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Why Engineering Majors Change Their Minds

This post originally appeared on

If we want our country and economy to get back on track we need to fix the education system for math and science related degrees. It’s simple really and everyone knows it. Growth happens when people build and sell things. In an age of high tech innovation those “growth” building blocks rely squarely on the skills acquired in a science, technology, math or engineering curriculum. It’s why the president and other industry groups are advocating for more students to graduate with these degrees.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Christopher Drew talks about “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds.” He really highlights some of the systemic issues that are engrained in our institutions but having experienced firsthand what it’s like to study engineering, I can tell you what’s really going on.

Cramsorption Learning. How fun is this? 2 hours a day, 3 days a week, a professor stands up in front of a classroom and paraphrases sections from a chemistry text book. After a few weeks of lectures and labs, the class is ready for its first test. A few days before the exam the libraries are pact. Students cram all of the formulas and anecdotes into their brains because in a few hours they will be responsible for regurgitating those same formulas onto a test. And once that test is finished, all of that information evaporates. Why? Because now the students need to focus on the next chapters and shortly thereafter they’ll have their next exam. By the next semester most of the learned information will go to waste because there was never any real practical experience applied to the information in the first place. Cram, regurgitate, next.

Learning from experience. One of the best Electrical Engineering classes I ever took was in high school during my freshman year. It wasn’t an EE class per se’ but it just as easily could have been. My teacher David Peins, basically said to the class, “here are some parts, here is how to make a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), and here are some circuits. Go build a firefighting robot that can autonomously navigate a maze and put out a fire.” What ensued was what all engineering programs should be like. We had to figure things out on our own and when we had questions, which we did almost all the time, we would ask Mr. Peins. By the end of the class we had learned about resistors, transistors, tute-bot circuits, and an entire foray of engineering concepts. I didn’t even learn about transistors until my junior year in my real ECE major. In high school, I learned these concepts by doing and not by sitting in some lecture hall taking notes.

Grades, grades, grades. I got a 2.5 GPA the first semester of my freshman year. I thought I could do what I did in high school – almost nothing and get by with good grades. My other college buddies thought the same thing. It turned out they did much better than I did freshman year, but it was also true that they were not pursuing a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). So here I was taking extremely hard courses, working 3x as many hours as my peers for crappier grades. And as school progressed it was time for me to start thinking about my future. At one point I thought about attending the London School of Economics. I gave them a call and they said I needed a 3.5 GPA regardless of my major. So here I was thinking about my future and I was already at a disadvantage because my major produced historically lower grades than other majors. Had I really wanted to go to the school I might have switched. I know I debated it almost every day for two years.

School Rankings. The end justifies the means. I heard a story once that went like this. A university had a top program for entrepreneurship. The best students from the STEM majors wanted to put their skills to work so instead of taking jobs from some of the top, high paying companies like Google or Intel, they choose to work on their own projects. Great, right? More entrepreneurs. Bring it. Well that university ended up cutting back on that program because those high quality students weren’t taking those high paying jobs. And when part of a school’s rankings are predicated on graduate’s starting salaries, you might see why long term opportunities were sacrificed for short term gains. We’ve seen this story before though – see Wall Street.

Money, money, money. In college, my buddies and I came up with this great idea that we thought would change the world and make us a lot of money. We realized that millions of cars each day were driving over speed bumps in the roads. These speed bumps were put in place to force the car to slow but consequentially there was also a lot of energy going to waste during this process. We thought that we could harness this lost kinetic energy and pump it back into an electrical grid. So we went to work. We started developing the equations and formulas needed to make this happen. One of our professors was helping us but after a while he asked, “why are you doing this?” Thinking this was already an obvious answer, we responded “because it’s a great idea and it will make us rich.” He quickly began to tell us about a fellow engineering friend of his who came up with several inventions but ultimately went to Wall Street because he wanted to get paid and he was having a hard time turning inventions into real products and businesses.

