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Author Topic: Taking Up EE in 2011  (Read 2503 times)
K0OD
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« on: August 22, 2011, 08:20:26 PM »

Did you ever wonder what it takes to become an EE nowadays?

Son started EE studies last semester with tons of calculus and differential equations, a course in basic circuits, mostly RLC stuff, and two required general engineering courses called Statics and Dynamics. Statics required building a bridge capable of supporting 50 lbs made from plastic drinking straws .

2nd semester started today. He came home lugging a 1400 page treatise called Microelectronic Circuits (about $150). Lesson One: Signals and Amplifiers. No, the book never mentions vacuum tubes! Coming up this semester, more math, C++ programming and an electronics lab.

I think it's fabulous that my son likes to listen to EE lectures from MIT... for free... on Youtube.

Sophisticated math aside, I wonder how many 2011 EE candidates possess the hands-on experience common among teens from the "Heathkit generation" of hams and similar hobbyists?  I wonder how many in his class have ever soldered anything? Fixed anything?
« Last Edit: August 23, 2011, 04:38:14 AM by K0OD » Logged
K8AXW
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« Reply #1 on: August 22, 2011, 09:43:51 PM »

I've had only one experience with this.  An old EE that I knew was extremely intelligent when it came to power plant electricity.  Back when I was winding my own transformers for projects to save money, I wanted to take this one step further.  I could wind secondary windings without a problem for any voltage/current I needed.  But I wanted to be able to wind the PRIMARY winding as well but had no idea where to start.  I asked my friend about this and he pulled out a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and wrote down the formula for winding a primary winding.  The formula went across a sheet of paper and finished half way across on the second line!  He pulled this from memory.  I never did understand that formula.

Then, one day he decided he wanted to build a Heathkit all band receiver.  He worked on this project for about a week and then after another week of troubleshooting he asked ME to look it over.  I found 34 wiring mistakes and bad solder joints.  I was shocked. 

When I gave it back in working condition, I tried to minimize what I had found wrong but he was persistant in wanting details of what he had done wrong.  When I finished HE was shocked.

That's a long story to show that very intelligent people can't always follow step-by-step instructions or solder.  Your son will do you proud and this other crap he'll be able to learn in an hour!
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W8JX
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« Reply #2 on: August 23, 2011, 06:44:50 AM »

Statics required building a bridge capable of supporting 50 lbs made from plastic drinking straws .

My twin daughters did something like this in 12th grade many years ago. Except, they were give balsa wood sticks to build a bridge that would be loaded with suspended weight in center to failure and highest load wins. I helped them some with two different designs (they encouraged parental involvement) One on them placed second and the other they ran out of weights trying to break it.  (it held over 100 lbs) One daughter built 2nd place bridge on own using tips from me other bridge I helped build. The look on their teachers face was priceless when it would not break especially when this teacher thought girls were not very inclined with this stuff. Today one has bachelors working on masters and other is in final year of schooling and takes pharmacy board exam next year to become a pharmacist. 
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You can embrace new computer/tablet technology and change with it or cling to old fall far behind....
K8GU
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« Reply #3 on: August 23, 2011, 07:49:35 AM »

The lack of (some kinds) of practical experience among aspirant engineers of the past few years is actually a big problem for a lot of EE programs.  It's also a problem for a lot of EE faculty as well, but that's an aside.  Most modern EE programs include introductory experimental/laboratory courses (like the bridge exercise in statics) to bring students up to speed, like the statics course your son took. 

Truly innovative engineering programs are experimenting with even more design-based (e.g., Olin College, the University of Illinois' iFoundry) curricula, recognizing that technology changes so rapidly that students need to understand a broad range of fundamentals (many of which, like philosophy and technical writing, are not even technical).  This allows them to identify and come up to speed quickly on new topics as well as to collaborate with experts in specific areas.  It's really a different landscape than even 10 years ago (jeez, it's been that long) since I was an EE undergraduate. 

The YouTube lectures are a great resource for people who excel at learning from lectures, but are taking a course from an instructor who does not excel at teaching with lectures.  Of course, they're also great for the rest of us who are out of school and need a refresher on something we haven't used lately.

