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Should I stay with engineering? Answered

I am currently in the 2nd semester of my freshman year of college (University of Northern Iowa) as a physics major. This fall I am planning on transferring to Iowa State for computer engineering but I am starting to have second thoughts. I have always liked learning about technology and building projects (currently robots) and I can't imagine any major other than engineering. I got a C in calculus 1 and physics 1 and am currently taking physics 2 and calculus 2. Physics 2 should be fun (finally get to electricity and circuits) but I am worried about calc 2. I've never been a math genius; does this mean I'm in the wrong major? I guess I am looking for some advice on if I'm in the right major.


I am what some might (be nice policy) call a 'hard-nosed' engineer. Much as I salute the choice to consider engineering, I am not a blindered cheerleader and mine will not be sugar coated. Good luck with your choice. This is my two bits.

There are engineers and there are engineers. I suppose it depends on what kind you want to be. If you mean the kind that holds a degree and is allowed to work on expensive company or government projects, well, that kind generally requires credentials of one sort or another, and those credentials usually require a set of mandated courses are taken and passed with minimum grades to achieve the accreditation.

Where is it used?

Everywhere. loosely speaking...

When is it used?

More often than not, it seems to me that it's real use is in thinking. Using it on paper is needed sometimes, sometimes not. Engineering is a multifaceted career for most.

Will it get more interesting?

Sure, (at least from my perspective) if you're prepared. If not, it will simply become more difficult. In fact, you will encounter brick wall after brick wall in later engineering courses is you're not prepared with a solid foundation in calculus. I guarantee it.

In answer to your question about the worth of calculus, (direct or implied by the existence of the query itself) its worth is in that calculus is a fundamental tool for solving more complex mathematical problems involved in various engineering duties. (and it is a required area of study to achieve an engineering or physics degree.)

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, although far more subtly, is that the mindset those who understand calculus generally provides them with a fundamental understanding of the world that generally doesn't exist within those who don't, and which in practical terms is generally required to provide novel, timely, safe, reliable, and economical solutions to engineering problems. It's everywhere, and yet normally invisible to 99.9999% of those who fail to understand calc.

Since calculus isn't simple, and it is somewhat complex for the initiate or those who never learn it, it's not something that is conveniently compressed into an easily digestible paragraph or ISO procedure posted on Instructables so the intellectually lazy or the incapable can dismiss a couple (or a few) years of calc cuz it's hard (no offense... not personal) and "it interferes with their dream of being an engineer".

Instead, one has to do the course load, two or more years I believe is the current basics, with at least some targeted remedials and augmentation along the way in various core engineering topics right up to graduation.

In my opinion, and although, as always, there are exceptions to every rule, if one can't see the math, I don't know how one can hope to be a good engineer.

It's like learning to ride a bike. It's very hard to understand how simple it is to ride a bike when you haven't. In the same way, seeing the world through calculus isn't something one can generally do without training.

And the simple fact is that every branch of physics serviced by engineering utilizes calc to one degree or another.

I personally would not want to be sitting on the handle bars or the seat with someone who never rode a bike doing the pedaling, steering, and braking, any more than I'd want to be under the knife of a surgeon who decided that Anatomy was boring so he got the cliff notes instead, or the anesthesiologist who got tired of studying about drug interactions.

>>(note: this is not to say that one can't understand the underlying principles used by calc without training, and in fact I've met a few over the years, but in my experience, it's a very rare thing to meet anyone who does, who hasn't been trained, or who tried but failed or who otherwise gave up, who still doesn't ..)

Thanks for your detailed post. It's not that I don't want to learn the math, it just takes longer for me to understand it than others in my class. I need to study more than the other students to understand the subject. Does that make it hard to be a good engineer?

The goal is learning it, not learning at the same pace as others in your class. As one who had to take freshman English multiple times to pass it (and to learn to write!), I'm fully aware that blocks can slow progression. However, an inability to learn it or a general disinclination towards pursuing required goals like this would be a clear indicator to me (as observer) that engineering is a poor career choice.

