For many of our readers, this probably won’t come as a surprise: Recently-released surveys from The Princeton Review show that engineering students aren’t always pleased with their professors. What are your thoughts on the current state of engineering education? Browse through reader responses to DN Senior Editor Chuck Murray's column "Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?" below and send us your thoughts at email@example.com.
Students Need More Than A Lecturer
Your editorial really strikes at a nagging problem. I truly believe the problem is systemic to large research organizations. Unfortunately large organizations thrive on large sums of cash and an individual student is insignificant in the grand scheme. Faculty on tenure track are ostensibly subject to grading against a scale of teaching, service, and research. Unfortunately research always outweighs anything done in any other area of academics in a large institution. Additionally, faculty without a heavy research background are often ostracized by the true research community in spite of performance in the class room. Good teachers are not as highly regarded as good researchers for the prestige, read funding, that they bring the university. However, there are some bright shining stars.
Having a rather modest view of academics and teaching from the inside, my son and I set on the task of finding an engineering school that focused on teaching rather than research. To keep the story short, we finally opted for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Dayton Beach Florida. From our first visit to the campus the school had shown itself to be heads and shoulders above all the other institutions we visited including most of the usual big name suspects.
The student population has a very professional bearing because of its FAA 142 Part A accreditation for its flight science programs. That professionalism pervades all of other curriculum at the university. The faculty are teaching faculty first and research faculty second. Research is only intended to keep the faculty current and provide the students with real world research opportunities. The department chair in a busy university has little time for other than scheduled activities. None-the-less, the Dr. Eslami the Aerospace Engineering department chair gave us an hour and a half of his time during a campus visit last March. His connection to the faculty and students is phenomenal. During the meeting he hid nothing and had been open about all academics and faculty mentoring that directly effects students. Embry-Riddle is a school that truly puts the students first. Students recognize Embry Riddle as a great place to learn and are gradually making it the largest Aerospace Engineering program in the country.
Fundamental research is important but we are being very short sighted if we do not recognize that students need more than a lecturer. They need teachers who are willing to slug it out with them. The whole learning process requires dedicated minds. Holding teaching faculty hostage over journal publications is killing engineering academics.
New Providence, PA
Are Engineering Profs So Bad?
They can be. Fortunately, I received both my BS ('85) and MS ('95) from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. At WPI, my impression is that the emphasis is on teaching first, research second. As such, all my courses were taught by professors, not the TA's. TA's were employed for grading, help sessions, and lab proctoring and such. I can only recall one or two professors whose English skills were a detriment to their teaching. Other than that, I was generally pretty happy with the faculty at WPI.
I have heard from others with engineering backgrounds whose academic experiences were less than enthralling. Lectures presented by TA's with little grasp of English, let alone teaching skills. Professors who might have been great researchers and thinkers, but so far out there, they forgot what it was like sitting through partial differential equations for the first time. Teaching is so much more than simply presenting information. There has to be a conscious two-way flow of information along with an attitude that checks ones ego at the door when determining if you are getting the message across.
I had the opportunity to teach electrical engineering and computer science courses for three years at the United States Military Academy at West Point during my active duty days. Teaching was at the same time the most rewarding but also a very humbling experience. As soon as I would collect homework, quizzes, or exams, I would get a sense for how well I did transferring the knowledge and skills required. One of the best ways to really understand a topic is to see how many different ways a problem could be done wrong. And then being able to correct the line of thinking.
The low marks seen in the surveys probably are because the students graphically recall their last worst experience. Time has a way of tempering those memories.
Jonathan D. Williams
Keeping Engineering Students Happy
There are a few ways to make engineering students like the prof to the point of giving hurrahs on the end of the course student evaluations.
It helps if the prof is young, speaks colloquial american english, uses lots of examples in class, solves problems at the blackboard, chalk or electronic, without skipping any steps, and solves problems starting with fundamental principles.
An excellent prof lets the class know on the first day of class exactly what they will be expected to have learned by at the end of the course and the mechanism by which a student's final grade will be calculated. Dropping the worst grade won't hurt either.
Rick Rikoski, PhD, PE
Former EE Prof
Beverly Shores, IN
Professors Are Expected to Do Research, Generate Revenue
Engineering Professors have changed over the years. In general, I suspect that they are not "all bad" but that the environment in which they must function has not changed in a manner that reinforces quality teaching. Throughout this letter I will use the masculine gender, though I know many women engineers.
My background: I have advanced degrees in 2 engineering disciplines (MSEE & MSME), plus undergraduate degrees in EE and business. I attended undergraduate school from 1979 to 1985. Three of my diplomas are from a major state-supported nationally recognized research institution, that is consistently ranked in the top 10 engineering schools. My other MS degree was earned at a smaller state institution that is a top 50 program. My brother (who attended undergraduate school with me) is former full professor at a top 20 state supported engineering institution, and currently a department head at another top 50 engineering school. My father was an engineer and worked in academia at the same school my brother and I attended as undergrads. I worked as a staff engineer and instructor at both the schools that I attended. Today, I work in the automotive industry. I worked in the food processing and distribution industry before my graduate work. In my job, one of my incidental duties is recruiting undergraduate summer interns and co-op students as well as graduating seniors for full time work.