Its Hard. One of my exam questions once was, “How much fuel do you need to get to mars?” That was it. We needed to account for the earth’s gravity, various altitude levels, the trajectory of the flight path, the mass and weight of the ship, and so on. This was a straight up NASA question and I was barely doing well on my calculus exams. The reality is that most STEM majors have topics that are extremely difficult and sometimes they are just too hard too complete. How did I deal with this? I just worked harder. Was it worth it? It was for me but most others deferred to the “Grades, Grades, Grades” section.

Changing the Status-Quo. The feeling I get with most STEM course work today is that they were designed for a 9 to 5 industrial age with the goal of producing great workers for great companies in a non-global economy. This reverberated through my mind as I sat in those giant lecture halls. But now we are very much in a competitive, global, all-hours-of-the-day economy. We need a system that rewards risk taking and encourages people to pursue challenging academic careers. This is not happening today because we are too focused on school rankings, easy grades, short term gains, and maintaining the status-quo.

Sooner or later these issues will be addressed and they will most likely come from someone who has the building blocks to address and engineer real problems. I just hope more people stick with Science, Technology, Math and Engineering and don’t change their minds.

Dear Ambassadors and Respected Representatives of UW-Madison and Education – A Year in Review

University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Over a year ago I wrote an open letter to several faculty members of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In the letter I voiced my concerns over the broken admissions process and broken academic protocols within the school and within other universities. I also discussed the importance of building a network and more importantly, maintaining the health of that network.

Well, this past weekend I attended my younger brother’s graduation at UW-Madison and I couldn’t help but think about how broken the system still is.

This is another open letter to the faculty members of UW-Madison.

(Before reading this letter, please note that I will be making this letter publicly available on my blog. Also, kindly take note of the recipients).
To: Chancellor Carolyn Martin –
To: Provost Paul M. DeLuca, Jr. –
To: Director of Admissions, Steve Amundson –
To: Dean of Students, Lori Berquam –
To: Vice Chancellor for Administration, Darrell Bazzell –
To: Vice Chancellor for University Relations, Vince Sweeney –
CC: Executive Director, Youth Speaks –

Dear Ambassadors and Respected Representatives of UW-Madison and Education,

It’s been over a year since my first letter to some of you regarding my concerns over the current admissions process, concerns over the current state of affairs within various academic departments, and concerns with the overall reverence (or lack there of) for the alumni network. This past weekend, I sat in the Kohl center watching my brother and his peers graduate in the same exact 2:30 pm “Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the School of Business and College of Engineering” ceremony I did two years ago. In attendance from my family was, in addition to myself, my parents, grandparents and sister. Simply being back in Madison and sitting in the Kohl center brought back all of the feelings I had when I was attending school. A sense of pride, distinction, loyalty, success, and belonging. All of these feelings came back full circle, and then I watched James Kass’s charge to the graduates and his words hit me like a ton of bricks.

In his closing remarks, he said:

“So I’m going to ask you to do something starting next week after you revel in this weekend celebrating all that you’ve done and all that you are. And when you wake up next week, always and forever celebrating all that you are and all that you’ve done, I want you to ask yourself if you’re satisfied. And I don’t care where you come down on the political spectrum, even if you passionately disagree with everything I believe in. I just want to know if you’re satisfied, and if you’re not, what it is you’re going to do about it, because the system has been designed perfectly to achieve the results it achieves.”

Almost a week later, I’m still asking this question, “am I satisfied?” And the answer is most certainly and emphatically “NO.”

I’m not satisfied because over a year ago I wrote some of you a letter voicing my concerns for your methods and system. How the university showed either a lack of interest, lack of means, or incompetency when evaluating and rejecting a potential UW candidate, my younger sister (and probably others). A person that would have most certainly strengthened the UW network and its legacies, which was a theme that was addressed in one of the speeches during the commencement ceremony (so much so that the alumni present in the ceremony were asked to stand among the crowd, I among those). Well, a year later I can report that my sister, a could-have been future UW-Alumni, has just finished her first year at Penn State with a 3.8 GPA making dean’s list both semesters. In addition, she was 1 of about 30 freshmen selected among an application pool of about 250 for the nursing program. Although I’m proud of my sister, I’m disappointed with UW because she could have been an asset and member of the badger network in years to come. Perhaps if the system hadn’t been “designed perfectly to achieve the results it achieves” she would have been accepted to UW and could have been sitting next to me in the Kohl center as a badger, your peer and ambassador, and not as an outsider. So I ask, what have you changed since last year? What steps have you taken to improve?

