Are "weed out" courses a good idea for engineering school?

The practice of using specific courses to reduce the population of STEM students in universities is coming under scrutiny by enlightened educators. 

Most of us who have gone through engineering school have not-so-fond memories of "weed out" courses. These are classes set up to be so hard that they convince people who are not sufficiently stubborn to get out engineering and into some other less strenuous major. 

In my case, a freshman engineering course served as one of the "weed out" mechanisms. I can still remember stumbling out of the first exam and wondering whether I'd gotten any points at all on the stupid thing. Turns out, many of us had problems with it. The median exam grade was 20 out of 100. (For the curious reader, I ended up with a 40.) That kind of experience was enough to convince several in the class that engineering wasn't for them. 

Now, educators seem to be having second thoughts about putting impossibly hard courses like this one in STEM curricula. Writing on the Chronicle of Higher Education site, Dr. Mika Nash -- academic dean and associate professor in the Div. of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College --  questions the whole idea of using super-tough courses to weed out STEM wannabees. But Nash doesn't want to just dumb-down initial coursework. She says, 

"Changing introductory STEM courses does not mean simply reducing rigor. These 'leader' introductions to their fields give students the opportunity to learn key concepts and to find their footing. In subsequent courses, students will use a more applied and hands-on methodology as standards are raised."

One reason weed-out courses seem to be standard practice, Nash says, is that they come from the idea that educational institutions don't want to waste resources on students who are going to eventually drop out. So shake them out early, the thinking goes. But there's a flaw in this logic:

"We had discovered that the way students perform upon arrival is often very different from what they are capable of just a couple of semesters later. To foreclose on those students so early seemed to us at best short-sighted, and at worst unethical," she says. 

As is so often the case with articles on the Chronicle site, the comments are as interesting as the original piece. Some commentors disagree with Nash. Many posts have the tone of this one:

"I'm sorry, but that is just idiotic. Some people want to be rock stars, but they just don't have the talent. Being a biomedical engineer is no different. Some people have little aptitude for math, but are still fascinated by what people in this and related fields do. The whole point of weeding them out is that you haven't wasted a good portion of their lives, but hopefully they realize the truth in one semester."

But there are probably as many posters agreeing with her as disagreeing. Among those in this camp was this one:

"I went to a small school that did not weed. If I went to a large school with courses like those discussed, I would not be a professor right now. I also have a tendency to be stubborn. I got the lowest grade of any student in my entire year on my first freshman chemistry exam. Many other students would have just dropped the major. Instead, nine years later, I had a Ph.D. in Chemistry.... "

So here's a question: Do weed-out courses measure apptitude, or stubbornness? Nash doesn't seem to explore this side of things.

Discuss this Blog Entry 36

S Shattuck (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

The "weed-out" courses are absolutely mandatory! Do we really want lazy, unmotivated people to obtain engineering degrees? would you feel confident knowing the bridge you are driving across was made by someone who couldn't pass Statics?
And to answer that last question, the weed-out courses measure both...if you cannot pass one of the courses, you should not be an engineer, period...same with med school...additionally, they should limit the times a course can be attempted to 2, as an additional measure to prevent repeat offenders from eventually passing a class that they shoudn't...

99guspuppet (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

I hope your comment was satire

rejectoplasm (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

Statistics is not a weed out course.
Odds are, you will need to use statistics at some point in your engineering career.
Making coursed harder than they have to be to provide an education in the subject is idiocy. The ability to crunch numbers and "stick out" a lot of pointless difficulty is a recipe for a bad engineer.
It is a mistake to think that a 4.0 average makes an above average engineer. the best engineers I know have a GED and scars on their knuckles.
Soft academia oriented engineers are the bane of Quality in engineering.
Rather than designing courses that are impossible to pass, educators should design courses that require young engineers to experience the effect of their designs on the people that execute them.

on Jan 31, 2014

This comment is a good example of a short sighted and one sided argument for "weed-out" courses. For example, it does not consider the impact a poor educator has on the learning process of the student. Even if the educator was proficient in the subject he was teaching, it would not matter if he could not adequately communicate the subject matter to the student. Did you ever have a Professor who could not speak intelligible English?