There are two sides to this coin. First the professorial engineering faculty has changed in its incentives and makeup. Second the attitudes of the student have changed.
Today's engineering professor at a major research institution must 1) bring in research dollars. 2) publish papers, 3a) matriculate graduate students and 3b) teach. IN THAT ORDER. Today's engineering professor is much less likely to have spent time in industry (or the in a practical military research environment) before entering academia, than the men who began teaching engineering in the 50's, 60's and 70's. (and are currently retiring from the profession) My brother, for example, has never worked in private industry except as a consultant.
At a large engineering research institution, the job of a tenured Professor is largely administrative and fund-raising. He has a lab filled with expensive equipment that must be continually updated. He has 2-3 PhD students. These students actually write the papers, and perform the data gathering. The most senior PhD student, or a staff engineer (such as I was) actually runs the lab. The PhD students are teaching the MS students and any undergraduate "research assistants" how to run the equipment, how to build the new equipment to gather data and how to gather the data, and analyze it. There are probably 5-6 MS students. The professor needs that many to feed his research machine and feed the pipeline of PhD students, since probably half the Masters candidates will leave for industry. The Professor edits the graduate student papers (not a small task if half his graduate students are foreign-born) and writes research grants to keep the tuition bills of his students paid and acquire the next generation of equipment. A Professor will be teaching generally 2 undergraduate classes a semester, and every other semester a graduate course. These are lecture courses. At a large research institution, there are between 60 -100 students in an freshman or sophomore undergraduate lecture 30 - 40 students is the norm for a junior or senior class. The Professor probably has undergraduate (juniors or seniors) grading homework for him. He has a PhD or Masters student preparing the grading standards for the homework, helping to grade tests and administering the grading work of the undergraduates.
The University takes roughly 50 % of all the research grant money to cover "overhead". Tuition (in-state) and stipend (salary) for graduate students is roughly $8000 per year and $1500 per month respectively. For a 10 month academic year this is $23,000 per graduate student. If the Professor wants to publish, his students better be able to afford to be there during the summer. That is another $3,000 - $4,000 per student. This means the Professor must bring in $28,000 per graduate student, AFTER the University takes its cut!! This is why writing research grants is so important. Most major Universities allow their top publishing researchers to "buy-out" their teaching contracts (that is, not to have to teach if they bring in enough money). This is the target, as they are the most highly regarded professors in a department. This research lab model isn't restricted to engineering faculty. It is common for almost any science discipline, such as Pharmacy, Biology, Chemistry, etc.
So, there isn't much incentive to teach, extraordinarily well.
Because 50% of today's U.S. graduate students are foreign born, and because exiting academia to industry for graduate students is much easier for native-born Americans due to visa requirements, an increasing percentage of faculty are foreign-born. Most come from the Upper and Upper-middle classes of their own societies. As such, "hands-on" work turning wrenches, running machine tools, welding, soldering circuits, etc is less likely to be in their background. That is "lower-class work", in many foreign cultures. It is rapidly becoming so in this country. This is a marked contrast from the engineer who became a faculty member in the middle-late years of the 20th century. His father was likely to have been employed in an agricultural or industrial job. "Hands-on" was familiar, and engineering was the application of science and math to the "hands-on." Remember also, today's average Professor wasn't a solid B student in college. He was one of the academic stars. Thus "he "got it" in terms of understanding the material the first time. Even though a foreign born professor speaks English, his use of idiom and language and his cultural background is not the same as an American born student. (I recall hearing a German born IEEE Fellow describing multiple mathematical approaches to solving a problem as "There is more than one way to skin a cat", pausing, and seeing all the Asian students in the classroom, concluded "we are not actually talking about skinning a real cat here." He said this all in a German accent.)
The average American undergraduate student knows that the State government pays his teacher and as such regards the Professor as an employee. I saw this phenomenon personally in the classes I taught in the early 1990's. There was a sudden change in attitude, from wanting to learn engineering to a sense of entitlement. This is a generational phenomenon. The "classless society" values of America are also in sharp contrast with the values of many of the Professors. Plus, at large Public institutions, the typical student in engineering probably comes from the moneyed American upper-middle class. The non-moneyed first-generation college student is much more likely to be enrolled in a regional campus or state-supported pseudo-college technical school. Most of the engineering students I have as summer interns have an engineer in their family, a parent or aunt or uncle. The professors who teach "design" aren't teaching the kind of problems they know their father or uncle work on. Design work is either so high conceptual or so made-up as to not be relevant. Or, because they were directed into engineering because of strong math and science grades, the student doesn't know what design and real world engineering with business goals is all about. When they get out of school they are rudely awakened.
