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Why do engineering courses focus on theory more than experience?

Opinion Piece 

At a recent career fair, I realised that doing well on test after test doesn’t impress employers – proof of applying knowledge to real-world problems does. So why don’t my engineering courses reflect this reality?

Out of all the countless circuit designs and calculus equations that I came across this year during my engineering courses, the things that stood out most in my mind were two projects: simulating a 16-bit processor and creating a pulse oximeter.

These projects were done in pairs, and the six weeks doing these were more memorable than the rest of the other 34 weeks combined. Despite being the weaker of the partners in both these projects, being able to see concepts such as high pass filters, amplifiers and bus signals in action completely transformed my mind.

However, I had a major issue with these projects: these were time-consuming, in-depth projects, yet they represented a small proportion of my final grade. This might help an individual like me, who is better at the theoretical side of engineering and can handle exams that are worth 70 per cent of the final grade. But innovativeness and creativity – key attributes to a STEM-based economy – are not rewarded if projects are not weighted appropriately when it comes to final grades.

The logic behind this is abundantly clear: Some students learn more from labs knowing they can tinker around a bit with not much to lose in marks, while others need the pressure of marks to get the best out of themselves. I benefited from this when me and my group partner put in more than 25 hours of work to complete an assignment. We received a poor grade in the end, but the knowledge we gained allowed us to do well in the final exams, which had a higher weighting.

On the other hand, I felt that the students who had excelled in the tough project were hard done by, with not much to show for the skills they gained from the hands-on work. It’s also important to consider some of these students might also not go as well in their final exams because while a theoretical knowledge base is crucial, we need to reward students who think out of the box on their projects and don’t just stick to the textbook.

It’s true that the student has the chance to show their individuality during their final year thesis project, but I think a message needs to be sent by rewarding students who take initiative during engineering courses in their junior years.

Why weighting needs to change

Another issue to note is that when I attended an engineering careers fair last year (which featured some big names in the business), the representatives were blunt with me about how they view university grading.

According to many of them, getting good marks based just on doing well in three-hour exams was not a great indication on how well I would fit in with their company.

Instead, an applicant like myself would be judged on the usual buzzwords thrown around like ‘teamwork’, ‘adaptability’ and ‘problem-solving skills’. The parts of my university education where I learned most about these traits has been through labs, even the most tiring and difficult ones.

That’s because out of necessity to do the job and pass the task, I had to communicate and collaborate a lot more with tutors and other students – the exact qualities the recruiters were telling me they wanted in future job candidates.

By observing the way ‘brighter’ kids went about completing projects, I was able to learn from their ideas and the skills they relied on to do well. This confirmed to me that while unit coordinators at my university have the practical/theory balance right in terms of hours, they need to shift it so that lab projects are worth slightly more to better prepare us for life after uni and out in real-world industry.

Author:
Sameer Murthy
Sameer Murthy studies electrical engineering at University of Sydney. In his spare time, he likes to read and play cricket.

 

Originally published on Create Digital.

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