Glenn Dorsch (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

I went to a major state university with a very well-regarded engineering program and did well. I also remember my summertime freshman orientation in 1966 where we were all asked to introduce ourselves to the fellow engineering students on each side of us in this huge auditorium. The speaker then informed us that one of those two students would not be in the school of engineering by the end of our freshman year. That was 48 years ago, yet I remember that moment vividly.

One of my later roommates ended up being one of those engineering school dropouts and did well in the school of business. When he graduated, he ended up working essentially as an engineer for his employer. Ironic that his skills were good enough to practice engineering in industry yet not good enough for our engineering school.

I think engineering schools could learn a lot from the US military in how to train people for a technical career. The US Navy's Nuclear Power School for officers is an excellent example. From my viewpoint the Navy trains people to succeed, not to fail.

on Feb 3, 2014

Here, here! This is exactly why the USN submariners safety record is the best in the World!
Failing is healthy for the process of learning. Otherwise, how would anyone learn from their mistakes?

LFG (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

I attended a university that had open enrollment for the School of Engineering. Not only did they have "weed out" courses in the freshman year, if you were in the School of Engineering your course load was significantly higher than any of the other Schools in the university. The weed out courses were there to "thin the herd" to suit the available slots by the time we got to the real engineering courses. The Class I was in declined by about half after the second quarter. I can see a need for that in an open enrollment situation, but if the program is not open enrollment, the need is not really there. The required course work in math, chemistry, and physics in the freshman year may seem like weed out courses to some, but without a strong background in those basics a student may be lost in the following coursework.

Clay Wilson, P.E. (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

The University of Texas at Arlington had "weed out" courses for freshmen engineering students. I toughed them out. I graduated with honor roll grades and became a registered Professional Engineer in two states. But, a number of my class mates graduated and never practiced engineering. I think introductory courses should teach students what to expect in their chosen careers before they invest years and dollars in a degree they will never use.

on Jan 30, 2014

I think there are other uses for weed out courses besides this. I know many schools other than STEM use this technique and I feel strongly that it weeds out less than stubborn individuals. In fact, many courses like this are required by for instance medical school and it has the horrible affect of eliminating candidates for the entirely wrong reason. I think this is used to reduce enrollment in colleges who see to many entries into their colleges.

on Jan 30, 2014

With few exceptions, work has been far easier than any of the "weed out" classes at Carnegie-Mellon. After my first "big meeting" on my first job, I was asked to be a lot less aggressive and give others more time. For this meeting, I did way less than I typically had to for a homework assignment.

Dal Wolf (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

I once took a math course that I knew from "G-2" was going to be tough. The prof had a speech impediment and talked with his back to the class. And I was going deaf !! I was put on probation after getting a D in the class. Made the deans list the next semester !! Go figure.

faackanders2 (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

All tough corses should be in the first semester. It would truly be in poor taste to place tough classes in the last semester where students would not be able to graduate.

I went to the US Military Academy, and non-engineers had to take a last semester class which they nicknamed "Engineering for Retards". Basically it was 3 days of fluids, 3 days of thermal, 3 days of structures, etc. 50% of the people that took this required class failed, missed graduation, and had to retake in in summer school to graduate late (which delayed their army officer promotions later in their initial carrer). Unfortunately one of these was my first semester roomate, and I bet he would have wished this weeder class would have been in his first semester (so he could potentially recover in 1st year summer school instead of missing graduation summer school).

P.S. My weeder was first and second semester foreign language (which just like HS, I thought I would never use), which I just squeeked by 1st semester with 2.000001 out of 3, and 2 was passing!). My 2-4th years in the Army were overseas in Germany where I took college classes to learn the language better, mix with the local germans/friends and I loved it.

