Engineering a stretch?

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Engineering a stretch?
By Westerndad (Westerndad) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 12:07 am: Edit

My youngest son has taken to some terrific kids who are interested in applying for engineering at schools such as UC Berkeley. This has rubbed off on him a bit, and he is now considering doing the same.

He is a fairly strong student, though clearly not as strong as some on this forum! He has a UC GPA of 4.27 and a SAT of 1400. He has taken four APs so far and has earned three 4s (including one in Physics B) and a 5. He is currently taking four more APs (including Physics C) in this, his senior year.

Here is my worry: is engineering perhaps a stretch for him? He did better on the verbal section of the SAT (740) than the math section (660) last June, though I suspect he would improve in the latter if he took it again in November (which he does not want to do). He took a normal progression of math classes (earning nothing less than an A-) that led up to his taking AP Calculus this year, but he was not in honors math classes, and he is taking AP Calculus AB, and not BC.

So, is a kid who has done a pretty good job in math, but not a spectacular one, able to hack it in engineering at a big time school such as Berkeley? What about at schools such as UCSB, UCSD, UCD, or Cal Poly SLO?

As you can see, my username should more appropriately be "worrieddad." I could sure use some perspective here.

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 05:49 am: Edit

What kind of engineering? Why is he interested? Does he "get" calculus? Did he enjoy the physics and the math he's taken so far?

Lots of people with mid-600 SATs end up at schools like RPI and Lehigh and do very well. His verbal skills will be invaluable in engineering, where most engineers are not highly competent writers. (Someone has to write the project proposals and such.)

I have no experience with engineering at the California public colleges--while I know lots of engineers and computer scientists (a closely related group), they mostly come from the eastern privates and UWash. However, I do know that the key to making it through engineering is persistence, not high SATs.

An up-front warning though: half of all students who take Differential Equations in college--which is usually a screening course for engineering majors--flunk it the first time they take it. HALF. (Another course with similar rates is Organic Chemistry. That gets the pre-med folks.) That's where the persistence comes in: they have to take it again and do a lot better the second time around.

But your son should know upfront why he's interested in engineering? Does he want to make things work, or does he just like this group of people? I know the UWash does an engineering majors open house for HS seniors--maybe your local UC does the same thing, and he could find out more.

By Drusba (Drusba) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 09:31 am: Edit

Assuming he does well in the SAT II's, he has a good chance of admission to the programs at any of the UC's with Berkeley and UCLA being only somewhat of a reach. At the UC's, the SAT II's are given more weight than the SAT. Cal Poly is a safety. Engineering is definitely not a stretch for him. I also would not be worried about the why he wants to do it -- if following some peers into it is one of the reasons, fine; there are those who early on become decisive about pursuing engineering and then end up eventually majoring in something else and those (probably the majority) who have only some interest, give it a try because they can't think of any other major to put on the application, and end up doing just fine . Taking Calculus AB and not BC does not mean that much -- there are actually huge numbers of students who get admitted to engineering programs who had only AB or never even had calculus. Engineering programs require a lot of work from the student in college, much more than most other majors, but those willing to do that generally do fine.

By Drusba (Drusba) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 09:39 am: Edit

double post (moderator please remove)

By Dadofsam (Dadofsam) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 06:00 pm: Edit

Westerndad: I agree with DMD. Your S does well in math, but does he like it? Emough to have to have to take lots of it and learn to use it well and regularly?
Likewise engineering. It's good that he has picked up an interest in the people, but what of the subject? Or perhaps it's physics that he likes?
As both posters have said, his grades show he's good enough for the task, providing it's something that he wants to both study and learn to do.

By Dadofsam (Dadofsam) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 06:06 pm: Edit

Westerndad: I agree with DMD. Your son does well enough in math to have a good chance of being able to handle the engineering curriculum. The question is - does he like it? Does he like math enough to have to take a lot of courses in it, and to use it every day as an engineer?
It's good that he has picked up an interest in a subject through association with other kids who are interested, but is he interested in actually doing engineering work? Does he like problem-solving, designing things, etc?
Or perhaps it's physics that he likes.

It's true that if he likes writing more than engineering he could wind up being a technical writer or specializing in proposals (or a science reporter or writer), but those tend to be later decisions. First he needs to figure out whether he wants to take the rigorous engineering curriculum.
Don't be worried. Please keep us posted.

By Westerndad (Westerndad) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 09:35 pm: Edit

Thanks so much to all of you for responding. What a relief!

dmd77: He is interested in mechanical engineering. He had a very charismatic AP Physics teacher last year, and this had a lot to do with his developing interest in engineering. He enjoyed working on problems that were way beyond me. He tried to explain his answers, but I could not even understand the questions. We had some good laughs over that. Thank you for reinforcing the importance of persistence and the warning about Differential Equations. So far, he is doing well in Calculus.

drusba: Thank you for your take on college admissions. We visited Cal Poly last spring, and he just may end up there, though I think UCB is the dream place right now. Thanks also for relieving my worry about him not taking Calculus BC.

dadofsam: Thanks for your input, too. I don't know how much he enjoys math, but he sure has enjoyed physics. He likes the problem solving. One thing that he does have going for him is a good work ethic, and from the sound of these posts, that is something absolutely essential for engineering. I"m still recovering from the thought of HALF of college students flunking Differential Equations! Geez!

