Fantasy Curriculum

Fantasy Curriculum

2008-09-29-teachingThis post probably won’t win me any favors with faculty in other engineering disciplines but it’s something I think should be investigated as a possible method to improve the undergraduate curriculum (particularly in ME). Since I’m a ME by background, I’ll stick with that curriculum because I know it better than others, but this thought process is probably adaptable to EE, civil, and a few other core engineering disciplines.

Most of the courses in a typical ME curriculum center around solid mechanics, dynamics, thermo, some materials, some design, and some lab classes. And with those classes, you generally have to take a few physics classes, a bunch of math/statistics, probably a chemistry, and probably an electrical/controls course. Now here’s the big change. For ME students, all of the engineering/physics/chemistry classes should be taught by ME faculty, not within their own departments.

Wait a few seconds to let that seep in…

Ok… a few more…

…Now, before the onslaught starts, I’d like to explain my reasons for that bold statement.

The main reason has to do with overall course objectives. Classes taught to a general audience don’t get specific enough for a particular discipline to get enough out of them. For instance, the calc 1 curriculum has to satisfy requirements for all STEM students. There are snippets in there for each discipline but some are completely unnecessary for others.

Another is inertia. When general courses have to satisfy multiple department and degree objectives, getting changes to a course can be time consuming. However, if the department was overseeing their particular version of a class, they could make changes semester-to-semester to tweak their focus areas.

A third reason is the course content, layout, and instruction. This goes along with the inertia issue. Maybe one of these courses would be better off with some lecture topics removed and a project added (or whatever).  That could be very beneficial to one discipline but maybe very unnecessary for others. Also, the particular instructor can have a large impact on the students’ success. If a course is managed by a different department, the other departments may not know the actual lecturing was handed over to a first year graduate student who was pursuing a PhD in an entirely different subject (yep, that happened in a class I took).

The last reason is curriculum streamlining. Potentially, some topics can be removed or placed with topics in other classes which can consolidate the number credit hours. I’m not looking to dumb-down the curriculum and make it less credit hours. Rather, I would clear some space for more advanced ME classes within the UG curriculum.

I know the obvious reasons why this isn’t done. The first is shared resources. One prof can teach a core class for five different disciplines rather than five different profs for five different disciplines. More profs means more costs for the schools, which isn’t a good thing. The second is ABET. I don’t know the particulars of that, but I suspect they might have something to say about it. The last major reason why it isn’t done is the profs themselves. Most profs don’t even want to teach UG classes, let alone asking a ME prof to teach Calc I. However, this might be mitigated by streamlining the course, where it is more appealing to teach.

I’d like to hear your comments and criticism (or support) for this idea. If you are interested in reading more, I’ll be delving into each of the ME extra courses (maths, physics, electronics/controls, and chem) over on my normal GEARS blog. When I’m done with that (and because this is the interweb, not the real world) I’ll post my GEARS undergraduate fake-but-cool ME curriculum outline for you to critique.



I went to a German FH (Fachhochschule, recently renamed to University of Aplied science though) for my undergrad. In those it is usual that the background courses are offered from the main faculty. That means that there is a professor of Mathematics for EE who is part of the EE-Department. They also have a reputation for a very streamlined curriculum.

After switching to a mainline University for my Postgrad work I had the opportunity to compare both approaches.

And I am quite convinced that the internal offered courses are superior for the students. From the view of the professors it is seen as somewhat of a lower class of professorship though. They have trouble finding grad students and research projects, and the university has trouble finding qualified applicants.

Here’s a counter argument. Replace “Physics” and “Chemistry” above with “English”, or “Philosophy of Science”, or “Interpretive Dance”.

By the same line of reasoning, “Interpretive Dance” should be more valuable as an elective if it is taught by an ME professor, able to streamline the course and make it more relevant to the ME curriculum. Now, I grant you “Interpretive Dance, Mechanical Engineering Division” should be quite entertaining; you might even be able to cover the cost of the course by selling audience tickets for the lectures to other faculty and students. The Youtube videos would practically shoot themselves.

But it would be a good idea only insofar as the courses reason for existence was to further the students’ ability to do ME. If there is a real perceived value of the course to the students independent of their major, the idea would, to put it bluntly, suck melons through a straw.

If the only point of any math, or chemistry or whatever, course is as a support to the ME classes then you’d have a point. I do not believe that to be the case.

The courses that I am discussing, however, are not general education requirements but rather requirements specifically for the ME degree. If you want to take interpretive dance to satisfy the Gen Ed goals of your university, that’s fine. But Physics, Chemistry, Maths, and Basic EE are all requirements specifically for the ME degree.

I’ll give you an example of one more closely to what you’re describing: Technical Writing. Most engineering programs have it and it is taught by the English Department. That’s how my UG university did things. We had to submit a lab report to the English department for Tech Writing and the content was to be graded by the ME prof.

I routinely received 95s or 98s on my “tech writing skillz” from the English prof and score in the low to mid 30s from the ME prof on those same “tech writing skillz”. The ME prof took over that portion of the course because the English prof was that terrible. I still got an A for Tech Writing from the English department but my ME department was not pleased with the course. Yet, nothing changed for several semester due to the inertia of the university.

And Tech Writing was a ME graduation requirement. Therefore, by my reasoning, it should have been taught by an ME prof.

Stay tuned to my blog for specific responses on the math and “other goals of the course” because that is a big issue.

Well, if interpretive dance is a requirement for the Engineers, than there should be a specialized courses Id for ME or Id for EE. And those might profit from being offered by the majors department. After all if the aim of the course isn’t to make you a better ME or EE, than it shouldn’t be a requirement.

If its an elective the situation would be different.

English was in fact a required course for me, and it was offered by a professor from the EE department. In fact the professor for Business administration for EE.

To me, the reason to keep many of these courses as “general” is to allow for students to take time to finalize their choice in major. Many students come in to college knowing they want to be an engineer, but have no idea what flavor. Some of the smaller disciplines would vanish if students were forced to commit fully to a major in what I consider the “general engineering” courses.

The majority of the people I graduated with did not start as materials science and engineering majors. Some were undecided, but more were mechanical engineers who were required to the an Intro to Materials course. If they had been forcibly tracked into mechanical engineering through math, and physics, they may have been unable to make the switch without adding years to their degree.

There are certainly some courses that could be better targeted as being “Math for Engineers”, or Physics for Engineers, but sometimes a general foundation is a very good thing. Having a common background helps students develop connections outside their major. It also makes interdisciplinary work more feasible: as an undergrad, I took EE classes, which assumed I knew certain things from the courses all engineering majors took. If there had been a separate Physics for EE Majors, I may not have been able to take those classes.

Lastly, small departments simply cannot do this. The faculty already have significant teaching loads, covering the discipline-specific material. I do not see the math department willingly dissolving so that other departments can hire a professor to teach discipline specific math.

True enough about the freshman engineers (or as they’re called in DrWife’s alma matter “pre-business majors”) not having a choice. But if it tacks on an extra semester, I’m ok with it.

The bigger issue you bring up is the Calc for Engineers. Those classes would be fine if they were taught by engineers. But they’re not. They are taught by math prof who really only care about math for the sake of math. They don’t want to actually use it in the real world. So a general class would be fine expect it should still be taught by engineering faculty.

I still think streamlining will take care of some of your concerns about teacher overload. Right now, a large university probably has 6-10 Calc I and Calc II classes per semester. But, if you separated those classes into major-specific, you could probably combined Calc I and II into the same class because you’ve removed some fat. That might actually free up some teachers. During the transition period though, things would be difficult.

I have to disagree with you on this one, GEARS. My undergrad is in engineering, in a specialty program that combined mathematics and communications/computer engineering. I had over half my classes with students in another stream who combined mathematics and mechanical engineering.

There was one overwhelming conclusion from those students, and from our professors in the mathematics department when we asked them (they were engineers who had done mathematical PhDs and were assigned specifically to this program). The mechanical professors were almost uniformly incompetent when it came to teaching mathematical courses. Their rigor was nonexistent, the flow of their courses was wrong (i.e. not how you teach certain materials to make it conducive to learning), and generally their courses were thought of by anyone with sufficient background as being incredibly easy.

I do agree with you on the topic of assigning random graduate students to teach core courses for MEs that happen to be in another department. That’s not really acceptable. However, I’d still take a competent PhD candidate who knows how the course (say, Vector Calculus, or advanced LinAlg?) fits into the grand scheme of mathematics over a mechanical prof who doesn’t, and just teaches rote learning and how to solve 5 problems. I’m referring to a specific course I’m aware of here.

Obviously some universities will be different, and if you were taking mathematics courses being taught by ME professors at a top-notch school, where the ME department was widely regarded as one of the best, you likely would not have this experience. Despite my undergrad U being one of the top 3 or 4 for engineering in Canada, the ME department was decidedly subpar when it came to the teaching, and I trusted them about as far as I could throw them.

ME departments certainly have the right to dictate curriculum for the course that their students have to take that apply toward core credits. Saying they should teach every single one of those courses goes too far in most cases; honestly, most ME departments aren’t qualified to teach some of the courses you’re advocating. Your experience may have been better than most, if the departments you did your education in were qualified enough to trust.