Anonymous000 (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

There is an education crisis in the US, especially for STEM.

As many students as possible should be encouraged to study STEM.

Anything that encourages students to choose a field, study and persevere is to our benefit.

MLB Engineer and Professor (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

Science,

John Reche (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

University education is about learning to think not about serving the need of corporate cheap labor. Go ahead, eliminate "weed out" courses, you will have plenty of time later to reflect on why Chinese and Indians engineers are eating your lunch.

mtnelson (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

The Fact is that none of the weedout classes actually effected those of us that were dedicated and could do the work. I never worried about passing a single Engineering course and I worked a job 50-60 hours a week while I was doing it. The fact is some people do not dedicate themselves or do not have an apptitude for the profession. It is better to get into something you will do well. Not everyone can be an engineer the weed out classes make that clear. The people that struggled in the weedout classes struggled in the rest of their classes and those that I knew after they graduated struggled in industry. Dumbing it down will just give you Dumb enginneers.

experienced50s (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

Einstein would have been booted out! The choice needs to be the individual's. Applied Socialism is bogus. pm

Amomynous (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

The ONLY "weed-out" course that I ever had in either my preliminary MATH/PHYSICS program or the subsequent ELEC. ENGG program was ELECTRICITY & MAGNETISM, almost a cloak title for MAXWELL'S EQUATION, since that's just about all we dwelled on that semester. And, that course was towards the end of the curriculum, NOT the beginning! And, it DID prove to weed out many wannabe E.E's. Too bad they wasted all those semesters studying circuits & topologies.

faackanders2 (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

Agree weeders should be at beginning, not the end (wasting the students valuable time and money!).

MLB Engineer and Professor (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

The various fields of engineering, mathematics and science, in all their richness and as continuously advancing and evolving disciplines, have become increasingly demanding with respect to the formal training, the mental equipment and the intellectual maturity required of students who are preparing for serious and meaningful professional endeavors.

A first degree is simply an entry-level introduction and preparation for the career of a practicing professional. Increasingly, advanced studies and ongoing professional education are mandatory to keep abreast and to remain functional and relevant - and employed,

These disciplines are inappropriate for dilettantes - they require substantial and adequate preparation, coupled with a commitment to life-long professional education, often across multiple disciplines.

In practice, it is frequently difficult to tell which working group member is trained in which particular discipline.

It is imperative, therefore, and it benefits all concerned, for those planning careers in these demanding disciplines and for those who would prepare them, to know as soon as possible and practicable whether they have what it takes and what it will take to become and to remain successful professionals in these endeavors - and if not, to find some other pursuit for which their time and their energies are better suited.

The university and the world of the practicing scientist, engineer and mathematician are no places for those who previously have been coddled by, unduly advantaged by and who have been the beneficiaries of social promotion and ill-conceived "diversity" misadventures or who otherwise lack the mental equipment and the maturity to survive and to prosper in an increasingly complex, increasingly global and increasingly demanding environment.

The sooner the student learns the real-world realities and its requirements and demands, the better.

Curt (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

While introductory "weed out" courses shouldn't be abusive (it sounds like yours was), they should show students what the expected level of cognitive abilities and workload would be in the field - and this applies to more than just STEM fields. It is much better for students to understand where they stand early than late.

Bruce (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

Yes, I enjoyed my weed out courses at UW-Madison Engineering School, and at the same time, enjoyed rigors of being on Full Athletic Scholarship with daily practice and travel commitments. Got my BScME nonetheless.

twodogs (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

As much as college costs, who is the college serving by weed-out courses? Plenty of time for weed-outs in 18 c.h./semester loads.
They don't teach by making courses hard (I had PLENTY of crappy instructors/textbooks) but I got my BSEE in spite of it. May be some displaced anger oozing out there...

