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Tables and chairs ready for students's final exam at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. Source: Daniel Milford Flathagen via Wikipedia commons.

What engineering exams can’t teach you

When I speak with young engineers, as I often do in my work as founder of Engineer Your Life, I notice how focused many are on impressing their new employer and getting a good job.   I remember feeling that too.

I also remember thinking that, when I entered the workforce, my success would depend on my ability to plug the right numbers into the right formulas, as it had when I was a student.  I’ll get the right answers and it’ll be okay, I reasoned.  I will save the day and be rewarded with a good salary the same way I used to be rewarded with a good mark.  Hurray!

The truth of what I found was very different.  Treating the workplace like an equation to be solved is incredibly limiting – at best ineffective and at worse career-shortening.  So why bring this up now, on a blog about engineering education?  Because students are absorbing these conclusions about life from their studies without even knowing it.

Let me explain.  As an engineering student you study a lot of equations.  You memorize a lot of information.

(At least we did back in my day!  Today engineering schools do wonderful things like this and this, but I digress…)

You solve a lot of problem sets.  If you’re lucky you get a design course or an industry partnership project which allows you to glimpse the realities of how all of those math and physics tools will be used in the real world.  But mostly you solve a series of pre-made  hypothetical problems in ascending order of difficulty.

Answer too simple?  Must be wrong

You start to know that you’re on the right track when you use all the equations you’d memorized for that particular course or module. If it was just hard enough to solve, it would be right.  You can feel it.  If it seems too simple, it’s definitely a trick question. You’d better go back and produce a 5 line equation answer, unless you wanted to get a mark of 20% on the test – and nearly all of us had our share of those!

A non-technical solution is absolutely out of the question. Doing nothing is never the right answer. In fact you learn to scoff at any solution that didn’t have an equation or at least a good graph in it.  Anything that was too easy was NOT engineering!

We (engineering students) grew proud of the fact that our courses were difficult, and that we carried a freakishly heavy course load: 35 hours a week compared to the 10 to 12 hours schedule of class for our Arts and Science friends.

I love this video because it pokes fun at the pride so many engineers come to feel for how hard our courses are, and how we can come to identify with the tools (math and science) and not the masterpiece.  It’s a light-hearted look at a really good point: our education inadvertantly teaches us to think about ourselves as work-hardened numbersmiths, and we embrace it!

Equations are not enough

Basing your professional confidence on a belief that you have an equation ready to fix any problems that they might have is foolish, because those equations alone will not make you a good engineer.

Real life is not simple or pre-fabricated or hypothetical.   Problems do not organize themselves into neat logical order for your benefit.

Sometimes the right answer is to do nothing at all.  Sometimes you’re solving a problem that hasn’t happened yet.  One formula is rarely ever good enough to solve any problem worth anything, and – imagine the horror when I discovered as a young manufacturing engineer – sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you have the right answer!  These are not conclusions you’ll learn from your coursework.

Beyond the ‘right’ answer

Sometimes your attitude  matters more than the quality of your solution.   Sometimes it comes down to who you have convinced that your solution is the right one.  You nearly always need to do a mixture of managing the change and calculating the solution; the latter might take you one glorious afternoon alone with your spreadsheets, then the former an entire year.

In my own experience, it doesn’t have to be mathematically difficult to be important.   Chances are you at any given point in your engineering career, you will have way more data than you need.  The hardest part is organizing and filtering the information to turn it into wisdom, or at least a reasonable sound conclusion.   Formulating the question, testing and discarding hypotheses about what the problem really is, and then figuring out how to measure it.

So you see, kids – in the real world, before you calculate the answer, you have to make up the exam yourself, so to speak.  Then you’ll have to get the job done in less-than-perfect conditions and then make it matter to the right people: that’s engineering too.

So study up, learn your equations, but ask yourself – what else do I need in my toolkit?

 

 

 

Erica Lee Garcia

A Canadian professional engineer with a background in manufacturing and mining, Erica is passionate about creating a better future through Six Sigma, Lean/Kaizen Events, mentorship, coaching, sustainability, educational reform and talking to kids about engineering.

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