Is engineering education too hard?

There is a really interesting piece in the New York Times today about retention rates in STEM1 fields. To summarize, K-12 programs are doing a better job engaging students in STEM-related activities, but many of these students are failing to complete university degrees in these fields. There are a lot of good discussion points in this article, but I want to focus on the following quote for now:

The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next. [NYTimes: Why Science Majors Change Their Minds]

A few hastily-written observations:

On grade inflation

Among my graduating high school class, the majority of us who went to college were divided between Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Georgia State, and a handful of other regional universities. Almost everyone among my circle of friends went to college at no cost due to the Georgia HOPE Scholarship, a program which covered tuition for students who maintained a 3.0 GPA or higher.

I may upset some friends by saying this (but hey, this is my blog): maintaining a 3.0 at Georgia Tech is a lot harder than it is for most of these other schools. So while we were sweating bullets through Georgia Tech’s undergrad mathematics and computer science courses and fighting to hang on to our funding, our colleagues with less drive had it much easier.

I had a lot of friends lose the HOPE scholarship at Georgia Tech who (a) were studying topics very important to our society, (b) were the precise students our government should be investing in, and (c) could have easily kept the HOPE had they settled for a less ambitious major.

You could argue that you don’t want students who can’t maintain a 3.0 to become engineers. Most of my friends made 4.0’s in every single engineering-related class. The struggle to keep the GPA in the black was a game in canceling the consequences of lower grades accrued during the early undergraduate, general curriculum years (math, physical sciences, CS).

So yes, to take the idea eschewed in the NYT piece further, I would argue that a lot of STEM students end up making lateral moves into easier majors for financial reasons—it doesn’t matter how badly you want to be an engineer, a difference in thousands of dollars per year is a strong motivator. To say engineering education is simply too hard is an over-simplification of the problem. On that note:

On strictness and difficulty

I actually think on some level engineering educators have a moral/ethical obligation to approach courses with a serious mindset, exactly the same way you would in medicine. People’s lives are on the line.

One of my most impacting experiences as an undergraduate was when Dr. Roberto Leon told our steel design class: “If you earn an A in this course, I am giving you a license to kill.”

So when I explain to my students that my course is difficult and their performance will be strictly evaluated, I muse that the goal is for me to feel assured that I can eventually trust them to design a bridge that my 3-year-old daughter will drive across one day. They seem to actually appreciate this perspective—in fact, many have specifically thanked me for that type of honesty.

I teach the first class in the mechanics-based engineering sequence at Georgia Tech, statics. For most of my students, this is their first course outside of their general math and science requirements. I explain that it’s time for a shift in their approach—unlike various humanities, this content really matters and they have an ethical responsibility to master it from now on.

You have to inspire students to stop viewing courses as something to game to get an A, and convey that they can no longer advance on the basis of effort alone. If your building fails, you don’t get extra points for effort. Dramatic? Yes, but hopefully you see my point. In my experience, they respond very well to this type of encouragement.

Fortunately, there are a lot of checks and balances in the system that prevent most engineering tragedies. A student has to complete an entire degree of difficult classes, and there is the process of professional engineering licensure (including peer review of all engineering design).

But I personally believe that engineering undergraduate education is the prime time to start emphasizing ethical behavior. How? There is an entire field of literature on this topic. But here’s my take in four words:

Couple challenge and inspiration. (More to come on that.)


How do you reconcile the grade inflation aspect with the necessary difficulty of an engineering education? I don’t have the answer, just a few thoughts. (a) Keep planting the seed for STEM education in K-12. (b) Maintain the integrity and difficulty of STEM education. (c) I know this will never happen, but I would love to see states with a program like the HOPE scholarship incentivize STEM education by normalizing GPA scholarship cut-offs on the basis of degree/institution.

  1. STEM = Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics 

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