Letters 12/09/2010

Dec. 9, 2010
High-end math classes topped our readers’ list of useless college courses they’ve taken to get their engineering degrees

Wasted time and efforts?
High-end math classes topped our readers’ list of useless college courses they’ve taken to get their engineering degrees. Courses on the intricacies of quickly outdated software languages also scored high in uselessness. But it might comfort some to know there are engineers who are conversant in the hidden meanings of the song Eleanor Rigby.

Useless engineering courses
The whole issue of college courses is a sore spot for me. I remember asking more than once while taking calculus courses why we were spending time learning (and being graded on) math concepts that seemed to have no practical applications. The response was pretty much always, “You’ll need this to understand how higher math works.” The end result was frustration, lack of sleep, and poor test grades, plus I never used a bit of that math and don’t know any engineer who has. I’m not saying no one should know this material, but we would do well to develop engineering math courses that focus on the tools that let us do engineering, not prepare us for teaching math courses.

The letter writer (Stuart A. Hoenig) comments that “the math department would lose some faculty members if we didn’t send students over,” highlights the real issue — that money and politics are far more powerful forces in our educational system than the needs of students or society. Many years ago, I was talking to an associate dean at a local engineering school about why universities were so reluctant to accept work experience for credit. His response was that universities really wanted the money and weren’t primarily interested in the educational needs and goals of the students.

David P. Telling, Jr.

Most worthless college course:
Fortran IV with Watfive, 1980.

Most underappreciated, but extremely useful, course: a half semester of typing, 9th grade, 1969.

Douglas Pherigo

My nomination for my most worthless college course would have to be differential equations. I wonder who, if anyone, actually uses differentail equations in the real world? Granted, as engineers, we use formulas that were arrived from differential equations, but I don’t feel the need to recreate those formulas from scratch.

On the other hand, I regularly use the principles learned in statics and mechanics of materials (BS, 2005, Iowa State University). That’s the one that would get my vote on my most useful engineering course.

Nick Vande Waerdt

My C++ programming class was totally useless. You couldn’t learn enough to really use it for engineering purposes. That course should have been replaced with engineering-calculation software, like MathCAD or a programming course for microcontrollers.

Daus Studenberg

Many complain that we take courses in engineering which we will never use, such as advanced calculus. This was true for me. Most of the calculus equations I agonized over in school, I don’t use. And I would be surprised if there were more than a handful of mechanical engineers still using any equations they learned in advanced calculus.

John Burhoe

We all had at least one useless course, didn’t we? Mine was called computer-aided manufacturing, and was required for all mechanical engineers. To pass, you had to memorize machining codes for a CAM machine, and determine which codes would be used, in which order, to make a particular part.

I’ve discussed this class with actual CAM operators, and even they agree it was a waste of time.

Kevin Bumgarner

It was a generation ago, but I still recall with revulsion the course called properties of materials. I took it my first year at the University of Cincinnati’s EE program. It was such a real snoozer. The only thing I remember about it was the musty basement lecture hall and “body-centered and face-centered cubics,” which I think had something to do with molecular structure. Nothing in that course ever appeared in the next four years of school (the EE program was a 5-year co-op arrangement, with alternating quarters of work experience), or in the 30 years since.

Another worthless course was an advanced math debacle regarding n-dimensional space, taught by an English-deficient TA from a new and error-filled text. All of us students knew it was going to be a waste of time after half-a-dozen classes, so we all just went through the motions. Not a practical word in the whole course.

Luckily, most of the rest of the material at UC was decent, and armed with my BSEE, I’ve had a long and interesting career, mostly designing video circuits.

Mark Nelson

The most worthless course I took in college was mechanical drafting. I’ve always had a draftsperson to do all my drawings to the specifications required by the company. I drew many sketches, but never needed to know how to draw a bold border or attach a note. There were many other courses I felt did not further my engineering education, but at least they made me a more-rounded person.

Miles Jarosk

For me, the most useless college course I ever endured was differential equations. The course was packed full of complicated equations that seemed to have no practical application. I took the course at the University of Pittsburgh back before calculators, especially those with preloaded equations, were invented. So we had to memorize all of the equations. Consequently, I barely passed the course. I have been a metallurgical engineer for over 40 years and have never even seen a differential equation let alone have the occasion to use one.

John Zelahy

I studied chemistry, calculus, and other topics for an EE degree. It was clear to most students and the professors that the point was to produce well-rounded engineers who could intelligently discuss a wide variety of problems with more understanding than a person having a more-focused education. The difference between an electronics/electrical technician certificate and even the most basic engineering degree in the same field were the “useless” math, writing, economics, chemistry, and mechanical courses. Thirty years later, I still recall bits of those subjects, even though I would be hard pressed now to actually “do” any calculus or chemistry. But discussions with fellow engineers in other disciplines are better informed because I took those subjects.

Paul Schmidt

As a freshman in mechanical engineering at Drexel Univ. in 1968, I was required to take a humanities course which included a week’s worth of examining the hidden meaning of the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby.

Jeff Holliday

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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