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What's wrong with the way we learn Applied Mechanics?

I was reading professor Zhigang Suo's post titled "What's Wrong with Applied Mechanics", thinking about the large amount of knowledge available. There are so many applications of mechanics that they seem endless in any subfield that one can think of. It made me recall some homework problems that wanted to include real life applications. However, real life applications tend to turn out much more complicated than what can be covered in one homework problem. Thus we ended up using equations which we did not understand, and the method of solving was of a meager plug and chug. There are too many real life applications to learn all of them at a very deep level.

I took a course that was an introduction to electrical engineering, and its goal seemed to be to cover all of the important practical applications of electrical engineering. There were so many topics that were covered, from digital data transmission to image compression to circuit analysis. The number and range of topics to cover in this class was so great that we spent a very minimal amount of time in each one. It didn't allow us enough time to learn a lot about each of the topics.

Logically, we only had enough time to learn the basics about each topic. This wouldn't be a problem as we would still learn the basics of electrical engineering. However, the problem was that we would move into very specific and complicated ideas during some topics. For example, during the digital data transmission topic, we learned the equation stating the theoretical limit of data size but we were told not to worry about the details. It would be fine to learn what the equation looked like simply to get a sense of what that field in electric engineering is about, but we were given problems were we needed to use the theorem. With such a scarce understanding of the equation, it reduced the problem to a simple plug and chug. To me it seemed that it required a good background in probability and combinatorics to understand the equation well.

These type of plug and chug problems only allowed for a meager understanding of the material. It wouldn't be a problem if we only did a couple of problems like that to get a sense of a particular field, but when the course revolves around problems like that, then the entire course is spent in gaining a meager understanding of things. We don't get an opportunity to exercise much analysis of our own; our analysis is only limited in making sure that we use these given equations in the proper way. This amounts to almost learning nothing at all.

Courses that quickly brush over deep topics don't allow the student to learn the reasoning behind the equations. The most important goal in a course is for a student to learn a way of reasoning which he will be able to take outside of the course. If all a student can do is recall equations for specific applications, he is nothing more than a collection of information. This prevents the student from being innovative himself; from developing science. I was looking at some of the courses offered at MIT to look at courses at another school and noticed that some seem very advanced. I actually don't know how MIT students feel about the courses so I'm just speculating based on the course description. Some of the courses offered were titled "Probability Techniques for Mobile Robots" "Modeling of molecules & Simulation of Materials" and "Design of Ocean Systems", all geared towards undergraduates. From the description of the courses, they seem complex enough to require additional understanding about robots, molecules, and oceans, respectively. Without this background, my guess would at some points students needed to accept some equations as given.

The approach of giving too many real life applications which involve complexities beyond our understanding don't help to advance our analysis. This causes a limited understanding on behalf of the student, sometimes discouraging interest in the field. It is the fundamental courses like fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, and thermodynamics which teach the fundamental methods of analysis for all kinds of problems. Focusing on learning these subjects well should give a better preparation to tackle any kind of problem later on in life.

I want to invite students at other colleges to share their opinions whether you agree or not as I only know about courses at my college.


well, i did my undergrad in india but i can completely relate to the issues you have mentioned.  Sometimes i encountered  concepts/equations which were supposed to be taken at their face value and one had to settle for some ad-hoc explanation for the same.  Also given the number of courses that one is supposed to do, it is sometimes difficult to spend too much time on doing an in-depth analysis. But i guess the idea behind making us take different kinds of courses was to expose us to the different facets of engineering and  also set the stage for  those who wish to pursue higher studies!?

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