Less math = better engineers

More free electives equals more free time equals more socialization equals engineers with much better people skills. It’s amazing that engineering deans cannot comprehend such a simple equation.

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Dan Hebert, PEBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

BECAUSE YOU read this magazine or visit ControlDesign.com, you fall into one or more of the following categories: engineer, engineering manager, or managed by an engineer. So, what would you like to see from your engineering co-workers—better people skills or the ability to do complex algebra much faster?

You probably picked people skills because most of you don’t work in the engineering department of a university. If you did, you’d likely pick the latter because engineering curriculums are consistently and incorrectly designed to emphasize technical skills at the near-total expense of people skills.

I not so fondly remember my undergraduate years at Engineering U. My required curriculum was almost all engineering, math, and science courses. I couldn’t escape the geek ghetto to see how the rest of the university lived because someone decided it was more important for me to take Circuits and Signals III instead of a free elective. This was a huge mistake, one that has been and will be repeated thousands of times in engineering curricula worldwide.

What’s so great about free electives? They force engineering students to associate with the rest of the student body, and—by extension—the non-technical people. Whether we geeks like it or not, working with non-techies is a key to success, so what better way is there to get to know them than by going to a few classes with them?

However, the most important benefit of free electives is the time they create to learn critical people skills. Compared to engineering courses, free electives are falling out-of-bed easy. This frees up time for social activities like going to bars, chasing members of the opposite sex, and participating in extracurricular school activities.

More free electives equals more free time equals more socialization equals engineers with much better people skills. It’s amazing that engineering deans with their advanced math skills cannot comprehend such a simple equation.

I graduated from my engineering school back in the 1970s, so I decided I’d better do a little research and see if things had changed for the better before I wrote this. If anything, it’s even worse.

The University of Texas engineering school is a good example. Their electrical engineering students have no free electives. Sure, there are some electives, but all are restricted in some way. An “approved tech area” elective is not a free elective.

I attended a panel discussion at National Instruments Week in August, and this is what Dr. Ben Streetman, UT’s dean of engineering, had to say: “The best thing that we can do for our engineering students is to give them eight to 10 really hard problems every night for four years, problems that keep them up and working until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. This creates engineers who aren’t afraid to solve problems.” To paraphrase Dante, abandon hope all ye who enter [the gates of the UT engineering school].

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of engineers being stereotyped as socially inept. I want this to change for the better, and what better place to start than at college, that great Mecca of socialization?

I can hear the main complaint already, and it is bogus. Won’t reducing the number of required technical courses devalue the engineering degree? No, because there still will be more than enough really hard technical courses to flunk out the less worthy. Isn’t that really what an engineering degree is all about?

Very few firms hire an engineer because he or she has taken specific courses directly related to new job duties. Engineers are hired because their degree shows that they have a high level of intelligence, enormous self-discipline, and a strong work ethic. Replacing a few high-level technical courses with electives won’t change this, but it will improve the people skills of engineering graduates.

Those few companies that really need anti-social engineers who can perform complex algebra really quickly can hire engineers with advanced degrees, or engineers from the new, tech-only, private, for-profit colleges that are springing up like Neumont University in Utah.

Most companies would be better off with engineers who have strong technical and people skills. Universities would see more demand for their engineering students if they were able to supply that type of graduate. Engineering students would be happier and more plentiful. A win-win-win situation.

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