I rarely think anyone has

by francine Hardaway on September 21, 2005

I rarely think anyone has anything better to say than I do, :-) but this morning I came across an article that I think is so important that rather than paraphrase it, I’m just sending it to you. The scary thing about this article is that it was written by a person substantially younger than I am, but the engineering program he describes is exactly the same as the one I observed while I was an English major at Cornell, my version of Smartypants U. I offer this in respectful memory of Lew Platt, who graduated from that program in my year, and then went on to run Hewlett Packard where I met him again while I was at Intel. If he were still alive, I would love to share this with him, and see what he thinks. What do I think? Nothing has changed, and that’s pathetic. The author of this is Doug Kern:

I am an engineering washout. I left a chemical engineering major in
shame and disgust to pursue the softer pleasures of a liberal arts
education�hear my story, and learn why the United
States lacks engineers.

Not long ago, I showed up for my first year at Smartypants U., fresh
from a high school career full of awards and honors and gold stars�
I was determined to spend my college days learning something
useful. With my strong science grades and excellent standardized test
scores, I felt certain that I could handle whatever engineering
challenges Smartypants U. had to offer. Remember: Kern = real good at
math and science. You will have cause to forget that fact very soon.

I had three options for a chemistry class: the intro course, the
accelerated course, and the genius course. My high school chemistry
background made me a good fit for the accelerated course, but my
academic advisor warned me not to take it. The course instructor was
a legendarily incompetent teacher, even by the dubious standards of
Smartypants U’s engineering department. He was so incoherent and
capricious that academic advisors were warned to steer students away
from his courses. So why was he kept on staff? His research was
outstanding. My tuition dollars at work.

Being too arrogant to waste my gifts in some kiddie intro course, I
enrolled in the genius course. Memo to freshmen, wherever you are:
unless you are a certified, card-carrying prodigy with a four-digit
IQ, do not EVER EVER EVER sign up for a chemistry class whose
informal nickname contains the word “Turbo.” “What happened?” said
the comment on my second test. I wish I knew.

In high school I had grown accustomed to math classes that featured
clear, helpful instruction from teachers who liked to teach and
excelled at teaching. At Smartypants U, the jewel in the crown of
American academia, my math instructor was a twenty-something teaching
assistant whose classroom style never deviated from the following

1) Greet class.

2) Ask if there were any questions about the previous evening’s
problem set.

3) If so, work out the problem in question on the chalkboard,
without further explanation.

4) Repeat step 3) as needed.

5) Announce the pages in the textbook from which the next
problem set would be derived.

6) Perform a sample problem from the new problem set.

7) Ask if anyone has any questions.

8) Give the problem set assignment.

9) Dismiss the class.

Total elapsed time: never more than 25 minutes.

Clutching the shredded tatters of my pride and dignity, I trudged to
the office hours of my math instructor every week, seeking an
explanation for the increasingly mysterious problems in the textbook.
My instructor welcomed my presence as she would welcome the Angel of
Death. Irritated? She was terrified. Explain�the problems? Articulate�
the steps? Relate�the concepts? I would ask questions, and she would
respond by completing yet another sample problem as fast as she
possibly could, blushing nervously. I felt like I was on a Star Trek
episode. “Captain, I think I understand�the creature communicates
through multivariable calculus problems!”

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. She was as American as
I am. Spoke perfect colloquial English.

The social-life-killing workload was the stuff of gallows humor among
the three or four upper-class engineers who could still laugh. “Sleep
is for the weak!” they bellowed, when gathering at the listless
engineering parties. “Your underwear has two sides,” they whispered,
pressing their furry acne-ridden faces into the ears of bewildered
freshmen. “Use them.”

Compose in your mind a montage of quizzes covered in red
ink, classes wasted in the stupor of incomprehension, and frowning
instructors muttering strange incantations in their eerie scientific
argot. And of the hands-on laboratory portion of the chemistry class,
I will say only that I still hold the record at Smartypants U. for
most failed attempts at that hateful titration experiment. (“No – not
dark pink! You filthy godless soul-eating beaker! Damn you to hell!”)
They assigned grad students to watch me after failure number six. And
I still screwed it up.

Meanwhile, my friends majoring in the liberal arts pulled dandy
grades while studying little. “You just wait,” I thought, gazing upon
them like the ant regarding the grasshopper in the summer. “You party
and blow off homework now, but in ten years, you’ll be making merely
wonderful money as investment bankers and consultants, while I’ll be
getting laid off from a great job at General Electric.”

My first-semester GPA was the engineering major average: 2.7. But to
a former academic superstar, a 2.7 GPA was akin to a public flogging.

I nearly fainted when I learned that I received a 43% on the Physics
final. I nearly fainted again when I learned that the class average
was 38%. A sub-50% grade on a science test is a curious creature, as
much the product of grader whim as academic achievement.

Having allegedly mastered 43% of the course
material, I was now deemed fit to take even harder Physics classes. I
wondered: at the highest levels of physics, could you get a passing
grade with a 5% score on a test? A 3% score? A zero? Could drinking
from a fire hose actually slake your thirst?

Exhausted and demoralized, I stumbled into my next semester of
engineering. My new math T.A. had all of my old T.A.’s inability to
teach, but half of her mastery of English. One day in class I heard
myself saying: “If I understood what I didn’t understand about the
problem, I would understand the problem, and therefore I wouldn’t be
asking a question.” The T.A. stared at me across a void that seemed
increasingly unbridgeable.

The course was called “Discrete Mathematics.” Many people thought
that the course was called “Discreet Mathematics.” Wrong. To clarify:
“Discrete Mathematics” is “the mathematics in which Kern was getting
a D at midterm.” “Discreet Mathematics” is “how Kern dropped that
class along with the rest of his engineering course load and signed
into liberal arts classes, all on the last day he was eligible to do
so, because he couldn’t stand the stress, abuse, and lack of
comprehension anymore.” No one waved goodbye to me at the engineering

The United States contains a finite number of smart people, most of
whom have options in life besides engineering. You will not produce
thronging bevies of pocket-protector-wearing number-jockeys simply by
handing out spiffy Space Shuttle patches at the local Science Fair.
If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way
for America’s engineering programs to retain students like, well, me:
people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least
take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the
overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way
to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can’t learn
math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual
mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve
pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored
T.A.s choose to dole out. Write textbooks that are more than just
glorified problem set manuals. Give grades that will make engineering
majors competitive in a grade-inflated environment. Don’t let T.A.s
teach unless they can actually teach.

None of these things will happen, of course. Engineering professors
are perfectly happy weeding out undesirables with absurd boot-camp
courses that conceal the inability of said professors to communicate
with words. Fewer students will pursue science and engineering
majors, and the United States will grow ever more reliant upon
foreign brainpower to design its scientific and manufacturing
endeavors. I did my part to fight this problem, and for my trouble I
got four months of humiliation and a semester’s worth of shabby
grades that I had to explain to law schools and employers for years.
Thousands of college students will have a similar experience this fall.

So engineering is suffering in this country? It deserves no better.

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