You don’t need to be a math wiz to be an engineer. If you passed calculus with a C, congrats! You have met the bar. Now sell back those math books, because there’s a good chance you won’t be solving multivariable differential equations in your new day job. You can keep the graphing calculator if it makes you feel comfortable and you have a cool Tetris game loaded, but a ten-dollar four-function calculator is probably sufficient.
Most of that mathematics curriculum was meant to train your brain to perform logical problem solving. Oh yeah, and some stuff will be on the fundamentals of engineering exam, so don’t forget everything right away. In practice and life, you’ll still be able to apply algebra regularly. And if you are really into computational modeling, your linear algebra notes might come in handy. As for calculus, you can learn it again when your children start college prep.
If your C in calculus came at the expense of courses in your engineering discipline, leadership roles in ASCE, or participation in a project team like steel bridge or concrete canoe, you will not have regrets. As my career has progressed, I look back to my project team and ASCE leadership experience more and more as the training that allowed me to succeed in a dynamic engineering office environment.
Engineers in their natural habitat are there to solve difficult problems, by any means necessary. Those problems, by the way, are as likely to involve negotiating staff resources and budgets as a problem set. And real world problems rarely fit the structure of those carefully crafted textbook problem sets. If a colleague comes to me with an impossible solution, my best suggestion is to change the problem.
Interns often ask me what classes they should take in the coming semester. If truly interested in structural engineering, I assume they will register for the steel and concrete courses. If they’re lucky the school will offer wood and masonry as well (hello major university programs. We still use these materials.) Beyond those, I recommend courses in the architecture department, or maybe something in art history. They should develop a vision of the building design and construction industry that is far more reaching than the number crunching. To advance to the top of the profession, you need to understand the forces at play for your clients and the money-men. The most effective way to guide the design is by tapping into the needs and perspectives of the non-technical partners. Trust me, no one ever won an argument over design that included a calculus proof.
Sure, math is useful, in the way that learning to make fire prompted humans to establish civilization. But the skill set required to thrive in the 21st century is different, and complicated, and too often overlooked by our traditional education apparatus. I believe an out-sized emphasis on classical mathematics in civil engineering education is erecting a barrier to otherwise gifted communicators and creative problem solvers that are vital to the profession.
I hope that I’ve been provocative enough in this post to prompt a spirited discussion. Please share your thoughts below.