Best Tips For Engineering Studies In The USA

What?! My first day in college and I’m told it will be hard?

Engineering is a hard major but can provide you a lifetime of rewards if it matches your interests and talents.

Engineering is hard, but so are athletics, music, religious observance, marriage, parenting, and many other popular worthwhile pursuits.

The following is a personal note to you, written from my perpective of 35+ years in engineering, including 11 as a college student, 15 as a practitioner, 16 as a faculty teacher and researcher, and four as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies.


Engineering is a Profession

In addition to being a college major and a job, Engineering is a profession. The profession and its subdisciplines are bound by various codes of ethics, accreditation rules for college programs, professional licensure, etc. Each of these entities have interests in ensuring that engineers are knowledgeable and qualified to perform their work and that public safety and the public interest will be protected.

A working definition of profession is an occupation in which

  • one is expected to have advanced knowledge in a specific area, well beyond that of the common person, including those educated in other fields,
  • one may be expected to apply that knowledge to a broad range of situations, sometimes or often unique, such that the solutions cannot simply be tabulated in a list, book or manual,
  • one in which the public may trust that their safety and well-being is protected by relying on the practitioner.

An engineer’s carelessness in checking an apparently simple design change against math and physics principles can lead to the death of 114 people and the injury of 200 more (Kansas City Hyatt collapse). Inability of engineers to grab the attention of decision makers, and operating rocket ships outside their design temperature range can kill America’s heroes and influence national sentiment, priorities, budget and history (Challenger accident).  Inconsistent tire pressure recommendations between automakers and tire makers can contribute to the deaths of hundreds, lead to lengthy legal battles, close factories, and put factory workers out of jobs (search Google on Ford, Firestone, and tires).

On the other hand, engineers problem-solving ability and creatitivity can lead to the successful rescue of nine trapped miners — “How can we locate the exact spot (GPS positioning)? How can we heat air and deliver it that location faster than drilling the rescue hole? How can we remove the water? Who has nine decompression chambers and how can we get them to Pennsylvania? Where is the closest drill of the required size?

Advances in mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering have brought the price of a portable CD player ( a device that includes a power supply, motoer, laser, amplifiers, signal processors and computers) down to about the price of three of the CDs it can play. Similarly, they have led to lifesaving biomedical devices unforeseen when you were in grade school.

So I encourage you every day to not rely on “partial credit,” not turn in the minimum, not to focus on “counting points,” but to learn math, science, engineering and communications principles as well as you can, and to let your creative juices flow. Someone’s life may depend on it, or someone’s quality of life may be improved by it.


Work Hard, Play Hard (will any of this be fun?)

So, I thought I was supposed to have some time for fun, and other things?

You will. A reasonable expectation is that you will spend a minimum of two hours studying outside of class for every hour you are in class, and perhaps more for classes with labs or projects. So if you are taking 16 credits, you have a full-time, fifty-hour per week job just being a learner. But people with full-time jobs still have time for other pursuits. Many engineering students enjoy interacting socially around an engineering student organization — there are about 30, organized along majors, gender and ethnicity, national competitions, and other interests (see the Engineering Student Organizations page.) Others find interest in the hundreds of activities and organizations around campus. Engineers are athletes, engineers are in the marching band, engineers work on campus, engineers are volunteers.

In your four (plus or minus) years as an undergraduate,  you will have opportunities to try or do many things that will be very difficult to ever come back to. MSU is a big place with many opportunities. Try some!


Teamwork, Cooperative Learning and Active Learning

As an MSU student, and especially an engineering student, you will often be expected to work in teams, and produce a single graded “product.” Teamwork is no longer just a good idea, it is required by the accreditation process for engineering programs..

One specific phrase you may hear in connection with team projects is “cooperative learning,” and an even broader one is “active learning.” Much of the growth of  cooperative learning and its application at MSU is rooted in the works of Dr. Karl Smith, an engineering professor who shares between among MSU and the Unviversity of Minnesota.

In its broadest form, “active learning” refers to a principle, gaining momentum at MSU and elsewhere, that instructors roles are not simply “talking heads” that deliver lectures, and students are not simply anonymous observers. Rather, each has an active role in the learning of the class material and developing an ability to extend the class material by preparing one to be a lifelong learner. Hence, there might be expectations of active classroom participation, “extension tasks,” which go beyond the book and notes, participation in Internet class forums, and other activities.


Engineering Accreditation

The traditional, mainstream “engineering” programs at MSU are all but Computer Science and Engineering Arts. Computer Science “lives” in the College of Engineering at MSU and about half of all Universities; it also turns up in Arts and Science Colleges, Information Colleges, math departments and elsewhere. Engineering Arts is a non-traditonal, interdisciplinary program. The mainstream engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET. ABET is in turn comprised of representatives from the many engineering societies, which in turn represent the many engineers in the United States. So, as a profession, we all set the standards that new entrants in our profession must meet.