I’m not satisfied because over a year ago I voiced my concerns about a University that is trying “to compete in a rapidly changing world using obsolete methods and practices.” As this world becomes more complex, it will be less relevant for a student to earn a 4 year degree and some are already beginning to question its purpose. In addition, as technology becomes more advanced, it will become even easier to obtain the same level of education for a fraction of the cost. And with a fragile economy, unpredictable global markets, and diminishing job openings, what does the University do? It raises tuition for students and claims that it will benefit everyone. I ask how? How could this possibly benefit everyone or anyone? By increasing tuition for students and families, who are already struggling under current circumstances, we are supporting a system that was designed for a 9-5 industrial revolution. How can the University (or all universities for that matter) possibly expect to maintain its clout among other academic institutions when the best students either can’t afford tuition or aren’t accepted in the first place? Furthermore, why do you use broken metrics to evaluate these candidates? Metrics that look at grades from standardized tests (tests that might not be conducive to some of the brightest and most creative minds), metrics that look at grades from high school systems that were also designed for the 19th century, or worst off, metrics that do matter but are greatly overlooked – like leadership, entrepreneurship. Every aspect of our world is changing, some quicker than others, and if the academic institutions can’t adapt at least at a “satisfactory” speed, then “satisfaction” will be the least of our concerns because at that moment, we will be concerned most with survival as a society and as individuals.

At the end of the day, I respectfully ask that you take the same advice that was delivered to your students at their commencement ceremony. Like James, I’m here “to tell you that I’m not satisfied, but that I am one of many trying to do my work, knowing that it’s in your hands now and hoping that you’re willing to do yours.”

Please don’t be complacent. Please don’t raise tuition because it’s the only way. Please don’t reject exceptional students because they don’t fit your admissions template. Please don’t support a broken system.

But most of all, please challenge the status quo among other academic institutions because tomorrow is very different from today, and if you do this, you will secure a bright future for our university, its legacy, and indirectly, our society.

My Very Best Regards,

Dan Reich

Class of 2008′

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The internet is growing up. Please welcome NYTimes to Social Media and the Social Internet

Consider this (courtesy of Wikipedia):

  • September 18, 1851 – The New York Times was founded (although originally named New-York Daily Times).Newspaper.
  • 1995 – The Times has a strong web presence and is ranked one of the top sites. The content is generated by the Times staff.
  • March, 2005 – The New York Times Website has 555 Million page views. Content is still generated by Times staff.
  • 2008 – The domain attracts at least 146 million visitors annually according to a study. The Times website ranks 59th by number of unique visitors, with over 14 million unique visitors in August 2008. 
  • June, 2008 – New York Times launches a Beta version of TimesPeople allowing users to connect, share, comment, and review items and content within the NYT site. A social network within the content driven site.

From TimesPeople:

“TimesPeople is a new way to discover what other readers find interesting on — and to make recommendations of your own. With TimesPeople, you can share articles, videos, slideshows, blog posts, reader comments, and ratings and reviews of movies, restaurants and hotels.”

When we say “social media”, we should really be saying the “social internet”. The internet as a whole is beginning to harness the power of profiles, user generated content, and the social graph. Websites that have traditionally been known for publishing content, are now realizing the importance of social interactions and engagement.

The consumers are the content creators. The creators are the consumers. And now, organizations that have built hugely successful businesses with content creation as its core competency, are adapting to the ever increasing demand for social interactions and collective, community based content creation/sharing.

In The Power of Profiles post by Fred Wilson:

While I am sure the people who work at the New York Times think of themselves as a content company first and foremost, what goes on at the New York TImes website is as much about software as it is about content. And slowly but surely the Times online is becoming social softwareThat’s a big deal.

The internet is growing up. We are all adopting and evolving with the changing times. Please welcome The New York Times to Social Media and the Social Internet.

NOTE: This article can also be found @ LotameLearnings

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