Do You Still Want to Be an Engineer?

Do you still want to be an engineer?

A handout for students completing ECE102 or ECE103

By Dr. Tim Frank

Introduction:  This handout is for students that have completed either the first or second semester of engineering courses at GCC.  I have found that many students start out in the ECE102 course with little idea about what engineering is all about.  Hopefully, students completing ECE102 and ECE103 have a better understanding of engineering, but sometimes these courses also raise additional questions.

Is this what all of my engineering courses will be like?  In ECE102 the main focus is on Excel, while in ECE103 the main focus is on MatLab.  Both courses also have team projects.  But while students work on a variety of different types of assignments, the main goal of the ECE102/103 sequence is to get students to “think like an engineer.”  Ideally, this means that you will look at problems differently.  Engineering is about problem solving, but not just solving problems like those found in a math textbook, where you just apply the methods and equations given within the text and come out with the same answer listed at the back of the book.  To be successful at engineering problem solving, you need to:

  • Pay attention to details. [This is taught in ECE102 through the Excel assignments that students are expected to duplicate and also through the detailed instructions on the exams.]
  • Be able to see connections between previously solved problems and new problems that may at first seem unrelated. [This is taught through the ECE102 classroom problems of the soda cooling and emptying the gas tank and their relationships to the homework assignments of radioactive decay and pouring liquids.]
  • Not be afraid to try something. Many times all of the desired information is not available or even attainable and simplifying assumptions need to be made.  It is okay to make assumptions to develop solutions which can then be tested and refined.  [This skill is taught through the classroom problems of the cooling soda and emptying gas tank, as well as on the exams.  It is reinforced again in ECE103 when learning to write MatLab programs.]
  • Realize that there may not be only one correct solution. Instead there may be a range of solutions from bad to good to better.  [This is taught through the projects in ECE102.  All of the cars, rockets, and robots that students built are different from each other, but most were successful, although some were more adept at the tasks they were to accomplish.]
  • Understand that there are no perfect solutions to real-world problems. Instead solutions are tradeoffs between competing criteria.  For nearly every real world problem, the two biggest limiting factors are time and money.  [This is taught through the projects in both ECE102 and ECE103, while students are also being assigned homework and preparing for exams.  Students must multitask and there is never enough time to complete the perfect design project.  Also, the projects in ECE103 typically require skills and knowledge that the students do not possess at the start of the project, so they must decide what is possible for them to learn and accomplish with the time constraints of the semester.]

One interesting thing to note is that while there is an attempt to develop “engineering problem solving skills” in the ECE102/103 courses, most sophomore and junior level engineering courses fall back on “textbook problem solving skills” while focusing on teaching content material.  It is usually not until engineering students enter their senior year that they start to work on design projects and again return to the “engineering problem solving skills” that they first started to develop in their freshmen courses.  While it is important to know the content material, successful engineers are really expected to use the engineering design process and demonstrate good engineering problem solving skills.

Do I really need to be an expert at Excel to be an engineer?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  It depends.  There are some engineers that do use Excel every day.  GCC has an internship program with Honeywell, and many of the engineers that our students work with use Excel extensively to keep track of part orders and expenses.  However, this is more the exception than the rule.  In general, most engineers are expected to know how to use Excel and will need to create spreadsheets and graphs on occasion, but it will not be one of their primary engineering duties.

Do I really need to be an expert at MatLab to be an engineer?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  It depends.  Like with Excel, there are some engineers that use MatLab every day.  However, the percentage of engineers that use MatLab is probably much smaller than those that use Excel.  Most engineers never write their own MatLab programs.  But many engineers need to be able to write some simple programs in some other programming languages.  While there are many different computer programming languages, all are very similar.  Once a student understands how to write a program in one programming language it is usually very easy to learn how to program in another; however, what is even more important than mastering a particular programming language is being able to develop algorithms.  When writing a complicated program in any language, it is necessary to break the problem up into smaller and smaller pieces that are easily solved and see how these pieces fit together and information flows between them.  Any student who is a good programmer is also very likely to become a great engineer, even if they never write programs as part of their engineering job, simply because they understand the thought process involved in solving programming problems, which can be applied to any complex problem.

