Confessions of an Engineering Washout
by Douglas Kern
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.
You know, I think Kern might’ve succeeded in the STEM subjects if he had gone to Worcester Polytechnic Institute — the school I attended for two years before I transferred to the College of William and Mary (a transfer that did not involve a change from a STEM major to a liberal arts major, by the way). I know of at least one student with SAT scores in the 800 verbal/500 math range who is now working in a STEM field thanks to his experiences at WPI.
And I’m not saying this because I’m on WPI’s payroll and therefore have to shill for the school. I mention WPI because I think it is the exception that proves the rule. You see, WPI, located minutes away from downtown Worcester, MA, is a teeny-tiny school that covers several city blocks at best and hosts a student population of roughly 2,000. Plenty of research is conducted at WPI, but 95% of the school’s focus is on undergraduate education, and I think that’s what really makes the difference.
The fundamental problem with the instructors at supposed “top-tier” schools (and certain large public schools) is that they are focused on their research first and foremost. Unlike the instructors at WPI, top-tier instructors very rarely give a crap about the underclassmen. Teaching the introductory course for a particular field of study is seen as nuisance work — a distraction. And that’s why students at these schools are forced to communicate with TA’s who have very little in the way of real teaching experience.
In the end, my advice to any student who is more verbally inclined but would like to “take a bite of the engineering apple” is to skip the prestigious schools and try an institution that is smaller and boasts a program that is tailored to the needs of undergrads. You are more likely to get your questions answered in a WPI-type environment where the student-to-instructor ratio is low.
Just my $.02.
PS: Here’s an article from the New York Times that cites WPI specifically as a school that teaches the STEM subjects correctly: