What’s the hardest engineering class?
It’s a long-standing debate, but personally, fluid mechanics is what killed me.
We all have that one class that we regret.
That whenever we think about it we get a weird gross feeling in the pit of our stomach – like we just ate some old takeout from the back of the fridge, and are now seriously regretting that decision…
That class where you never settled in. Never felt quite right.
The professor carried around an air of superiority.
There was a weird smell in lecture hall that you could never identify.
The lectures seemed “off” and had no relation whatsoever to the problems assigned each week from the textbook.
The exams were something from another universe – concocted by the devil himself to test your belief in all things that are good in the world.
And during class itself you were so bored out of your mind that you spent all of your time doing ANYTHING else that could keep you occupied – even studying for OTHER COURSES.
Maybe it’s a sign that something is wrong when the class carries a 43% average on the midterm… Or maybe it’s just me.
But what I do know is that class for me came second semester of Sophomore year…
Fluid Mechanics: my hardest engineering class (and the bane of my existence)
From day 1 we were off to a stellar start: two different professors teaching the class that switched off each week (and then sometimes didn’t even show and the TA taught).
And dear god they must not have ever spoken to each other outside of that first introductory class because their lectures were universes apart. They taught from two different sets of lecture slides, had two different ideas of how the course should go, and as a result each class was a wild ride down a new partial derivative rabbit hole that none of us were prepared for.
And then there were the derivations themselves… Lonnnggg drawn out slides full of “the partial of this,” “the partial of that,” deltas and rhos…
It was as if somehow abstract math was the ONLY way someone could POSSIBLY understand the relationship between volume and pressure.
I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and bored out of my mind. And I wasn’t the only one…
I was so “checked out” by Week 3 that I would sit at the back with a buddy of mine and do ANYTHING WE COULD THINK OF that wasn’t related to lecture. Working on homework from other classes. Working on our group project from mechanics. Talking about the next program we were going to get into, or whether we should do study abroad. Checking Facebook and reddit, over and over…
Anything to get me away from having to think about the partial derivative of the x, y, and z components of pressure along the flow line of who knows what.
Unfortunately, this lackadaisical attitude in class carried over to everything else I had to do in the course.
I would do the bare minimum on the homework problem sets… And by the time the project rolled around, I left it until the last minute and struggled HARD to get something together that was in good enough shape to turn in.
Because of this, my second exam was a disaster, and I found myself left looking towards the final exam with pretty much no clue about anything I had learned the entire semester.
As it turns out, the class itself might have been a “mistake,” but I was making mistakes that were hurting my chances at getting anything at all out of the time I was spending on the course.
And so this brings me to…
Mistake #1: I didn’t take responsibility for ME
Yes, lecture was horrible. Yes it was boring and overwhelming all at the same time.
But what I didn’t do was try to make it better.
Instead of figuring out how to get more out of lecture, or how to organize my homework sessions so that I could learn the material independently, I checked out.
“Well this course blows, let’s just figure out how to pass the time and hope for the best.”
That approach not only led to struggling on the project and exams, but left me with a pathetically incomplete understanding of fluids.
Lesson learned: When you’re bored in class, don’t check out – do something about it.
Instead of sitting in the back of class, thinking to myself how “over this” I was, I could have made it better for myself by breaking it down and asking myself:
- “Am I bored because this is too easy? Is there actually a problem for me to solve?”
- “Am I bored because I’m overwhelmed?”
- “How can I break down what’s going on here into smaller, more manageable chunks?”
Breaking down a concept from lecture…
This “self-directed” learning can significantly improve you understanding of something that seems way over your head (like the Material Derivative), but also can increase your engagement with the material so that you don’t feel so bored.
Mistake #2: I was content with being a transcription robot
The other mistake I made was that the one thing I WOULD do in class was take notes. Very “pretty” notes I might add…
But in reality I had absolutely no clue what I was writing.
I was just transcribing the same gibberish I was seeing on the board and hoping that sometime later down the line I’d be able to look at it again and understand what the hell was going on.
Then, when it came time to study for the exam, I would pull out my notes and the lecture slides and flip through them, hoping I would be able to osmosis the information into my head, despite my total and utter disdain for anything Bernoulli related.
And therein lied my problem with the exams in that class…
Lesson learned: just taking notes does nothing for you if you’re not engaging with the material.
Like I talk about all the time, in order to build the deep understanding and practical problem solving ability you need in order to do well on technical exams, you HAVE to:
- Break down solved problems until you understand exactly what’s going on in each step (and why specific steps are being taken) – aka reverse learning
- Do problems from scratch on your own without supporting materials, and go back and correct your mistakes – aka active recall practice.
I was doing neither of these… because I somehow thought trying to understand my notes would be enough, and I didn’t connect the dots between homework and textbook problems and the exam.
I was too preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself about how crappy lecture was.
And that brings me to the final mistake I made…
Mistake #3: Letting the “weirdness” of lecture get to me
Each lecture would go like this:
- Professor comes in and sets up computer for 10 minutes.
- Professor goes through slides that show fluids-related things like golf ball flight simulations.
- Professor goes through 10-20 slides of derivations.
- Professor might go through 1 problem so fast you have no idea what happened.
- Class dismissed.
And this threw me off big time.
In all of my other classes that semester we would spend ~25% of lecture introducing a new concept, and then the remainder working problems. And because of that, I had a good sense of what to expect come exam time.
But Fluid Mechanics was another story. Lecture was almost 100% theoretical mumbo-jumbo, and I had no sense of what the problems would look like until I went to go do the problem sets.
This left me baffled when the exam sheets were passed out.
Lesson learned: no matter how theoretical and “pie-in-the-sky” the lecture is, you HAVE TO DO PROBLEMS.
No matter how many derivations they throw at you in class, the questions on the exams are still going to require the same type of problem solving skills that any other of your calculus, physics, programming, or engineering courses would require.
So even though in this particular case the professors did maybe one problem each lecture if we were lucky, each homework problem set and each study session for the exam was an opportunity that I didn’t take to hone my problem solving ability. Even though I didn’t get much out of class, I still could have walked away with a respectable exam grade.
So let this be a warning and a lesson to you…
Next time you find yourself in YOUR worst class ever, bored out of your mind just waiting for it to be over… think of me, floundering away in Fluid Mechanics, because I forgot the fundamentals:
- Break it down and get yourself engaged
- Don’t just copy down notes
- And WORK PROBLEMS
And no matter what class it is, no matter how many pages of notes of derivations you have that you’ll never use ever again, you’ll be okay.