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Math Nano Engineering/Math/CS

  1. Dec 18, 2012 #1
    Hey guys, I'm stuck in a rut. I'm currently in an engineering program--Nanotechnology, it's mostly focused on materials, chemistry, and electrical. In upper years there is an option to specialize in biology which is the original reason I wanted to attend this program. That specialization is mostly for bio-compatible materials and drug delivery systems, and I wouldn't mind doing research in this field for a living, after getting my PhD. Currently I have a pretty good GPA, I'm part of a couple of pretty good extra curriculars at my school including a robotics team and an undergraduate research project in nano materials for drug delivery. I've gotten a research intership at a lab at MIT and have my name published in a journal with an impact factor of 14, and I have a future internship arranged. I think it goes to show that I have quite a head start on my career, if I decide to stay on this track.

    However, I hate the way I'm learning in my program. I don't like the engineering way of teaching only methods and not the theory. A lot of my profs clearly dislike teaching, and my faculty doesn't strive to get profs that teach well. So a lot of my courses become jumbled facts that are repeated, not derived. I hate memorizing and I would rather they be able to derive it, or if my program was less specialized I would at least be able to find textbooks or course notes that cover the theory. But a lot of times after first year I find myself scrambling for online resources to explain, say x-ray crystallographic techniques and I don't get everything the prof taught. Clearly memorizing isn't my strength.

    Not only that, but materials science isn't what my passion is. I realized early on that I am passionate about biology and math. However, there were gaps in my education early on that so my ability to rigorously prove things is not very good, and I'm terrible at labs to the point whenever I have a lab course I'm liable to get ~60%. Also, biology requires lots of extensive lab-reports (much longer than engineering reports, and graded tougher too) and considering the number of pre-meds I'm competing against, it doesn't seem very likely that I will stand out for grad school. Therefore I'm completely disregarding the possibility of going into biology, since it'll be the equivalent of jumping out of the proverbial pan into the fire.

    My school is very well known for math and CS. Mostly CS, but math follows. I had initially considered the possibility of going into math, but I was afraid I wouldn't be smart enough to make do research, much less make an impact in the field. In addition, pure math, although enjoyable, is not very well paid. I would not like to end up working as a high school math teacher, it would not be a very fulfilling career for me. I had never had any experience in CS, but recently I realize I'm quite good as finding algorithms to solve CS problems, in the form of some of my friends' (pretty smart CS majors) assignment problems. If I go into CS, I would like to begin my own startup or work for Google. If I go into math, I would like to publish and become a tenured professor (I'm mostly interested in pure math or combinatorics).

    The reason why I am not completely certain on switching is that I can get by on nano engineering and it's a great opportunity. If I go through this major I would want to do a PhD. and then have my own startup if my research goes well. Or maybe become tenured as a professor of interdisciplinary sciences. Or maybe I could design some softwares for manipulating nanomaterials. Or discover some interesting theorems and call it my own.

    What do you think I should do?

    tl;dr: engineering student wants to switch to math/cs, what to do?
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    My feeling is that if you are doing well then stay the course do not change. If you like the other topics then takes courses in them. Alternatively you could look for a BioMedical Eng program at your school and you might be able to migrate to it.

    One thing about the Biomed Eng is that many companies view it as half biology or half engineering degree so when the want a biologist or engineer you might be excluded because you don't have enough experience in either. To compensate many students take additional courses in engineering, biology or CS.
  4. Dec 18, 2012 #3
    What accredited engineering school doesn't teach theory? That sounds like technician school. Usually people complain about engineering school teaching TOO much theory, and then they have to learn how to really get things done once they start work.

    In your first Electric Circuits class, did you solve for the steady-state solution of an RLC circuit as a function of time after a switch is thrown? Most people start their circuits education by experiencing the pain and suffering of dealing directly (on paper) with the systems of linear differential equations it generates. That's theory, since you will never, ever, ever do calculations that way (I'm a professional circuit design engineer, btw).

    In your Signals and Systems class did you design digital filters using difference equations and then do the Z-transform by hand? That's theory.