Should I change my major if I did not do as well as I wanted to?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  It depends.  Before changing your major, the two questions you need to ask yourself are:  “Do you think you will enjoy being an engineer?” and if you did not do as well as you would have liked, “Why did you struggle in your coursework?”  First, it is important that you find a career that you will enjoy and are passionate about.  The fact that engineering is a well-paying career will not matter if you hate going to work each day.  Sometimes it is difficult for students to really know if they will like being an engineer because they can do so much.  Besides all of the different engineering disciplines, there are a variety of things that you can do with an engineering degree, including:  sales, management, design, testing, research, maintenance, etc.  As for struggling in your engineering courses, you need to decide why.  Was it because you did not have enough time for your courses or did you have some personal issues that you were dealing with?  If so, is this something that will improve in the future or will it always be a problem?  In general, it is not critical that you be an expert in any of the material covered in the ECE102/103 courses; however, as an engineer, you will need to be proficient at using a computer, working in teams, and solving problems.  If you still do not feel comfortable with computers after the ECE102 or ECE103 courses, you may want to consider taking some additional courses, such as CIS105: Survey of Computer Information Systems or CSC100: Introduction to C++ or CSC110: Introduction to Java.  Students are often reluctant to take courses that will not count towards their degree program, but if you need training or knowledge in any particular area, be willing to take extra courses.  Even if it ends up costing you time and money, it will pay off in the long term.  A student’s determination and perseverance in the face of challenges – not GPA – are the biggest predictors of success in any engineering program.

How important are my chemistry, biology, and physics courses?  The importance of any chemistry or biology courses will depend on your major, with chemical and biomedical engineers needing these courses the most.  Engineering students in other disciplines may find it useful to have a general knowledge of these subject areas, but it is usually not required to be successful in future engineering courses.  However, after graduation you may end up working on multi-discipline projects that have a chemical or biological aspect to them.  As for your physics courses, they introduce the concepts that are the basis for most of your sophomore engineering courses, such as mechanics and circuits.  Having a good understanding of physics will make you much more likely to do well in these courses.  Technically, physics is also listed as a prerequisite for ECE103, but knowledge of physics is not usually necessary for this course.  If you have completed the ECE102 and are thinking about taking the ECE103 course, do not let the physics prerequisite stop you.  Talk to the instructor for your desired ECE103 section and see if he/she is willing to sign an “Add Form”, which allows you to take their course without having physics.

How important are my math courses?  Math is critical for all of your future engineering courses.  Students cannot succeed in their future engineering courses without having very good math skills.  Many of your engineering courses have problems that will rely on the math concepts covered in Calculus I, II, III, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra.  However, often students learn more math in their engineering courses than they do in their math courses.  This is because the abstract concepts in math often make more sense when applied to real problems in engineering.  But even so, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of the concepts covered in their math courses, and be able to look things up in their math textbooks to review how to solve some types of problems.  If you are struggling in your math class, you need to decide why.  Is it because of the instructor or personal issues you are dealing with outside of class?  If you feel confident that you know the material well but your grade does not reflect your understanding, a ‘C’ will suffice; however, if you are struggling because you do not understanding the material, then you may want to consider repeating the course, even if you passed it.  Math, more so than any other subject, is very sequential with each course building on the concepts previously learned.  If you have large gaps in your understanding from previous math courses, you will reach a point where you become unable to progress any further until you fill in those gaps, either on your own or by repeating the course.  However, do not confuse a forgotten formula with a gap in understanding.  As a real engineer, your boss will not give you a project to work on and tell you that you are not allowed to use any textbooks or technology.  Sometimes math instructors want their students to memorize formulas or identities that could easily be looked up if needed in the real world, but it is important to be able to setup the problem and use the formulas.  For example, from trigonometry you should know the mathematical definitions of all six trigonometric functions, (sine, cosine, tangent, cosecant, secant, cotangent), the relationships between them, and understand their graphs from these definitions and relationships.  It is not important to know the half-angle identities by memory, but you should know they exist, understand when to use them, and be able to look them up and apply them when solving a problem that requires them.  One useful website that you should become familiar with to assist you in solving math problem is:

What other courses are important?  Overall, the freshmen/sophomore math courses are probably the most important courses for engineering majors to be successful in their future engineering courses.  However, the ENG101/102 courses are probably the most important courses for all college students.  Good math skills are critical for engineers, but good writing skills are critical for nearly all professions requiring a college degree.  While most engineering students tend to dislike writing, as an engineer you will need to be able to write reports.  Without a written language, mankind would still be using primitive stone tools.  It is only because we have a written language that technology advances, and as an engineer, you cannot contribute to the advancement of technology unless you can communicate through your writing.  Knowing the differences between APA and MLS formats is irrelevant, but being able to write effectively and persuasively using correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation is critical.