Additionally, and with this I’ll stop ‘wall of text’: having all the courses internally tends to lead to things where material like mathematics is de-emphasized in favour of the flavour de jour: the ME department at my undergrad U recently demanded (and was given) a change in the sole second-year mathematics course their students take. Now, instead of a single semester course in ODEs and an introduction to PDEs, it’s a half-semester in that, and a half-semester introducing probability and statistics. By half-assing them both, their students end up knowing neither. Putting a course like that under the control of the department itself, rather than simple under their influence, and things go downhill very quickly. (I see it all the time when departments decide that ‘anyone can teach statistics’ and take over their required core undergrad statistics class, assigning it to some random faculty who hasn’t a clue.)

I would put the counter argument that most Math Departments aren’t qualified to teach Calc to engineers. I’ve never seen an “applied” problem in a calc class taught by a math prof (read: graduate student). In a lot of cases, they have no idea how to actually apply the things they are teaching which is what engineering is for.

Counterpoint is the uni where I’m doing my grad work. The calc course all engineers (non-streamed) take in first year is an applied-science (eng) specific course, deliberately applied and focused to engineering applications. The math department even assigns as many engineers (prof or senior grad students) to teach that class as possible to encourage the philosophy.

If you make engineers take a theoretical delta-epsilon calculus first-year class, I agree that’s useless and a waste of time. I guess I’m just lucky to be in a place that’s sensible enough to avoid that.

I completely agree with you. Math/physics/chem for an engineering discipline should be taught by the engineers from that discipline, because of all the reasons you mention (e.g. that’s the only way to get the proper focus on the topics, streamline the curriculum, etc.)

I assure you that all engineering faculty I know, across all disciplines, feel the same way. So why doesn’t it happen (in the US, at least), you ask? The answer is: university politics.

Here is an example: I have recently had an experience with trying to take over a Physics for Engineers kind of course for majors in my engineering department, previously taught by physics and the most hated course in the curriculum; we wanted to revise it and to have it taught by my engineering department. The physics department was outraged that we would propose to do such a thing; there were comments such as — we as engineers couldn’t possibly be qualified to teach these topics. *eyeroll* (All the more ridiculous when you realize that more than a third of our engineering faculty have physics degrees, me included). We got into a major lockdown with them; they wouldn’t OK it and their OK was necessary for approval at the university level.

During that time I found out that “You simply don’t take away service courses from departments, it’s just not done.” Essentially, there are a number of departments, especially in L&S colleges, that are funded primarily from the university and their funding from the university depends strongly on teaching these huge service courses that employ hordes of TA’s. Remove the service courses, and you are literally taking away their livelihood. Most engineering departments bring in a lot of external money and are reasonably self-sustained; they also have a much smaller number of TA’s than basic sciences departments. Physics and chemistry are probably not that bad in terms of revenue, but they sure don’t like to see their university funding lines cut just because engineering students deserve a more focused education!! Departments such as math or humanities are almost completely dependent on university funding tied to their teaching mission, so I am sure every service course taken away makes a painful dent in their budget.

Anyway, in my university, the policy seems to to be that it’s not “nice” to take away service courses from L&S college departments. The fact that my engineering students can’t solve a second order diff eq with constant coefficients or a simple system of linear algebraic equations apparently means squat; I have to spend 30% of my time in every course reteaching intro math and physics topics so we can get to the actual material.

(As you might have noticed, this topic hit a nerve.)

I’m curious why you think that a math course, taught by a mathematician, is going to do a *worse* job than an average eng prof at teaching DEs or linear algebra? We also have to re-teach basic mathematical methods to math majors who didn’t learn it the first time around — it’s a common complaint in every stream of every discipline. Students don’t learn things the way we want them to, or remember what they should from previous years.

It’s not as if teaching DEs to engineers is every mathematician’s dream, but they are qualified to do it, and typically (at least at my history of schools) do a pretty good job. There’s nothing magical about putting such a course into the hands of an engineering department that is going to improve the quality of teaching and understanding. Stupid students will still forget 90% of the material year-to-year, the focus will become more applied over time, and the course will eventually turn into the cookie-cutter memorize-the-algorithm course that we’ve all taken at one point, typically to our detriment.

However, a caveat: the DE/LinAlg courses I’ve seen (and taught) to engineers are engineering-specific courses, offered only for engineering students, and typically only for a specific discipline. For example, one course for ODEs for ME/CE, one course for ODEs for ECE, etc.. In that context, the discipline being taught to has a lot of say in the content and curriculum, but the teaching is done by the Math & Stats department. If your students are being forced to take a huge multi-section generic no-focus class, then by all means you have a reasonable stance.

Wesley, what I have seen is that physics and math faculty who teach engineers simply don’t care about the quality of teaching, perhaps because they feel they are teaching intellectually inferior kids (not math or physics majors, mind you) who are therefore not worth their best effort (yes, that kind of contempt does come through and students feel it). Apparently teaching non-majors is a major chore.

