A Rant on Education

December 1, 2010 at 3:18 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I’m taking another departure from the normal topics I talk about on my blog.  This time, I’ll be talking about education and my take on it, and I won’t curse as much.  It’s been a concern of mine for a year or two now, ever since I got far enough along in my college education to make an informed decision about where I stand.  So, let me present to you what is, in my opinion, the main problem.

As you may or may not know, most of the really “up there” professions are becoming more and more stringent on their requirements for practice.  Take, for example, doctors, lawyers and engineers, generally accepted to be the big ones (yes I know I’m probably missing a few).  All three professions require anyone participating to have a license.  In some cases, the licenses are extremely difficult to get and take many years.  Sometimes, the licenses must be “kept up” and renewed on a regular basis.  Generally, participation in the field requires continuing education (and proof of such), participation in professional development courses or seminars and some degree of public accountability.  Although these professions make a lot of money, they are high-stress and require a great deal of work on an individual’s part.

Since I’m an engineer, I’ll talk about engineering education and the problems I see with it now.  If you want to be an engineer, you first must complete a 4-year degree program that has passed scrutiny by a national board of advisors known as ABET, or the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.  It takes a lot of effort on the part of a school to have its program certified under ABET.  Once the degree program is complete, students may apply to take a test called the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination (FE Exam).  Successful completion of this very rigorous exam will give the examinee the title of “Engineering in Training” (EIT) or “Engineering Intern” (EI), depending on where you live in the country.  Once there, students have two options:

  1. Enter the work force and work under a Professional Engineer (PE) for no less than 4 calendar years.
  2. Pursue a master’s degree and work under a Professional Engineer for no less than 3 years.

After the specified period of time under the PE, the EIT may apply to take the PE licensure test.  Until this even more rigorous test is passed, the EIT is an investment to a company – he or she may not stamp, sign or prepare construction or design documents lawfully.  This means that companies must select EITs wisely because they will be investing for 3 or 4 years before they make a return for the company, making it difficult for engineering students to find jobs (especially in our current economy).

This is all good and well.  Here comes the big problem: with these already rigid guidelines that are arguably rigorous and trying on young engineers, ABET and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) are currently passing an addendum that requires practicing engineers to have 30 hours of education beyond a bachelor’s degree and provide proof of continuing education.  Generally, 30 hours beyond a bachelor’s degree leads to a master’s degree.  Thus, civil engineering students are being pressed to continue their education beyond the bachelor’s level, investing an additional 1 to 3 years as a full-time student or as many as 5 years as a continuing education student in education.

But why would ASCE be passing this addendum?  To me, the answer seems simple: graduating engineers are less competent than the work demands.  Today, engineers are specialists in various branches of design, whether it be hydraulics, hydrology, highways, bridges, foundations, structures or whatever.  Engineers are strictly limited to passing drawings prepared directly under their supervision in their field of expertise only.  This means companies need more engineers to do the same task.  From a company’s perspective, if you’re going to have to have specialists within specialties, they may as well be highly skilled, competent individuals – thus giving rise to the need for further education.

But I have a problem with this.  Even after being on a full-ride scholarship for almost all four years of my undergraduate education, the thing I need most is money.  If I were forced to continue my education for another 1 to  3 years, I simply couldn’t.  And I’m the most successful case, really.  Most students graduate after 4 years buried under a mountain of debt.  Given the slow economy and the fact that engineers are an investment at first, entry-level engineering salaries have decreased and don’t provide nearly as much in the way of climbing out of debt as they once did.  And even if money weren’t a problem, I’m just sick and tired of school all the time.  And I’m sure that you are, too.

So, after some consideration, I’ve come up with an alternative plan.  Instead of requiring MORE education for professionals (as I’m sure this problem goes beyond engineering), how about making existing education worth more?  Once again, I’ll use engineering as my example, since I am most qualified to speak on that topic.

Here’s a typical 4-year engineering program:

Yeah, I didn't feel like doing an HTML table this time.

It’s a pretty rigorous schedule.  But, out of all of that, only the latter two years really teach engineering.  The first year is almost exclusively to develop technical (problem-solving) skills and teach some very basic engineering fundamentals like surveying and drafting.  The entire schedule is padded throughout with “Humanities” electives, which involve such irrelevant topics as literature, music and art.  These are not so much requirements of the Engineering college as university requirements.  However, they present, altogether, an entire semester’s worth of hours that COULD be devoted to engineering coursework.

Now, being lucky in having attended the most technically advanced high school in the city, I was able to transfer in a lot of credit.  I transferred in credit for calclulus 1 and 2, general chemistry and both semesters of general physics.  In effect, I had completed my entire first year of coursework.  I decided to double major as a result, and I even ended up repeating some classes just to make sure I was solid.  I took differential equations in high school and, by all measures, that class was much more difficult than the college equivalent I took later on, but the university would not recognize it as sufficient to cover for their version (I know, right?).

There are, however, some hidden requirements in that chart.  For example, one cannot simply enroll in technical writing without having already passed several basic composition courses.  Many students I knew at the time were stuck taking composition so that they could fulfill their technical writing requirement later on.  Although rare, some students do not qualify to begin their math classes at the calculus level and must first prove themselves by taking lower-level classes.  Sometimes, this caused students to have to spend an extra year in school.

