Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Engineering Education

Slashdot is bemoaning the state of engineering education. It is even posting to this guy who left engineering for liberal arts.

Let me say a few things about an engineering education. The first is that it requires a bit of talent and skill. You need to be fairly good at math and science. If this doesn't describe you, then don't go into engineering. These things are requirements.

However, once the requirements are met, engineering isn't that hard. Most engineering is done by rule of thumb and simplifying assumptions. It is essentially lots of simple rules. This is especially true at the undergraduate level. Figuring these things out is a lot of work, but not conceptually intensive compared to the Theory of General Relativity.

And it's the work that matters in an engineering education. There is a lot of it and you need to learn to deal with it. It isn't incredibly difficult, but it is time intensive. If you can't take it, go somewhere else. You won't be able to party like the business and poli-sci majors. Sorry.

Now if you want a good engineering education, how do you know where to go? Well you need to do your research of course, but you need to keep a few things in mind. The first is that many of these college rankings are total BS. Many base the quality of an engineering program not on the education you will receive, but on the prestige and the research coming out of the university. A lot of it is based on grant money. All of this has very little to do with getting a good education. It may make your degree more impressive and therefore marketable though.

How can you tell if you will get a good engineering education?

First, are they ABET accredited? There are some good reasons for not being ABET accredited yet. For instance, a new degree program must graduate students before it can be accredited. However, they should be actively attempting to get accredited. If they have lost accreditation for any reason, avoid them like the plague.

Do the professors teach? Specifically, do they teach undergraduate courses. If the department relies on teaching assistants for more than grading homework/exams and helping with problem sets, you should go elsewhere. They don't value your education. TAs are the lowest rung on the ladder. They are the grad students who couldn't get research assistantships. If they valued educating you, they would make professors teach you. They value the professor's time.

If they use paid instructors for some undergrad courses that may still be ok. It means they don't value you as much as real professors. It also means they may have trouble in the internal workings of the department. However instructors get paid to teach, so they can get pretty good at it, unlike TAs (who haven't taught the subject before and won't again) and even some professors (who would rather be doing research). This isn't all bad.

Find out if the other departments are in good shape. You will be taking Math, Physics, and Chemistry classes. My college engineering department was great as were Physics and Chemistry, but the Math department was horrible. That's pretty bad considering I had to take 4 semesters of math.

Find out how you can get practical experience. Do they have co-op opportunities in the curriculum? If so great, if not plan ahead and get them yourself over the summers. It is worth it. Engineering is about practical application of science. That comes with experience. Do they have any courses geared towards practical application of what you have learned? Design courses are usually good for this.

What about research? Is there a good undergraduate research program? This is a good test for whether you want a future in academia or at least want to pursue a Master's before moving to industry.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a good place to start.

No comments: