accountants paying little to no attention to after sales service and maintenance because they didn't understand or look at the whole picture.

Finally the most important training I ever undertook wasn't even part of my engineering education. Whilst I was a Cadet Engineer I decided to use my new found income to learn to fly. Pilot training is a complex subject that takes many of the things taught in physics and applies them. Pilot training has two important lessons. Firstly it teaches responsibility in that it is your job to make sure everybody else has done their job. Its you and your passengers necks that are on the line not the mechanic that worked on the plane. Secondly it give you the confidence to take on just about anything. The first time you fly solo is a truly life changing experience. Suddenly there is nobody there to help you get you out of any mess that you get yourself into, It's up to you to do your job properly. This is later reinforced for pilots that get the opportunity to fly single seat aircraft where you need to do it right the first time. You are completely reliant on your skills and how you apply them to the situation at hand.

Engineering is applied physics and chemistry and not just numbers on a piece of paper. What you do effects other people and can have a pronounced effect on society. The broader your education the better you will be able to understand, explain and cost the effects of your work.

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#5
In reply to #4

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 8:33 AM

I received my BS from a school that was also well known for their liberal arts programs. As a result, engineering students were "required" to take courses in other fields of study. I personally took classes in psychology, sociology, spanish, history, literature, poetry and even a class on dance.

It is without question that these classes prepared me for human interaction in ways my engineering classes wouldn't have been able to. It probably also explains why I moved out of 'classic' engineering job roles into more management roles; but the dual ability to speak "techie" and "non-techie" have served me well.

From an engineering perspective; my classes on probabilities and statistics were great, part due to the professior but also due to the fun of breaking down common events into math discussions (it's also served me well in Vegas on occassion).

Outside of engineering, the dance class was my favorite; mainly because there were only 3 guys and 20 girls...but I digress...

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#10
In reply to #5

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 11:10 AM

Thank you, Guest! Your comments reflect what I shared at the opening of this blog. Were I to re-do my education, I would prefer that broader education that you were able to receive. A broader education may help open doors to management or other career opportunities but that might be the icing on the cake. As much as anything, the broader perspective helps keeps projects, relationship, goals and means-to-an-end in appropriate context.

I have heard others comment about the value of dance class, too. It ain't a digression...well, then again, I suppose it could be!...but good dancers are in short number and always remembered. Stacy Kiebler, where are you now after your success on Dancing with the Stars? (and, I am digressing, too...).

PS: Guest, make your presence known on CR4. You have much to contribute!

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#9
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Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 10:52 AM

Well stated, Masu. And, thanks for the input on learning to fly an airplane. I have close friends who have done the same but they have not shared the perspective you have and I hope many are as appreciative for what you have shared as I am. (But, I'm still not likely to take flying lessons anytime soon!). As close as I can come to relating to your experience is my interest in downhill skiing. I loved the speed when I was young but my skiing skills improved significantly and my enjoyment of the experience change completly when, after taking a short re-fresher course in my late 30's, I stopped fighting the vertical drop, the snow, the cold, started realizing what I controlled within myself, what I could not and just embraced the experience.

I'm sure that sounds more than a bit subjective! But, in a more pragmatic sense, I worked for a company where a major qualification for hiring engineers was that they be able to articulate an interest and competence they had outside of engineering. So, flying an airplane, skiing at a level above weekend recreation, playing classical or jazz piano, performing in a theater group, doing improvisational comedy or immersing oneself in a social or religious group spoke volumes (to the company) about the character of the engineer, their ability to commit to important programs and their overall ability to contribute.

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#11

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 2:32 PM

I have to add my 2 cents to what was said about learning to fly and engineering and learning in general. I had been taking lessons to learn to fly off and on for over 10 years. I just did not have both the opportunity and the cash at the same time until 1991 when I was working on a job in Mississippi. I was able to finally solo and the feeling was awsome. I did not have much time to plan or reflect on what was going on as the instructor told me to stop the plane on the taxiway and said he had had enough, signed off in my logbook and told me to do 3 touch and gos and then walked off. I added power and wanted to show what I could do and was very soon in the air and climbing. It wasn't until this time that I realized that "Hey, I am all alone and if I am going to get back on the ground in one piece, I was the one that was going to have to do it". I can still feel the satisfaction of doing it all right and made what was one of the best landings of my life. I had a sense of pride and confidence.