By Imblue (Imblue) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 02:08 am: Edit

Differential equations isn't the major weeder course in Engineering though, since it's usually the fourth math class in the curriculum (after differential, integral, and multivariable calculus). I think freshman physics (usually mechanics) would qualify, since that's taken after the first calculus class. The failure rate of mechanics is probably at least one third to one half. Also keep in mind that only 30% of all freshmen Engineering majors eventually receive a degree in that major.

By Patito12 (Patito12) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 02:40 am: Edit

I had similar stats to your son except the SATs clearly showed i was a math guy over a verbal guy. I applied for the UCs, going to UCSD... worth checking out, they have a great engineering program (and since im doing bioengineering, its solidly ranked as #3, only under Duke and Johns Hopkins).

I won't lie. It is harder to get into engineering schools. I believe I would have gotten into Berkely and UCLA if i wasnt doing engineering (although UCLA engineering isnt ALL that great).

other schools to check out though - UW is a good 'safety' with those stats. their engineering program is much better than it gets credit for. Bill Gates donates millions to it too! (even tho i hatre the guy)

so my advice for the near future: if he's a math guy, take the SAT math IIc. yes it is harder, but it grades MUCH easier, and colleges dont really seem to take that into account. 10 wrong is still an 800, i believe.

if you have any other questions for a kid who's been through the app process as a wannabe engineer, feel free to email me.

By Originaloog (Originaloog) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 04:51 am: Edit

As an engineerig major I was required to take a no credit EngSurvey course that gave a review of the engineering curriculum and what each department was about.

The first day we were given the famous engineering line..."look to your right, look to your left... one of you will graduate in engineering". It was fairly accurate too.

At OSU the weed out courses were several, calc 2, O chem, diff eq's, Physics 2, and dynamics.

Re your son, he surely can do the work. But he needs to ask himself if that is what he really wants or was he unduely influenced by his physics teacher.

By Massmom (Massmom) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 06:36 am: Edit

My son is a freshman engineering major, and my husband and I are both chemical engineers. The "look to the left/right" thing was big twenty-five years ago, but I got the impression that freshman engineering programs are a little more compassionate these days.

Your son will be fine. He has the grades and the ability to do the work. As a practicing engineer, I have to tell you that once you have your first job or two, your undergraduate coursework and grades don't really matter. What is important is interpersonnal skills (and yes, engineers do have those and are can develop them), work ethic, and attitude. Technical competence is a given, but straight A's are not required. There are plenty of successful engineers out there who took a little longer to get through the programs.

Good luck

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 09:32 am: Edit

I spoke to my son about his DiffEq course. He said half the class didn't flunk it, they dropped it. At MIT, you can drop a course until the week before the final.

I found this on the UCSD web site ( It would appear that failure rates have changed. I love it that you can pass the course with a 40%.

The grade will be based on a total score calculated from 10% textbook and 10% matlab homeworks, 20% each midterm and 40% final. The grade distribution will follow a curve with median grade approximately a B. Usually about 25% of students get As (i.e. A+, A or A-), 35% get Bs, and 30% get Cs. The exact borders are adjusted depending on various factors and typically vary up or down by 5%. Typically it ends up that you need about 80% total score for A-, 65% for B- and 40% for C-, but it depends on how hard or easy the exams were."

By Westerndad (Westerndad) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 06:52 pm: Edit

patito12: Thanks for the scoop on admissions. You confirmed what I thought: that the bar for entry into this field is higher than for others.

originaloog: I sure like the idea of the EngSurvey class. Makes sense to let students know what they are getting into. The 1/3 graduation rate once again confirms the work ethic issue. One question: Is the AMOUNT of work the issue or is it the DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY of that work? Or both?

massmom: I appreciate your perspective on engineering as a career. I'm passing your comments (as well as the others) on to my son.

dmd77: That 40% passing level is reassuring. UCSD is definitely one of my son's choices.

By Imblue (Imblue) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 07:44 pm: Edit

"I love it that you can pass the course with a 40%."

The assumption is that all you need to pass is to know 40% of the material, but this is not true. What it means is that the professor wanted a way to differentiate the best students from the mediocre students, which cannot be done if the average exam grades were around 80%. Thus, in order to make such a difficult exam, they simply make exams so long that the average student, or perhaps even an above average student, is not expected to attempt all the problems. On this type of exam, which I've often encountered in math and engineering, only the very best students who can solve a variety of problems in the blink of an eye are expected to crack 80%. For example, I've had exams where one person out of more than a hundred scored over 90%. For this reason, a 40% cutoff for a C- by itself does not really indicate much about the ease or difficulty of the class. As a side note, this is also why open book exams are common for some engineering classes, but it won't help much under the time constraints.

