The editor's soapbox

    According to the latest “”U.S. News & World Report”” rankings, UCSD’s computer engineering program ranks 17th in the nation. That’s pretty darn good. And as a computer engineering student, I’ve experienced that goodness every day for the last four years.

    The ranking is impressive if you think about it. Founded in 1960, UCSD has rocketed to its elite status in barely 40 years. The next-youngest college ranked for computer engineering is No. 16 UCLA, founded 60 years earlier in 1900. Crazy.

    But what’s really crazy is the poor teaching in many CE courses at UCSD. Every day, I walk into my classes knowing I’m about to take a ton of notes about really, really hard stuff — but that’s sort of the point of college, so no big deal. What is a big deal is that half the time, professors never clue us in to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

    Don’t get me wrong: These guys are brilliant. (The fact that all of my CE professors have been male is another topic.) But for the amount of intellect and expertise these men possess, most of them are shockingly inept at conveying that knowledge to anyone with an education lower than a doctorate.

    Maybe it’s just me, but mumbling the play-by-play on calculus derivations being scrawled on the chalkboard for 50 or 80 minutes does not constitute teaching, especially when the derivations being “”taught”” are presented legibly and error-free in the textbook. These professors are not making me a good engineer.

    Of course, there are exceptions. A minority of CE instructors are actually competent at expressing their knowledge. They are making me a good engineer.

    Excluding those I have this quarter, the best CE professors I have had at UCSD are Luigi Carro, a visiting professor from Brazil who was almost universally hated by students because of his nasty habit of calling on them and forcing active participation; and Joseph Pasquale, who stubbornly refused to give even partial credit to students who chose the “”inferior”” correct answer to a multiple-choice problem with two correct answers on the midterm.

    What sets these guys apart? It’s simple. Every now and then during the course of their lectures, they would stop writing on the board, face the class and tell us what was going on.

    “”You see all that garbage I just scrawled illegibly on the board? It shows how to calculate the power dissipated in a modern transistor. You know why that’s important? Because it means the difference between plugging your computer into the wall and plugging your computer into a dedicated turbine-driven power plant.””

    At that point, the differential equations and integrals cease to just be numbers and Greek symbols. At that point, they become meaningful, learnable knowledge. I’m not stupid, but I do need to be deliberately told — even reminded every now and then — about why computer engineers need to know these equations and how we will use them in our careers.

    Back to the CE program’s high ranking. I can interpret it several ways. One way would be that “”U.S. News & World Report”” is run by a bunch of dolts, and our program is not nearly as good as they think. Yeah, I don’t like that one either. Another would be that computer engineering is taught like this nationwide, and that only 16 schools do it better. That’s just too frightening and depressing for me to accept.

    What I would like to believe is that UCSD’s CE department is a sleeping giant. Having sat through plenty of CE classes, it is quite obvious to me that UCSD’s faculty is full of computer and electrical engineers who have almost superhuman mastery of their fields. Most of them can go through a lecture and derive astonishingly complex concepts without referring to their notes more than a couple times. Frankly, it’s sort of scary to watch.

    The problem is that these important concepts are trapped in their brains, and the only way most of them know to communicate such information is through equations and derivations. Granted, that’s the only way to express certain mathematical and scientific concepts, but every equation should be accompanied by an explanation if that equation is supposed to mean something to me.

    If UCSD is interested in improving its No. 17 ranking among CE programs, I believe it should look first to its professors. If they would turn their backs to the chalkboard instead of just to the students, I think UCLA would be eating our dust in no time. It’s got to be the simplest and cheapest way to instantly improve the quality of education at our ambitious and already impressive engineering institution.

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