Why, How, and Engineering Education

A stack of books

I sincerely believe the best was to learn is "just in time."

Science tells us why the universe is as it is and why it works as it does. Engineering tells us how we can change and control it (to a degree).  But I think that the order in which engineering students learn this stuff in Canada can severely hinder one’s ultimate capacity to practise engineering.

Understanding why things are as they are is really important for engineers because knowing the why helps us answer the how.  So there’s no doubt that engineers need to know both the how and the why.

In engineering education, science is usually taught first. This is based on a centuries old tradition in academia of understanding something thoroughly before screwing around with it. Generally, this is a sage way to go about things. And, for a time, this science-before-engineering educational model served us well. This is obvious from the astounding success of engineers to give people things they need and want. (Let’s set aside the broader implications of those needs and wants, and the ethical dilemmas faced by engineers in providing for needs and wants that may not be justifiable or even rational.)

However, I don’t think this approach is as relevant now as it once was. I think there’s lots of reasons for this, only some of them good. Many of the reasons don’t really matter, though, because we’re stuck with the way things are. We can no sooner ignore how things are as we can travel back in time.

One of the important good reasons is that we understand a lot more about how people learn now than we did when the science-before-engineering model was established. And my take on what we’ve learnt about learning is that we need to redefine how we teach engineering.

We’ve learnt that really deep learning happens when new information is very richly connected to information we already have. That is, if you can really relate new knowledge to stuff you already know, you’ll learn better and more deeply, and you’ll retain it better and longer.  This relates directly to how memory works, which is a great example of the power of science to motivate engineering (in this case, the engineering of educational systems).

I’m not just talking about book knowledge here. As we proceed through our education, so much of what we learn is coming from other sources than books. Indeed, we learn how to learn by practising learning. That is, learning is part “book learning” but also in large part a skill. Skills are learnt through practise.

While everyone will admit that skills are learnt largely by practise, few seem to recognize that the converse is also true: to “practise” a discipline (such as engineering) requires having skills and not just book knowledge. This is evident by the modern tendency to minimize the role that practise plays in engineering education. I can write this without qualm because in virtually every engineering curriculum of which I am aware, the greatest emphasis is placed on solving rather contrived textbook questions and learning about complex math and physics.  Semi-infinite heat fins, idealized materials, and design capstones that largely ignore safety, cost, and usability are just some examples that come to mind.

Oh sure, we talk the talk about skills and practise in engineering education, but we don’t really walk the walk. It seems like it’s only the most prestigious and wealthy schools that have significant practical elements in their curricula. I find this a little amusing because it used to be that the top-shelf schools were the ones that pushed book knowledge over practice. It’s not that the practise-based schools have traded places with the theory-based schools; instead, the top-shelf schools are still at the top and it’s the curricula that seem to have been swapped.

I can see one of the reasons for this: money. It used to be that only the top schools had the cash for expensive research labs and internationally known researchers. They rather naturally pushed research and book knowledge. Today, instead, much of the big money is needed for teaching labs and small class sizes that are essential for practising skills instead of learning book knowledge.  Lab equipment is bigger, more complex, and more costly to house and maintain than it used to be.  Small classes help ensure every student gets a shot at the equipment.  And the results of its use – well trained and successful graduates – don’t become evident for years after the equipment has been used by a given cohort (the students have to graduate, find employment, and establish themselves).

Engineers care about the how of things more than the why of things. This has to do with the purpose of engineering: to change the way things are (presumably for the public good).  I’ve taught engineering for more than 20 years now, at four different universities. And in that time, all the students that have gone on to be the best engineers have been those who cared more about the how than the why.  The why is certainly important, of course, because it gives engineers the foundations necessary to come up with physically realizable solutions. But to engineers, the why of things is in the service of the how; the why is a means and the how is the end.

This is a particular problem in countries like Canada, where the engineering curriculum is regulated so strictly, and where the science-before-engineering approach is so firmly entrenched in practise if not actually in regulation. The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board will very clearly state that they are open to all kinds of educational innovation. But sadly, many of the actual site visitors who assess engineering programs are extremely wary – more than I think is necessary – of curriculum innovation, especially if it infringes on the science-before-engineering tenet.

So students starting their engineering education go to class all full of piss and vinegar, ready to learn meaningful stuff – which, for the good ones, is all about changing things.  Instead, they are stuck with one or two years of science. They want to learn the how, but get little more than a whole bunch of why.  They want to learn how to make things and change things, and they get little more than a bunch of laws that are immutable, and spend all kinds of time learning why their ideas won’t work. This can really suck the enthusiasm out of them.

