Top 10 Things They Do Not Teach You In Engineering School

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Personal opinion about subjects that should be taught in an engineering education program.

Engineering colleges and universities generally do a good job of teaching the fundamentals.  On the other hand they are often lagging in the latest technologies and practices.  It is hard for colleges to keep up with what is happening in the mainstream but most do eventually get around to updating their courses and curriculum.  However, there are some things they never seem to teach.  Here is my short list of topics I always thought they should include but perpetually do not.

  1. Troubleshooting.  If you are a real hands-on engineer you do troubleshooting.  It may involve your current project or trying to fix something designed by another.  It may be at the component level or at the systems level.  How do you learn troubleshooting?  As it turns out, we mostly learn that by doing.  We get better with experience.  But wouldn’t it be great if we got some basic guidelines and fundamentals in school?
  2. Test equipment and testing.  This goes along with the troubleshooting.  You may learn some DMM and scope basics in lab if you are lucky but today test equipment is very sophisticated and expensive.  There are all kinds of special analyzers and testers not to mention virtual instruments.  How to apply these instruments is also critical.  One more thing that you end up learning on your own.
  3. PC board layout.  This is such a critical part of an electronic design today that it is almost criminal not to teach it.  I have never seen it taught at the college level.  Why not?
  4. Noise and EMI.  Noise and electromagnetic interference are a constant part of all electronic engineering.  Yet it is rarely mentioned or taught.  Perhaps you get more noise discussion in communications courses where the fundamentals are based on noise levels.
  5. Standards.  In the real world of engineering, it seems like everything is based on a standard.  Thankfully we have them for things like wire and cable, connectors, interfaces, component specifications, IC packages and the like.  Yet you never hear about this in school.  It should be mentioned don’t you think?
  6. How to solder.  This skill is probably considered below the level of an engineer so it is never taught.  Yet every engineer needs to know about solder and the soldering process as it is what holds everything you design together.  Do graduates know about ROHS? And if you work at the bench troubleshooting or making a prototype, you probably have to solder.  It doesn’t require a 3 semester hour course and is something that can be taught in a lab.  Be sure to include SMDs and desoldering procedures.
  7. Reading component codes.  Like resistor color code and SMD resistor codes, capacitor markings and the like.  I have actually interviewed engineers with BS and MS degrees from major universities who could not read a resistor code, find pin 1 on an IC or orient a diode correctly.   Wow!
  8. AC power.  It is everywhere and we take it for granted but what do you know about it?  The grid, the wiring, the components, and the issues regarding it.  Unless you take power EE courses, you never learn this basic knowledge that affects us all.  Now alternative energy for solar and wind are added to that body of knowledge.  Do you know what UL approval means and how to get it?
  9. RF and wireless.  Communications and wireless are EE specialties that few learn.  Yet wireless today is everywhere.  RF nowadays is almost basic knowledge like digital and microcontrollers.  Yet it is rarely taught even as an elective.  All EE programs should include at least some RF and communications basics.
  10. Project management.  Some schools do teach this but it is usually an elective if available at all.  Yet what most engineers do is run their own project or work within one.  The principles of planning, scheduling, costing/pricing, and report writing must be known.

My list actually goes on.  For example where does one learn how to find, select and buy a component?  If you are designing a circuit for the first time, how do you select one of thousands of transistors or hundreds of op amps or dozens of embedded controllers?  Or how about battery knowledge?  Very critical today for sure.  Where do you learn that?  And how to make a presentation at a meeting.  It is essential today to learn how to reduce your Power Point slides from 100 to 10 more hard-hitting ones.

Some colleges have a so-called capstone course where the student is required to design and build a product.  This is a great place to learn all or most of the above.  More colleges should add such a course if they do not have one now.

Most engineers are pretty good learners on their own and with the aid of the Internet, new knowledge can be found and learned in short order.  Yet, I can only wonder how much more effective graduates would be in their first jobs if they had some of this information.  I am sure university professors would hate to teach some of this stuff as it is not “academic” enough.  Those are the professors who probably never worked in industry where they would find that the practical knowledge is often more useful than Maxwell’s equations, nodal analysis and FFT to mention a few.

Maybe all that stuff should be part of OJT but I think an introduction to some of it would put the real world into perspective for the graduate.

What do you think?

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Jan 9, 2013

Amen to all of the above, but you need at least 10 more, to cover the basic skills you need to survive life in a cubicle. Things like how to do meetings, get signatures on ECOs, how to talk to the bean counters, how to talk to your boss, why you really ought to come to work on time. It's amazing how unemployable the new graduates are!

on Nov 12, 2013

Leadership and motivation traditionally play a very important role in the functioning of society, because of the growing competition and the increasing significance of human resources for the progress.  

on Jan 14, 2013

Before reading the article I had thought this situation is only in Romanian faculties.
Related to point 6. How to solder: Did you know that Phisicians don't learn in the faculty to make an injection? "This skill is probably considered below the level of a doctor".

on Feb 26, 2013

I could certainly relate to everything stated above, specially when I'm about to become a fresh electronics engineering graduate. I'd like to start with Mertinooke's comment first. Once I was consistently in the honors list of my university, so I was hoping I could get into an on-the-job training program smoothly with my academic record. Never was I more mistaken. Of the 40+ companies I've submitted my resume and followed up on, I didn't get any offer, not even an interview invitation. (I would eventually get an OJT opportunity from a schoolmate who had just finished his OJT). Now the technical part, NONE of the knowledge or skills I've gained from the academe helped me with my OJT. I couldn't believe I was actually getting left behind, from the Microsoft Excel reports to the handling and troubleshooting of fiber optic cables. I felt like a kindergarten in college! Though I'm not belittling what our professors are teaching us, but I wouldn't want all those knowledge on mathematical morphology and short-time fast fourier transform to go to waste.

on Aug 8, 2013

There was a time back in the ancient days when having an amateur radio license was enough to get you hired on the spot, because the engineer in charge of the department knew that you had practical as well as theoretical knowledge. Now that Human Resources droids are in charge of hiring, the only thing that matters is whether your resume matches the key words in the job requisition. If your company can only find incompetent applicants with no practical knowledge, you have only yourselves to blame.

The other thing they don't teach in school is how to survive in the business world, where PowerPoint skills count for more than creative design skills, and you are more likely to get promoted if you can play golf with the boss than for any technical knowledge or practical skills. I cry for all the young kids on their school robotics teams or model rocket teams, because they have no idea what they are in for when they reach the real world.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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