EE Schools Not to Blame: Most EEs are Self-Taught



This is a follow-up to my recent post, “7 Critical Things They Don’t Teach You in EE School.” Thanks to all of you who posted comments—great feedback on an always-hot topic. The responses covered a wide range of related topics, but there did seem to be some consensus. Here is my attempt to summarize the collective specific and implied opinions I received.

  • The BSEE curricula are still valid. Basics still count and provide a solid base for future learning. A key goal of the BS program is in helping the student learn how to learn on one’s own.

Lambert858: We have to be constantly educating ourselves. Regardless of the performance of formal educational systems.

  • There is not enough time in a BS degree program to cover everything an EE needs to know. This is especially true of newer and current technologies that come and go. And that includes the seven topics I listed.

Stanley3: Advocates seem to ignore the central fact that there’s not enough school time to learn it all.

  • EE professors should be required to have some years of industry experience. To teach engineering, a professor should have experienced real-world design and development.

Sarathk: Most importantly most professors and lecturers have no good practical experience on those areas as they are just book readers or course preparing guys only.

  • The MSEE degree should be the goal of all seeking an EE career. The extra year or so of college provides higher level and more specialized graduate and elective courses as well as a chance to do some real research and design in a thesis.

Jared Johnson: Bachelor’s degree is really the beginning of an engineer’s education. I [sic] anybody is serious about becoming an engineer, I strongly encourage them to seek at least a Master’s.

After I graduated with my Master’s I was very well prepared for the workplace and to be a contributing member of an engineering team.

  • Some if not most of the critical topics I said were not covered are actually available in some schools as electives, graduate or continuing education courses. Some schools teach some or parts of the topics in regular required courses.

AWS1: I guess my 1981 BSEE from Purdue University included a pretty good course of study, as it included 5 of the 7 named subjects, just missing wireless and PWB [PCB] design.

  • Most EEs do learn new technology on their own. All use existing sources like books, articles, webinars, manufacturer’s literature, and internet searches. Some rely on mentors or colleagues, college courses, or MOOCs. And they learn on the job by doing. Given the fast pace of technological change, EEs have no choice but to be self-taught.

Blue_Steel: I always viewed my college education as the way to learn EE theory and to go through EE “hazing” which is merely demonstrating my ability to learn. But the real EE learning today is done on the job.

Mccrpt: College is about learning how to learn. After all my boss often gave me a document and said build something that will do this. I did not have a book to tell me. I had to do research and learn how to do it.

  • Does repair experience as a technician help learning engineering? Some say yes, others say no. Repair is not engineering. However, repair shows how products fail and does indicate how not to design something.

Jweir43: Some engineers never had to fix the crap that they designed..and that you would NEVER make that mistake.

Mccrpt: Doing repair teaches little for new development.

Pjgeneva: Repair teaches the basics. You can’t fix what you can’t understand.

  • Do employers really know what EEs know or can do? There is some evidence to show that hiring managers and HR types do not really have a grasp of the actual extent of an EE’s capabilities. They often wrongly hire engineers for technician work, indicating they do not know the difference between what engineers know and technicians know. And do hiring people know of the BS in engineering technology degree? BSET grads also work as engineers, but their curriculum is less theoretical and more practical than a BSEE curriculum, and they typically get more hands-on and lab instruction. They are applied engineers.

Jared Johnson: For instance, after I graduated with my Master’s in 2010, I shockingly found many employers seeking engineers with 10 years experience in Le [sic]. However, what is considered LTE is release 8 of the 3GPP standard which was released in 2008!!!

Stanley37: I’m a big fan of well-run engineering technology curricula.

  • I left out some important topics in my critical list.

Kldimond: So what are truly the basics? I define engineering as designing a system. Yet then we find that engineering school don’t teach that…not until you swing back around for a Masters.

User-451062: One area of electronics you left out was audio, or sound recording, processing, and reproduction.

Starbase435: Based on those [comments] collectively, an eighth “must add” point of order, schools need to cultivate better is the ability to THINK and DO independently of the technology…

  • One final relevant thought.

Lambert858: Good conclusion to article. Though it doesn’t address an engineer’s “high[half?] life”. Time required to pass before 50% of an engineer’s knowledge base becomes obsolete. Last time I read any on this subject, it was estimated to be ~5 years.

My observation is that you EEs out there actually know the real impact of EE education since you have experienced it. I just wish college professors and deans would read this blog and all these relevant comments. And do something about it.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 11

on Jun 28, 2016

The best engineers that I worked for beginning my career were those who started from a radio / electronics hobby from a young age, went to college, and learned all they could. Others were the ones who worked as technicians before going to college or those with military training. Myself I started playing with electons from the time I was about 8 and read all I could so I could build radios and other electronics. I also found as I advanced and worked with interns and new engineers, those who were ham radio operators, started to play with electronics at a young age, and had a hobby in radio or electronics before going to school were also the best interns and new engineers. Schools can only do so much. We need to educate our self with the building blocks they give.

on Jun 28, 2016

I have to take exception with the opinion that troubleshooting does not teach about engineering. I started my career with an Associate degree as a product tester, worked up through technician ranks repairing transducer and air data computer products, and am now doing engineering in R&D environment. I consider my troubleshooting days as being invaluable as a source of greater understanding of how components and systems work individually and as part of a larger system. One of the biggest pitfalls I've seen is that engineers don't look beyond the microcosm of the what they are designing and see how it interacts with the world in general whether it be electrically, thermally, from a user standpoint, etc. These are things no CAD drawing will show you and as the late Mr. Pease maintained, simulations only get you so far. Repair work is a great portal to the practical application of any design.

on Jun 28, 2016

I have to agree. Troubleshooting or debugging is something they often do not teach in school much to the student's detriment as they have to pick up those skills on the job. Troubleshooting actually requires more skill because one must consider a wide range of possibilities and then solutions once a problem has been identified. As with engineering in general, there are usually many solutions of varying degrees of desirability.

on Jun 28, 2016

Heh! I recently "retired" from some 30+ years of electromagnetic compatibility engineering – without any engineering coursework or ever having gotten a degree – but I was still able to take advantage of many opportunities to learn on my own starting at 11 or 12, when I built a coil-gun that could stick ball bearings in the bedroom wall, and have kept learning ever since.

