When I Taught Engineering Students

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Many years ago, I had a job teaching developmental reading to college students–not quite the same as “speed reading,” because it also worked to increase comprehension. It was a six-week course, and then I’d move on to another college.

My first gig was at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York–and what a view my classroom window had of the Hudson River valley!

Before I could start the class, I had a cordial meeting with the dean. Toward the end, he said something I didn’t expect:

“These are good kids, and very, very smart. But they’re also such stiffs! All science, all the time. Please, see if you can do anything to loosen them up a little.” (I’m glad to be able to report I did. I made my teaching a tiny bit eccentric.)

I remember that conversation because I understand, now, what the dean was getting at. He was afraid his students would grow up to be tunnel-visioned. Unable to relate to life outside their own narrow field of specialization.

There comes a point in real life, and in public life, where decision-makers have to go beyond whatever advice they’re getting from their expert advisors. Because there’s so much that the experts don’t know. Like, how most people live. Designing and building bridges that don’t fall down is important; but understanding and relating to the people who have to use the bridge, that’s important, too. We are not machines, and we have vital needs that mere science cannot meet.

Something to keep in mind, these days…

5 comments on “When I Taught Engineering Students

  1. Thinking outside the box is difficult for a lot of people because they’re alone when they do. “a tiny bit eccentric”? Hmm – just trying to imagine you less eccentric than you seem to be – lol

  2. One of my uncles, an engineer, tried teaching engineering for a few years. He said he always had to lecture his students that: “In the real world, 95% isn’t an A; it’s a collapsed bridge.” He finally decided that trying to convince students of this made him too nervous, so he went back to being a real-world engineer. Interestingly enough, I used to quote his words to my own literature students, who also had to be reminded that there’s a Real World out there, and that accuracy about reality is essential.

  3. This is a real problem in IT. A lot of people in the field know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. The colleges manufacturer students that can confidently bring a technical solution to a problem, but not necessarily bring a practical and cost-effective solution to bear upon the problem at hand. A solution which is cost effective for a 1,000 employee company may not be at all practical for a 100 employee company. Some solutions fail to account for the human element and the people end up serving the machines, instead of vice versa.

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