Warping young minds

Warping young minds

I got a call last week from the electrical engineering department on campus asking if I would teach a class this semester.  The class has the potential to be one of the most important classes that they will encounter in school.

No, it’s not circuits 1.  It’s University Studies.

You see, our university requires every freshman to take a class to orient them to living life at a university.  My sister went back to school when I started my master’s degree, and she complained to me over and over about how irrelevant the class is.  There was a section on, for instance, talking to your roommate about making living arrangements.  At this point, she’d moved out of my parents’ house and been living with someone for 12 years!

The custom in electrical engineering has been to try to use this class for something better: what specifically do you need to succeed in electrical engineering?  What that something is has been rather vague, however, so I’ve been granted a lot of latitude in what I teach.

Perfect!  I’m going to teach a bunch of things I wish I’d known when I started school.  For instance – I didn’t know there was more than one way to take notes, I didn’t know how to study for a problem-based exam (versus those in humanities-type classes, which often involve a lot of memorization), I was on my own for setting up a course schedule (my advisor wasn’t very helpful), I had no idea how to give a technical presentation, etc.  A few years ago, I discovered that most of my circuits 1 students had no idea how to write a proper lab report!  That one is definitely going on the list.

In other words, I’m going to cover a lot of ‘soft skills’ that should be relevant in an engineering education.  Some of these skills are also quite pertinent in a job.  I know that learning to live with a roommate can be difficult, but you can always change roommates, if necessary.  Learning how to communicate well in a job as well as how to get through school is, in my opinion, a bit higher priority.

If you were teaching a class like this, what knowledge and skills do you think are imperative for a beginning engineering student?  While I’ve got a pretty good outline, I’m always on the lookout for ideas from people whose experience and perspective differs quite a bit from mine.


Hehehe +1 for Homer pic. I would love to take that class.

As for ideas of things to add. . .
I would add how to properly document a project , when to start taking pics, when to start writing it up. Because in the end what good is being able to do it if you can’t effectively pass that on to the next guy. Probably more useful for what you do at home, rather then at work , but I think this is key to enjoying what you do so when you go home you dont take off your engineering hat.

Here’s a couple of things I noticed as I was doing my degree in engineering:

1) Some people don’t understand that the workload is designed so that you can’t keep up on your own. Those people tended to crash and burn at some point. Working in a group is a good thing, and you need to learn how before it’s too late. Get help for the things you don’t understand, help others with the things you do, and together you all (pass/do well/ace) the course.

2) Resist the groupthink as much as you can. There’s a mentality (or at least, there was at my school) that Engineering is better in all ways than any of the other schools. This was especially pronounced when it came to those in the humanities, which should be a common theme. Try to reinforce that while engineering is *practical* (and hence superior in some ways), there are valid, interesting, and challenging aspects to the other programs at your school as well. Too many of my classmates graduated still thinking that everyone who had done humanities was somehow a lesser human being, and that can’t have been good for them out in the Real World (TM).

3) Don’t count on the coursework to give you practical, hands-on engineering skills. Join some kind of competition team to learn those. Depending on the school, there should be access to a Baja team, a solar car team, an aeronautical design team, a marine design team, or even a concrete canoe/toboggan team. Do things with your hands, build things as much as possible, and reinforce your in-class lessons with amazing experience that will be even more valuable when it comes to looking for jobs.

I had several friends who were decidedly not academic in orientation, but who were mad for design. They got jobs before anyone else in our class, based solely on their portfolio of design. When you can walk in and hand over a book of blueprints that you designed yourself, it makes employers happy and more likely to give you a shot.

Besides, it’s fun!

Good luck with your course. 🙂

As it turns out, we teach the exact class that you are talking about at Auburn. All engineering freshmen are required to take an “Introduction to Engineering” class, with each department offering a section of the class.

The class is meant to equip future engineers with the skills that they need to make it through the rest of the major, as well as provide some engineering experience in the freshman year (which tends to be pure math/physics).

The class is taught in the framework of a project. All of the students are grouped into teams where they do MATLAB, SPICE, project planning, work breakdown, etc. At the end of the semester, a competition is held among the designs that the students have done. In addition to competition participation, students are also graded on a design document as well as a design presentation. This hits a majority of the “soft skills” that tend not to be taught in the core engineering classes.

Another feature that I really like is that the students are required to attend a “professional development” meeting twice in the semester. This is usually one of the IEEE/ASME/AIChE meetings that are held throughout the semester. Students are expected to turn in a memo summarizing the activities of the meeting or who presented (typically a company looking to get their name out there).

Some other possible ideas, time management (David Allen’s GTD comes to mind), the importance of lab notebooks, and tools that are available to engineers (Google Docs, Dropbox, Github).

As I work with flammible chemicals the one thing I would do is getting students to put out fires of various chemicals and electrical equipment.


Personally I don’t think Circuits 1 is the most important EE class…it’s quite hard to determine the hardest class IMO. However, teach them LATEX. Reports are much better done on LATEX than word…and LATEX is free.


Congrats on the class! As a student, I really wished I had more experience or examples of problem solving, more specifically learning to think non-linearly. I noticed the biggest difference between we students and our top professors is we students tend to think in a linear fashion while successful and creative professors think iteratively and/or divergently.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that changing the WAY you think and problem solve is something that can be done overnight, but learning HOW to change the way you think can be taught in a semester. I’m just spitting out what I feel was missing from my education. Hope this helps.

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