Quite frankly, an engineering student probably could learn the first two years of engineering out of Schaum's outlines. Except that they need the discipline of a classroom, and assignments and exams. Today's professoriate is institutionally focused away from teaching, and is not hired on the basis of either good pedagogy or good practical engineering design skills, but because of good "research skills". But today's student is weaker also. As an undergrad I remember we read industry magazines and debated the merits of the various micro-processor architectures. We were avidly interested in our classmates' summer co-op experiences. My son is now a college student and most of his circle of friends are top notch engineering students. They still do this, but the average student in their classes doesn't seem to be enthralled with these technical discussions.
My senior year, I took both an analog and digital semi-conductor circuits class. Both were taught by the same full-professor. He had worked in the semi-conductor industry during the 60's and 70's when the basics were being invented. Most of my fellow students were in both his classes. I remember our exam just before spring break, where he gave many low C's, D's and not a few F's. He then told us: "I have a friend who has a pacemaker in his chest. In two or 3 months you will be working as engineers. If you got a low grade on this test, it is because I don't consider you to be qualified to work on his pacemaker. Not because you haven't seen the material, but because you don't care enough to realize someone's life may rest upon your work." Today's engineering students, I fear, reflect that attitude.
David R. Woerner
‘Professors Are Hired For their Research Credentials’
I graduated from RIT (Rochester) in 1987 with an electrical engineering BS. My grades were not stellar, and I was not impressed with many of the teachers. There were quite a few teachers for whom English was not their first language, but normally in a week we could understand them. Many of my classmates were also unimpressed with many of the teaching capabilities, and some of these students actually had good grades. When we were seniors, the dean of the electrical engineering department asked us to speak with him in small groups. In my session, a friend noted that many of the professors could not teach. The dean apologized and said that “…Our professors are hired for their research credentials, not their teaching credentials…”
Your article touched a nerve with me and saddened me to hear that most engineering schools are the same.
Popular College Rankings Have Little Value
I have been involved in Engineering Program Accreditation for several years. I have visited many smaller universities with a focus on undergraduate education and have been truly impressed with the quality of instruction and the strong positive relationships between students and faculty. I have visited a number of larger research institutes and must say that instruction and relationships are of lower quality. In my opinion, the popular rankings of the "best" universities has little to do with the quality of undergraduate education and in the absence of other information should be considered to be a contra-indicator.
Brilliant Minds Rarely Make Good Teachers
I enjoyed your article in the 10.22.07 issue of Design News. It brought back memories of my time in university in the late '60s and mid '70s. Brilliant minds rarely make good teachers, in my opinion. The main reason seems to be that they are so far ahead of a student's level of understanding that it is frustrating to both parties. This is not helped by overstressed grad students struggling with a new language and a heavy course load while trying to explain something they don't always understand. On the other hand, this is nothing new. In my current job, I have co-workers from all over the world. Having learned to listen closely to try to understand a harried grad student, it is much easier to communicate effectively today. (Hearing aids don't really help that much when the accent is the difficult part.)
A PhD Isn’t A Sign Of A Good Teacher
As the daughter to a Mechanical Engineering Professor and as an engineer myself (went to the same school at which my dad taught, actually), I think I’ve seen both sides of the story. My observation: Professors are taught from a very young age to be alone. To be a PhD student involves spending a lot of time in a lab or other studious setting, away from people, understanding the chosen subject very well for several years. So, how can we expect such solitary creatures with amazing understanding of their subject to all of a sudden transfer that information onto people that are different from them? I would argue that it’s almost unfair to force professors, who are researchers and solitary by nature, to teach!! Just because someone is an expert in a subject does not mean they can show others how to apply that knowledge!! A PhD does NOT mean the person can teach. It feels like we set them up for failure when we expect that. In my opinion, instead of blaming the faculty, universities would do well to help their knowledge experts by allowing them to take lessons in teaching so they can learn how to do so.
Name Withheld By Request
I just finished reading your article in Design New - "Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?"
Engineering professor are not bad, but their teaching styles are poor and they should teach in the areas where their passions are the greatest!
I have been a student, teacher and mentor in the engineering field for over 25 years. I can remember only a few really good professors from my classroom experiences. These professors all had a passion for the material, taught what was important, provided applications and real world scenarios for material presented. It is far too often we have to endure lectures that are just regurgitated material from the course book without weeding through the fluff and no command of the subject material. Language barriers are also a problem in teaching. I can still remember my economics course and the only articulated words that I could understand was SUPPLY and DEMAND.
Engineering Needs Real Teachers
You raised a great point in your article: engineering schools really need good teachers, not researchers. The schools need to reconsider their choices of professors and teacher's assistants. I found the material extremely difficult and the attitudes of the professors were such that the students were left to sink or swim. On top of that, there were a number of teacher's assistants that could not effectively communicate. I sat through a few physics labs where I couldn't understand what words were being said, never mind understanding the material itself. If we want to compete in the global economy, I believe that this situation must be addressed. It makes no sense to have the worst educators teaching the most difficult subjects because an institution wants to garner more funds from research grants.
