Remedial Tinkering Class

A friend and I were discussing engineering education yesterday. The state of the education system, the constant lamenting of fewer engineers coming out of the US and our own experiences. Of course there are a ton of problems right now. And yes, there are also a lot of potential solutions in place. But out of this discussion came an irrefutible argument and idea:

(Most) engineering students need a remedial tinkering class

“Hunh? A what? I’ve never heard of that,” you say.  Well, it’s because it doesn’t exist. But it exists for a lot of other subjects. If you weren’t all that great at math in high school, you can usually find a remedial math class to brush up on your algebra. If you’re from out of the country and english is a second language, there are often resources to help bring you up to a level where you’ll have a chance at an introductory literature class. It’s the same for many other classes. But what about tinkering? What about playing around? What about blowing shit up and learning how to fail? It’s as important as any other skill in engineering and one that is woefully lacking in graduates (just check how many graduates can solder when they leave school).

So do we really need this? You tell me! Here’s what I know about the state of tinkering in the US: shop class is on the decline and most schools don’t support the budget anymore. Kids are so busy working on their college extracurriculars that they can’t spend time playing with toys and making things go (with some exceptions like FIRST).  Both manufacturing and enrollment in engineering programs in the US are on the decline, meaning we make less stuff and have less of a clue how our stuff works. There is a resurgent hobby community, but hardly enough to staff the world of tomorrow with top notch engineers.

I think students could use a primer on how to get their hands dirty. I know I didn’t have anything like this but I sure would have appreciated it in school! I didn’t truly start working on electronics until halfway through school. The rest was on my own or theoretical work. Shouldn’t I have known prior to dropping $50K of my and the government’s money (thanks Uncle Sam!) whether or not I enjoyed breathing in solder fumes??

Here’s what I like about the idea of a remedial tinkering class:

  1. You learn how to fail — It’s such an important skill and one that students are shielded from for much too long. Students need to learn that this is a natural part of any design process and that no matter what Fluxor’s corporate overlords say, you can’t prevent every bug.
  2. Troubleshooting — There’s a reason that engineering students are recruited into countless (higher paying industries) other than the “makin’ stuff” industry. Engineers know how to analyze a problem and teach themselves. They’re also strong in math, logic and programming. But of all these tenable skills, troubleshooting is the most valuable. Being able to dissect a problem you’ve encountered pays dividends far beyond the classroom. Tinkering remediation would necessarily teach this skill often, mostly by virtue that people that don’t know much about electronics or making mechanical models or chemical concoctions are likely to mess up at first. And then the student will quickly need to learn how to fix the problem they just made.
  3. You figure out if you like engineering — I don’t know the exact numbers at my alma mater, but I can say with certainty that a lot more students went into the engineering program than came out. While a tinkering class won’t weed out the ones without the focus to put down the video games and go study, it will tell the ones who might not like engineering in the first place to try something new.
  4. It gives context — There’s nothing more demotivating than sitting in a math class being forced to learn a technique that just seems like it will NEVER be useful. I mean, Fourier transforms? Did anyone know what those were useful for when they started? Doubtful. But had you been an ambitious young lad or lass and had worked on a super regenerative IF HF spectrum analyzer (using a 555 timer perhaps!), you would understand just why frequency transformations are so damn important. And you would be very very sure that you understood how to do them. At the very least, you would understand the concept behind how the transformation works conceptually.
  5. It would be fun as hell — Coupling education and fun is bound to have a positive effect. When students (or workers) are enjoying what they’re doing, they’re more likely to dig deeper into the material, gaining a better understanding and persisting to become experts. A tinkering class, where students are encouraged to try out new things, blow stuff up and MAKE things, all while getting college credit could be a strong launch pad into a strong academic and personal career in engineering.

Places like Australia and Europe have a tradition called a “gap year” where a student would go out and work and vacation and generally figure out what they want to do with their lives. This would be a smaller, more controlled and more engineering-based than that and would be part of a university. Getting perspective into the world of engineering can help drive many more students into the field and drive interest in science. And in times like the one we currently live in, it could not be more welcome.