In 1998, MSU was among a dozen engineering schools to be accredited under new, outcome-based criteria. Under this approach, we must show not only that our students have taken various courses, but we must demonstrate that they come out possessing a number of abilities and skills. In addition to the obvious ones, related to math and science, conducting and analyzing experiements, etc. we must also show that our students have demonstrated the ability to work in teams, the ability to communicate, the ability to be lifelong learners, and the ability to understand the broader issues of society (yes, you need to take humanities courses).


MSU Guiding Principles

Institutions have core philosophies, and MSU’s are summarized in the MSU Guiding Principles. Note that two of them, active learning and problem solving, are very closely related to the professional and accreditation themes already discussed.


Being a Learner

In short, in coming to college, and more specifically pursuing the engineering profession, you have a mission to learn.

You have chosen to be here. You don’t have to, but you are making a significant commitment of your time and someone’s money.  When you expend time and money on other things, you have high expectations. You should have them for your education also. Shortcutting your effort is shortchanging yourself.

But this isn’t in the book!!!  Learning gets more complex. What educators want students to know has been arranged in a hierarchy called Bloom’s Taxonomy. Much of high school work may peak at about level two or three — comprehension or application. Much of your early college work in science and engineering will be at levels three or four application and analysis. Your later college work and career in practice or research will expect you to work at level five — synthesis. We are back to lifelong learning and broad education!


Finding and Using Resources

“I had to teach myself (math)(science)(circuits), even though I paid the professor to do so.”

I have heard these words, and yes, there are some less perfect teachers in the world (shouldn’t be), BUT, if we recall the expectation that you will work at least two hours outside of class for every hour in, maybe being an active learner does involve teaching yourself.

Let’s assume you wanted to be a better golfer. You may pay for a lesson, but you may also buy and read four books, go to the driving range, and videotape golf matches. You would seek any and all resources relevant to your goal. If your goal is to succeed in thermodynamics, buying the book and attending lectures are a given. BUT, when they aren’t doing enough to make you competitive, I am surprised to see that many students overlook the obvious additional steps:

  • Go to office hours and ask questions.
  • Discuss the material with classmates.
  • Seek tutoring.
  • Visit the library and pick out some other thermo books — you may prefer another author’s approach.
  • Purchase an independent study guide with practice problems — Schaum’s Outlines are particulary recommended and have been found useful to many.


A learning-friendly enviroment — classroom behavior

This should go without saying, but classroom behaviors and interactions with faculty should be professional and consistent with the objective of learning.

  • Attend class
  • Be on time and prepared
  • Ask questions professionally
  • Don’t demean others’ questions
  • Turn off cell-phones and pagers
  • When using the phone, introduce yourself
  • When using e-mail, include your name, use your MSU e-mail address, and write in a professional manner.


A Cautionary Note – Academic Dishonesty

Cheating is on the rise at colleges nationwide, and techniques are getting increasingly sophisticated. In turn, faculty are keeping up and more concerned than ever with detecting cheating and punishing it where it occurs.

An excellent discussion of cheating and related rules and consequences at MSU can be found at the Ombudsman’s web page. For starters, please note that

  • There is sophisticated software in use to detect plagiarism.
  • You can be required not to use sophisticated calculators or PDA’s.
  • You can be required not to use instant messaging or wireless equipment.
  • You can be required to remove hats with bills.
  • You can be required to prove your identity.
  • Consequences can be severe.

Also note that there expectations regarding the individuality of your work can vary widely, depending on the nature of the material and objective of the class:

  • In a writing or computer science class, your paper or program may be expected to be a “creative work,” absolutely your individual effort
  • In an engineering science class involving calculations, there may be only one correct answer, so yours must match everyone else’s. However there would likely be some expectation of evidence of individual pursuit of the problem — your work on the way to a solution would reflect your individual style and solution path. Nevertheless, it might be expected and even encouraged that you and your colleauges discuss how to solve the problem, before you work it individually. Interacting is learning, outright copying is not.
  • In a mathematics class, where learning a solution method is emphasized, it could be expected that both your answer and your method are similar to everyone else’s. If you are asked to solve and equation by completing the square, and you do it by factoring, you could be failed on method, even though the final answer is correct.

Three classes, same semester, with very different instructor expectations of indiviudal versus common “answers.” This may be bewildering, BUT the answer lies in your understanding the learning objectives of the class and professor, rather than simply worrying about points.


On a final note…

As you are at the doorstep of a profession, as you are here to learn, work, explore new opportunities, and learn to learn, and you are not a cheater,

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