In Praise of Rose-Hulman
When I read your article in design news I could not help thinking how one relatively small college stands out and bucks the trend...Rose Hulman Institute of Technology.
Rose's Professors gain tenure for their teaching ability. Not surprisingly this school has been voted #1 in engineering for the last seven years.
This is not an easy school. The students have to work very hard.
Companies are lining up to interview students for jobs - summer interns and full time hires.
Graduation rates are very high. 99% of students find jobs in science and engineering (even in bad economic times) or go on to a higher degree.
I was so impressed that I sent my own son there.
Arrogance, Language Are Big Problems
I am writing in response to your article “Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?” in the latest issue of Design News. I attended Lehigh University which is well known for research but also has a good reputation as an engineering school. This particular subject was the topic of conservation many times during my four years. There were a number of common issues that were typically discussed.
First, was the large number of engineering professors that could not speak English well enough for students to follow the lecture. The students would depend on the recitation class held weekly with a graduate student so that we could decipher what the professor was trying to say. I had one professor that would never answer a question in class; he would always get back to you at the following lecture. I believe it was because he could not understand the question and had to wait until after class to have the graduate students translate it for him.
Another issue was the arrogance of some of the professors. I think they enjoyed seeing the majority of their students fail. I had a professor for circuit theory that typically had averages of 15 out of 100 on his exams. Each question was dependent on getting the previous question correct, so if you missed the first question you were done. I have since taught in a college setting and I never had a problem creating a test where the scores failed to follow a bell curve. I also gave partial credit for showing your work, something this professor never did. Often a student has approached the problem logically but makes a calculation error early on. To me, methodology is more important than the right answer.
Throughout my career, I have always double checked my work and then have someone else look at it again before I release it.
Many of my engineering professors were just not very good teachers. They would be well known for their research and often this is what they enjoyed more, teaching was just a necessary evil. What I have never understood is why teachers at the pre-k through high school level must take coursework in teaching methods and be certified, while college professors have no such requirement that I know of. We were asked to fill out evaluations at the end of the semester, but it was very rare for a professor to be asked to leave.
Finally, most of the coursework I was required to take had no value in the ”real world”.
Very few of the professors had worked outside of academia and rarely used real world examples in their teachings. The classes I enjoyed the most, were when I got to work “hands on” with equipment and solve problems that I would find in a typical work environment. A few years later I returned to school to get an MBA and the program I selected used mostly adjunct professors for their classes. I was allowed to use issues from my job as the basis for assignments. The classes were more interesting when I could relate a principle we just learned to my job or when the professor used real examples from theirs.
In response to questionnaires and focus groups I have participated in, I have suggested that engineering schools should start looking at better preparing students for their careers outside of academia. I proposed having two tracts, one for those who plan to continue on through graduate school and a PhD and the other focused on what you really need to be successful in a typical work environment. I only use about 10% of what science and engineering I learned in college, and found that when I started to work there was a lot of practical knowledge that I lacked.
I really enjoyed your article and agree that these schools need to address this issue and look for the underlying problems. This negative feedback from students is just making it harder for these schools to recruit students for their engineering programs. I keep hearing that the number of students entering and graduating is declining, and that there is a shortage of engineers in the current workforce. If they can make the learning environment more inviting and relevant, then perhaps this situation can be reversed.
In Defense of Engineering Students
I enjoyed your column, but would like to defend the engineering students which are referred to as whiny and disgruntled.
First, the type of person who goes into engineering is very detailed and inquisitive. If a professor is not properly prepared or does not know the subject, the students will create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.
Second, engineering professors give hard tests on material they did not cover properly. Low test scores are an indication that the material was not presented well. A good bell curve distribution shows good teaching. Plus, many liberal arts studies regularly have a grade curve that is opposite of the engineering curve with more students getting high grades. Are liberal arts students smarter? No.
Lastly, as a professional who over the years has hired recent graduates, I found that the material taught in the school does not reflect the real world. Most engineering graduates do not have the skills to hit the ground running. Theory is great, but application of the theory is just as important.
Bill Allen, PE
Not Much Has Changed In 30 Years
Near the end of your column I think you hit the nail on the head. I graduated in Electrical Engineering a long time ago (1975) and had this problem as well. Many classes were taught by graduate students or professors from foreign countries who were struggling with the language. After an experience with a couple of them in my Sophomore year I laid down the law to my major advisor and told him that if the professor did not speak English as his native language I wasn't setting foot in the classroom. The material was difficult enough without fighting language barriers. I made one exception my last semester in a seminar class. But I had known that professor for years and went to public school with his daughter, so I could understand him. Did this action on my part help? I don't know, but I know it didn't hurt. There were still a couple of professors who shouldn't have been in the classroom, but there were some really good ones, too.
