On Education

I’ve been sour on education lately. Given my entry into the field, I felt it prudent to explain myself.

In general, I’ve been well served by my own education. I went to a great public school system where I grew up and I went to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) for my undergraduate degree in EE (I have neither a Master’s nor PhD). I had decent grades (solid B+ student throughout my tenure) and I had a good experience with my classmates. So what gives? Why do I complain about education?

One reason is that the real value that came out of CWRU was the co-op program. It was run well and it was my two jobs as a student (taking 7 months off from school at a time) that truly taught me about the nature of electronics. In fact, the hands on stuff is where it all came together (as it often does). And then, looking back towards the theoretical teaching that I learned I started scratching my head as to why it was taught in such a way.

Because it’s always been taught that way.

That’s about the best I can come up with. Sure the math matters (really, it does). And learning about the equations behind resistor dividers or op amp circuits does a lot for students’ eventual need to solve problems. But why were we learning it? What were these mystical devices? Why did I only see them drawn as symbols on a page and not hold one in my hand. Most importantly, why didn’t anyone seem to care about that fact as they showed me that V=IR?

The missing piece was that the University setting started ramping (for electronics) around the time that long-time hobbyists entered the school. Many students entering the electronics programs in the 50s and 60s were at home tinkering with radios and kits while they were younger, so the program teaching the math behind these components fit into the mindset of the incoming students. Some students still enter with this background, of course, but even in the event that a student has been working on hobby electronics for 15 years before entering University, the focus will not be on the practical. Why?

I’ve heard other reasons, that the practical stuff is too specific. You can’t go and teach someone how to use a specific piece of software or a specific bench tool, because the material would be quickly dated (obviously they had never glanced at the tools being used by academia, as those are often ancient in all but the highest research areas). Instead the focus once again moves to the math and the equations that govern ideal behavior. An important concept, but not nearly as useful when used in isolation.

My opinion is that the system feeds back upon itself; students are expected to become PhDs who are then expected to teach students. Coursework is constructed to fit that end goal. The ones who survive are the ones who did the best at mastering the theoretical and the ideal. No room is left for the practical and even if there were, the ones teaching are not well versed in it (with the possible exception of the ones that are hands on in research labs). However, in an engineering school, very few are going to become professors (tenure track positions continue to decline while the number of PhDs continues to grow) and many more are going to enter industry where the practical skills are expected. Schools assume on the job training will take care of the rest (or senior project type courses), while employers continue to cut training budgets and have ridiculous job requirements for entry level positions.

So I decided to build my own thing. I want to give people the context they need to build electronics.

My initial idea for Contextual Electronics was formed out of frustration. Why doesn’t anyone teach this stuff? Schools don’t. Workplaces don’t. Online, very few do (and they’re often scattered across the web, piecemeal). OK, so that looked like there was a need. But what should I teach?

  • PCB Design — This was a skill I used often but rarely was taught in any manner. It was more of “figure it out”. I did, but I made some costly mistakes along the way.
  • Analog — I had a lot of trouble with signal chain stuff when I left school, regardless of the fact that I took classes in it throughout school. This also was a topic not as widely covered with online resources.  Seeing as this has been my main area of employment since then, I thought it worthwhile to share my struggles and how I got past them.
  • Tool building — At the suggestion of a friend, I decided to work on something that would be a useful tool on my bench. This allowed me to teach something that has direct applicability, but also something that will be flexible enough to build upon later.
  • Supply chain — One of the biggest shocks to the system when leaving school and thinking I knew how design worked (or even in my co-op days) was the “other stuff”. Turns out when you make things, you’re really just piecing together other things…and that means you need to purchase those other things.
  • The “putting it all together” — The tough part in any field is associating the theoretical with the practical. Oftentimes, this isn’t perceived to be a separate field of study, but I think it is. If you assume theoretical things will “just work”, you’re going to get burned. If you think practical things will “always work”, you’re going to be iterating without any direction and will also get burned. The method of taking assumptions from the theoretical predictions and using experiments to verify these claims in a real world context (there’s that word again!) is something that needs more focus. In fact, even in this first session of Contextual Electronics, it can use a lot of work.
  • The “just do it” mantra — Again, a nebulous topic, but something I wanted to emphasize in the course. Having guidance is nice and will be provided to students. But you need to jump in and make mistakes. So that’s another part of this course, to the point where the finished PCB likely will have some mistakes. Instead, we can call them “learning opportunities”. Session 1B, where we’ll be building and debugging hardware, will be all about this trial-error-analysis cycle.
  • Openness — Another misgiving of the academic path is built into the structure of the institution; there are large competitive edges in keeping your work quiet or secret in an age of openness and sharing. So the course will use open tools (KiCad, SPICE), will produce open tools (all products will be licensed as Open Source Hardware) and much–though not all–work will be shared online (progress of the project is shared on GitHub).