I think a lot of the concepts have simply not 'clicked' with you, or you are learning the material wrong. How do you like to learn things? Do you like to see examples, do you learn by simply hearing someone talk enthusiastically about something? Do you prefer diagrams, graphs, and pictures, and animations? or would you like to have a "hands-on" approach to learning things? Select your professors according to what people say about his/her teaching style and helpfulness.

I used to absolutely HATE math, and the tedious and seemingly pointless and overly-theoretical algebra 2. It was pre-calculus and my interest in solving real problems that made be really enjoy learning it, and I always had an intuitive understanding of the concepts taught. This became especially true with basic integration, differentiation, and summations. They, for the most part, make sense. (I still hate inverse functions and trigonometry, and all that BS precalc 2 rubbish though. It feels all arbitrary and tedius, and especially all that memorization of the fornulas, Ugggh.)

I did enjoy "math" and planned to keep taking math courses as long as I could understand what was being presented. Wave guides and the curl of a vector was a tough 2 semester course, partial differential equations was OK but when in a hot 3d floor room overlooking the elevated subway train, an Oriental TA pointed to a parabola and said "pawwaabla" over the din of a passing train in something about universe of complex variables class .... I dropped the course !


3 years ago

I honestly used to HATE math, and could not bear the nonsense and seemingly useless stuff taught algebra 2. However, once I have figured out the core concepts at work, and was able to intuitively imagine calculus at work, and especially how to apply it to the world, I loved math. I think it is VERY important that it is taught correctly. I will see if I can show you a relatively simple example of how derivatives are found in the real word.

As you know, speed of things, like say, a truck is measured in distance traveled divided by time. like mph, or miles/hour. However, if I go from home to lowes, the speed limit is going to change many times, and stoplights make me have to stop too, and such. Say I want to know what my maximum speed is going to be during the journey because it is a stupid math question on a test that I will fail if I do not do it right. How could I go about figuring this out?

Well, dividing the total distance to Lowes, I'll call that D, by the time elapsed, I'll call that T. D/T, or M/H. This is OK, but it is not really going to tell me the maximum speed or minimum speed, just the mean average of the whole trip. Say I want to examine my speed while on the freeway to lowes, and so I will "zoom" into just that part. Now, we need to make a clearer definition for speed, in this case, the total distance traveled over some REALLY small amount of time, and the total distance is like D-D1, where D1 is a new distance after a REALLY small amount of time. Then that is divided by that REALLY small amount of time, because time is relative, it is actually T-T1 just like before! (T is the time since the big bang happened, and T1 is a REALLY small amount of time later)

Now, we have a much better and more precise definition for speed, (D-D1)/(T-T1) Now in my opinion, that looks scary, so I will say instead D-D1 is just the change in D, so call that ΔD , and the time elapsed can be called just ΔT! So now we have something that looks like what we had before, ΔD/ΔT! Now to REALLY overkill this and really figure out was the exact speed at this exact point on the road, we have to make that ΔD zero, and we can do that by making the elapsed time, ΔT zero. Only problem is that we end up with a bit of a 0/0 situation, where your place on the road did not change in zero time. Using just that, thats like trying to figure out how fast things are in a single snapshot! It Ain't possible!

Instead, limits are used to say that we will make that ΔT smaller, and of course because the distance traveled by the car in that time also gets proportionally smaller, ΔD also approaches zero. We can actually get infinitely close to what we want. So now, because the Δ's get to almost zero, they can be changed to d's like dD/dT... A derivative.

A derivative is simply doing that, over and over and over, all the time, continuously with the entire function. (that function could be a big long log of your distance from home on the road, over time while driving to lowes, or graphed out nicely)! Imagine, that, instead of picking arbitrary points along that road to figure out the speed just at that point, we literally took the ENTIRE graph of where you are on the road relative to time, then overlaid it with a slightly left-shifted graph of the exact same data. When we subtract the two functions,( I'll call f(t) and the shifted f(t-Δt)), ALL the points on the original graph will get subtracted from where you were, like SOOO ΔT's ago! then just divided that output function (which BTW has *just* figured out the distance traveled in ΔT time for *every...* *single...* *point...* on that f(t) graph) by the ΔT thing, and sat that this ΔT thing "should" ideally be as close to zero as humanly as possible for accuracy, then thats a derivative! Really logical and simple, just a few technicalities to watch out for!

