If I ever started a polytechnic school, I think I’d flip the curriculum on its head. I’ve been doing engineering work for a long time with lots of design work and troubleshooting sessions and most of the time, our work does not revolve around pencil-and-paper formulas, but around the limitations and defects of our devices. So, let’s teach the students about the strengths and limitations of real components, then add mathematical formulas on top later and only in terms of what is known about real components and real designs.
As an example, Ohms law (isn’t it really Ohm’s relation) is concise and simple, but it presents an unreal view of circuit design. Our discrete resistors are only available in limited values with limited accuracy and limited power handling capacity and that’s without considering nonlinearities and the thermal noise they contribute to a circuit. Voltages only come from a limited number of sources. The resulting currents manifest only in limited ranges and forms. What’s more important, the theory or the practical reality of the devices?
When starting out, we might look at a collection of resistors and discuss why one is bigger than another, why one costs more than another, what the initial accuracy is and what to expect over time. We might let the smoke out of one and discuss what we observed. These characteristics represent practical information almost anyone could grasp. Then, once the intuitive aspects are mastered, we could paste on the mathematics and in this case, as is proper, the math is the slave, not the master. If the math doesn’t describe things we grasp intuitively or things that can be measured or represented in real circuits, then it’s useless and should not be taught.
In our day-to-day work, our problems with capacitors have nothing to do with the theoretical operation. In the lab, the production line or repair facilities, we struggle with aging effects, leakage, voltage derating, interactive resonances, Q and self-heating. Our real world work revolves around understanding and managing the imperfections of these devices. The same can be said for inductors, then we can talk about diodes, transistors, op amps, PWM controllers and all the other folderol of our daily grind.
If you read about Michael Faraday and other pioneers of electronics, this is how they did things. They explored circuit operation and then pasted the mathematics on top to describe what they saw. So, am I nuts to think books like Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics should be part of the first year engineering curriculum?
The way we do things now, students come from engineering school with heads full of theory and it’s up to the mentors at their first jobs to school them in the practical realities of the business. We should turn that backwards around.
What are your thoughts? Set me straight in the comment section.
Ken Coffman is a Field Applications Engineer & Member of the Technical Staff at Fairchild Semiconductor. His postings are his own and don’t necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Fairchild Semiconductor.