K8AXW's story is spot-on...most engineers (particularly in certain sectors and businesses) eventually become specialists in this or that and do not have the luxury to do "everything engineering."  Although, some of the best engineers I know started as technicians, learning the phenomenology then the physics...
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AA4HA
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« Reply #4 on: August 23, 2011, 08:24:12 AM »

Son started EE studies last semester with tons of calculus and differential equations, a course in basic circuits, mostly RLC stuff, and two required general engineering courses called Statics and Dynamics. Statics required building a bridge capable of supporting 50 lbs made from plastic drinking straws .

2nd semester started today. He came home lugging a 1400 page treatise called Microelectronic Circuits (about $150). Lesson One: Signals and Amplifiers. No, the book never mentions vacuum tubes! Coming up this semester, more math, C++ programming and an electronics lab.
Sophisticated math aside, I wonder how many 2011 EE candidates possess the hands-on experience common among teens from the "Heathkit generation" of hams and similar hobbyists?  I wonder how many in his class have ever soldered anything? Fixed anything?

The mathematics will go on for the entire four years of earning his degree. It is the cornerstone of all disciplines of engineering (chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil...).

Since the text does say "microelectronic" it would not be reasonable to assume that it would address tube theory. There are other courses that will cover much of the theory behind tubes, most of that would be in a classical physics class. The degree program is to prepare an engineer to be capable of functioning in a modern industry. Much of the modern tech does involve programming (PIC's) and CAD/ simulation/ modeling.

I work with newly minted engineers all the time, usually there are 2-3 of those critters running around the office in need of being pointed at something where they can be productive. Most have maybe done a few labs or semester projects where they were required to design and build something electrical. Sometimes those are only plug-in breadboard exercises but a few might actually involve the use of a soldering iron. I am pleasantly surprised if they know the resistor color code or how to use a DVM.

New engineers are dangerous. They believe that a single digital 1 or 0 bit is a great way to control large machines like punch presses or high voltage switchgear. Really they need to be assigned a mentor as soon as they are hired on at a company and after 3-5 years the best may be allowed to go unescorted to a customer site. One of our less capable new engineers went out to make a programming change at a water pumping station (PLC) and created a logical loop in the control circuit. That pump/motor unit started and stopped 1600 times that night until it roasted the windings on the motor and destroyed the bearings on the pump. In a classroom, nothing bad happens when you make that sort of mistake and you can see the LED flicker from off to on, off to on... ad infinitum. When there are "real" devices attached to this logic terrible things can happen and some poor production line worker can have their hands smashed off in a machine press because the E-stop circuit was not wired in or programmed into logic.

I was working with a new engineer on a receiver design and he had the idea of just taking the antenna input and running it into a high speed A/D converter. I tried to explain the need for some sort of matching circuit, maybe a tuned circuit to narrow the frequency response and he looked at me like I had grown a third eye.

So no, I would say that the majority of new EE's do not have practical experience. I as fortunate to have very good mentors right out of school. Who I learned the most from were the high end technicians we had on staff (their job title was engineering assistants) who taught me the practical aspects of electronics. I went into my EE program after already having taken a few electronics classes, been really into SWL, earning cash while working part-time in fixing radios/ televisions and built a few Heathkit projects for my father after his vision began to fail. Even with those experiences I was still "dangerous" out of school and took heed of the excellent teachers who gave me my real education after the ink had dried on my degree.
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Ms. Tisha Hayes, AA4HA
Lookout Mountain, Alabama
K8AXW
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« Reply #5 on: August 23, 2011, 09:49:35 AM »

There has been a great deal of correct and useful information here and all of it interesting reading.

K0OD:  May I offer some advice for you to pass on to your son when he graduates?

We had a very good mechanical engineer fresh out of college start his first job at our plant.  We became friends and one day he told me that after he graduated from college and had been hired by our plant, his father set him down and told him, "Doug, you've just graduated from college with a degree.  I'm very proud of you and I know you will make a great engineer one day.  But, when you go to work, don't try to tell a bulldozer operator how to operate a bulldozer!" 

