All EEs don’t need to learn Laplace Transforms

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Electrical engineers at Penn State have to take EE350, a course on Laplace transforms. It’s notoriously difficult–abstract and math intensive with tough assignments and tests. People often fail multiple times, and many drop out of electrical engineering because of the class.

The professor once explained why he made the class so hard. He said something like: “One day someone in this class will have to design air traffic control systems using Laplace transforms. If I pass you when you can’t do the work, then you’ll cause a lot of harm.” I remember agreeing with that basic logic.

I now see that my agreement was self-serving. I’m just lucky that I was able to do well in classes like that, and I supported a stance that privileged people like me.

The fact is that the EE350 coursework was much more difficult than what you’d encounter in most jobs. I’m guessing that in most cases you could get away with some pre-packaged software that requires only basic knowledge of LT. You definitely wouldn’t need to solve problems under time pressure.

The disconnect between EE350 as a course and its practical use isn’t surprising because it wasn’t designed for students to use the content. If that were the goal, we would have focused much less on theoretical concepts and mathematical wizardry.

EE350–like all of higher education–was designed by and for academics. They like the problem sets and theorems approach to learning, which is why the course exists as it does. Students who might make great engineers but don’t have the skill-set to pass EE350, or who don’t do well with the academic approach to learning, are simply out of luck.

For my senior design project, I worked with someone I’ll call J. He was one of the best engineers I’ve ever met. He had a special knack for debugging what was wrong: more capacitance in one part of the circuit, overheating in another, etc. In one of the few classes that attempted to replicate on-the-job engineering, he excelled.

But he also failed EE350 multiple times, delaying his graduation. Although I suspect he eventually passed, I don’t know what he, or anyone else, gained by forcing him to take the class. I’m not sure why should have had to.

There are many people like J–those who would succeed in white-collar careers but are hampered by the academic approach to learning. They too would benefit from rethinking college and work pathways, and reform efforts shouldn’t ignore them to focus solely on vocational students.

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