About 2 weeks later I was out on my own just enjoying the freedom of being able to "do it yourself". I knew some simple facts like that if I flew too fast I could remove the wings from the plane and it would be very hard to explain to the planes owner. I also know that I was not afraid of a stall as I had handles that training many times, so I decided to see how slow I could fly. I had not had spin training yet and knew nothing about how to control the plane in a spin. You guessed it, I pushed the envelope a little too slow, ( having full flaps and trying a turn didn't help) and I got myself into a spin. Thanks to my training in both college and life, I started thinking to myself tha what was I going to learn in the last few minutes that I thought that I had left. I stayed calm and managed to work out the problem just as I would an equasion in asgebra or trig. I learned a lot in that short period of time that I had been getting ready for for many years and recovered from a very bad situation. I also learned that you have to stay with a logical outlook and take the steps one at a time, even you might not know what the end results will be.

I also want to add the normal disclaimer that this stunt was done by a total amatuer and pros know better and do not try to do this at home or anywhere else for that matter.

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#12
In reply to #11

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/09/2006 3:04 PM

Apropos of this blog concerning classic classes, there is no substitute for learning on the job! (or, in this case, in the cockpit). Still, the preparation we undertake does matter and you clearly infer that both the technical knowledge and logical approach you gained from your education were relevant to your recovery.

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#15

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/10/2006 12:06 PM

There seems to be a common thread of business oriented skills, communication with clients, accounting etc.. I think that education for many deeply established disciplines like Civil Engineering may be too broad, requiring too many technical units to cover all the subject matter. However, these requirements are governed by ABET, and you don't really want to attend a college that is not ABET certified, or you'll be working much longer than you must to obtain your license. Additionally, there may be some misapplication of resources by businesses. Inadequacies in accountability for administrative, marketting and management personnel may lead many companies to redirect resources to fill these shortfalls. They choose the people they believe to be the brightest and most detail oriented, temepered with an understanding of cost to benefits. This allows a more hands off approach from the more senior personnel, as engineers typically are embedded with accountability, or QA/QC, from technical training. Simply they redirect the people who will get the job done, even if they are not the right skill set for application to such tasks. This kind of skill set is derived fro our education, substantial changes in education would potentially change this nature and just add more people to the management/marketting sector who now lack the same accountability as all the other people. Things like group efforted projects, while good for learning skills to manage and work as a team, do not demonstrate an individuals skills, e.g. there are eople who can not read who graduate college utilizing a team effort to their tasks. I do not think watering down the education to female recruitment, like you have seen in many math and science majors, is a particularly good investment in the future or a good long term plan. Maybe what we need to do is address the involvement of women and interest in technical processes where it starts to decline; maybe we need to address those issues that create the differences in the way women and men educations choices occur, e.g. women are not as typically concerned about the profitability of the professions they choose, indicative of a falllback position; Or, maybe as we mature women and mens minds differ, and there are some fields women/men are more suited towards.

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#18
In reply to #15

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/13/2006 10:14 AM

You make two terrific contributions in your entry:

1.) There seems to be a common thread of business oriented skills, communication with clients, accounting etc.. I think that education for many deeply established disciplines like Civil Engineering may be too broad, requiring too many technical units to cover all the subject matter. However, these requirements are governed by ABET, and you don't really want to attend a college that is not ABET certified, or you'll be working much longer than you must to obtain your license.

I have wondered about the impact of ABET or any other accreditation authority. As I have noted in the professional endeavors of others (teachers, medical clinicians, etc.) there are, at times, requirements that seem to have minimal value. Admittedly, my thoughts on anything but engineering is strictly that of a casual observer BUT, when it comes to engineering, I agree with you that the education can be what you term as "requiring too many technical units to cover all the subject matter". Anyone have insight into ABET?

