Monday, June 20, 2011

Practical Education in Undergraduate Studies

I've spent the last 5 years as an undergraduate student at Northeastern University in the ECE department. My coursework focused on the major topics in both electrical and computer engineering - from RCL network analysis, non-linear electronics, electromagnetic waves & theory, noise and stochastic processes, and communication systems, to digital logic design, computer architecture, and computer networks. My academic endeavours have been bolstered by workplace experience in the form of my three 6-month cooperative education positions, working at two of the best engineering/research facilities in the country, and for this I am thankful.

However, reflecting on my education, I feel quite cheated (especially for the completely inordinate tuition fees Northeastern University feels justified charging). Practical problem solving was not a focus of the education - something I feel any engineering curriculum should incorporate in every aspect of learning. And even though this lack of practical education would lead one to believe the focus was on theory and background information critical to my field - it wasn't that either.

I can most easily sum up my academic experience in two words: math problems. Almost every single one of my engineering courses was focused on solving math problems in the context of the course material. Trivial problems (by no means easy to solve, but nonetheless close-ended and solvable) in a patterned format - one pattern for each of the topics.

The outcome of this, ironically, is my complete lack of respect for the need "turn the mathematical crank" (as one fondly remembered electronics professor would call it) in engineering. In every practical endeavor I've encountered, solving any kind of mathematical or numerical problem related to an engineering issue seemed overkill and inefficient.

As I start my career as an engineer, I hope that this changes - my attraction to engineering stems from the finite, distinguishable, concrete, and objective solutions to problems it generates.

So I pose this to experienced engineers in practice - when problems aren't trivial, is there a place for rigorous mathematical derivations of solutions?

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