The Class I Wish I Took in Engineering School

Every once in a while my alma mater assigns one of their current engineering students the task of soliciting donations from alumni. Last week I got the call and after a brief discussion about solar cars and my discomfort at the mere thought of parting with money, the student asked me a final survey question:

‘Now that I have working experience to frame my educational experience, how I would rate the quality of the education I received?’

Good question. This topic has been on my mind recently anyway as I’ve been applying for jobs in a new-to-me industry. How much has my formal education prepared me for being a versatile engineer? How much of my ability to function in a new environment will be determined by my professional experience, education, or just my ability to figure things out?

All I can say for sure is that knowing what I know now there was definitely something important missing from the university curriculum.

My experience has been that much of what I learned in college has had no direct use in my career.

Mount Stupid

Congratulations on graduating, next year is going to be a blast!

To be fair, engineering by its very nature is not a teachable skill in the same way that welding or machining is. You simply cannot provide ‘job training’ that will cover all that you could possibly do. The number of different directions you can go with an engineering degree is vast.

As a result the university teaches you how approach problems as a scientist and use a robust process known as the scientific method for tackling unique problems. You graduate as a professional figure-outer-guy having learned how to learn in addition to a lot of scientific theory.

This is a great way to prepare you to take on novel challenges and figure out information that you know you don’t know about.


Not every challenge is a novel one. There is certain well established practical widely applicable information that is of great use to new engineers that is not covered in school, and so becomes the source of major burden.

Problems caused by the lack of this information are particularly dangerous because they fall under the category of ‘unknown unknowns’. That is, the problems you don’t know you don’t know about lead you to make faulty assumptions and waste money/time. But you’ll figure them out alright, after you learn them the hard & painful way.

I dont even understand what I dont understand

And that’s the annoying part. I feel like there is a tripwire setup right outside the exit door of my college graduation ceremony and there is a single file line of fresh graduates each successively face planting over it. And yet no one bothers to put up a warning sign.

So here’s my hypothetical syllabus for the class I wish I took:

Welcome to “Practical Applications 101”.  The university has determined that the number of engineers graduating without ‘a shred of practical knowledge’ was ‘too damn high.’ And as such completion of this new course has become a requirement for graduation.

The intent of this course is to provide students with hands-on experience and a solid understanding of common engineering functions in various types of organizations.

Classes will be taught by an actual engineering professional with a decade of work experience in an engineering industry.

Your textbooks will be the Machinery’s Handbook and Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. Selected specifically to cover a large range of the most basic, essential, and timeless aspects of manufacturing and machine design practices.

The intent of the lessons will be to provide enough depth to remove the unknown unknown’s while leaving time to cover a large breadth of subjects. Some of this information is best ingested through rote memorization. Other lessons are best experienced firsthand, so there will be a mid-semester fieldtrip to a manufacturing plant and an office where you can watch engineers in their natural habitat.

Examples of topics covered include:

  • How to actually get hired. This topic will get special attention because you’ve invested a lot of money to come here and improve your career prospects. Becausewhyonearthwouldwenotteachthisarrrgggg!
  • What the common subcategories of engineering roles actually do. (Design, Project, Quality, Application, Process, Maintenance, Service, Tooling, etc)
  • The basics of 3D modelling. (A student version of a major CAD package such as Solidworks to be provided.)
  • Where to get trustworthy information. (A design resource catalog to be provided.)
  • Engineering drawing documentation control.
  • How to communicate to fabricators the critical aspects of a design using standard methodology for detailing part drawings.
  • Various methods of organizing an assembly and creating a bill of materials.
  • Design and use of standard machine elements. (We have giant bins of tools, materials, and hardware that we’ll let you play with!)
  • Computer folder/file nomenclature that doesn’t leave you searching for hours.
  • Part numbering systems that don’t suck.
  • Introduction to different common types of manufacturing, their capabilities, limitations, and general design considerations.
  • Design for manufacturing. (Your homework will be watching the entirety of The Dragon Innovation Design for Manufacturing Video Series)
  • Design for assembly. This lesson will take the form of you watching helplessly as someone else tries to assemble your design.
  • The meanings of stupid common engineering acronyms such as APQP, PPAP, MSA, FMEA, SPC, DMAIC, ANSI, 5S, 7P, 5W2H, OMG, WTF, FUBAR, etc.

The project based final exam will be sprung on you unannounced. You may use any resources you want during the exam including other students, prayer beads, and google; but the project will have a tight unforgiving timeline and your livelihood grade will depend on your performance.

(Yes I see the irony of a practical theory class, but doesn’t it sound really useful anyway?) Do you have any other topics or books to add to the list?



  1. In the UK there are bachelor degree courses like the one you took, and there are ones where practical hand on stuff is paramount. Additionally, in these courses the students spend a whole year in an engineering company, doing real stuff, and getting paid.

    Liked by 1 person

      • And they get jobs ! My son took the B. Eng. in Mechanical in 2003-2006. He is now a Principal Engineer with Fugro Seacore, and goes all over the world sorting out drilling problems with their local people.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, I’ve learned enough to piss off the assemblers myself. But I still benefited from one portion of that dragon innovation video series I mentioned where they take a scientific approach to it. They quantify things like the number of acceptable orientations there are for fitting parts and which size/weight of parts are unacceptable for human assembly. (Mostly applicable for mass production)


  2. I love the course but it covers so much material it could easily be chopped up into five or more 3-unit courses. For example the CAD alone is a one whole course just to acquire a reasonable skill at a basic level. The GD&T again would be another whole course. What I did after graduation was to take GD&T at a local college. I did the same for SolidWorks. However my university (CSULB) offers courses for most of the topics you covered. For example two capstone courses for mechanical engineering in component and systems design covers a wide range of tackling problems using industry standards in machined parts. Another course is offered that covers the engineering profession. And there is even a course in manufacturing processes. Perhaps your institution placed too much emphasis in the theoretical and not enough in the practical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe they did focus too much on theory, it was an ABET accreddited program but Stanford it was not. Part of the problem I think is classes taught by professors who only know acedemia.

      I do think it could be done in one class though, as a sort of crash coarse to prevent blind spots. Deliever breadth rather than depth along with the prerequisites for self learning.
      Something simiar to MIT’s “how to make (almost) anything” class.
      I also had a senior capstone project, it was entirely unguided but it was still the most rewarding experience for me.


  3. The most important part of such a class should be how to reach a reasonable design with less that complete information. 6 unknowns, one equation, with an answer that won’t get you fired.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hah! Just saw this and SO agree. Back in 1993 and 1994 I created a weekly university seminar course like this and called it Practical Skills for the Working Engineer. We met in a conference room and I started by dumping a box of broken appliances (from Goodwill) on the table. Each student chose one as the focus for the semester. We covered researching the company that made it (job application), analyzing the design (design for assembly/design for repair – or not), acronyms in the relevant industry, how to write a memo to convince your boss to pay for travel to a relevant conference, how to read the CAD drawings, etc., etc. I had seven years manufacturing experience under my belt at that time (ten would have been better…) and remembered just what you’re saying – my first years were full of finding out what I didn’t know. Anyhow, keep up the great work!


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