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To choose a math/physics route, or engineering?

  1. May 18, 2010 #1
    Hi, to start I'll give some background on myself. I've been out of high school for 4 years now - for a year and a half of that I went to university doing a BSc in Kinesiology but left the program (hard to explain completely but I didn't know what I wanted to do/study, I struggled with big classes as I do with crowds in general, and perhaps I just wasn't as committed to it as I should have been and was feeling generally disenfranchised). I initially applied to engineering, but decided to switch last minute due to a stigma with engineering that I picked up from several people I was around (stagnant, overworked, boring jobs). I've always loved math and the sciences. I've never been the most consistent student - I find I'm hugely teacher (or professor) dependent based upon teaching styles, and I often take awhile to pick up on concepts, but by the same token, I also often end up being the guy who everyone thinks is so smart for REALLY grasping it later on and having insight into all kinds of things because of that.

    The work that takes another student 1 hr often seems to take me 2 - even though this usually results in me grasping it better than they do. It makes dealing with a heavy workload challenging though. I find I take longer to get things done, I lose sleep (which I have a hard enough time with already), and the aforementioned crowd thing gets to me even more when I'm in that state.

    I've always loved playing around with things like Lego, playing strategy games, or other peculiar or intricate activities that absorb me for awhile and allow me room to create, explore, and understand the intricate details of a system. I love understanding why things work the way they do (and indeed the word why is probably one of the most used in my vocabulary - and this is perhaps where a large degree of the teacher/prof dependent factor comes in, plus class size, because it affects my ability to connect in that way). I'd say that I definitely have a very active imagination, and a strong tendency to visualize and "connect the dots" when I'm doing/learning something. I also tend to do better when I can really sit down and explore a complex topic in depth at my own pace - almost dismantling it and putting it back together like a mental puzzle. I'm sure you can imagine why this may cause me to run into problems with regular progressions of material, though I find it definitely gives me advantages when it comes to really getting the fundamentals of the material.

    Sorry, I know this is long. The title summed up my question: would you recommend choosing math/physics (undecided at this point) or engineering? I love conceptual activities, but I also like building and designing things. I realize that both routes can be very intensive, and the sheer amount of material may be a big hurdle (though honestly, I can't say I'd give up the way I approach things and the understanding I gain for most other people's approach) - but worry more about engineering for this than math/physics based upon what I've heard/read. My other concern about engineering is the general lack of flexibility with the programs, but I really am interested in the engineering design side that would be missing from math/physics. My passion isn't really specific - I kind of find things, get really interested for awhile, then change modes to something else (hey, apparently it worked for Leonardo Da Vinci). My interests often times cross over and mix with each other, but it's not like they're always in one limited thread. I've always found math/physics really interesting though - I'm taking a distance course that's more or less applied matrices/linear algebra, though I wish it had more fundamentals to it.

    It's just hard to decide which way to go. I feel kind of torn since I have interests that really lie in all domains (insert math pun here). To top it off, I've also considered Computer Science and am working on a game project in XNA using C# right now.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2010 #2
    I'd really like some feedback on this question. While I understand that some of what I said goes beyond choosing a major (struggling with crowds is an obvious example), I'd really like to know what your inclination would be because I've been struggling with this question for awhile now.
  4. May 18, 2010 #3
    I think if you choose engineering, you should get the equivalent to at least a minor in math. Don't worry about how long it takes you to grasp things compared to others, for all you know they really don't know. Just worry about what works for you. I always take other people's opinion on something with a grain of salt, because you might enjoy what they consider boring or the opposite. I think that both routes are good and are very open-ended degrees that will not limit you to math/physics or engineering if you decide whichever one you choose is not for you.
  5. May 18, 2010 #4
    Also, consider what you might want to do in the future. Getting a physics/math degree doesn't give you the same type of career opportunity as does an engineering degree and so the logical leap after a B.Sc. Physics/Mathematics is graduate school which may or may not be where you want to go.
  6. May 20, 2010 #5
    Hi there,

    I usually don't post on this forum, as I prefer to lurk, but your post really struck a note with me personally. The learning style you described is that of a scientist; I know this because I struggled with this learning style in my engineering program.

