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Electrical Engineer that struggles in remedial algebra?

  1. Nov 3, 2013 #1
    When I was young, I had absolutely no issues with Math. We moved to a different state that was much further behind on their coursework and as such when we moved back 5 years later, I was very behind. English and Social Studies were easy to catch up on because....well....I never really have much to do with them. However Science was a tough one but I finally got through it and biology. The one thing I have never caught back up with is math. I love math and can sometimes do it. However, I am VERY interested in schooling for EE. What is holding me back? I am in a remedial algebra course....I scored low enough on the placement exam that I have to take 3 remedial math courses before they will even let me touch college algebra. Yet I can calculate resistance, voltage, power and current. I know these are not really "milestones" but I remember those and can apply them when need be.
    What I am getting around to, is I am only 21 and currently at a community college for Computer Science (not really my interest but will make me learn C++ which I hear is good for EE because its a good hardware language) until I can decide if it is a good idea to go for EE or not.
    As per reference, I do not claim to be a linguistic neophyte, nor am I claiming to be scholar worthy. Only that I was good enough to pass my course work so I didnt have to look at it anymore. So please, no grammar nazi's or anything lol.
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  3. Nov 4, 2013 #2
    When you say you are struggling with algebra, approximately what level would you say you're at?

    I know a number of very good text books that helped me out a lot, but it depends where you think you are. Practice practice practice is really the core of the matter.
  4. Nov 4, 2013 #3
    I am at (approximate mind you) what a sophomore or junior would be learning for Algebra 2 in highschool. Rational equations, square roots, ect. I can do it in my class work but I attest that to the fact that they give examples in the homework. I remember problems...not rules....which is the problem when it comes test time.
  5. Nov 5, 2013 #4
    Ok, well at that level there's a vast number of books available, but none i'm especially familiar with.

    "Pure Mathematics 1 - Bostock and Chandler" Starts off with the material you need but moves on rather quickly to what I imagine you'd cover in 'senior' year if it's anything like A-levels in the UK.

    As you say there are rules for most of these problems and it is important that you know them inside and out. Laws of indices are especially important, rationalising the denominator, understanding how to graph a quadratic equation and which bits of the graph are important and so forth.

    You might find The Khan Academy website or youtube channel benefits you. It's like having a math teacher in your own home (and one who went to MIT). He covers everything from algebraic manipulation to linear algebra and beyond and I find it really useful in understanding the 'general case' before making use of all the rules to solve specific problems.

    As I said, most of this does come down to practice. Everyone at some point has to sit down and memorise what sin 45 or tan 30 is equal to.
  6. Nov 5, 2013 #5


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    Try Pauls Online Math Notes: http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/

    They are great for self-study, and are free!
  7. Nov 5, 2013 #6
    So I take it that it is a matter of branding these rules into my soul? I was told at Calc II level the rules do some odd tipsy turvy things yet....My degree plan for EE doesnt end in math courses until "Multi-Variable Calculus"....which doesnt sound like fun on account that Calc (if i hear right) is basically just a glorified Algebra. I can do physics better than I can do algebra. Not entirely sure why but maybe just a different presentation method. However, I will try Khan Academy as well as the post you put UltrafastPED. So even with terrible algebra skills, there is still hope eh?
  8. Nov 6, 2013 #7


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    I've tutored a lot over the years. I've found that motivation and persistance are the most important skills.

    As for the algebra - the key is to step back and start at the beginning; if your current skills are bad it means you have picked up some bad habits along the way. So start at the beginning and don't try for speed ... the goal is understanding.

    So test yourself as you go along ... if you find a problem, get some help ... then move ahead. Once it clicks you will find that it gets easier, and mistakes are clear ...
  9. Nov 6, 2013 #8
    I can attest to that from a student's point of view.

    After changing academic directions from the arts to physics I found much of my problems in grasping new topics were due to shaky foundations in the subjects that underpin them. And of course, it's still an ongoing process :)
  10. Nov 6, 2013 #9
    My step dad did EE and I looked through lots of his books, there will be plenty of maths ;)

    Calculus is actually a really enjoyable subject once it starts making sense. I think too often it is taught to kids as a bunch of rules that you have to follow in order to 'differentiate' something without ever really talking about what it means.

    Anyone can memorise the power rule and differentiate polynomials until their heart's content, but grasping the derivation and understanding graphically what's going on etc is key to really grasping the subject.

    UltrafastPED's post about paul's notes helped me too, I used it catching up on my implicit differentiation class work.

