Lawyer and Writer doesn't understand why Engineers need all that yucky math stuff.

Sunday, September 25, 2005
Betsy's Page

The mind veritably reels.


MeaninglessHotAir said...

I can't pull up Betsy's Page. How about a quotation or synopsis?

flenser said...

I'll except some here.

"If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way for America's engineering programs to retain students like, well, me: people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can't learn math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored T.A.s choose to dole out. "

flenser said...

I started out as an EE student, then cut over to Computer Science. Which turned out to pay better.

I have to agree with the complaints about poor teaching in math and science classes. Most of those teaching them seemed to have no passion for the subject.

In some cases, rather than assisting in the learning process, the course instructers, both TA's and professors, seemed to feel that it was their role to actively obstruct the learning process. There was a very Darwinian mentality, leading to students hiding library materials from each other. You knew from the outset that some of the students would have to be failed - the crucial thing was to make sure it would be the other guy and not you.

Then of course there are all the professors with a very limited command of English. Ugh. In many cases you might as well simply study the text books and skip the classes. It makes you wonder what you are paying all that money for though.

Knucklehead said...

Someone in the comments at Betsy's Page nailed this. If one doesn't enjoy the math and physics associated with engineering education then one is never going to enjoy being an engineer. Engineering is more of the same - only faster and with a harsher grading system.

The bottom line of the original article is that there is an extention to the Math Is Hard crowd. This is the It Isn't That Math Is Too Hard, It's That Math Is Boring, Tedius, and Time Consuming crowd. Someone in the second crowd is apparently ticked off that the study of engineering is "unfriendly" to her.

flenser said...

There is an interesting question underlying this about the purpose of college and teachers.

The dominant thinking at Betsy's page is that engineers are born, not made. If you accept that premise, then the real function of college is to filter out the "born" engineers from those who are not "born". It seems to follow that there will be a rather low number of possible engineers to be found in any society.

The other approach is to say that people possessing certain basic mental abilities can be taught engineering. This is the approach taken for other "high skill" jobs like doctors or aircraft pilots. In this case it is appropriate for the college system to actually make an effort to impart knowlege to students.

I think this whole debate comes down to whether you see the college professor as a gatekeeper or a transmitter of knowledge.

Knucklehead said...


JMO, but I think you're running a bit to far with the "born", "not made" thing.

Of course engineers can, and must, be trained. And good teachers can draw skills and insight out of students. But if working the hard stuff, the math and physics, is nothing but a grind a typical student - at least the American and Euro varieties - is unlikely to finish the curriculum let alone become a good engineer.

People with options, and most college kids fall into the category of people with options, don't tend to do things they hate to do unless there is some recognizeable and substantial compensation of some sort.

flenser said...


Could be, but I'm paraphrasing what the commenters at Betsy's said rather than advocating the idea as my own. The consensus there, as I read it, is that you need to really want to be an engineer by the time you are about fourteen.

Regardless, I'm quite certain about the gatekeeper versus teacher thing. The majority of math and science teachers I encountered had the attitude that their role was to weed people out, not teach them.

Seneca the Younger said...

I don't think the issue is whether someone can be taught engineering if they're not so inclined; the question is, is it desirable to do so?

CarolynJ said...

Carolyn here, from Kitchen Table Math...

This guy's article seems to have taken the blogosphere by storm; he's hit a nerve.

Check out the posts on this topic at KTM:

Catherine's and mine.

chuck said...

I sided with the born, not made, point of view. Now, I will agree that smart people can be trained to be engineers; the large scale training of pilots in WWII comes to mind. But all those folks didn't remain in aviation, nor these days is the average person off the street trained as a pilot whither she will or no.

As to the teaching of engineering and mathematics -- well, teaching as a whole is probably inadequate across the board in this country. But fixing *that* problem, and the problem of unmotivated students, is a whole other topic.