Playing with electronics, amateur radio, 21 years in the Army doing avionics and working with communications technologies; I walked right into a job in EMC when I retired from the service. Here's my secret: almost every save I've made for my employers has been High School physics and elementary troubleshooting techniques.

Some time ago, I sent a LinkedIn"inmail" to a one-time colleague at Alcatel USA , on the occasion of the final closure of that facility . He called me the "Master of EMC". Perhaps I was, for a while; offered my choice of a position as an EMC test engineer or EMC design engineer, I chose design; test engineers have to fix the same problems over and over again, and design engineers can make them go away.

on Jun 28, 2016

"Time required to pass before 50% of an engineer’s knowledge base becomes obsolete. Last time I read any on this subject, it was estimated to be ~5 years."

I have to completely disagree on this one. The most critical abilities for a EE come from a broad understanding of the fundamentals, and how those apply in any specific situation to engineering one or more solutions. I don't think of an engineer as a walking "knowlege base": we have the CRC Handbook and now the Internet for that.
The solid foundation in the basics (linear systems analysis, control systems theory, circuit design, etc) have never become obsolete for me. In fact, as technology makes more things possible at reasonable or decreasing cost, these subjects keep coming back as more relevant and valuable every day!
Just my 2c.

on Jun 28, 2016

If troubleshooting and "hands-on experience" is not required for EEs then I guess SW Engineers could drop programming languages, coding and debugging from their resumes too ... (I AM SWE), right?
Of course there is more to SW Engineering than coding/debugging as well as there is more to EE than soldering but for one I CAN go and use the scope and I would not believe in EE's credential if he/she would not too ... (I am embedded SW. Oh, I can solder too ...)

on Jun 28, 2016

I believe that the Co-Op programs in many engineering schools are as good as a Master's Degree, if not better. It's simple, you start working as an 'engineer' while a freshman, and learn from your fellow engineers on the job, and keep learning from there. When you graduate, you already have 2-4 years of experience, designing, prototyping, debugging, and sustaining your work products.

on Jul 12, 2016

I heartily agree! The same can be said for labor union based apprenticeship programs. Sadly, however, co-op and apprenticeship programs are being systematically eliminated by most companies because they don't contribute immediately to the bottom line. Some years ago, I would see my workplace full of college students on co-op. Not any more.

on Jun 29, 2016

I own a debt to the ARRL and its wonderful Radio Amateur's Handbook. I started college holding General class amateur and 1st class commercial FCC licenses, worked for Alcoa through the co-op program, and retired after 40 years as an engineer.
I was fortunate to grow up in our family drug store with access to many chemicals. Several years back I reviewed plans for an effluent treatment system which needed to lower pH with carbon dioxide. Cost estimate was over $250K. I ended up with a $350 carbonator like in our soda fountain 30 years before. With a flow control valve, a PID controller and a rack to hold two CO2 bottles the total project cost <$20K.

on Jun 30, 2016

Engineering is not really all about knowing how things work, electron flow, radio propagation, or programming structure. Engineering is knowing how to put those individual knowledge bases together and create a viable product. Good technicians are good because they understand how a specific device allows electrons to move or not, how to follow the signal path and find that disruption to the electron flow. It's all very mechanical. Many engineers start out as technicians whether they realize it or not. Somewhere along the line, they get an idea that, if you re-organize the structure of a circuit or change a component, the circuit now does something else and a new purpose comes to light, then they become an engineer. I like many who responded started my career at a very young age, experimenting with the properties of electricity, with good results, and a lot of VERY bad results. I learned what properties can and cannot be combined for good results. There was another respondent who put it well, the education system is for learning how to learn. What I think is missing is the teaching of how to think like an engineer. So much effort is put into teaching the mechanics of engineering, that graduates come out as technicians, who then have to learn how to be an engineer.

on Jul 3, 2016

Very interesting articles and comments. I'm a lecturer (non-tenure) at a private institution in a combined Electrical and Computer Engineering dept. Of your 7 topics, we have a required DSP course, electives in RF/wireless and power electronics, and only lightly touch on the others. It's important to note that this is an ECE-degree, meaning all of our students also get digital, microprocessor, and embedded design.

I'd like to offer 2 thoughts that I have not yet seen in the comments (perhaps I missed them, and I apologize). However, I cannot claim credit. These come from reading another ED article by Wilton Helm (“Engineering Education: Fact and Fiction”, May 29, 2015), but I agree.
1) There is some beneficial formal training that happens (e.g. people with a degree tend to write cleaner code & better documentation than those without).
2) College, particularly graduate school, forces you to look at yourself and your work objectively. This is difficult (and “ego-deflating”), but provides the college-educated person with a different perspective than a non-degree holder.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel writes articles and blogs on the wireless, communications and networking sectors for Electronic Design. Formerly, Lou was professor and department head at Austin Community College...
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