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Analog Angle Blog

Courses We’ve Taken: Useful, and Not

Engineers take many courses over the years in school, after graduation, and even at work. Some are directly part of the core curriculum, such as “introduction to circuit theory” while others are more “foundational” such as calculus. Looking back, you realize that some were more useful than others, while some are useless or irrelevant. Even if the course descriptions are accurate –which is often not the case – you never know until you’ve been through the course, or been out in the real world, which ones go into which category.

I gave this topic some thought recently when I saw a description for what looked like an interesting online course sponsored by a professional organization. I happened to mention to a friend that I was thinking of taking it this course and named the instructor. He said he had taken it a few months earlier and added, quite empathically, “oh, no, stay away from that instructor and course.” Since I respected his judgment, his warning was all that I needed to change my mind.

But the incident made me think of courses I had taken in the past, and my longer-term assessment of their real value and utility. Some stood out in my mind for good and bad (not counting basic EE courses in circuits, system, and electronics):

Among the best:

  • Optimization principles and techniques: this excellent course was all about understanding what “to optimize” means (and always be clear: with respect to what parameter?), different ways to approach these problems, various algorithms, local versus global optimization, and quantifying tradeoffs. It has been extremely useful through the years, in assessing what can and can’t be optimized. I didn’t expect much going into this course, but it turned out to be a real winner.
  • Quantitative and numerical analysis: I had no idea what this would be about, but it was required and turned out to be a real eye opener. In this course we learned to understand the impact of significant figures in chained laudations, do sensitivity analysis on varying of key numbers, learned when and how to simplify equations (and not) starting with the classic “sin θ ≈ θ” (for small angles θ). Again, the long-lasting value of a course such as this can’t be exaggerated.
  • Probability: another great course. Not only did teach basic theory and equations, it showed the many ways to think about probability issues and problems, how your “intuition” was often wrong (and could be proven so). As with the other good courses, the principles and insight of this course have been very useful in many ways.
  • Threaded fasteners: this was an unexpected treat when I was working at a company doing lots of mechanical engineering. It was given by a representative from Loc-tite (anaerobic adhesives), so I expected it to be only about the virtues of their products. But, hey, there was a free lunch, so why not go, I figured? The rep started out by saying, “yes, I’ll tell you about the virtues of our product, but 90% of this course will be about threaded-fastener basics. Our product will make a properly designed threaded joint better, but it won’t help you if you don’t do the basics right.” He was true to his word, as he discussed sizing the fastener, multi- versus single-fastener designs, stress issues, through-holes and blind holes, torqueing sequences for multi-bolt installations, use of washers (almost always a good idea), and much more. Only then did he briefly talk about his product. Lesson: just because there’s vendor with something to sell giving the course, don’t dismiss it as biased: a good vendor course can be very worthwhile event.

Of course, there have been some losers along the way. My biggest mistake was a course in “thermal physics”. I was hoping to learn about basic thermal principles: heat, temperature, energy, thermal mass, modeling—all topics which electrical engineers need to understand in order to deal with the temperature and heat situation of their design, and the use of cooling techniques such as fans or heat sinks. Instead, this course was about the thermal life of the atom, from a truly “microscopic” perspective, and had no apparent connection to the macro-thermal issues I wanted to study. Much as I admire Einstein’s 1905 paper on ????, reading and studying it in detail (in English, of course) has never helped me at all with any thermal-related engineering issues.

What courses have you taken, regardless of the setting or time in your career, which turned out to be especially useful or disappointingly useless? Which courses surprised you the most?

4 comments on “Courses We’ve Taken: Useful, and Not

  1. Bill_Jaffa
    June 18, 2015

    Not sure how that “gremlin” got in there, but “laudations” should be “calculations”, sorry.

  2. Bill_Jaffa
    June 18, 2015

    And the Einstein paper cited above as ???? is his classic on thermal motion at microscopic regime:  “Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen” (“On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat”) aka Brownian motion. The ??? is a mental-block placeholder, I didn't want to face that paper's title again–it brought back so many bad memories!

  3. GSKrasle
    June 19, 2015

    I have the opposite to relate: I signed-up for a course where the instructor opened the first lecture with the lines 'You will never have any use for anything in this course; it is only valuable as an historical exercise, and should be dropped from the curriculum.'

    The course? 'Assembly-Language Programming.' Granted it was on the IBM360, but the principles of instantiation, and the mechanics of bubble-sort, branch-speed optimization, reentrancy, intelligent annotation, and building a process out of tiny tiny steps have continued to be valuable to me.

    This was before microcontrollers, and the instructor's True Love, COBOL, is pretty irrelevant now, but Assembly will apparently never die.

  4. suman nani
    June 22, 2015

    nice information thank you

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