    Best of luck
  11. Nov 6, 2013 #10


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    Often the calculus is taught as a sequence of rules ... what you need is a geometric intuition about what is going on. You get this by graphing the equations ... so invest in a good graphing tool, like the student version of Matlab (which you will need to learn at some point for most engineering courses ... it is a great package for engineering applications).

    Remember that the derivative is the slope of the tangent line - when it is zero, the tangent line is horizontal, so you are at a min, a max, or an inflection point. There are a small number of rules for derivatives: product, quotient, implicit, chain, and then specific forms for polynomials, trig functions, exponentials and logs. That's about it for derivatives ... but you have to know your algebra and analytic geometry well or you get way behind really fast.

    Integrals are the area under a curve, or the volume for more complex (iterated) integrals. By the fundamental theorem of calculus it is possible to evaluate an integral by knowing lots of derivatives ... if not, then you use numerical integration - which I learned to do by hand, using graphical tools, or today with computer programs. Integrals are hard to evaluate, but easy to understand ... if you have the geometric intuition.

    By the time you get to multi-variable calculus you will be ready to take on vector valued functions and coordinate transformations: for this you should learn some linear algebra, which is the algebra of vectors, matrices, and coordinate systems and their transformations. You cannot know too much linear algebra! If possible take this course prior to calc III; otherwise they will just give you the minimum required to do the course. Linear algebra is very abstract, but there are very good geometric analogies for everything in it. After all, it is based on a careful analysis of systems of lines!

    The final math course is usually differential equations ... almost all of physics is based on solving differential equations, from F=ma to Maxwell's equations. But there are only a few forms which can be directly solved ... the rest have to be done numerically. The solutions to linear ordinary differential equations (ODEs) form a linear vector space ... hence linear algebra is good to know ahead of time. I wish they would start teaching it in the 4th grade ...
  12. Nov 6, 2013 #11

    I fully agree with this. I am in a similar situation as you, so I picked up Algebra by I.M. Gelfand, but honestly felt it was too fast paced for me - especially with having a full courseload at the same time. UltrafastPED introduced me to this site, and it's a great mix of concise explanation and practice problems, which are very important if you want to retain that information.

    I am the same way as you, in that I used to have absolutely no problems with math until some problems in high school. But honestly, comparing yourself now to when you were 12 will get you nowhere. All that matters is where you are now and what you will do to improve. Good luck!
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2013
  13. Nov 6, 2013 #12
    You've been given some good advice here, but I just want to add a warning: electrical engineering degrees are really math-heavy. Even once you're finished multi-variable calculus and you're done taking "math" courses, you'll still find that some of your electrical engineering courses feel a lot like math courses in disguise. To get your degree, you'll have to learn to be pretty proficient in both calculus and algebra using complex numbers. Of course, they'll spend a lot of time teaching you all that, but if you start your degree with weak algebra skills you'll spend the whole time playing catch-up and you'll likely struggle significantly. If your math skills stay weak, I think you'll have a really hard time getting an electrical engineering degree.

    That's not to say you should give up, though! You certainly have a hope: not because you'll be able to get through electrical engineering with poor algebra skills, but because there's no reason you can't strengthen your math foundations before you jump into an electrical engineering degree. It doesn't sound like you're bad at math; you just need to get caught up first. Some people here have already given you good advice on how to do that.
  14. Nov 6, 2013 #13


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  15. Nov 6, 2013 #14

    kosovo dave

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    As backwards as it sounds, I've found (this is true for me at least) that a conceptual understanding of the math comes after hours and hours of grinding through problems. I think once you're not so hung up on the notation and novelty (for lack of a better word) of the new material you can start focusing on the ideas and concepts that underlie the problems you've been doing.

    Once you're at this point, I don't think you'll have an issue with "remembering problems instead of rules".

    I'd recommend the Schaum's books. They have a huge supply of solved problems to work through for most areas of math.

    Another thing I'd recommend is to approach a topic in multiple ways. Try watching different videos or reading different textbooks on a topic until you find one that jives with. You might even want to look into what kind of technical/real world applications the math has. My first semester in physics really helped to contextualize everything I had learned in calculus and helped me to see how to use calculus and why it's so important.
  16. Nov 6, 2013 #15


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    Schaum's outlines are fine once you have been through the material ... a sort of reference book with problems. Many people use them for review prior to tests, or to get up to speed on material which is rusty.

    But IMHO they are lousy for learning the original material: very schematic, minimal discussion. But they do provide plenty of problems if that is what you are looking for, along with actual solutions ... not just the answers.
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