Now consider that an additional 30 hours of coursework is generally required for a master’s degree.  Although it varies, master’s degrees are generally earned by either doing extra coursework or by substituting some hours for a thesis (a written account of original research).  For practicing engineers, the former is often the route taken.  For a graduate student, 9 – 12 hours is considered a full-time schedule.  This means that master’s degrees take, at a minimum, 1 year to complete, and often longer.  For distance education students, 30 hours can take upwards of 3 years to complete.

So, why not concentrate education more and make it worth the time in the first place?  My proposal centers on the idea that most of the electives required by universities are irrelevant and, at best, shameless money-making scams set in place by greedy regents.  Yes, I can see how some knowledge of humanities and social sciences is a desirable feature of education but, for technically oriented students, it is admittedly irrelevant and not really helpful at all to the immediate goal of becoming a well-trained technical professional.  Here is a short list of areas where engineering education is generally lacking:

  • Training in communication – written, oral or otherwise
  • Design training – these classes come the closest to actual design engineering work
  • Advanced technical knowledge

The last one is a bit vague.  Let me elaborate.  All students take a course in soil mechanics.  More advanced soil topics might be foundation design, designing with geosynthetics or perhaps pollutant transport and fate.  Basically, the things they want you to take during your stay at the university while earning your master’s degree.

So, my proposal takes advantage of the fact that many of the most basic technical classes can be taught before college and much of the university padding can be dropped in favor of more relevant topics.  Here is my revised plan.

My Proposed Alternative

As you can see, I have completely eliminated calculus 1, 2 and 3, chemistry, physics and 9 of the 18 humanities electives.  It is reasonable to expect that students in high school can be taught calculus 1 and 2, and most of the time 3.  However, I contend that calculus 3 is really not necessary to most types of engineering (especially civil), and can be completely omitted if necessary.  Chemistry can be taught at a college level in high school, and really the standards for science in public schools are disgustingly low anyway.  And before you flare up with your objections, let me point out that other countries have already successfully done this for years.  There is no reason these things cannot be taught in high school.

In the event that the students were not able to complete the courses in high school due to falling behind academically, the courses can be offered at the college level.  They will, however, NOT be a part of the specified curriculum for engineering itself.  This is just like how students often have to take composition and grammar courses before they can fulfill the technical writing aspect of the degree in the current situation.  It seems pointless and irresponsible to include basic technical courses as credit towards an engineering degree.

The table below summarizes the differences between my plan and the plan currently being used.

Differences Between Programs

My plan offers several advantages over the current plan:

  1. More Engineering: I have eliminated a lot of humanities and a lot of general education requirements and replaced them with engineering courses.  Altogether, my plan results in an additional 21 hours of engineering credits, which is almost enough to amount to a master’s degree.  If the remaining 9 hours of humanities are exchanged for engineering, the 30 required for a master’s degree can actually be reached.  This results in engineering graduates with far more engineering training than current graduates.
  2. More Specialization: Because companies desire a higher level of specialization in engineering hires, it makes sense that we should attempt to train more specialized engineers.  Although my proposed curriculum offers more engineering electives, it also offers them after all major “core” engineering courses are taken.  This enables students to find, by experience, which of the branches appeals to them the most and allows them to pick relevant courses in that area.
  3. Fewer Total Hours: Although it’s almost negligible, my plan accomplishes far more engineering and does it all with 4 fewer total hours in the program, amounting to a small net savings in cost.
  4. More Meaningful Degree: The value of a bachelor’s degree has steadily decreased because the better jobs now require more education to even qualify an applicant.  This is analogous to the inflation of money: the same amount is worth less down the road.  This plan fights “degree inflation” by making a bachelor’s degree worth more.  Because of this, it also makes a master’s or a doctorate worth far more as well, ensuring that individuals holding these degrees have the depth and breadth of knowledge generally assumed to go along with these prestigious titles.
  5. More Competent Engineers: When it comes right down to it, the first and foremost goal of any engineer is to hold paramount the safety and welfare of the public.  With more competent engineers and specialists in the field for longer (because they won’t be in school for as long), the engineering industry can continue to do just that.  With a more meaningful bachelor’s degree, everyone in the field will be more competent and better able to serve the public.

In a professional development book I was reading, one chapter argued that there is such a thing as too much “experience.”  However, I put that in quotations to indicate that experience can be any number of things, including training.  There is definitely such a thing as overeducation, and it seems to me that an entire industry of practicing professionals holding nothing less than a master’s degree is overkill.  Sending an entire industry of employees back to school for another 1 – 3 years seems unnecessary to me.   And besides, if we force our engineers to stay in school, we do more bad than good: we force people to continue to live on no income, incur debt and loans and keep them from gaining valuable experience in the actual field.

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4 Comments »

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  1. Well, I didn’t read all that. But it sounded pretty good.

  2. ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) neither supports nor opposes ASCE’s BS plus 30 initiative. That is a discussion between ASCE and the state licensing boards. ABET focuses on evaluating degree programs for accreditation, whether that be at the BS or the MS level and based on criteria established by the particular profession.

    • Most certainly. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I mention ABET because revamping curriculum for undergraduate engineering in such a radical way would mean changing the standards for acceptance in general. ABET would no doubt be affected if ASCE changed their standards, don’t you think?

  3. loving this blog more and more every day


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