Thoughts on the Engineering Industry

A blog covering engineering, technology and business topics

Educational Methods vs. Professional Practices in Engineering

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Today, the topic I want to discuss is whether or not the teaching methods used in obtaining your degree will help you in the professional practice of engineering.  Before I start, I want to say that I don’t have any true engineering experience.  I did work a couple summers in construction so I some related experience in the onsite building design/construction process, but a lot of this will be based on second hand knowledge from my friends who work in the field.

My experience in school has generally been that the work you do to learn the technical engineering knowledge is homework.  The exams are meant to test whether you know the material, and it is assumed that if you truly understood the homework the test should be easy to do.  The truth of this assumption will depend on your professor, or whoever is teaching you.  There are a plenty of times I have wondered what a professor was thinking when he made an exam.  And there are plenty of times I have failed an exam all on my own accord because, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t ready.  In grad school and more advanced undergraduate courses there would be projects of varying degrees of difficulty but they didn’t seem to be the main focus of the course.  Along with that, they seemed to be the smallest portion of the work as compared to the weight of the grade in the completion of the course.

As for work, I’ve always heard in the engineering field, and experienced in the construction field, that the focus is the project.  There are times where I’ve only had to do quick tasks for a project because there wasn’t much work required for that task.  But there was always a realistic and practical reason for doing the work.  Along with that, the point was to get the work done and help/guidance from a more experienced worker was generally provided.  The point was not to test or challenge you to an excessive amount, but to make sure you can do the work required and learn how to do it on your own eventually through hands on practice.  I know there will be times when tests are also need in engineering practice – for example, the PE Exam.  But for the most part it isn’t the point of going to work, as it was in school.

I realize that learning the material will be different than the practice of engineering in the real world.  But part of me wonders if there is a better way to teach at the university level.  I’ve always wondered if it would be possible to make the projects count for more credit.  Or what if, instead of having homework, there is just the project.  It is supposed to be worked on in pieces in the same way that homework is split into different assignments.  Then you could still have exams with the same percentage of the grade if you want.  My preference would be to have fewer exams too though, but that’s just me.  I feel like I learn more by having a goal to work towards than by having me learn something with the only stated goal being to prove I learned the material.  What is your opinion on the university education system?  Should it be project based learning or is the homework-exam model the better teaching method?  Are there any alternatives to testing knowledge or are exams the only way?

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