As a test, you should be able to pick any topic that you feel strongly about:  politics, religion, global warming, saving whales, alien abductions, etc., and write a 5 paragraph persuasive essay about that topic in less than an hour.  Keep in mind that efficient writing means that you do not use more words than you need to and you do not use complicated words just to impress others with your vocabulary.  The goal is to communicate your ideas.  When finished, share your paper with someone who you know to be a very good writer, such as an English teacher or tutor in the writing center, and get their feedback and corrections.  Ideally, your paper should be well organized, logical, and convincing, with an average of less than one grammatical error per paragraph.  If that is not the case, you probably need to work on your writing skills.  While you may view your paper as a “rough draft,” in the real world you often do not have time to do multiple drafts or have others read your reports and give feedback, so it is important for you to be able edit your own writing and quickly produce a paper with minimal errors.

What are some common traits of engineers?  Engineering is a very diverse field with many different types of engineers doing many different things.  In the past, most engineers have been white males.  However, schools and employers recognize that having a diverse workforce, with people from many different backgrounds, lead to better products and solutions.  Consequently, there are lots of opportunities for anyone interested in engineering.  However, demographics only change slowly over time, so most likely when you get your first job you can expect most of your co-workers and bosses to be white males.  This is probably even truer in some of the older branches of engineering, such as civil, compared to some of the new branches, such as biomedical or environmental.  Also, while good communication skills and teamwork are necessary, engineers still tend to be more introverted than the general population, so do not expect to be going to parties and hanging out with your engineering co-workers every weekend.

What are some things I need to work on to become an engineer?  Time management and teamwork.  While it is important for engineering students to have good math, computer, and communication skills, time management is probably the most important.  There are plenty of students who were really good at academics but failed out of an engineering program because they did not have good time management skills.  Often some of the brightest students in high school are some of the worst students at time management, since they could easily pass their high school courses with little effort.  When you start in an engineering program, it will take a lot of your time, even if you are very smart.  This is because there are a lot of labs and projects, which often require you to work with other students.  Whenever you have a large project that you must complete with others, it will take a lot of time.

When freshmen students are assigned a team project, they often fall into one of two categories:  the “do nothing students” or the “do everything students.”  The “do nothing students” are those students that do not contribute very much to a group project.  Many times these students have good excuses – work, family, illness, etc. – but ultimately the problem is usually these students did not take ownership of the project and budget their time so they could contribute.  Of course, this causes a great deal of frustration for those students that do take ownership of the project.  These frustrated students then become the “do everything students”, who have decided they just cannot rely on their teammates and completely take over the project.  If you are guilty of being one of the “do nothing students” for any of your previous engineering projects, please consider changing your major.  Your lack of participation will prevent you from learning the skills you need to be a successful engineer and you will just cause frustration with your teammates.  If you are guilty of being one of the “do everything students” on a past project, you need to carefully analyze why that happened.  Did you do your best to find ways to get your teammates involved?  One semester I assigned my ECE102 class a catapult project on a Thursday, and during the next class on Tuesday, one of the students brought in his group’s finished catapult.  His teammates were surprised and disappointed that they had no opportunity to contribute.  While it is possible for one person to do all of the work on the projects assigned in ECE102, this is not the case for real world engineering design projects.  Rick Sparber, our ECE294 assistant instructor, has a saying, “Any engineering project that one person can do isn’t worth doing.”  Nearly all interesting real world projects require large, multidiscipline teams of engineers to complete, and one engineer will never have enough time or expertise to do the project all by himself.  It is necessary to be able to work together on teams and be able to trust your teammates to do their share of the work while you do yours.

Why do students struggle with time management?  Sometimes the time management problem is not because the student misuses his free time, but it is because the student underestimates the amount of time his courses will require.  If you are working 40 hours a week and have a spouse and kids, you probably will struggle taking a full load of 300-level engineering courses.  There just are not enough hours in the week to do everything you need to do.  As a general rule, for every 50-minute period you are in a lecture class or lab, you will need to spend at least 2-hours outside of class reading, studying, doing homework, and writing lab reports.  These time estimates assume that you are very good at studying and will use your time productively.  If you get easily distracted and are not productive, you will need a lot more time.  Many of you are probably reading this and thinking, “Yeah, sure.  I have been told this before, but I haven’t been spending that much time studying and I am doing fine in my classes.”  The engineering courses at a university tend to be considerably harder than most courses at a community college.  This is not meant to imply that you are not getting a good education at GCC, but the professors at the university have very high expectations for their students and quite honestly, sometimes make their courses much harder than they really need to be.  They want the graduates from their program to be outstanding students who are both knowledgeable and very hard working.

