The general public has finally noticed something engineers have long accepted as a fact of life: College engineering courses are more difficult than those for liberal arts. Engineering-course difficulty is now the topic of newspaper articles in the wake of Dept. of Education statistics showing that the number of kids graduating with engineering degrees increased at a much lower rate than that for all college grads, and the number graduating with computer and information sciences actually fell. Inadequate high-school preparation in math and science is getting part of the blame, but so, too, is the tough nature of engineering courses.

Consider one former engineering student profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article. She switched her major to psychology and policy management from electrical and computer engineering after a particularly tough assignment that “kept her and her partner in the lab well past midnight for several days.” The WSJ also reports that since switching majors, her grade point average has gone from somewhere between a B and a C to near straight As.

Most engineers can relate to these incidents. I personally spent an uncountable number of nights laboring past midnight over one engineering-course project or another, as did the majority of my classmates. One guy I knew dropped out of mechanical engineering partly because he was on academic probation. He switched to political science and within one semester had a GPA near 4.0.

And I would have to say that most engineers complete their degrees through sheer stubbornness rather than because they excel at their class work. On that score, my own engineering-college career began in about the most inauspicious way possible: Freshman engineers at my school went through an introduction-to-engineering course their first semester to get a feel for what lay ahead over the next four years. To say the first exam in that course was hard would be an understatement. I stumbled out of it thinking I might have gotten zero points!

As you might expect, I polled my fellow classmates about how they did. Everybody thought the stupid thing was tough. The results were revealing. The median grade out of 100 was in the 20’s. (With much relief, I discovered I somehow had gotten 40 points on it.)

That was only the first in what was to be four years’ worth of tough engineering exams. So in that regard, you might say that first cold shower did its job by showing us what we could expect over the rest of our undergraduate engineering careers. But it was certainly easy to get discouraged after such a sour first taste of engineering. In a world crying for science and technology graduates, you have to wonder whether this is the best way to encourage freshman engineers to keep plugging.

Finally, there is one point I wish I could explain to freshman engineering students encountering similar challenges: Many of the most-successful engineers I’ve been lucky enough to work with had college GPA’s that were nothing special.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.