Another aspect I have seen is that my department has begged and pleaded that some topics be emphasized and some of the extraneous material cut so the core topics could be covered in more depth, and we never got anywhere. Especially in physics, these kids get bombarded with a smorgasbord of topics and retain absolutely nothing on any of them. And it really doesn’t help that the teachers have no experience and no inclination to look for examples that students may find engaging or relevant (a good example for a physicist is not the same as a good example for an electrical or a mechanical engineer).

Of course mathematicians are well qualified to teach math and physicists are well qualified to teach physics, but if they don’t give a rat’s ass, which seems to be rampant at my university, then any professor who would care more — which would be an engineering professor — would likely do a better job.

It’s a shame you have math & physics departments full of douches. It’s by no means universal; my experience has been generally positive, both as an undergrad engineer and as a graduate student (and graduate ‘teaching fellow’) statistics student.

My department deliberately gave me engineering ‘service courses’ to teach because they knew I came from an engineering background and could tailor the course to the students better than someone who didn’t understand the culture or focus. That seemed sensible both to me, and the chair who assigned me the job(s).

Thanks GMP. I will keep that in mind if it ever comes up in reality at my new place. Touching the 3rd rail of curriculum and turning off the faucet for other departments wouldn’t win me any favors.

At least my thought process wasn’t completely crazy.

I have to disagree with this one. I do understand where you’re coming from, but this is essentially the same argument I’ve had with people on here about the purpose of a degree in general. The idea is for someone to come out with reasoning skills, not a tech degree. Teaching things specific to a particular degree is going to give you degree-specific skills, but nothing that is transferrable to other areas. The point, however, is to come away with enough of a background in your area as well as exposure to other fields so that you’re able to acquire what you need to know later on in a job…along with the reasoning skills to pursue it!

I think the real problem here is approach. The problems I had in physics were usually dependent on a bad or good teacher. However, when I switched to engineering, I had a hard time because of the change of perspective and viewpoint. Physics, in particular, is very general and looks at a lot of possible cases using mathematical reasoning. Engineering would like to claim that, but a lot of what I saw was things that were being taught without reference to underlying physics and as processes. Admittedly, this got better in upper-level courses, but it was still present to some degree.

In reality, I think the solution should be the opposite: professors ought to know enough about what is being taught in other disciplines and be able to reference that and draw it into their lectures (a mini-review, if you will) when they are teaching subjects that require background from other fields. The good professors I’ve had already do this…the bad ones, not so much. And I will say this is more of a problem in engineering than in the sciences, based on my experience. Perhaps it is because my undergrad is in physics, but it seems like scientists have more breadth in their understanding while engineering seems to keep narrowing its focus. As you may have guessed, I think this is detrimental to student learning.

I agree that Profs should know what’s going on in other classes but I suspect (and maybe GMP can help us out) they assume that students should learn what’s on the syllabus. But I’ve seen two different sections of the same class taught by two different profs produce entirely different results. That’s a really bad sign but unless you fire the ineffective prof, that’s not going to happen.

So on one hand, the outside prof thinks all students learned that but the students that took the bad section are waaaay behind.

And sometimes I secretly think prof’s teach those classes terribly so they won’t have to anymore…

I’m an undergrad at a major research university and although the core physics, chemistry, and biology classes are all taught by their respective departments, many of my math classes were taught by engineering faculty, but some were taught by math faculty. In both cases, the quality was about the same. This may have been because the math faculty (and the physics faculty as well) recognized that nearly all of the students in the class were from engineering and thus tailored their course for us. The only thing that sucked was in my first diff. eq. class, the professor only talked about oscillating mechanical systems and not electrical circuits, but it wasn’t that big a deal.

Also, even for a large department, adding all of those core classes to engineering professors trying to do research is unrealistic and even if they were willing and tried, the quality of the courses would diminish because they simply don’t have the time required to make a good course.

Basically, a course will be good if the professor is good at teaching (and has had experience with the course), regardless of their department.

In the end, a good teacher is always going to be more effective than a bad one. But when you don’t even know whether the teachers are good (or bad) in the outside department, how can you control that?

Calculus I CANNOT be seriously taught by ANY engineering professors I know. Teaching a subject, such as Calculus I, requires a thorough background in the entire subject, in this case the subject of REAL ANALYSIS. The teacher must know all the theorems, how to prove them, where they come from, and how the subject fits into the context of all of modern mathematics. Otherwise, the course devolves into a formula plugging exercise , which is a waste of students’ time and a poor excuse for real education. Similar arguments apply to all of the nonengineering science courses: physics, chemistry, …

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