Engineering students need to take responsibility for their education

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

While cruising the Internet, I came across one of those endless lists compiled by a well-known tech magazine. Lists with a cynical edge can provide entertainment for some, but I tend to blow past these on to more serious news. However, this headline caught my eye: “Top 5 Reasons Studying Engineering Sucks.”

The article invited readers to add their own comments. It was obviously worded to bring out the angry and disenfranchised — but as dean of an engineering school, I had to keep reading. For the record, these so-called top five reasons (paraphrased below) cover pretty familiar territory:

5. The textbooks are poorly written and as dry as dust.

4. Engineering professors just don't care about teaching and students.

3. The advising is uninspired and dispassionate.

2. Other majors are just plain easier and their students get much better grades.

1. Every assignment is nothing more than a set of math questions.

After educating engineers for two decades, I was not surprised by these criticisms. We certainly don't have it all figured out. So while there are many happy exceptions, these comments aren't too far off base from what is still generally the norm in programs across the country.

However, what really shocked me was the absolute tidal wave of online responses the list generated from current engineering students. This was no scientific survey, but something real is clearly going on. The bottom line is that a big segment of our nation's engineering students don't think they are getting the best education possible and are starting to tell us.

Check out this following thread for just a small sample: (Names deleted to protect the innocent universities and ridiculous spelling corrected, as well.)

• My professors are very intellectual, but do a miserable job conveying the material they want us to learn. With intense math problems, they are shining stars, but ask them to explain how any of this fits the big picture and they look at you cross-eyed. Posted at 11:49 a.m.

• As an alumnus of State University, I agree. The key missing element is a complete disregard for engineering creativity. Posted at 2:57 p.m.

• I'm a fourth-year computer science student and every last point is true. Especially the awful textbooks and monotone slow-moving professors. Thanks to the engineering GPA, it's now a fight for me to get into a good business school. Posted at 10 p.m.

• Medical and law schools have managed to keep curricula up to date and interesting while challenging and diverse, why can't engineering? Posted at 12:06 a.m.

Students, let me offer you some unsolicited but realistic advice. You chose engineering to do something really important with your life, right? Then get after it and stop spending so much time on these lousy blogs.

So here's one more list for you: My top five ways to make our current education system, with all of its wonders and warts, work for you:

5. Get to know a few of your engineering faculty well — you will be impressed.

4. Become fully engaged in the big world now so you can see firsthand how much people really do need your talents and efforts.

3. This is YOUR education — go grab it wherever YOU must.

2. Work harder than you need to and care about something bigger than yourself.

1. Finish what you started.