Have you ever heard of a system like this? Were you a tinkerer? Sound off in the comments!

24 responses to “Remedial Tinkering Class”

  1. Cherish The Scientist

    Yes, yes, yes!

    I actually think that a lot more engineering courses should be like this in general. More time in lab, less time in lecture. That’s where you learn a lot more. I’ve had discussions and even arguments with faculty members about this, however, and a lot of them don’t agree. Oh well…if I ever get to the point where I’m teaching, I’m really going to try to carry this philosophy with me.

  2. engineeringprof

    I love the idea in principle, but I think the reason that shop class is being dropped has as much to do with funding as it does with liability. Schools can’t afford the insurance or the lawsuits for when little Jimmy/Jane get cancer from the solder fumes or more immediate, burn themselves. Everyone is getting far too worried about safety.

    1. Chris Gammell

      A good point. In my view, sign a waiver and let the kids go play.

  3. Fluxor

    Sounds like a good idea in theory. But looking back, I did a lot of that stuff in high school. I learned to solder and splice wires in grade 9. Did bridge building contests. Egg drop contests. Tested Maxwell’s equations with a Van de Graaff generator in physics. All fun stuff. Just never knew it had any relation to engineering (as I wrote in Uh…What’s Engineering?). Nor did it make me want to go and build stuff. I got that from Lego when I was 6.

    1. Chris Gammell

      I wonder if there’s been any correlation study with legos/erector sets and engineers. Might be a good first survey for EB.

      1. Fluxor

        Good idea!

  4. Carmen

    My college just started a class like this called Individual Design Experience; unfortunately for me I’m in my last few months and can’t fit it into my schedule. For better or worse, EE students don’t take it until their 4th year but so far it’s been a huge hit (my school is a 5 year program for engineering, 4 of classes with 1 of co-ops mixed in to break things up). Anyways, the professor who started the class (the analog prof, go figure) came up with some simple platforms including motor control, embedded systems, ECG measurement, and one other topic that eludes me. A student picks the application that interests them most, designs a circuit to meet certain specs, layouts a PCB, and orders parts before soldering, debugging, and testing their design.

    Some of the design work is done for them in order to allow enough time for building/debugging, like picking an instrumentation amp for the ECG measurement circuit, but a student must know how to use that part and know for what reasons it was picked so that they can include it in their final design report.

    There’s also a 2 hour lecture each week to supplement the lab which covers a wide variety of topics not taught elsewhere like PCB layout techniques, dielectric absorption in caps, and a host of other topics I wish I knew more about.

    Thankfully in my case my 4 co-ops taught me good troubleshooting techniques, soldering skills, and lab practices but a lot of fellow EEs (most of whom aren’t into analog design like I am) are never exposed to these things. Since the inception of this class, I’ve heard quite a few upperclassmen express regret at being unable to get the opportunity to take the course like the lower level EEs.

    1. Chris Gammell

      Wow, this sound like quite a program! Are you willing to let us which school and which professor it is? I would be interested in hearing more about it.

      1. Carmen

        I asked the professor if he wouldn’t mind me mentioning his name and I’m waiting to hear back from him. I’ll let you know what he says.

      2. Carmen

        He doesn’t mind the publicity. I attend the Rochester Institute of Technology. The professor who runs the course is Dr. Robert Bowman of the EE Department.

  5. GEARS

    I think this thought process is right on the money. And I can totally relate to number 4. While I agree with the Fourier Transform stuff, there’s still too much BS in math curriculum that’s still not “applied” anywhere. I remember taking a class called Applied Engineering Mathematics. Since that semester, I have used maybe 1 thing from that class.

    I think a bigger problem is there is too much theory classes and not enough applied classes. Today, I posted a blog about two class proposals that I’m working on, one a traditional lecture and the other a lab class. Maybe I’m committing tenure suicide but applied, laboratory classes can do so much more than just blabbing in front of powerpoint. Most schools (and profs) have taken the somewhat easier route of lectures because of the pressures of research, papers, and proposals. But when you just consider education, a semester lab class should impart more usable information than a semester lecture on theory.