Doc Kimble (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

As a PhD in science, I can tell you this is often just a matter of cost benefit ratio. If you start with any actual introductory engineering courses, calculus, descriptive geometry and 3D CAD, statistics, engineering chemistry, thermo, German... the impression will be you have taken flunk out courses!! And, surprise, you might flunk out. But you have a copy of the school catalog. You probably know where you want to go and have some notion of how much you can handle starting out. So write the script, most colleges will let you do that don't you know? Put in that course on plant propagation or the biochemistry of butterflies. That way you progress as fast as possible without so much risk of academic or economic self destruct. And you keep your own interest without nearly so much burn out. Plus, you get the skills you want for bullet train engineering, or fish farming, or plastics manufacture, or environmental engineer. And a simple observation, if you are Phi Beta Kappa, you probably wasted a lot of people's money! You could have done twice the work, learned twice as much, gone twice as far. Just sayin'. It is your life, right?

Lester Engel, PE (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2014

All of the comments are interesting. I see no need to lower the rigor of the engineering training. In fact it may need to be increased. Our education system needs to look at what is needed to make more students successful, not how many they weeded out. Historically, the common education method of lecturing to students is terribly flawed. The majority of people learn more successfully by experiential learning. I am encouraged that some universities appear to have figured this out and are changing their course structures.

Kevin De Smet (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2014

Reading comments that encourage "weed-out" courses... let's just say, I highly disagree. There is a difference between a genuinely challenging curriculum and an artificially challenging one.

I am the kind of the person that doesn't tolerate crap easily. Most engineering majors offered at universities are full of it. Having you memorize rote and irrelevant formulas and theoretical concepts. But the most important thing -- how these things are applied in industry, is often downplayed or forgotten altogether.

I got into mechanical engineering from a hobby in computer graphics and dropped out of school. I learn things every day, I'm confident in what I know but also very aware of what I don't. I can see some people cringing about "that's totally unethical" and "you are a danger to society" but you're all just really close-minded, guys.

MLB Engineer and Professor (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2014

The various fields of engineering, mathematics and science, in all their richness and as continuously advancing and evolving disciplines, have become increasingly demanding with respect to the formal training, the mental equipment and the intellectual maturity required of students who are preparing for serious and meaningful professional endeavors.

A first degree is simply an entry-level introduction and preparation for the career of a practicing professional. Increasingly, advanced studies and ongoing professional education are mandatory to keep abreast and to remain functional and relevant - and employed,

These disciplines are inappropriate for dilettantes - they require substantial and adequate preparation, coupled with a commitment to life-long professional education, often across multiple disciplines.

In practice, it is frequently difficult to tell which working group member is trained in which particular discipline.

It is imperative, therefore, and it benefits all concerned, for those planning careers in these demanding disciplines and for those who would prepare them, to know as soon as possible and practicable whether they have what it takes and what it will take to become and to remain successful professionals in these endeavors - and if not, to find some other pursuit for which their time and their energies are better suited.

The university and the world of the practicing scientist, engineer and mathematician are no places for those who previously have been coddled by, unduly advantaged by and who have been the beneficiaries of social promotion and ill-conceived "diversity" misadventures or who otherwise lack the mental equipment and the maturity to survive and to prosper in an increasingly complex, increasingly global and increasingly demanding environment.

The sooner the student learns the real-world realities and its requirements and demands, the better.