    I am now an engineer in training working in one of the world's largest engineering companies, and am contemplating my past to see what I would have changed. I will tell you something about engineering that few engineers ever admit: engineering is an art form, not a dogma. It cannot be taught in schools, and every attempt I have seen at doing so does more harm than good.

    Engineering is simple: apply your understanding of the natural world to solve a problem. This usually involves designing some system (whether it be a screwdriver or a jet engine). The system must perform certain functions at a certain level of performance. You are very familiar with this thought process, every day you perform tasks that require you to solve a problem. The engineering occurs when you want to make solving the problem more efficient. Boats existed for centuries before the steam engine; however the steam engine made sailing much more efficient.

    My argument is that the only thing that makes you an engineer is your desire to solve problems, and your understanding of the natural world's laws. My engineering education (at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada) failed completely in this task, and ended up being a $40,000 waste of money. If I were to do it again, I would get a degree in Math/Physics, and in the meantime engage in as much volunteer engineering work as physically possible. This can involve: joining every design team (autonomous sailboat, formula SAE, solar car, etc.), joining an X-prize team (Google X-prize, Progressive Auto X-prize), and joining a go-kart race league. All of these activities will teach you phenomenally more about engineering than any engineering curriculum, and furthermore, your mathematics/physics knowledge will allow you to learn at a rapid rate. Most engineer's stumbling block is their inability to link conceptual understanding with quantitative analysis. This will be the cornerstone of your math/physics education, and will guarantee that your limits will be what you impose on yourself.

    Engineering degrees usually focus on very minute details which involve applications of certain physical concepts. What they fail to realize is that there an infinite number of applications of thermodynamics; you are better off learning the theory of thermodynamics than you are computing delta H five hundred times on an assignment. This is akin to biology education today: an exercise in futility attempting to examine every biological organism and its function. Instead, it would be far more intelligent to learn the foundational building blocks of all life (nucleic acids, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and how these building blocks serve the purpose of evolution throughout the last 4.5 billion years. With this view, you can examine every organism and determine very quickly how and why it works the way it does.

    Once you graduate from your program, you should already have engineering firms with which you volunteered lining up to hire you. Furthermore, you will have a range of references which will attest to your mastery of the engineering discipline. This will go MUCH further than an engineering degree with first class honors. Hiring new graduates without prior experience is a very, very risky process and if you have a strong reference that the company is familiar with, the tide can be turned greatly in your favor.

    As a final note, your place in this world is decided by what YOU wish to do, not by what others tell you you should be doing. If you are going to university because your parents tell you to, I would honestly encourage you to take a year off and explore what the real world is like (Possibly work some minimum wage jobs). This will give you the necessary perspective to value every second of your university education. Many people don't understand why they are attending university; this is unfortunately the greatest contributor to their lack of commitment and inevitable failure.
  7. Jul 21, 2010 #6
    Thanks for the responses (and sorry this came so late, I'm not sure why I missed them before). I think I'm going to stick with the math/physics route and maybe take some engineering courses as they interest me (it appears that many engineering courses are open to math/physics majors with permission). The engineering topics that most interest me as of right now are thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and electrical systems.

    I think I'll definitely keep what you said in mind FD3SA regarding getting that hands on experience. One thing I'm very interested in doing is mathematical physics simulations. I'd like to learn the tools like MatLab, but most of all I'd like to be able to write a program that creates a visualization of a model or conceptual idea and displays it in some tangible way. With teaching myself to program and creating a game in a 3D graphical environment I've definitely seen the value in "learning by doing". There's a degree of intuition I'm really starting to value that I think really relates to the idea of "engineering as an art form" as you said. Seeing how concepts like cross product and 3D vectors aren't really touched upon until second year, and I've been working intensely with them for the past couple months, definitely gives me confidence that a) I can do well with the material when I get there, and b) the intuition gained from that practical experience on my own time IS really valuable.

    Since my goals lie in working for a small company or research setting I'm less concerned about what the degree says for ease of employment. I'm not really focused on a particular job/career right now anyway and have considered the idea of going on to do graduate level studies. Thanks!
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