2.) Additionally, there may be some misapplication of resources by businesses. Inadequacies in accountability for administrative, marketting and management personnel may lead many companies to redirect resources to fill these shortfalls. They choose the people they believe to be the brightest and most detail oriented, temepered with an understanding of cost to benefits. This allows a more hands off approach from the more senior personnel, as engineers typically are embedded with accountability, or QA/QC, from technical training. Simply they redirect the people who will get the job done, even if they are not the right skill set for application to such tasks. This kind of skill set is derived fro our education, substantial changes in education would potentially change this nature and just add more people to the management/marketting sector who now lack the same accountability as all the other people. Things like group efforted projects, while good for learning skills to manage and work as a team, do not demonstrate an individuals skills, e.g. there are eople who can not read who graduate college utilizing a team effort to their tasks.

I believe your point here is that engineers are trained in a certain, unique way that is of great value to business. Those who serve business in other disciplines do not have the same skill sets; so, were engineers trained to have a broader view of business matters, then those unique and valuable skills would be diminished resulting in lower quality, more risk and other detriments to the business. Interesting point! Do others agree with this perspective?

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#20
In reply to #15

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/13/2006 9:53 PM

I agree with your point that there just isn't time during 4 academic years for as much breadth of education as is desireable, especially in literature, languages, history, and the arts within an ABET-accredited engineering program. I personally would like to see the default time-to-Bachelor's degree changed to 5 years, with a minimum of 2 semesters of supervised/structured co-operative work experience in there too. Of course, the school that does it first (other than my alma mater, which has been that way for years and years...) will be at a competitive disadvantage for a while, until the greater value of their graduates proves itself in the marketplace, and they have more, and more highly qualified students applying for admission.

Certainly many people whose base training is in engineering go on do other work, including various types of management, financial and business analysis, and even marketing. This was described to me as an advantage of studying engineering by both my father (who was an engineer) and various personal and author mentors. I've re-invented my actual jb at least every other year, when I haven't actually changed jobs either within an organization or by changing employers. I think that's an advantage, rather than a mis-allocation of resources. But I like to learn new skills, then teach them to others, and move on to learn yet more new things.

You say "I do not think watering down the education to female recruitment, like you have seen in many math and science majors, is a particularly good investment in the future or a good long term plan. Maybe what we need to do is address the involvement of women and interest in technical processes where it starts to decline; maybe we need to address those issues that create the differences in the way women and men educations choices occur, e.g. women are not as typically concerned about the profitability of the professions they choose, indicative of a falllback position; Or, maybe as we mature women and mens minds differ, and there are some fields women/men are more suited towards."

To address your points in order, I don't believe that ANY math or science majors (or engineering ones either, for that matter) have been watered down to recruit women into their respective fields. I entered engineering school roughly 30 years ago, and while there was a big effort newly being made to recruit women, they weren't having much more (or less) success than the colleges and corporations are right now. The previous entry in this blog of MillMatt's that addresses that specific issue, and is still open for comments. Check it out.

I disagree very strongly that women aren't concerned with the profitability (or pay rate!) of the professions they choose. Women are *very* concerned that they'll be able to make enough money to support themselves and their families. But they are also concerned with having and maintaining a reasonable balance between time on the job, pay for the job, and ability to participate in personal and community social life. In many cases, typical engineering career paths make a simultaneous balance impossible, and even sequential changes of focus (from career to family-centric and back again as children become adults) very difficult.

It may be true that men are more suited for some fields, including engineering and science than women are. But while we have as much bias as we do, and as pervasive of bias as we do, I don't think there's any good way to tell. In my opinion, the very best way to reduce or eliminate the bias would be to ban so-called "affirmative action" recruiting and promotion rules in favor of making all school admissions, corporate recruiting, and promotions as objective and meritocratic as possible. The assumptions of incompetance on the part of members of the "favored" group made by almost everyone in the presence of affirmative action programs is probably the biggest handicap I ever faced in school or workplace. My $0.02.

Best wishes,

Anna

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#16

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

11/10/2006 1:45 PM

Two groups of classes stand out. First, on the technology side I had a course called Phys/Cal taught at Carnegie-Mellon by the eventual head of the Math department. In the other grouping I had foreign language classes.

