4 Myths

by Barry Drogin

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MYTH #1: A 4.0 average is most desirable.

TRUTH: The "B" student makes the better engineer. 4.0 students should go on for their M.E. and Ph.D. and become teachers, earn a low salary, and pay off huge educational bills. 4.0 students are notoriously confused by fuzzy-border, endless loop, incomplete spec or approximate solution problems --- in other words, real-world engineering problems. "C" students don't know enough to tell if their solution is correct or not; "B" students know just enough to be on the right track --- then they improvise to compensate for their lack of "perfection." Unbeknownst to them, such improvisation is actually what is required to obtain a solution.

MYTH #2: Course matter should be "practical" --- directly useful to the subsequent job position.

TRUTH: 90-95% of undergraduate engineering course matter is not "practical," so there must be a different purpose than applicability to a job situation. The desire for "practicality" implies a vocational nature to college education --- students who wish such training are referred to appropriate technical schools. The Bachelor of Science degree, however, implies a broad, values- oriented education, promoting creativity, maturity, intelligence, ethics --- values which get much lip-service in industry, but which, in practice, industry usually opposes. Industry's values are: subordination, frugality, speed, conformity. An education cannot be "practical," in other words, pegged to industry's needs, and subversive to those needs at the same time. Hence the apparent mismatch.

MYTH #3: Undergraduate courses directly related to your specialty are most important.

TRUTH: Alumni always wish they had taken more non-engineering courses. This is proof of a further deterioration of the "practicality" argument, insofar as students assume that technical specialization is what is required most in their career. Discounting for the present those B.S. graduates who will pursue careers in law, medicine, politics or other non-engineering fields which nonetheless require a bachelor's degree for employment (and such graduates should not be discounted), the broad range of opportunities and job titles within the engineering profession, the three or four job changes within each individual's career (a first job is never the last), the "half-life" of 5-10 years of technical knowledge today, and, most importantly, the actual job skills required (interpersonal relations, communications skills, morality and decency) for a successful work life and home life, all point away from the significance of specific technical courses of a student's choosing. First, students (and teachers) cannot predict what specific technical information will be needed later by specific students. Second, students who do not emerge from a college education with a broadening and opening of their minds and horizons have not had a successful experience. And finally, graduates will spend the rest of their lives learning to deemphasize the engineering approach to such life crises as love, death, responsibility, obligation, charity, etc.

MYTH #4: Test grades and final grades are all that matter.

TRUTH: Test grades and final grades, under any criteria, barely matter at all. This should be qualified --- unsatisfactory (way below average) or failing grades do matter, for they signify either an inability to comprehend or an immature reluctance to practice, study or do whatever else is ethically appropriate to succeed. A student who fails a course will need to repeat or replace it, which eats into the student's time, money and self-esteem. So going so far as to actually fail a course may matter to the student, but it definitely does not matter to anyone else. From the first day of work onward, no one will ever ask about your GPA. Ever.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007