  6. Dave Vandenbout

    I agree that a remedial course on tinkering is attractive, but I think it would actually decrease the number of graduating engineers if it were offered in college. Very few non-engineering students would take such a course and say “I love engineering! I’m changing majors!” But more than a few engineering students would take the class and say “Ugh! This is not what I want to do! Changing to Business or Physics right now.” And having these more theoretical engineers is important, too, just as in physics where you have theoreticians and experimentalists. (On the other hand, the course might motivate some students to stick with engineering, so the net effect might be a wash instead of a negative.)

    Having a tinkering course in high school would work better since it could act as a funnel to bring more students into engineering in college. But high schools are woefully equipped and staffed to do this.

    The main problem with a remedial tinkering course is the assumption that this must take place within a large number of universities and high schools so that it can have a substantive effect on the number of practicing engineers. But these are incredibly hidebound, sclerotic institutions that are resistant to change. (Ask anyone who has sat on a curriculum committee, or tried to help in a high school without a teacher’s certificate, or been denied tenure because too much effort was devoted to teaching.) The reward system in high schools and colleges actually pushes their employees away from doing a tinkering class. It takes an incredible amount of effort and career risk to make a substantive change in just one curriculum in a single university. And there are over 300 EE departments in the USA. I don’t think there are enough heroes out there to take on this job.

    It might be true that the resurgence of the hobbyist will not generate the number of engineers we need. But I would posit that the maker movement is generating much more interest in engineering per unit of expended effort than anything going on in the formal educational establishments. Everyone who creates and posts a Youtube video showing how to do something neat is having an immediate effect on encouraging interest in engineering. Contrast this with writing a proposal to get some funding to initiate a senior elective course that may enter the curriculum within the next five years. While such efforts in academia are needed, we just can’t wait for them anymore.

    There is a maker/hobbyist culture that is growing up outside of the formal system of education. And it’s efficient at generating interest in engineering with high schoolers. And it bypasses the roadblocks imposed by institutions with vested interests in the staus quo. And anyone can participate so there is some hope that it will grow to the point where the engineering population increases. So I think you actually do have your remedial tinkering course.

    It’s just not where you expected it to be.

  7. Dave Young

    I totally agree! This is exactly why we have started the BlueStamp engineering program. Even though I took every engineering lab course possible in both high school and college, I came out with less ‘hands-on’ ability than I wanted. Now we’re working to give students a program that focuses on the fun part — creating things. Hopefully it’ll do exactly what you talk about in the article! Details —

  8. FrauTech

    Brilliant! How about more classes like this for adults? I’d love to go take hands on classes to learn specific skills but as most are career related they are high in hours and generally during the day. We shouldn’t forget trying to recruit adults or young adults into engineering as well, I’m not the only one who went back to school for a second career.

  9. Colin Worobetz

    As a mechanical engineering student at the moment, I cannot agree more. Im left using my free time to experiment and tinker and it affects my studies negatively instead of positively.

  10. Frederik Juul

    I’m a danish EE student just starting my 4th. semester. I’m actually quite shocked, that this is the state in american colleges. As of now, I’ve designed, debugged, made PCB’s for and assembled:
    A web-accesable temperature / humidity controller for a summerhouse
    A motor-controlled drawer with no handle (Video before PID implementation:
    A HiFi-Amplifier

    I knew my school used a different system, but I wasn’t aware it was THAT different. Each semester we are divided into subgroups of ~6 students, each group with a professor attached to guide us. We then select a new project, with pretty much all of the courses supporting the projects. This semester is digital circuits and we’re learning how processors and memory are build and how all the ICs fit together, to make a functioning system. My group is designing the electrical control system for a model submarine, for at local sea-life museum.

    Also, the first month is was there, we, as do all new students, worked with a box of LEGO Mindstorms. Each group were given a box of LEGO with the object of building a robot that would be able to complete a difficult course. At the end of the month we had a big competition. It was a great way to start and a great opportunity to meet the other students.