I’m not saying that Contextual Electronics is perfect or finished. Just that it’s starting and that it’s an outgrowth of my frustration with the state of electronics education. I hope you consider taking the course. If you do, there’s more info about it here: http://contextualelectronics.com/session-1a-registration-is-now-open/

Thanks to Nick Thompson for the image of Aristotle

5 Comments

  1. Hey man,
    Great stuff. I’d love to help you with anything related to Innovation and Lean. I’d also suggest including lean in how to improve our courses and overall program structure. Here are some books you might want to look into so you can continually improve

    Lean Thinking: http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Thinking-Banish-Create-Corporation-ebook/dp/B0048WQDIO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1388263380&sr=1-1&keywords=lean+thinking introduction to lean and the full lean enterprise

    Lean Professor: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D5FJTQI/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=1IETL02DZBXIJ&coliid=I3W0MBPHTN1TJH – a book on how to improve teaching

    Lean Mindset: http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Mindset-Ask-Right-Questions-ebook/dp/B00FBH6LBO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1388263298&sr=1-1&keywords=lean+mindset a book on how to do lean product design, mostly in software

    The Mastery of Innovation: http://www.amazon.com/Mastery-Innovation-Field-Product-Development-ebook/dp/B00BC9INOI/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1388263331&sr=1-1&keywords=mastery+of+innovation a book on how to do lean product development for physical goods

    I think that these will help with your context of supply chain and thinking holistically about product development. It will help you and your students understand how decisions in design can impact the manufacturability of their design as well as cost. I’m sure with your experience and learning the hard way combined with some material from these books will really be an amazing course.

    Again, let me know if I can help in anyway!

  2. I became a part-time tutor as a second job two years ago and have thought a lot about education. My opinions on it have changed a great deal lately.

    Also, I just finished my first semester as a Master of City and Regional Planning student at OSU, and something I was told by several professors in my introductory classes mirrored what you’ve described about EE – the first generally accepted theory about planning has been widely panned by both planning theorists and planning practitioners, yet it’s the most heavily taught theory in planning classes. As someone with an engineering background, I understand why a science-based theory is taught and I can appreciate that, to me, it’s still useful; however, it annoys me that stuff like this goes on. “Hey, we all hate this theory, but it’s the easiest to teach, so here we go.”

    Makes no sense. But often, education doesn’t. We either never question what/how we teach, or we question it too often.

  3. Chris, good luck with what you’re doing — things born out of frustration are quite motivating!

    There’s a good point for your case in a book called ‘The Art of Electronics’ — you may have heard of it? I took an extra class in college from a physics Prof (the head of the department at the time) who taught electronics from this book. It gave us much more insight and intuition to the subject than the classes I took in the CE/EE department. No mathy stuff, just the practical engineering bits. It was fun and educational! There’s a reason why people love that book — I call it the bible — and it has a lot to do with your frustration.

    EDA tools are a problem in general, but also for what you’re trying to achieve. Things change rapidly and your videos and material will expire quite quickly. I’d much rather see educational material in a tool-agnostic way with generic language that doesn’t apply to any specific tool or EDA vendor. This will produce a longer lasting, higher impact material, though that is harder to create.

  4. I understand your difficulty all too much, but more in the field of micro-control. In Australia, there are a few good educators who practice what they preach, and lead by example. As such, I develop my own project electronic kits for a specific curriculum to intertwine the content of micro-controllers, peripherals, and their applications. In my opinion, education should promote investigation and problem solving in both programming and the creation of devices.

    My bugbear: why do we automatically gravitate toward one size fits all control/prototype boards when we should also investigate good design in already manufactured products, and then program real products instead of just simulating a control-system. As such, I detest that so many people use a $20-30 control board to do the job of a 50 cent microchip PIC. In the real-world you have to think about minimizing cost to maximize profit. And who wants to swap an arduino from project to project anyway.

    Please contact me at PicoKit.com if you need advise in PIC selection or curriculum content. Regards Phil T.

  5. Hi Chris,

    I love everything about your online course idea. I hope it works out and you run the course again later in 2014. I’d sign up today, but I have a project looming over me until June, and I probably can’t devote the time I would like to the course until it is done. That said, I’m excited about the idea of designing and making a product from start to finish, and then going back and looking at the process critically. I also think you’ve hit the mark with your approach to electronics education. I hope to enroll in Contextual Electronics in 2014. Keep up the great work, and get the word out.

    -=Steve Bloomquist
    Pittsburgh, PA

Leave a Reply