Thank you for your encouraging posts :) To answer your first question, I've just done a little programming but so far I like it. I enjoy building things, especially robots and things that move. For your second question, I like classes that are both lecture and hands on lab stuff. My calc 2 professor is somewhat intimidating but there was only one choice of professor since my current school is small. My physics 2 class is all lab, no lecture which doesn't work well for me (most of my class is the opposite). I bought the textbook to read along with the labs in class.

To follow up on the inverse function of derivatives, the integral, think of filling up a pool with water, and the amount of water coming out of the hose will fill the pool up.

If the flow of water is always the same, (it's a constant) then the level of the pool is basicly the integrating the flow of water in/out of it. As you can intuitively figure out, the level will steadily rise, and that can be represented as a linear increase in the level over time. Put a constant into the integral, get a linear equation +C.

What if the water pressure in the hose kept getting stronger and stronger over time (in a linear fashion), because the pump has kicked on pressurizing a water tank elsewhere, and now as the pull fulls up, as time goes on, it will fill faster, and as time goes on, it will fill faster yet again. This will result in a quadratic growth that keeps accelerating the pool fill level!

Now, the most confusing thing for most people, that stupid + C that annoyingly has to be tacked on all the time with indefinite integrals, and where it comes from. Well, imagine it the pool was mysteriously underground, and it was infinitely big. We have no idea where the water level is initially, that would be that +C. We do, however, know how full the pool after T time relative to an arbitrary starting point. In other words, if we did finally get some datapoint where we knew the actual fillpoint during any time while we were filling it up, we can easily "look forward or behind" in time and trace out the whole graph of when we were filling satin's pool, since we know how the level of that pool has changed over time for reasons related to some dumb math analogy!!

You can think of integrals as these things that just keep summing up the all the instantaneous value of functions and multiplying that to the time elapsed, (Umm, adding vs. subtraction, and multiplication vs division... Must be magic!) And in the case of this lousy example, the water molecules are continuously summed up w/ respect to time. Hope this gives a much needed insight into all the calculus stuff! Now with that knowledge, you can probably realize why things like the calculating averages with intergals work and see the intuitivness of a lot of the theroms and theory at work!


3 years ago

The real question is do you enjoy programming, and building, designing, and stuff? What do you do for a hobby? Dont get stuck with some job thats just a job you dread and do not enjoy.


3 years ago

I am also working towards electrical engineering. I have heard from a few people in the profession that they *rarely* have to use calculus knowledge. Because calc can be hard, often people will make simplifications and reduce the formulas down to basic algebra level stuff. Like RC (resistor-capacitor) circuits, would normally be represented with fancy derivatives and integrals and things, we do not need all that complexity with just RC circuits standalone, it is easier to just use the RC formulas involving logs and exponents at the most.

If you want to be some genius theoretical thinker, a good understanding of how calculus works will be critical. For practical engineering, it is not necessary. Although nice to learn and understand. It makes it easier to know why all the formulas work. I did not find the first calculus class to be difficult, because I really understood the fundamental way derivatives and integrals worked. heck I even managed to figure out the limit definition of a derivative long before we were actually introduced to that concept!

Dave from the EEVblog is an excellent resource for this type of stuff and has a LOT of experience in the electrical/electronics field. A lot of his older videos include advice and tips for getting into his position. Judging by what he considers dirt cheap, I'd say he was pretty darn successful too!


Well off the bat you're approaching this in a very "engineer" manner, but really this isn't something some people on the internet can help you with (not that we won't try).

If this really is something you're interested in and passionate about you'll find a way to get through it. That doesn't mean it will be easy or always fun though.