In Phys/Cal, classes were 5 days a week with both Physics and Calculus receiving full course credit. We also had 4 days a week of recitation where we could talk to the TAs and ask questions. Back in 19..., a few years back (one graffiti read 'Free Angela' in chalk, and below that 'Free Chalk') there were a dozen women in the freshman engineering class of 650.

The dual format worked well because we got to see the math along with the real-world examples. A classic example on the derivation of the equations of motion of a pendulum was when the physics prof carefully measured the midpoint of the ceiling, strung a cord from this point, and suspended a bowling ball from the cord. Proving the conservation of momentum (and ignoring air friction, valid for one cycle) standing on one side of the lecture hall, he pulled the ball to his forehead and let it fly. The ball traversed the hall, lightly hit the opposing wall and started the swing back. Had the prof been less nervous and NOT shoved the ball a bit, maybe the ball would NOT have slammed his head against the wall and knocked him out cold.

We watched every demonstration for the rest of the semester hoping for a similar mishap. Boy did we learn to pay attention to everything.

I enjoyed the class enough that I took BOTH partial differential equation classes taught by the now head of the department (The late Dr. Richard Moore). I will never forget the wobbly table proof and well as the relaxation and over-relaxation techniques.

The foreign language classes were a gift for two reasons. First, the 4.0 boosted my QPA. Better still, using a second and third language emphasized the need for improved communication. To most bosses, engineering is a foreign language. Learning how to express yourself without the math is tough, but a very worthwhile effort. By necessity I learned brevity and clarity.

The obligatory class in Engineering as a Business was vastly improved by foreign language experience. I had just spent 6 months in the TAs home country. So when he spoke using English words with his native language grammar, only I understood what he said. I got a really good grade in that class.

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#21

Re: Classic Engineering Classes / Engineering Career Choices

05/22/2007 1:53 PM

I would like to respond by discussing one element of engineering education that I think is half-right.

Traditionally, engineers have often been taken to task for their lack of so-called social skills. Given the technical demands of an engineering education, and the relatively more isolated social existence usually entailed with it, we should not be very surprised by this. A major component of this is that engineering graduates can also have difficulty communicating effectively in the workplace, after graduation. No big secret here. Much of this would seem to partially be a consequence of too many students competing for too few available A's, causing inter-student communications to become even more stilted than the mere subject matter would suggest is logical.

Some schools acknowledge this phenomenon, and try to conduct one or more classes on a team-project basis. Usually, the teams choose their own team leaders, but some how, the conditions usually devolve to simply wrestling for control, and imposing a single individual's will upon the rest of the "team?" Is this an effective type of example to set for (pre-graduates) to have as a basis with which to go forth into the workplace and begin trying to perform usable work?

As one example, there is a (significant ?) engineering school, relatively nearby, that has done just that. A student intern thereof has related the story that the professor/advisor of his project group was a practicing engineer while simultaneously (teaching?) several engineering classes, including his (team project) class. This should have been an ideal situation to mentor a group of (hopefully) future engineers by tempering their academic effort with his real-world experience and judgement. Instead, the (advisor?) was rarely there, left them to their own devices, and provided minimal guidance. The students turned to spending their in-class lab time completing homework assignments, from OTHER classes....

Now, the students did produce some kind of a single, final project result. However, it was only one (design), but very little vicarious workplace experience was gained, precious little value was added to their engineering backgrounds, and minimal improvements were made to their social skills. In short, what could have been a valuable developmental experience was, largely, a repeat of previous experiences.... What a waste of a potentially great opportunity.

All the (advisor?) had to do was have the students form multiple teams, have a couple of developmental exercises before starting the main project, pursue divergent solutions to the one task, spend the team class time scheduled in his own team class room, and assume the role of team leader for EACH team by actually demonstating/guiding/coordinating the individual students on each team, and demonstrating how to communicate appropriately for them, and then specifially grade them on how well they were team-players and appropriate communicators, not merely whether they just "got the right answer" (ie: teaching by example, not just by assignments, alone.)

To say that the above example was as much as "half-right" may be over-generous...

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