    If you are actually learning methods only, e.g. you're learning a particular schematic capture tool and just entering schematics based on a cookbook, then you're in a bad place and you should get out of there for grad school.
  5. Dec 18, 2012 #4
    They don't teach enough of the theory for my understanding. Calculus, lin alg, and stats are just a bunch of methods without proofs or derivations. Computation was a course solely focused on syntax memorization, which is not a good way to teach an intro programming course--our one and only programming course. Courses such as materials involved memorizing random facts that the prof thinks are important, such as generalized results of equations that we don't understand. The two courses that actually had a reasonable amount of derivation were physics and electromagnetism. In physics, the prof brought toys and demonstrated them, then we derived them. Can you imagine if a prof asked you to memorize the solution to a bunch of possible states in mechanics order to regurgitate on the exam? That's how it is with my materials courses.

    I haven't taken either of these courses yet.
  6. Dec 18, 2012 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Many Intro CS courses are designed to weed out students so that may have been the focus of your CS course.
  7. Dec 18, 2012 #6
    That statement does not describe engineering calculus. In all accredited programs that I am aware of, engineers are required to take proof-based calculus and linear algebra. Pre-med and biology and the like take non-proof based courses. These are typically described as "hard calculus" for engineers, physicists and chemists, and "soft calculus" for everyone else. You are taking soft calculus. Something is wrong here. It sounds like you are not taking a real engineering curriculum.

    Good lord. Often universities have a a beginning programming course to help you get your feet wet, but then comes a theory of computation and data structures course that hits you like a hammer. It sounds to me like you are in a technical school, not a university. May I ask what university you are attended? Your description sounds incredibly inadequate. You're in for a world of hurt if you go to graduate school in EE with the kind of grounding you're getting.

    What year are you? Based on ABET accreditation (and other systems are quite similar) all EE majors are required to take a Circuits course in their second year. So I assume you're a sophomore. Although the Calculus course sounds terrible, you don't really get into engineering courses until third year.
  8. Dec 19, 2012 #7
    All of the core courses in my curriculum are strictly for my program only. Everyone in my program is in my class and we take all the same core courses up until the last 2 years. They're probably not trying to weed anyone out considering this is the only "CS" course we take.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2012
  9. Dec 19, 2012 #8
    I'm at the University of Waterloo in Canada. My school has a very good reputation among engineering schools in Canada, but that is because of the good opportunities that the co-op program provides, not the teaching. I'm not joking, the one and only time I encountered a proof was on the bonus questions on an assignment last term, and that was because the instructor has a pure math background. I don't doubt my math classes are harder than the math classes offered to science students, but it's still a far cry from the rigorous math taught to the math students. Linear algebra was taught with a sprinkle of proofs and matlab, but it still wasn't nearly comparable to the linear algebra taught to the math students.

    Also keep in mind that my program is not exactly EE, it's a mix of mostly materials with some chemical and EE. We don't really start on EE until upper years, but with the type of math background everyone has I don't know how well that's going to go. The funny thing about my program (and what I see of other engineering students) is that it's incredibly hard to fail, but everyone only retains about 50% of the knowledge.
  10. Dec 19, 2012 #9
    My apologies for missing your post when I replied to everyone else's.

    My school doesn't offer a biomedical engineering program, and neither does a good number of reputable engineering schools (except as an option or specialization in mechanical, electrical, etc). The other thing is, if I transfer I would have to start over from first year anyway, considering I'd be changing schools and programs. I would also end up having to stick to an engineering curriculum, which from what I know is mostly generalizations that I'm expected to commit to memory. If there were more interesting math problems, even if they were more difficult, or if we learned to write interesting programs as once in a while, I might want to stay.

    Maybe this is all there is to engineering, just using methods and looking up tables and writing reports. If that's what it is, then I see no challenge and I would like to quit while I'm ahead.
  11. Dec 19, 2012 #10
    You're quite right, Waterloo has an excellent reputation. Where I went to school math, physics, and engineering students all took the same introductory math and physics course. I thought that was universal.

    I would have preferred to focus on one broad field and learn it well (e.g. EE or Materials), then specialize in grad school.
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