This was a very thought provoking episode, guys. A few reactions…
Let’s think about a professor who we thought was excellent, and was able to teach the material so that we could completely grok the subject. I submit to you that a classmate, seated at the next desk over, might legitimately come away with a much different experience. People learn and understand concepts in different ways, and what works for Billy-Bob might leave Suzy-Q in the dust, and vise versa. If my notion is true, that means a truly great professor that can reach everyone much be a rare gem, indeed.
About all the complicated math, I agree with you guys remarks. Most of that seemed excessive. I remember a few professors made it a point to create problems and examples where the formulas were mathematically easy to solve — reasonably so since manual mathematic manipulations weren’t the focus of the class. Some went so far as to also make the numbers simple, as well, so a calculator wouldn’t even be needed. What’s the modern version of Derive, that symbolic equation software that could do that for you? And are such tools used more extensively in the engineering classrooms today?
I was probably more tuned-in to thinking about the abstract math angle than most, some my mother and stepfather were both mathematicians— and not in the way you might think. I frequently questioned the usefulness and meaning of all those obscure abstract math concepts that seemingly had no basis in reality. Finally one professor was able to explain it in a way that made sense — these are just a set of rules we’ve created that align with real physical phenomena and are a useful way to describe and solve things (I’m paraphrasing). In particular, I was really bothered about the imaginary quantity of all those complex exponential we use in e-mag, until he helped me realize that those imaginary numbers are just a necessary artifact of the math tools we are using, but in the end, it’s only the real numbers that bear any correlation to physical quantities.
I could sense from your discussion (and this applies to my experience as well) that a student’s personal interest and enthusiasm for the material makes a huge difference. Coming from a Ham radio perspective and having a coop job my later years enabled me to have a sense of what my interests were. I wondered, even back then, what a different college experience it must’ve been for people who’d never lifted a soldering iron nor engaged in personal projects (not to belittle those folks at all, but I would meet people like that and wondered). A similar thing can be said about funding your college education. Initially, I had a full scholarship until one day the Air Force and I mutually agreed that the services weren’t for me. I became a coop student and paid my own fees. I realized there was a subtle shift in my attitude. Not that I was slouching off before, but when you’re paying the fees yourself, the coursework takes on a new and deeper meaning.
We had a similarly notorious gray beard professor at Ga Tech called Out-of-Phase Hays. I had just finished one of the best courses ever called EE Communications I, so I immediately signed up for II the next semester without asking around. First day in class, he tells us the textbook which is on television set repair! This wasn’t a great start at all. He then explained the history of this class. Years prior, several frat-boy students has asked him to teach them how to repair TV sets. Why? Because they had those early table-top Pong games in their frat houses, and they kept breaking. Hays agreed to make a class on one condition — he’d teach television repair the first half of the term, and then whatever topic suited his fancy the second half. When I took it, the wild-card topic was radiometric measurements. Things like flying super sensitive receivers (both RF and IR) in airplanes over the ground and processing the data to learn things. We had to repair a real broken TV in that class — if you couldn’t find a broken one, various members of the faculty had signed up who had candidate sets for this purpose. I didn’t have one at first, but no way was I gonna use a set from a faculty member — the thought of being the student who couldn’t repair the Dean of EE’s TV set was off putting, to say the least. The set I did finally find had a weird problem that eluded me for some time. Until one day I had the not-so-bright idea to turn off the lights. Then it was clear as day. One tube socket was arcing — inside the insulating material of the socket. Maybe moisture? So all those weeks of TV set theory went down the drain, and I went downtown and bought a new tube socket.