on Feb 13, 2014

By all accounts here, I should have been weeded out but somehow slipped through the cracks. However, I think the weed out phenomenon is largely a matter of poor STEM prep at the high school level. Student who come to college having already had calc or pre-calc have a significant advantage over those that have not. Offering of advanced math and science are largely a function of where a student grows up and how much parents advocated taking advanced STEM classes. I went to a top engineering university with a 2/3 wash-out rate in engineering. Yes, they told us in Freshman Engineering to look at the person seated to my right AND left and then said they wouldn't be there when we graduated. I can to college with no AP course and no pre-calc but a stubborn sense that I was intelligent. I took time off to improve my academic background, got tutors in courses were I needed them and graduated with okay grades while always working part-time and scrounging for every available loan or grant to make ends meet financially. I went on to get a become a licensed PE. Studying for the PE exam was one of the best things I could have ever done because the study material was well peer reviewed (generally better than text books) and much more straight forward than the weed-out courses that overloaded me with too much and too difficult work before the basic concepts were mastered in simpler problems. Informed by this newer way of learning STEM subjects, I went on to achieve a PhD in engineering while teaching three ABET (the academic accreditation for undergraduate engineering) classes in my engineering field for 2 consecutive years at well know engineering school, and received praise from my dept head for how well my course designs complied with ABET standards.

I believe that everyone should be able to master STEM subjects with only a desire to do so. Academic background can be remediated with extra effort, time, and cost. Some learners require more time to master subjects due to learning challenges. As a teacher, I realized that a disproportionate number of the top students were allowed time and a half of test trough an IEP or similar plan that was developed through advocacy for that individual learner. What would happen if similar advocacy was provided for the lower achieving students? The other thing that struck in grad school was that MS and PhD students with undergrad science degrees do just as well and those with an engineering undergrad degree and didn't have to go through the torture of the weed-out classes. The future of engineering in the US is in innovation and creative design, which the weed-out classes do not nurture.

If the prevailing opinion here is correct (only those that can pass weed-out classes should pass), please tell the federal government that all this promotion of STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools is non-sense since future engineers should pop from the womb pre-destined to do well in weed-out courses. And while you are at it, tell that to Marie Curie, who's only advantage was parents that instilled a sense of the important of education and taught her math and science at home. Since woman were not allowed to attend college in her native country (Poland), she immigrated to France to go to college. She studied during the day and tutored children at night to pay for an attic apartment and bread to eat, but is reported to have fainted from hunger during class once. There is no report of her completing her undergraduate degree with honors, yet she excelled in grad school after she received funding for her work so she didn't have to pursue other work to feed herself. She went on to discover Polonium and Radium, apply radiation to x-ray technology for WWI front line medial triage and cancer therapy, and win 2 noble prizes. By all counts, she is reported to have been a stubborn woman, which is the same characteristic cited here as required to get through weed-out classes. She is my role model.

Mecheng.fea (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2014

I graduated from a big state university in a big blue state. We had a huge attrition rate and put out incompetent grads. Our weeding was driven by affirmative action as was the assigning of grades. I survived by taking night classes and working during the day. One example; the stick bridge Engineering students since Archimedes built. Mine had the highest strength to weight ratio in the class and got a 65. The two girls who copied my report alone and had no physical project got a 95. One eventually went back to being a waitress, the other is now an assistant dean.

Bl1vvit (not verified)
on Feb 3, 2014

I have issues with a number of things done in the university education system. This is a good example. In the bulk of my job there is very very little that 50 year old textbooks wouldn't cover. A professor to guide in the learning process is worth paying for and an academic advisor is also worth paying for but they aren't going to "waste" resources on students. The university is selling a commodity and they get paid for what they do, regardless of the "worthiness" of the students. It isn't up to them to judge who is "worthy" of a seat in their classroom any more than it is McDonalds's to decline to sell me a sandwich based on their perception of my ability to eat it.

I went to two universities. The first had a reputation for academics in STEM. One quarter they had a large number of students request Freshman Composition. For that one quarter they added 24 sections and about 600 additional students were able to take the class rather than having to wait.

I moved to another state and attended the other university. Somehow, that university decided that they should earn a reputation for "excellence" by making their classes "hard". The mathematics department had such high failure rates that their accreditation was being re-evaluated. My degree was focused on biomedical engineering so I took Human Anatomy and that professor failed more than 75% of the students in the first class I took. I did very well in the second class and understood more with less work because the professor was more interested in teaching than failing.