A lot of this science is quite esoteric. And while much of it may be quite relevant to the student at some point in their education or practise, it isn’t immediately relevant to them. And at their age, spending eight hours or more a day learning stuff that isn’t obviously relevant is a supreme pain.  And some of the science they learn will not even be used in their future studies or practise. (I’ve read that as little as 10% of the average senior’s engineering education will be useful to them in their first five years in the real world. I don’t know if that’s right, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.)

What’s more, most students haven’t got the grounding to see how the science might be in fact relevant in their future education or practise.  No one takes “shop class” anymore; most first year students haven’t a clue how to drill a hole through a piece of wood, and can’t tell the difference between a Phillips head and Robertson head screw.  Their brains lack the information and memories against which to tie all the new science that they learn in their junior years.  And that means precious little of it will stick.

And to make matters worse, science tells us that the brain doesn’t fully mature until late adolescence. The last parts of the brain to mature are those that deal with, among other things, abstract reasoning and ethics. And yet, most of the science in the junior years (when students are only 17 and 18 years old) is quite abstract.  Not to mention that those students are more likely to not see the harm in cheating because of their still-not-quite-mature brains.

So we’re teaching them stuff their brains can’t really handle, in a way that makes it unlikely that they’ll remember.

And we’re surprised that engineering is so “hard” for them?

Some of my colleagues have argued in favour of science-before-engineering by comparing engineering to medicine, the students of which get a general science degree before entering medical school. Surely, they argue, if medical students can handle a general science education first, then so can engineering students.

I respond by turning their proposition inside out: imagine how much better doctors would be (and how much better off we would be as a result) if they received a proper education where science’s place in the curriculum is not defined just by past practise but rather by pedagogical necessity.

Here’s an example from my own undergraduate days. We were taught a course on calculus by a math professor. He seemed likable enough, but he just didn’t understand that you cannot heave abstract math at engineering students and expect them to care. We referred to his lectures as “nap time.”

Then, one day, he started his lecture with this: “Today, we shall do a practical example.”

We literally gave him a standing ovation. All 120 of us.

Then, he said: “Consider a function f(x).”

This was a practical example? We all promptly went back to sleep.

So teaching why first is, I believe strongly, the wrong thing to do.

There is an alternative. It’s been known about for a long time and has been studied extensively. It has many names, but the one I like best is just-in-time teaching (aka just-in-time learning). The premise is that to make stuff stick in students’ brains, you need to teach material only when it’s needed.

So, for example, one would teach the calculus necessary to analyze the motion of vibrating systems during  a course on vibration analysis, not in some utterly abstract calculus class many months or even years before.  This keeps students focused on the key concepts (vibration analysis) and the calculus is just a tool to help them “get it.”  It grounds the abstract stuff by attaching it directly to something far more practical and, presumably, of greater interest to the student.

JITT would not put a particularly heavy cognitive load on the instructors; any professor able to teach vibration analysis would naturally already know all the necessary calculus.  The challenge is to reconstitute the course to include the necessary calculus.  It’s even less work than one might think, because the same calculus is generally usable in many different engineering subjects, so the bits of calculus taught in a vibrations analysis course could be reused, but not retaught, in possibly several other courses.  The work here is predominantly organizational: departments have to analyze their curricula and look for the most sensible places to add the basic stuff.  Of course, you can’t just add new material to courses, so existent material might have to be moved into a follow-on course.  This may sound hard, but it can be done; it’s essentially a design problem, and there are several known methods for solving it.

Unfortunately, implementing this kind of change is massive and systemic. In other words, it requires a rather radical departure from the status quo, not only in terms of curriculum development and course delivery, but also in the resource allocation of engineering programs. For instance, many engineering schools “outsource” math and science courses to math and science departments, and engineering departments cover fractional amounts of the salaries of those non-engineering instructors. In some cases, these financial transfers amount to a sizable portion of the operating budgets of math and science departments.

In just-in-time teaching, on the other hand, engineering professors would be needed to teach all that math and science because it would be deeply embedded in the engineering curriculum. Most engineering departments haven’t got enough professors to go around; a massive hiring campaign would be needed. And the math and science departments could suffer financially as a result. Obviously, university administrators would wince at the notion of having to implement such changes.

But I still think it’s worth doing, because teaching is one of the two basic functions of a university (the other being the carrying out of research). And I think we owe it to our students to stop worrying about how things have been so much, and start worrying more about how to make things better, which is what engineers (are supposed to) do anyways.

Because, in the end, the benefits of a better educated population are worth it, aren’t they?


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