    It seems however, that we still have trouble attracting new students. I’ve personally just been hired by my university to go to different high-schools and expos and such, and talk about what’s awesome about electrical engineering.

    Note in the video the power supply from a computer. The DC-engine is ripped from an electrical drill.

    1. anonymous

      What’s a PCB? And I am a third year electrical engineer at Rutgers University with a 3.72 gpa. I think that says a thing or 2 about how pathetic this department is. It is nothing but math math math math math. Memorize the technique, get an A, repeat…

      1. Chris Gammell

        Honestly it reminds me of Harry Potter where they start to learn defense against the dark arts in secret. You need to do something like that (hobby stuff).

  11. USASEF Fan

    This is one of the issues Larry Bock is trying to solve with the USASEF . He had trouble recruiting into his Bio/Teck companies because kids aren’t getting entering science and engineering fields. The festival booths are 100% interactive and it’s amazing to see how many people (kids and adults) become totally absorbed in the hands on activities. There were over 1000 booths and 500,000 visitors to the 2010 festival and every booth had something hands on to do. From taking a part and re-assembling iPod’s, to learning to solder, to making long spaghetti like strings of organic material to programming autonomous race cars, booths were packed with visitors learning science and engineering.

    Please get in touch with Larry and talk to him about your ideas. His contact info is is in the Contact Us tab of the USASEF website (

    It was geek nirvana for me.

  12. Ask the Readers: What Were Your Childhood Inspirations? | Engineer Blogs

    […] Notre Dame Engineering seems to be taking up an idea I laid out a few months ago, namely remedial tinkering classes; this would give the students the context they need in order to help them make a decision about […]

  13. Fremescent Floccose Fortification | The Amp Hour

    […] thinks we should have remedial tinkering classes in colleges for more academically minded students (Chris would have needed these […]

  14. robert

    I am surprised that Dave did not correct you, but whilst some people in Oz do a gap year, most go straight to uni (translation – college) after high school.
    I personally believe that a gap year is a great idea. After 13 or so years i institutions, it would be great to experience the real world and then make a career decision.

    I am an EE. I did some electronics building before I went to uni. The top boy in our class (on a Navy scholarship) could not identify what a sodering iron was, let alone use one. But then if you are going to drive ships, who cares?
    Anyway most of my class were of the practical kind and could wield a screwdriver and a pair of sidecutters.
    I graduated with a major in electronics and communications, but went to work as a medium voltage switchgear engineer (medium voltage is from 1kV to about 66kV). You electronics guys are just toying with electrons!
    So I had a lot of learning to do

    The company I started at was serous about training engineers. There middle and top management were technicians that were incredibly gifted, but they saw that they needed some educated engineers to work on the next generation of products and to be the next generation of management.
    My first six months were spent working in the factory doing every trade job imaginable in a very structured course (even had to write reports of my progress). I would say that whilst i somewhat did this grudgingly, I saw a few years down the track that this experience was extremely valuable for my career.
    On the job training is in my opinion extremely valuable, but these days occurs far to infrequently.
    As someone else sid, the employers have to mold the engineers into the shape they want them to be.

  15. Urb Anwriter

    Here is a really open-ended question, and one most definitely asked out of near complete ignorance of the subject; how much math is ‘too much math,’ and how much math is ‘enough’ math?

    With a ‘real,’ meaning four full years in the trenches of machining, I served an apprenticeship in the trade. Yes, some tiny bit of algebra, some trig (most of which didn’t actually mean anything to anyone in the room) and a bit of geometry. All I really realized out of that was that no one in high school, which I abandoned at an early age, had the slightest idea that math would have been more interesting in class had they told me I could calculate the altitude of my home-made rockets (albeit Estes engines, though they were illegal in my jurisdiction at the time) with just a cardboard tube and plastic protractor as a theodolite (sp).

    So, back to the question, what’s ‘enough’ math?

  16. One year down! | Engineer Blogs

    […] Remedial Tinkering Class […]