Many students might not be able to speak so frankly with their advisors, but I grew up in the town where the university is located and my major advisor had been my Scoutmaster, so we went back a few years. That, and my father was a professor (not in engineering or any other classes that I took), so I tended to look at the bunch in a different light than most students. But the key point which you bring up is that if the person in the front of the class cannot be understood, he cannot teach the material. It's really that simple in many cases. And don't get me started on TAs teaching classes. Undergrads (or their parents) pay entirely too much money in tuition to be shortchanged in this manner.
Good point about teaching vs. research institutions, too. Your sample is limited, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the trend bear out with a larger sample. Professors don't get promoted for teaching, they get promoted for bringing in research grants. A sad fact of life that hurts students.
Thanks for writing this column. Good points. Sorry to see that so much hasn't changed in the past 30+ years.
Ghery S. Pettit
Reasons for Unhappiness Are Complex
I was both intrigued and slightly irritated by your recent article about engineering professors. It does not surprise me to hear that engineering professors in general are not terribly well rated by the students they teach. Like all hard sciences, engineering can be extremely difficult. Unlike other sciences, engineering is also relatively subjective, in that it involves a great deal more of the creative process. As such, it is difficult to teach, and to absorb. Many of the courses at larger institutions are taught by grad students who may or may not speak English, as you mentioned, and a fair portion of engineering professors have little recent field experience. On the whole, it is a problem which has not been well addressed.
I felt, however, that your article did not necessarily provide an accurate picture of the situation. I am engineering student at Harvey Mudd, with friends studying engineering at several of the major institutions which you mentioned. In my experience, the reasons for dissatisfaction among engineering students are far more complex than your article implied, and are not always or even primarily related to the professors themselves. Often, the dissatisfaction stems in part from the personalities of the students themselves. Many engineering students come in to college with the (rather inaccurate) assumption that, because they were one of the best in high school, they will be one of the best in college. Frequently, they are at least somewhat inclined to perfectionism, and are horrified at the thought of scoring right at the median. Thus, even in cases where the teaching is excellent, many engineering students will still be dissatisfied, simply because their grades are lower than the ones to which they are accustomed. In many cases, these students blame the professors for their own poor performance.
Harvey Mudd is indeed different from other institutions, but not because it is “is not known as a research institution.” While research is not Mudd’s sole mission, it is a very important part of the school. In fact, Mudd is performing some of the most advanced research of any undergraduate institution in the country. All students either participate in pure research, or in a “clinic”, where a team of students researches a specific problem for a paying company. Mudd's high ranking among engineering schools in the US World and News Report is largely based off of the research performed here.
What makes Harvey Mudd different is both the students it chooses to admit and the style of the curriculum. Like several of the prestigious schools you mentioned, Mudd students are outstanding. 25% of the freshman are National Merit Scholars. 93% graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class. Unlike other engineering schools, however, Mudd is not just looking for the best in science, math, and engineering. In fact, students who have only excelled in these fields are often turned down in favor of students who have a broader, more global set of interests and achievements. Mudd is a school that is looking to educate, not just engineers, but leaders in the field of engineering.
This is also reflected in the style of education at Harvey Mudd. There are no grad students, and almost all courses are taught by professors, the vast majority of which have the highest possible degree in their field. Class sizes are small, and there is a lot of one-on-one attention available outside class. All students complete a rigorous science and math core, which includes courses in chemistry, biology, physics, math, engineering, and computer science. Students participate in lab courses from the very beginning of their freshman year. On top of that, all students must complete a third of all of their courses in the humanities. Students are expected to be well-rounded, and the curriculum reflects this.
Mudd is also unusual in that it does not want its students competing with each other. Courses are not usually graded on a curve, and students are encouraged to study together and help each other whenever possible. Incoming freshman are told from the very beginning that grades are no longer considered very important, and that mastery of the material is all that matters. Most classes permit students to complete homework in pairs or groups, and there are schools-sponsored tutoring sessions for many of the courses. Most students actually go to some of these sessions. Thus, Harvey Mudd addresses the psychological barriers which often cause students at other schools dissatisfaction.
You made some excellent points in your article. As an engineering student at Mudd, I can indeed affirm that engineering “needn't be taught in a way that leaves behind a trail of disgruntled students.” In order for this way to be implemented in other schools, however, far more must be addressed than just professors. The factors which put Harvey Mudd in the top twenty are part of an entirely different style of education.
Student Inexperience Leads to Unhappiness
I read with interest your article “Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad” in the 10-22-2007 issue of “DESIGN NEWS.”
As an alumni of Georgia Tech, I was not surprised to see my school listed in the “bottom ten.” While I don’t disagree with your assessment of the situation as presented in the article, I think another factor is the inexperience of the students. When one leaves school and enters the real world, one gains experience and knowledge that allows one to better assess one’s professors.
As an example, in one of my Electrical Engineering Laboratory classes, The Laboratory professor (Dr. Brewer) pointed us toward the transistor curve tracer and said “Use this machine to match two transistors.” Unfamiliar with the equipment, we asked for a demonstration. Dr. Brewer demonstrated the procedure rather quickly, and we were left to figure out how to use this instrument.
We all thought that Dr. Brewer was a sadist – a poor instructor who had asked us to do something then not explained how. Dr. Brewer had a reputation for being this way, several students expressed their feelings during surveys and evaluations.
Only when I entered the workforce did I fully understand Dr. Brewer’s method. My new boss pointed me toward the equipment used to measure strain. “Use this to conduct the strain test.” The light dawned. I was prepared to use my own ability to determine how to use the equipment because I was forced to develop this ability at Georgia Tech. Dr. Brewer had prepared me for “the real world” where bosses don’t have time or, in some cases the knowledge to instruct their employees.
While I never completely shared my fellow students’ assessment of Dr. Brewer, I didn’t realize how well he had taught until that moment. I imagine several other successful students eventually came to the same conclusion.
I’d be interested in the results of the same survey taken among working engineers. I bet that there are many professors who, like the fathers of the young men who leave home at 18 and return at 25, have “learned a lot in the last few years.”
Good Researchers Don’t Necessarily Make Good Teachers
I believe that you answered your own question in your article. It is my experience that there are good researchers and good teachers but, it is rare to find an individual who is both. Personally, I'm a good engineer but a poor teacher. Being a "hand-on" engineer, like many of my associates, I get impatient when trying to instruct others and tend to do it myself, rather than let the student learn by themselves. As a student, I sometimes struggled until in an "Aha" event occurred and everything made sense. I was blessed with a few teachers who know how to encourage that event. Most acted as if I were somehow dense, as the subject was obvious to them.
Should Professors Get Teacher Training?
I just finished your article from the 10/22/07 issue of Design News about The Princeton Review survey on engineering professors. I graduated from high school in northeast Ohio with pretty good grades and placed 40th in my class with a GPA of 3.6. I went on to The University of Akron and entered the electrical engineering program where I earned a BSEE in 1994. Looking back on the five years I spent earning my degree I have quite a few bad feelings about the education I received and how difficult it was for me even though I did well in high school. The most glaring of these is how engineering professors don't seem to go through any teacher training to become professors. If you want to teach first grade in this country you have to earn a teaching degree, do student teaching and be certified by a state's department of education. There is a system in place to try and make sure you know how to teach before you can say you're a teacher and start working. Engineering professors, to my knowledge, do not have to show any background in how they are able to teach students. They mostly have to have, like the poorly rated colleges from the survey, research ability. The worst part of this, as many of your readers have probably experienced, is that some professors don't seem to care about this problem. "If a student is unable to learn the material then they must not be cut out for an engineering program", is a common response I remember as well as the very popular, "Look at the person to your left, now look at the person to your right. One of these people will not make it through this program." Engineering colleges need to realize that a professor does the same job as a first grade teacher. The only difference is the subject material. It's funny how colleges try to woo prospective students by displaying the research that their engineering college has done or is working on. How about researching a way to teach students so that the majority of students who enter the program actually graduate. It should not be a badge of honor when you weed out the weak. It's a sign of failure. Thank you.
Adopt A Do-It-Yourself Approach
I attended the University of Missouri at Rolla from 1969 to 1973. I know I am dating myself. As I look back at the education I received from this institution, I recognize two important skills I learned. Those skills are how to solve problems and how to teach myself.
I discovered very early in my College Career (1'st semester midterms) that I did not know how to study. I quickly taught myself how to "teach myself". Naturally, every engineering principle we studied was tested by its practical application both in tests and in homework. By the way averaged homework grades represented one, one hour test score.
The Prof's were rarely available without an appointment. Sometimes their available hours conflicted with my schedule. Consequently, it forced me to rely on myself.
After almost 34 years, I can still see the engineering principle behind a process. I can still study the theory and, as I jokingly put it, dust off the cob webs and then apply it. I have to come to understand that I am a better engineer because the Prof's and teaching assistants weren't readily available.
As I told my kids as they were entering college, you have to want to learn or you will not succeed.
Giving Profs Failing Grade
I enjoyed your article. I went to Northern Illinois University and would have to give the engineering professors a failing grade there also. It seems like instead of trying to help you learn things, they want to
keep it a big secret and have you learn it yourself. The problem is, when you get into the field, you need to be taught the things that you weren't able to figure out on your own by a senior engineer. I just
don't understand how college really helped me in the engineering field as far as real life problems. I learned the basics of circuitry, but now that I'm in the workforce, I feel like I didn't get the best possible
education considering what I paid. Class size was never an issue at my school.
Engineering Courses Are Harder
I enjoyed your article on engineering school profs.
I started at GA Tech in 1962 in EE, changed majors in my sophomore year due to academic and maturation problems and graduated in 1968 in IE. I returned to GA Tech in 1978 with a better attitude and more confidence, and graduated in 1979 in EE. In between, I earned an MBA degree from GA State University, served two years in the US Army, and worked in industry for seven years. I've worked for the past 25+ years as an EE. I also attended UNH in EE for threes courses in the 1980's but had to give up my ambition to earn a Masters degree because of family responsibilities.