Sometimes students try to make up for this time deficit by either skipping classes or sleep.  Both are very bad ideas.  A good night of sleep is essential to thinking clearly and research has shown that ideas are transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory during the sleep process.  Sure, you might be able to cram for a test by staying up all night reading through your notes and the textbook, but you are going to remember the material much better in 6 months if you study for a few hours each day and get a good night of sleep every day.  Much of the material that you study when you are very tired will be forgotten in a few weeks.  As for attending class, this is critical for your success.  Even if you have the world’s most boring instructor, force yourself to go to class and try to pay attention, perhaps by following along in the textbook.  You will benefit just by seeing what material was covered in each class and thinking about the topic for a few hours each week.

Why do students sometimes fail engineering courses?  Sometimes students fail their engineering courses because they lose their motivation due to personal or family issues.  Sometimes students just decide that engineering is not for them.  While engineering is a great career choice for many students, it is not for everyone, and it is best for you to find a career where you can do something that you are passionate about.  If you take the ECE102/103 courses and think engineering is the career for you, that is great!  If you take the ECE102/103 courses and decide engineering is not for you, that is also fine – good luck in whatever career you decide upon.  The worst thing that can happen is that you take ECE102/103 and are still unsure about engineering.  You do not want to continue to take engineering courses and then decide in your junior or senior years that you do not want to be an engineer.  You will then be forced to decide if you want to finish a degree in a field you do not like or change majors after wasting a lot of time on money on courses that you may never use.  However, do not confuse a passion for engineering with a love for every assignment.  It is doubtful that any of my former students loved each and every assignment, quiz, and exam that I gave them.  Instead you must focus on the big picture and decide if you enjoy working with technology, solving problems, and designing new products.  And even if you really enjoyed the ECE102/103 courses, I can pretty much guarantee that sometime you will end up taking a required course that you will not like.  Stay focused on the big picture and not every individual assignment, project, or course.

Sometimes students fail because of time management issues and the classes were harder than they expected.  In general, I think the ECE211: Statics, ECE212: Dynamics, ECE215: Materials, and EEE202: Circuits courses are probably the 4 hardest courses taught at GCC.  They require a great deal of time, have labs with them, and rely on prerequisite knowledge in math and physics.  As for the ECE102/103 courses, they are not as difficult as these 200-level engineering courses, but are probably more time consuming than the average course at GCC.  Besides teaching you the course competencies, they are designed to start getting you acclimated to the rigors of an engineering curriculum at a university.  If the courses were easy but they left students completely unprepared for engineering courses at a university, our college would be doing you a disservice.  Our goal is not just to have students pass our engineering courses at GCC, but to have them well prepared to succeed in any engineering program after they transfer to a university.  We never want our courses to be weed-out courses, and we would like all of our students to succeed, but students need to understand that majoring in engineering is probably one of the hardest majors at any university.

Perhaps the most disappointing way some students fail courses is by cheating.  In the past all engineering students on nearly every campus in the country used to take a course in engineering ethics.  Unfortunately, as courses were added into the different specialty fields, many universities have eliminated with their ethics courses.  We are now forced to try to teach ethics by having our students learn the hard way through real life experiences that a lack of ethics does not pay off.  In your engineering classes, there are times when you are supposed to work together with other students on a particular assignment, presentation, or project.  But there are many assignments that are supposed to be done individually.  If you aren’t sure whether or not an assignment is to be completed individually or as a group, ask your instructor.  Students are encouraged to form study groups and work together on assignments; however, every assignment that you turn it with your name on it should reflect the work that you actually did.  For example, if you are working on a spreadsheet and are unsure about how to do something, it is perfectly acceptable to ask someone in class for assistance.  If you are asked for help, you are encouraged to do your best to explain your solution to the other student.  If the person still does not understand from your explanation, you may actually show him how to solve the problem by doing a small part on his actual spreadsheet or program, as long as you are explaining what you did and your intent remains to help him learn and not to do the work for him.  However, it is completely unacceptable to give him an electronic solution.  There is no learning taking place when a student just changes the name on the top of the spreadsheet or program.  This also applies to downloading solutions off of the internet.  In general, you should never try to pass off the work or others as your own.

In life there is much that you have no control over – what time in history you live, who your parents are, what country you were born into, whether or not you come from a wealthy family, what your native language is, whether you are good-looking or ugly, how tall or short you are, how smart you are, etc.  There are some things that you have limited control over – who you marry, where you live, what car you drive, where you work, what you do for a career, how you spend your time, etc.  But there is one thing that you have complete control over – whether or not you will be a person of integrity.

Conclusion:  I wish you lots of luck as you pursue a career in either engineering or something else.  Let me know if you have any questions that I can help you with, (

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