July 2014

Current Views

By Barry Sullivan, Program Director, ECEDHA

Break It Before You Make It


A couple articles selected for this issue’s ECE in the News brought back memories of old radios and other household items in pieces on my father’s workbench.  These were not scenes of his attempts to extend the life of something likely beyond repair, although as an inveterate fix-it guy they might well have been my father’s handiwork.  Rather, they are memories of my mother’s indulgence of her son’s curiosity, as she would save worn-out appliances for me to take apart and discover their inner workings.

One of the articles that triggered these memories advocates the sort of experience I remember for all high school students, arguing they should be dissecting power tools instead of frogs.  As a first step in dispelling the aura of magic that surrounds much of modern technology among the general population, I could not agree more with the suggestion of giving students some hands-on exposure to how man-made things work.  I don’t recommend doing so at the expense of biology labs, however; we should encourage students’ curiosity about how nature works, too.

The second article describes a recent Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area.  These events celebrate “makers”, people who love to tinker and share their passion for creating.  Developments such as 3-D printing and open-source hardware have raised the level of what these makers can achieve with their home-built projects, similar to the way these technologies have extended the reach of engineering students and their projects.

All of this brings to mind an observation heard a few months ago at the 2014 ECEDHA Annual Conference and ECExpo in Napa, California.  The traditional engineering curriculum is built around a philosophy of  “learn before you do”.  In other words, limit students’ exposure to engineering applications of math and science until after they have completed the foundational courses.  It embodies a logical progression that is naturally appealing to engineers, but it denies students all the fun stuff as they grind through the basics.  Why not expose them to the applications first to motivate their studies of the underlying theory?

Taking things apart, discovering how they work, making something of your own, all of these things fit the “do before you learn” approach.  It’s the style of learning we expect graduate students to adopt as they mature into independent researchers, educating themselves on subjects needed to solve the problem at hand.  It’s also what I remember from gazing at an array of parts, trying to figure out how to reassemble what I had just dismembered.

As a corollary to the “do before you learn” theory, I propose “break it before you make it”.  It captures the principal of learning from your mistakes, as well as the notion of reverse engineering as a way to study how someone else solved a problem.

They say you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.  I say it helps to break a few things to make an engineer, too.


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