March 06, 2015 by Justin Roczniak
I was in an unspecified 400-level engineering course March 5, drifting off to sleep and hoping desperately the school would cancel classes in time for me to get home and catch some sleep before The Triangle production night. (That didn’t happen.)
Dimly conscious, I looked up at the board and saw equations upon equations filling the board like so many hieroglyphics, and a PowerPoint slide with a picture of the problem in question. It was then that I realized the truth: I was looking at an extremely verbose way to describe the sum of the areas of three triangles and a rectangle.
That was it. That was all it was. People were vigorously taking notes on this subject, and asking questions about the specifics, and though there were some tricks about it, (there was, for instance, a factor that varied the slope of the triangles’ hypotenuses, and the slope varied with the depth) it was all just an area summation.
You could call it “basic calculus” but even that’s a much more complicated way of thinking about the problem than it needs to be; it’s grade-school level math being explicitly explained to junior engineering students. It took the better part of 45 minutes for the lecturer to slowly and painfully write out these calculations on the board.
I use this simply as the most handy example, and I mean nothing personal to the lecturer, but I have to say that it’s astonishing how common this is in high-level courses; where a simple, simple grade-school concept will be explained in excruciating detail and take up tons of class time, leaving very little time left to explain the concepts at work.
What this ultimately results in is a huge barrier to developing an intuitive understanding of a subject: instead of being asked to “sum the area of these three triangles and this rectangle which are determined by factors x, y and z, and find the resultant force,” I am being asked to put x, y and z into an equation that takes up a page and a half and leaves me with no understanding of what I’m doing.
(The textbook, of course, explains it in even more excruciating detail, with many graphics and text boxes which are attractively formatted, thoughtfully colored and labeled, and are ultimately confusing and useless.)
Forty-five minutes of a 400-level engineering lecture can be better used rather than a slow and painful explanation of 7th grade math. If it’s necessary to say anything more than “Find the area and resultant vector” to junior engineering students for them to figure it out, well, maybe you should be reconsidering how you’re teaching engineering.
An ounce of intuitive understanding of a subject at a high level is going to go miles further than a pound of memorized equations and symbols. Or, if you prefer a cliche, it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees in a lot of Drexel engineering classes.
If you’re a junior Drexel engineering student and haven’t made a presentation or worked on an open-ended problem in over three years, and haven’t experienced liberal arts education in five or more, you probably need a stiff drink. I recommend the mind eraser.
2 oz vodka
1 oz Kahlua (bonus if it’s home-made!)
Shake and strain vodka and Kahlua into a highball or old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Top off with soda water.
Drink through a small straw until you forget how to calculate the area of a triangle and have to be taught explicitly.
Justin Roczniak is the Editor-in-Chief at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected]