Circuit Break Podcast #412: Great Classes, Odd Teachers, Chickens, Snakes

Podcast Title: Great Classes, Odd Teachers, Chickens, Snakes

Release Date: January 9, 2024

Episode: #412

A recent Circuit Break Community thread about K-map design inspired a tangential conversation about how well certain subjects are taught in college. Parker and Stephen love a good tangent, thank you, and so they dug in by recalling their own experiences at school with excellent professors who clearly wanted electrical engineers to succeed, while other instructors and their teaching methods were challenging or else just downright bizarre.



Podcast Audio:

Podcast Notes:

Other Topics Covered Here Include:

  • How a terrible electronics professor can impact someone’s career
  • Is a “self-paced” classroom really just lazy teaching?
  • Still not knowing how Bode plots work
  • A strange digital circuits analogy where chickens and snakes are shocked
  • Watching videos like you’re in A Clockwork Orange
  • A grade curve so severe, a 17% was a B
  • Classes and profs we loved
  • Was a class hard, or was the professor just absolute garbage?
  • Still having nightmares about forgetting to go to class for a whole semester
  • Heat Shrink Voltage Ratings
  • +more

Relevant Links

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.

Yeah, everyone learns in different ways. In the case of my filters / bode plot class. No one I talked to understood what was going on. :smiley:

Agree on the math comments, I do wish what the constants actually represented was covered. I think the only one I was taught was that e is the elementary charge of a single proton / electron. This was in passing though. Having a lecture on how it was derived would go a long way in understanding how the formulas work.

The TV repair is kinda interesting. Teaching problem solving skills and process of elimination is something that is hard to teach in typical lectures.

Enthusiasm is important for the material in my mind. It is hard to do a good job in your field when your not passionate about it. Unfortunately lots of people sign up for engineering cause there is always jobs in these fields. EE at my college had the highest drop out rate for freshman and I attribute this to the introduction classes weeding out those that didn’t have the passion for electronics and engineering. Making that one class self paced really forces this upfront.

I worked as a grader and tutor for several EE classes over a few years.

Every answer key I ever got from any professor never had more than half a dozen lines of math. And they were all relatively straightforward and light, too. I never got an answer key from a professor that was a black wall of text that utilized every square mm of white space the paper provided. That was also true of sample tests, homework questions, and answers for textbooks from publishers, etc. Honestly, professors don’t want to read all that any more than students want to write it. But a large cadre of students somehow never picked up on this pattern, even when pointed out to them.

When I tutored people, and I could see them going off into the mathematical wilderness, they somehow would just put their heads down and try to plow through. I’d stop them and ask them to take a moment and look at what they’re doing and the path they’re about to head down. I’d ask them if they believe the professor wants them to brute force this system of 12 equations with 12 unknowns by hand. Most of the time, they shrug and say, “I don’t know. That guy is mean, so he probably does.”

The vast majority of the time, the problem was the system the students set up was wrong or inefficient. But even if they did a decent job of setting up the system, there was often a straightforward substitution the students missed. Sometimes, it was a trig thing, but remapping via parameter substitution was very common, too. That remapping was usually the reason the question was even asked in the first place. The teacher is trying to communicate that these two things are actually the same. Students never stop and try to guess why a teacher chooses a particular question. There are a lot to pick from after all.

I was a student in the early 90s; EDA and CAD were much less capable then, so being able to do initial design by hand was essential. The computer’s purpose was to refine ideas. You didn’t spitball ideas in it. The various tools and graphical techniques that students denigrate make much more sense when one has to design circuits by hand. They’re huge time savers and improve engineering productivity tremendously, which is why they caught on in the first place. They also do an excellent job of building intuition for circuits because they give much simpler frameworks to reason about circuits than transient equations in the time domain. The lack of expertise in these systems is my guess as to why I don’t see circuit design intuition like I used to, even in engineers with 5+ years of experience. So, I’m sympathetic to the older methods because I do feel like something is being lost.

On the other hand, most engineers are likely working above the transistor level, or even amplifier level, these days and are building significantly more complex systems from black boxes. And that’s good. Also, modern numerical techniques allow optimizing systems that one can’t do graphically or in closed form, and it’s definitely not very intuitive, so it might be time to move on from those methods.

But in conclusion, whenever I picked up a test from a student that was just covered in the text, I always knew, this has an error somewhere. Rarely was I wrong… :slight_smile:

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Of course I’m going to discuss the Camper wiring again :wink:
I guess I never even though of the heat shrink voltage ratings (also, I had only 12V system). What I used is one of these “torches” (cheap all over Amazon, ebay, etc) that connects to the top of a standard butane bottle. It was pretty easy to adjust flow and intensity.
And I never soldered a single wire - felt like everything I read warned about the brittleness and said not to do it (same with using solid wire - too brittle). Everything was a crimp, from ring to butt connectors.

Soldering is fine as long you have proper heatshrink. Ive never had a problem in the field but I go overkill with strain relief with heatshrink and harness tape.

Doesn’t mean I don’t crimp connections either. Sometimes I prefer it as soldering requires more tools :slight_smile:

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I believe you, I’m sure you have way more automotive experience than I have.