Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?

DN Staff

November 15, 2007

3 Min Read
Are Engineering Profs Really That Bad?

Are engineering profs really so bad? Browse through our reader responses, and send us an e-mail with your own thoughts at [email protected].

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.

Before we tell you the results of the survey, though, let's stop and review a few important points: Engineering curriculums are hard; student grades in engineering tend to be on the low side of the bell-shaped curve in almost every college; students with low grades are unhappy and tend to blame their professors. We know all this.

Now, let's look at the results, which were published in The Princeton Review's Best 366 Colleges. In a category titled "Professors Get Low Marks," seven of the worst ten schools had very high percentages of engineering students. The United States Merchant Marine Academy, Stevens Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology were the worst four. Others in the bottom ten included Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgia Tech and Illinois Institute of Technology. The results were part of a multiple-choice survey administered to more than 120,000 college students. In the "Professors Get Low Marks" category, students were asked, "Are your instructors good teachers?"

Obviously, this looks bad, even when you blame some of the dissatisfaction on the complexity of engineering material. But the list of the best 20 schools made engineering look even worse. Students responding to the same question put only one school with a high percentage of engineers - Harvey Mudd College of California - in the best 20.

Academic experts say that the difficulty of engineering has a lot to do with the results, but they admit it's not the whole problem. "Even if you have fantastic teachers - which many of these colleges do - engineering will always get lower marks," says Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing and academic relations for National Instruments. "But difficulty doesn't explain all of it. It doesn't explain why so many engineering schools did so poorly."

Almgren notes that most of the schools mentioned on The Princeton Review list are known for their research, not their teaching.

And here, I'll add my own opinion: It's worth noting that Harvey Mudd College - the one engineering school that did well in the survey -- is not known as a research institution. Another college that has done well in the past, Olin College of Engineering, is also not a research institution.

Admittedly, that's a small statistical sample, but it reveals an important point: No matter how hard engineering undergraduate material may be, it needn't be taught in a way that leaves behind a trail of disgruntled students. It needn't be taught by professors who prefer to describe themselves as researchers, rather than teachers. It needn't be relegated to hordes of teaching assistants who struggle to speak understandable English.

And it can be taught in a way that might even be described as exciting.

It would be easy to stick our heads in the sand and attribute the results of this survey to the whining of students who don't want to work hard. But if we're truly concerned with the future of engineering education in America, then we might want to take a harder look at these results. There just might be broader meaning here.

Are engineering profs really so bad? Browse through our reader responses, and send us an e-mail with your own thoughts at [email protected].

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