I just want to see others opinions on an engineering major and their experience in it.

Seeing you are an electrical engineer, do the classes get more interesting later? I'm still doing the gen ed classes but will start actual engineering classes this fall. Physics class is interesting but difficult (all lab, no lectures) but I don't understand how calculus is used in engineering. The math classes I will take later are calc 3 and 'elementary differential equations and laplace transforms.' I will have most of the general electives done but will need to catch up on some the first-year engineering classes.

I'm actually a mechanical engineer but yes, just like building a house, the foundation is pretty boring to look at but you can't do the fun fiddly bits on top unless you have it.

I think it's important to look at what sort of jobs people with your degree get (your career center on campus should be able to help with this by showing actual data from their graduates). There are a lot of fun majors and classes in school that end up leading to uninteresting jobs, or just very few jobs at all.

You have to look on your classes as building a toolkit. You might not always know what the tool is for yet, but you will be able to use it eventually. No tool is useless.

For example: Laplace transforms are going to form the core of your toolbox for control engineering, without elementary differential equations, you won't understand them properly, to see where they work, and where they don't.

No. You are on the right track. If you want to build robots, computer science and engineering is the very best if not the only major you should be working towards. Electricity turned into electronics tuned into computers. Computers are the highest level of electronics/the brains of robots. I know it's a lot of hooey with the math, but hang in there. You're so close to being done with math and being able to forget everything that doesnt apply to building robots. Youve just got to pass math. Check out kahn academy. Theyre really helpful math videos. Even if you fail Calc2 and have to take it again, thats not really a big deal. You're going for a degree. They dont print your GPA on your degree and it wont transfer to your new school either. Also, If youve been having increasing trouble with math, that probably means you missed/dont fully understand some concepts leading up to that level of math. Your school may have a math tutoring lab that could be helpful. Good luck. Stay with computers. The programming yyou end up doing will likely be very repetetive/on the job learning math. Theres not going to be harder and harder math concepts coming at you in your career like in college. Check out this link: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/157354/is-mathematics-necessary-for-programming

Thanks for answering so quickly. Is a master's degree helpful in getting certain careers later? I've participated in summer research in 2 areas (robotics and optics) to see what it's like. Both are interesting but I enjoyed the robotics one more. What is engineering really like? I like learning new things but I also like doing the hands-on stuff. Is that what engineering R&D is like? I enjoy electronics hardware but want to learn more about programming, which is why I chose computer engineering. The reason for my physics major right now is because I was going to do a 3+2 program but decided to the engineering school sooner. The 3+2 program does not work very well here.

The more (relevant, up to date) experience, the better your chances of employment with others, or the more seriously you get taken by a bank if you're trying to start a new venture.

Qualifications are a very good kind of experience for a younger person, because you get a certificate that can be checked up by your future employer / bank.

Slightly linked; I have made stuff as a hobby for decades, but I can only get potential employers to pay attention to the stuff I have documented here, because they can see the end result, how I got there, and I can wave viewing figures at them. More than one member has reported that their Instructables portfolio has been the key to getting into the school or job of their choice.

What do you mean by qualifications? Getting certified in related areas?

The Masters you mention. If you go into an interview claiming a certain skill-set, they'll want you to prove it.

Well, as someone heading up an R+D facility, I can assure you its hands-on stuff....


3 years ago

What do you enjoy?

If you enjoy computers, stick with it!

Statistics show that 87% of people who have a job don't like it - don't become one of those!


3 years ago

Engineering it is !

After learning to do book math problems and testing,

I can and have, LOOKED IN A BOOK for any math problem that comes up.

Before computers I once did a Riemann graphical Integral of a waveform.

Beyond that I Know and use ohms law for everything else.


A lot of young computer engineers I have met didn't know about a running-box-car-average. The flow chart description is, add say 50 iterations keep the sum and divide by 50 .... next iteration subtract the first iteration from the sum and add the 51 iteration keep that sum dividing by 50 and so on you create a running- box-car-average.