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Does overemphasis on "mathematics" and ban on computers devalue engineering degrees? Watch

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    I'm not talking about all of mathematics I'm talking about algorithmic knowledge like integration, differentiation, matrix operations etc. Knowing by heart the derivatives of more and more types of functions gives no extra understanding of calculus. What is more frustrating is that computers do it much better than I can with A-level skills. Besides numerical methods also work when algebra doesn't.

    These days aeroplanes, buildings, materials etc. cannot simply be designed on paper, computers play a vital role in any such development. I expected that universities would concentrate on teaching vital skills like how to use software like CAD for design, the chemistry an physics needed for engineering etc. However I have recently learned that they mainly focus on teaching mathematical algorithms instead, while putting less emphasis on learning engineering.

    Is this true?

    I have recently learned that many universities in the UK have strict bans have on what calculator can be used during the degree, let alone using computers, one of the very important tools of the engineer.

    If this is true, then during earning the degree students learn completely different skills from what's needed to become a good engineer. Even though they also learn the right skills on the side. Would using the same tools and methods as engineers at universities -rather than rote learning of algorithms- enhance the performance of engineers?

    I would like to hear the opinion of engineers who have work experience.
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    (Original post by LABE)

    I would like to hear the opinion of engineers who have work experience.
    As an engineer, my first two years were very theoretical, while my last 2 years are very applied. In the work place, of course no one uses calculus because computers do the hard work for us. The importance lies in understanding how the software uses calculus (or whatever maths another engineer might use), even if you're not able to do the hardest problems yourself. Again, the idea of university is perfecting the art of how to think. It's not about learning a bunch of stuff from your degree, then going into the workplace and repeating it day in, day out. A lot of useful stuff is not taught at uni, after all it can't cover everything. In the industry , you will come up against fresh problems i.e. have to engage in various software you may have never used, therefore its about honing these skills in order to develop into a good engineer.
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    Universities aren't engineer training schools (although they certainly wouldn't try to stop you from believing so); you're not going to graduate and not have to learn a hell of a lot in your first job. University is only the first step in a life long ladder of learning.
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    (Original post by Smack)
    University is only the first step in a life long ladder of learning.
    I understand that you would have to learn a lot after uni. My question is more like: is there a substantial amount of useless material in the syllabus, which you will definitely never need.
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    (Original post by LABE)
    I understand that you would have to learn a lot after uni. My question is more like: is there a substantial amount of useless material in the syllabus, which you will definitely never need.
    No, because there's no way to say that you'll definitely never need any of the material taught on the degree. Engineering degrees have you help prepare you for a broad range of engineering roles, from more managerial and supply chain based ones to academia. Whilst your average engineer isn't going to use much calculus, those who enter academia, or more analytical roles in industry, certainly will.
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    (Original post by Smack)
    No, because there's no way to say that you'll definitely never need any of the material taught on the degree. Engineering degrees have you help prepare you for a broad range of engineering roles, from more managerial and supply chain based ones to academia. Whilst your average engineer isn't going to use much calculus, those who enter academia, or more analytical roles in industry, certainly will.
    Of course some things are definitely useless (as meant in language, nothing has 100% probability). Like practising how to do the job of a calculator/computer fast. In every workplace those will be provided and will be faster no matter how much time you spend practising. Even if you had to design a calculator, you would have to understand the algorithms it uses, but you wouldn't have to do it's calculations fast, without reference.

    I wanted to know what's useful to be an engineer, what is taught at universities is not an argument to automatically make it useful for engineers. If universities theoretically taught how to spin yarn by hand, sure you would need to know that, to teach it to the next generation, but the skill would be still useless. The students who spend 1/3 of their tuition with yarn and 2/3 of their time learning their actual profession would be at a disadvantage compared to those who don't waste time on yarn spinning and spend 100% of their course learning their profession.
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    (Original post by LABE)
    I understand that you would have to learn a lot after uni. My question is more like: is there a substantial amount of useless material in the syllabus, which you will definitely never need.
    One man's meat is another man's poison as the saying goes. Although the core syllabus of an engineering degree will cover the basics, content beyond that is tailored for specifics. Some will be geared towards hands-on, others towards research and academia, still others towards design or production biases. Some engineering disciplines require more physics and maths than others which will be reflected in the course content.

    It is absolutely right that all engineering degrees establish fundamental knowledge from first principles. Walk before you can run. Teams of engineers need people with different specialisations, but there has to be a common understanding and language for communication.

    If an engineer cannot understand how a computer model is created from mathematical concepts and equations, then they also cannot understand where errors may arise which may lead to dangerous or catastrophic design faults going unnoticed.

    Computers and mathematics are the tools that combine to produce a model of how something behaves. Together, they predict outcomes. Much of mathematics is learning to use tools rather like a carpenter needs to master the use of their tools before they can produce supreme craftsmanship.

    Choosing the right tools and understanding explicitly the limitations of those tools is crucial in engineering where reliability and safety is paramount.

    Correcting the faults after a failure potentially costs lives, wastes huge sums of money and irretrievable time.
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    Who do you think designs the computers who do all these great calculations?
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    (Original post by LABE)
    I would like to hear the opinion of engineers who have work experience.
    The thing you need to remember is that any computer model is precisely that - a model, inside a computer. It is just a fancy calculator which responds to the inputs you give it, not a perfect simulation of the real thing. In applying any method of analysis to a task you need to consider what decision you're trying to make with it and select modelling techniques which are appropriate, based on your knowledge of the way they work and their limitations. Normally there's a trade-off between accuracy and time taken to build and run the model - you will also often want to overestimate or underestimate a particular result which will also influence your decisions. In some materials (e.g. steel within the elastic range) it is pretty simple to predict most kinds of behaviour quite accurately. In others (e.g. concrete) it is not simple at all and depends heavily on the result you're after (e.g. if I am modelling a concrete floor slab held up by columns I might have one model to get results to design the slab, another to get results to design the columns, and another to arrive at a good estimate of the deflection of the slab).

    Several times as a structural engineer I have got my calc pad out and gone back to "first principles" at the same time as running a computer model. Sometimes this is to check that the computer output makes sense by an approximation. Other times this is to consider what the variables are, how sensitive my result might be to them and how to pick a conservative value to minimise the number of computer runs I need to do.

    This idea of engineers pressing a "magic button" in some computer software and it doing all their design for them is an absolute fantasy. Not because the technology isn't there (there are software packages which will do quite a scary amount for you nowadays), but because it is so easy to make a mistake with a computer. Buildings have been condemned and even fallen down because of people blindly believing what came out of a computer output.
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    I think an emphasis on mathematics can only make them rigorous qualifications. The last thing you want is an engineer who can't do maths to a high standard.
 
 
 
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