My worst prof was a freshman chemistry prof. He made no bones about the fact that he was a research type. He came to every class and talked about his current project, but very little about our course. Fortunately for me, I had him for just one quarter (we were on the quarter system vs the semester system). I managed to pass only because GA Tech used departmental midterms and final exams for freshmen and sophomores. I was able to study on my own from the text book and pass the course - with a B. Also, there were copies of prior exams circulating to study. According to this prof, colleges needed research types to bring in needed grant and research money and teaching profs don't bring in this added income.
One of my best profs at GA Tech was a graduate assistant who taught me a quarter of sophomore calculus. I think that I could identify with him, and he was better able to empathize with his students. He also interacted with the students during class very well.
Nearly all of my profs at GA Tech, GA State and UNH were teaching types. Of course, some were better than others. I even had an Arabic prof at GA Tech who was hard but good.
I think that EE courses were harder than IE and Business courses because they required lots of time trying to understand concepts and lots of time working sometimes tedious math problems, mostly alone in my dorm room or a study area. Many IE courses involved group projects and most didn't require so much math. My work in business school involved a lot of library work and term papers. There wasn't as much math except for accounting courses. I remember at GA Tech, for at least one of my sophomore EE courses, going to a three hour, non-credit homework lab where a graduate student sat at the front of a classroom and we worked at tables. The idea was to go to him with any problems, my main problem was that I didn't have the self confidence to ask him for help.
During the 1960's, the slide rule was the primary engineering school tool. In the early 1970's, the electronic calculator emerged as the engineering tool of choice. I think that the calculator revolutionized engineering learning. Many very involved problems could now be solved more accurately and more quickly using a calculator. This allowed multiple solutions of the same problem using different assumptions at one homework session, which added insight to a concept.
I remember in the 1960's there were less than 100 female students at GA Tech. Some could live in a dormitory for one or two years and then were expected to find an apartment off campus - talk about unfair treatment of the sexes!! Since then, GA Tech has added more females and diversified its curriculum. When I first attended GA
Tech, I don't believe there were any Afro-Americans there, although there some in the 1970's. The move to diversify was based on marketing strategies and efforts to attract more students. I think this new atmosphere probably affects the way engineers view their studies.
When I went to GA State, the campus consisted of a new library building and three or four refurbished buildings, to include an old parking garage, in downtown Atlanta. There were no dorms and very little "campus" - mostly concrete sidewalks. Naturally, most of the students came from Atlanta or close suburbs. I learned to avoid "day" classes because they contained a lot of students pursuing a doctoral degree. These students knew more than I did and made the classes more difficult for me. I learned to go to the "night" classes. These classes had more students that worked full time in downtown Atlanta and knew about as much as I did. I thought the classes at night were a little easier. Talk about the difference between day and night!!
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject.
The World Needs Real Professors
I think you have broached an excellent subject in your "Design News" article on page 14, of the 10/22/2007 issue: "Are Engineering Professors Really That Bad?" My opinion may be a bit rough to hear, but it was my intent that anyone reading this would appreciate some of the constructive insights I had imparted with a little forcefulness to emphasize the gravity of such an important topic as education in our universities.
From my humble opinion, having been a student three times in my life (1996, 1998, 2007) at three different universities, I would say that many engineering professors are at best aloof and at worst negligent of their basic duty as a professor which is to impart
their knowledge to the widest group of students to the maximum of their ability. I'd say many engineering professors today are failing by leaps and bounds.
Years ago, having had excellent mathematics teachers in high school, I was disheartened to see the contrasting attitude of collegiate instructors. Here's a department-mandated schedule of office hours to come bring your questions. Be prepared to have already mastered of all course material presented or else you'll get a stock answer to "read the book" or "read my notes" or even attacking the student with "you should know this already".
What ever happened to "Let's start from the beginning."? The professor having passed the gauntlet of their Ph.D. qualifying exams some 5 to 35 years ago does not mean that everyone should be equally versed in such a simple subject area that's been the focus of that professor's life for at least half, if not most, of their natural lifespan thus far. Many professors lose sight of the simple fact that the student is often learning this information for the first time. Engineering is not a pulp romance novel in terms of its ease of understanding what is being said.
Reading through an engineering text once or even twice doesn't often do the trick. This is why there are many books on the same subject have strengths and weaknesses with each author trying to explain things in a different way. This complex subject material requires deep thought and many relevant examples to illustrate and grasp the principles. Poorly chosen examples or poorly articulated lectures often undermine knowledge and accelerate confusion.
Engineering is a difficult subject often requiring a multi-discipline grasp of several diverse subjects that the student may not have a complete background. I've taken the same type of course more than once and gained new insights from each time. Repetition is the oldest and most effective teaching tool to date.
Professors are often the brightest of their class. They have to be in order to achieve their doctoral degrees which not everyone does or can. Their students, however, represent a wider array of ability levels and backgrounds. Many professors succeed in appreciating the age difference, but fail to appreciate the difficulty in the tasks they are asking of their uninitiated students with shorter experience bases.
Professors today are more concerned about getting the next grant so the department stays off their case for the next semester. "Publish or perish" leaves little room for a professor to devote their hearts and minds to educating their students in classes they often approach with mixed emotions(sometimes outright disdain) and complacent outsourcing to their teaching assistants.
Many a professor is only worried about teaching in so far as what will keep the department at bay. The department has to get its money from tuition hours, so keeping students in seats is the only necessity. As long as a sexual harassment scandal isn't brewing, the department involvement with educational quality seems to only extend to circulating the bubble-sheet forms at the end of the semester
as a "due diligence" exercise.
Poor teaching is excused if the professor brings in research dollars. Failure to win grants for the department at the cost of imparting their entire classes with the fundamental knowledge of the subjects they are paying a king's ransom for, will only get a professor shown to the door.
The issue of education quality arises from two areas. Focus and accountability. Professors are real people, who make real mistakes in the things they say or in the assumptions they make. The stock answer is often, "This is something you should know already." or the most vile of all utterances in academia "It is obvious that…" becomes the replacement for sober, methodical review of subject material. Often times, I had wondered if the professor was simply diverting the issue for fear of being discovered that they couldn't recall the derivation either? It is not too much to ask to simply say the same thing over again if the meaning wasn't grasped the first time. Teaching a subject even a familiar one requires innovation and rediscovery and most importantly, humility! Rehashing old lecture notes or choosing a new edition text book that never gets used is no substitute for an engaged and motivated lecturer who takes the time to continually refine the art of their presentation.
Focus is often lacking in these tenured denizens of academia. They aren't considering their customers. The customer isn't the department. The customer isn't the research institute. The customer is that group of tired, over-stressed students who come to class because they are trying to learn what is being hastily scribbled before them. Professors are judge, jury and executioner when it comes to their duties to the students. Accountability is one factor that is notably absent.
Departments are made up of professors all in the same office working for the same goals. How can these groups be viewed as accountable when they answer only to themselves? Medical doctors have accountability. Practicing engineers have accountability. The engineering professor's job is too important to assume all is well when signs are showing otherwise. Feedback is worthless if it is simply dismissed as disgruntled, underperforming students (whining).
In industry, accountability comes from a satisfied customer. Making the extra effort to delight the customer pays real dividends. In academia, the real dividends come in the form of educated, enabled and enthusiastic alumni who remember their years at the university with fondness and not something that had to endure to achieve a means to an end. The dividends of good teaching in academia are knowledgeable, useful members of the technical disciplines who have been imparted with a thorough understanding of their subjects. More often at the end of the degree program, students gain a partial appreciation for some subjects while avoiding other areas that were a loss.
Difficult or not, learning doesn't have to be a drink from the fire hose. Professors are at the university to teach. Teaching students doesn't involve displacing their shortcomings of the lecture on the student as an exercise for later.
If a student is expected to learn a subject on their own, then why do we pay universities tuition dollars for something the professor is deferring back to the student? Students are immersed in their responsibilities. I wonder if professors are familiar with theirs?
Research brings industry and academia closer together for mutual scientific and economic benefit. But this duality of duties for the professor confuses the very different philosophical goals that these two institutions have. What started as a benevolent idea to advance education has proven to hamper the very process it is supposed to develop.
Time constraints often constitute the root cause of many of these systematic problems in engineering education. How can a professor serve two masters? I believe the answer is for society to decouple the problem by removing the distraction of research from the professor.
Be a researcher or a professor. Never both. Mandate this into federal law.
Education is worth more than any grant. If student disapproval is so widespread, academia is getting a wake-up call. The time to act is now. Perturbations of education quality has a long latency that may be already rippling through our society now. The world needs researchers, but the world needs professors much more.
Santa Monica, CA
Academic Tenure Reinforces Mediocrity
In response to your article, are “Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?”
I have a rough time defending the teaching provided by many of the professors I had in college. My first degree was in a health sciences program and my second was in engineering. Each program did have some professors/instructors who were shining stars, however, I left both programs disappointed in the instruction and particularly the lack of pride in the instruction quality displayed by several of the engineering profs. So much more could have been learned in the time spent.
In my opinion, there is an arrogance that many professors feel they have earned. Far too often, my engineering professors came to class completely unprepared to teach. There was little to no effort on teaching efficiency or effectiveness. Unlike most professionals who improve at what they do over time, too often the experienced professors seemed to get worse over time despite teaching the same subject each semester. My impression was that there was very little motivation for these profs to do a great job and furthermore their customers (students) were locked in to a system that provided no option except to put up with it.
In contrast, I regularly attend continuing education programs put on by true professionals. These folks put in the effort to create effective, well thought out programs of instruction. Here I learn an incredible amount of material in a very short period of time.
What is the difference? The difference is competition. Our academic tenure system reinforces mediocrity whereas the real competitive world demands performance everyday.