Doug said that he understood that he shouldn't tell a man who has worked a job for many years how to do his job.

As a power plant operator, I could always tell when the "schoolboy engineers" came to work in the morning.  The traces on our recording charts would go from smooth lines to something resembling a seismograph trace!  After quitting time, the traces would start to smooth out once again. 

I was told by many paper machine operators that their ulcers were not caused by job stress but caused by new engineers telling him what he was doing wrong.

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K0OD
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« Reply #6 on: August 23, 2011, 10:14:57 AM »

Growing up in the 50s/60s I actually knew several kids just like Popular Electronics' Carl and Jerry. http://www.copperwood.com/carlandjerry.htm

Some had dads who were hams or techies. The father of one of my friends was working on building a TV camera virtually from scratch just for fun. By the late 70s the focus shifted for a few years from electronics to computers. Almost every family (except ours) seemed to have a nice basement workshop for home repairs, at minimum, but often for advanced hobby use.   

Times have changed. When my boys were in Cub Scouts ten years ago we won our school's Pinewood Derby five years in a row. The trick: I had a decent workshop and no one else in our very affluent school owned more than a couple of screwdrivers. I asked around and never found a family that owned a drill press.

I think that home workshops have been replaced by home gyms. Must admit that I built an elaborate indoor baseball facility for my "lefty" son, complete with a (very low) mound, professional grade radar and a strike zone painted on the wall a regulation 60' 6" away.  Every junior jock I knew took sports lessons or joined costly "traveling" teams. That certainly didn't happen in the days of Carl and Jerry.

---
Recently my son and I built up an Oak Hills Research QRP transceiver, mostly at my insistence. I figured an EE student should be able to tell a resistor from a capacitor and solder with primitive skill. I really wonder whether anyone else in his program has done anything like that.       
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WB2WIK
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« Reply #7 on: August 23, 2011, 03:48:07 PM »

I haven't been through engineering school in almost 40 years, so stuff has changed.  But we had big, fat, heavy books then, too so I guess that part hasn't changed. Wink

Nowadays I see most engineering jobs are highly specialized and there isn't a lot of cross-pollenation.  We have software engineers and hardware (electrical) engineers, and mechanical engineers and nobody even attempts to do anyone else's job.  There's no overlap.  Even the guys who do circuit board design by capturing a schematic and turning it into a PCB layout are highly specialized and know about board layout optimization (up into the microwave region, since data streams for much digital technology is now all up there) but don't design circuits, write software or anything else: Just board design and optimization. 

Karate Kid: "Can you break a log like that?"

Mr. Miyagi: "Don't know.  Never attacked by log."

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N2EY
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« Reply #8 on: August 23, 2011, 07:35:27 PM »

What K0OD describes isn't all that different from what I encountered 39 years ago when I entered EE school (fall, 1972).

The biggest differences are the computers available today and the widespread use of ICs as opposed to discrete circuits.

And in the four years there was nothing at all about vacuum tubes.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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K8AXW
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« Reply #9 on: August 23, 2011, 08:51:50 PM »

K0OD:  Great story!  I compliment you!!
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AA4HA
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« Reply #10 on: August 24, 2011, 07:51:45 PM »

After four 'stinkin years of calculus I ended up with a minor in mathematics as well. I hate math.
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Ms. Tisha Hayes, AA4HA
Lookout Mountain, Alabama
AB0WR
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« Reply #11 on: August 30, 2011, 09:41:09 AM »

One thing many EE programs today do not teach well is keeping a journal of your activities.

I can't tell you how many new engineers I see today that will do the same thing over and over because they didn't keep track of what they have already done. This applies to circuit design as well as troubleshooting.

It's imperative to do this because if you make a change to fix a problem and it doesn't fix it or causes an additional problem you need to be able to undo what you did in detail.

The only people I see today coming out of college with this skill ingrained in them are chemists and microbiologists that have research lab experience from working with a professor on a grant project.

Something to think about.
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