The end result is that I recommend the first university highly and strongly discourage my acquaintances from attending the second. A degree earned without grief is still a degree, after all.

on Feb 3, 2014

I think that many here responding that weed-out courses should be kept don't appear to really understand what a weed-out course is. One said
"would you feel confident knowing the bridge you are driving across was made by someone who couldn't pass Statics?" Statics, which I taught as a Grad Student at Texas Tech, is not, in my understanding, a "weed-out course". Statics IS necessary and generally no DELIBERATE EFFORT to make it more difficult is made.
On the other hand, the "MEASUREMENTS LABORATORY" class I took was a deliberate weed-out course with nearly impossible standards and little effort to be relevant or even explain why points were deducted. I was glad when it was replaced it with "MATERIALS AND MECHANICS", which I also taught, with a more reasonable approach. The great danger of the weed-out course is that many potentially great Engineers were never challenged in public school and could easily be discouraged by a course that makes them feel stupid when they really just aren't quite ready for it.
I agree with the writer who recommended we learn from the Navy and train for success not failure. That does not mean "dumbing down".
As for what a "weed-out course" measures I would say that it is more likely to measure stubbornness than aptitude.

Denzil Hellesen (not verified)
on Feb 4, 2014

I too remember sitting in a large auditorium during freshman orientation and being told that the two students sitting on each side of me would be gone after the first semester and the speaker was right, but for all the wrong reasons. This was not an engineering college per se, and it was not open enrollment. I had one and only one enlighten mathematics professor who understood that memorizing formulas was of little value, hence open book tests. He stated that engineering proficiency required that engineers should always check the formula before proceeding, and he was right. It was not an easy class, even without homework assignments. A test was given every day, so you had to prepare. Most of the errors I have encountered in checking other engineers work product, were in fact formula errors in excel spread sheets. The “weed out courses”, was not statics, which is required for any kind of stress analysis, but rather chemistry, mathematics and physics. Depending on intended engineering field of study, all STEM may very well be required. It is of little value where my freshman chemistry class was only students that were engineering and chemistry majors. I was very interested in chemistry and excelled as a lab assistant for two years. I was stuck in a chemistry class with 40+ other students who struggled and hated it, therefore I did not get much out of it either. I do not think the study of quantum physics in chemistry class was used by very many engineers in later endeavors. I am on a school STEM advisory board which is attempting to get more students involved in STEM studies and careers,” weed out courses” are not the way to do it. The military “prepare to succeed” is a much better approach. I too have encountered many engineers who do not perform engineering functions, 60 % become managers due to analytical thought process, not because they are not capable engineers. I have also encountered my share of poor engineers who became engineers for the prestige and pay, but did not excel due to lack of interest. Low interest in engineering is a good way to end up spending your life hating your career choice.

on Feb 4, 2014

I have had many students ask me down through the years, “What makes a good engineer?”. One word, “curiosity”, "weeding out courses" do not foster “curiosity”, experimentation does. Try solar car challenge.

Kevin De Smet (not verified)
on Feb 5, 2014

Statics is just that though, statics. Old and boring.

on Feb 11, 2014

When I went to college in 1971, the laws of supply and demand made engineering the easiest school to get into and liberal was the hardest to get in to. Engineering had the highest flunk out/transfer rate of any of the schools. The students were either lazy or not competent to do the work. They were not weed out courses.

on Mar 14, 2014

Just what we need: more barriers to tough subjects. The stupidity of a "weed out course" is mind boggling. This is how a "market mentality" interferes with enabling people to make free choices. Someone can be taught and trained to stick with a hard problem and make incremental progress until the problem is solved. Tenacity can be taught and we ought not to reject people who have the capacity to learn but have not yet. We should CONSCIOUSLY recognize any and all limitations we've been burdening incoming students with and stop it. What next, color of skin or gender?

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