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Harder than it has to be August 24, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, science.
Tags: , ,

While working on my MS, I took a grad-level class in physics. Despite the fact that the material was close to what I was doing in EE, I had a lot of problems understanding how to do the exercises. The prof was trying to do more interactive things with our in-class time, so homework problems were often worked on the board by unwilling class participants.

On one such occasion, I was called up to the board and asked to give the solutions to an exercise.

I wasn’t terribly concerned about this as I knew I had the problem solved correctly. However, the instructor had described a particular way to solve this problem. I honestly tried several times to solve the problem the way he had described, but the effort was rather futile. After several attempts, I solved the problem using a method I’d learned in EE. (It was something my MS advisor had managed to explain very clearly in less than 10 minutes.) When I went up to the board, I described how I had solved it.

The instructor gave me a somewhat irritated look and made some comment about, “Well, that’s how an engineer may solve the problem.” Of course, out of the 15 students in the room, 12 were from engineering. He then proceeded to go through another explanation of the method he used which still made no sense to me.

I mentioned my irritation about this comment to a classmate later, and he said, “Yeah, well, your way actually made sense. We knew what you were talking about.”

I have often wondered since then how much of getting through a degree program is made artificially difficult by the way the material is communicated. Or perhaps it is made harder by adherence to methods that may not provide much intuitive insight. I often wonder if it really does have to be that hard.



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