By Justinmeche (Justinmeche) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 10:49 pm: Edit

When I was in high school I loved math and science but when I tried to major in computer science (switched to mechanical engineering after 3 semesters) I got slaughtered. I spent two years in a tough engineering program and had trouble with just about every single assignment. CS is in a world of its own. MechE was something I had a slight grip on. My physics 1 (mechanics), mechanics of materials, and statics courses were very difficult. I had to transfer to another school where I could attempt the courses again. The new program was not as rigorous but we covered the same material, and in greater detail. After one year everything that made no sense before is very clear. I could even go back and ace my physics exams that I got C's and D's on. I went from a 2.0 to 3.0 and then to 3.8 (the 2.0 from the last school didn't carry over into the new school's GPA).
I guess the lesson that I learned is that for some people it can take time and/or a different environment to get really good at the engineering courses.

By Originaloog (Originaloog) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 03:25 am: Edit

Westerndad, I think it is more a work ethic issue. Like I said before, if the work is there, your son should do fine. Maybe a C or D there or there, but if he persevers, he will be fine.

By Pamvanw (Pamvanw) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 08:11 am: Edit

You might also want to consider the caliber of school that your son applies to. Since grading is often done on a curve, he will be graded with respect to the other students in his classes. If he is attending MIT or UCB it will be harder to get good grades than if he is attending a school with less able students.

By Uvaparentfrommd (Uvaparentfrommd) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 01:17 pm: Edit

It might be important for your son to consider the other programs (besides engineering) of the colleges he is interested in. In high school, my son always had a dual interest in computer science and history, but thought he would major in CS. He applied to some colleges that were stronger in engineering than other areas, and some that had a number of good programs other than engineering. He decided to attend the engineering school at UVA -- not the strongest engineering program in the country but respectable. I am now SO glad he chose UVA, b/c by the middle of his second semester he knew the engineering curriculum was not for him. He placed out of some of the first year e-school requirements and so was able to take 3 courses in the college of arts and sciences. Those courses convinced him that he wanted an education not so closely oriented to math and science. He did well in both the E-school and the College classes. UVA has a great liberal arts program, so he is still going to get a great education.

By Crazyandy (Crazyandy) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 11:58 pm: Edit

One thing to note when your kids apply to college: even if your son or daughter has a strong interest in math and science, try and pursuade him or her to apply to a school that has a wide variety of majors. I notice that where I'm at (Virginia Tech) I will probably major in engineering for sure, but my interests tend to lean a little more towards the pharmacology/chemistry route than the chemical engineering route. If I leave engineering as I might who knows, I can't do pharmacology here which actually is my second choice major because its closely related to my career goals of drug development. (oh man, the knowledge I now know .. had I known all this a year ago ...)

By the way, does anyone know how much physics a chemical engineer uses? Because if they use a lot like some of the other engineering disciplines, I definately may change majors (physics hurts me badly!)

By Ariesathena (Ariesathena) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 12:38 pm: Edit

I finished my chem-e degree in 2003, so I'll throw in some perspective.

I could not agree more with those who said that your son should not do engineering unless he wants to. The work is tough, and there is an incredible amount of it. Just a data point: for me, the first few weeks of law school are LESS stressful than engineering.

The courses are very structured - your son will only have a few slots for electives, and there won't be many that he'll be able to take because of schedule conflicts. Most people are not comfortable going to college and having to take very specific, narrow courses (like equilibrium staged separations). It's a lot of dry material, a lot of math, and most everyone hates at least a handful of their courses.

On the flip side, I got a great education. I also went to a school that is very flexible with allowing kids to switch out of engineering (or into engineering). Basically, if you are accepted, you can mentally handle the work - but it's just sheer persistence that gets you through that programme. You must be comfortable taking 5-6 classes per semester, with most of them being math/science/engineering; you must be comfortable studying until late at night with early morning classes while your liberal arts friends are partying. I wish I were kidding, but I vividly remember hearing the liberal arts kids living it up all night, while my roomie and did problem sets. There is really no reason to go through that unless you want to be an engineer, or at least to get a very technical education.

If your son would ever think of either law school or med school, engineering is a bad idea. Let me emphasize that again... the engineering GPA is a lot lower than liberal arts GPAs, despite the larger workload. Oh... yeah... by the way... 60% getting an A or a B??? What's that?? We had the median at a B-/C+, and some professors curved at the end (after people dropped), while others also had the grad students in the curve. If you weren't in the top 1/2 of the class after people dropped, you would get a C or worse. My favourite was the grad students being in on our curve, so about 2/3 of the undergrads got Cs or Ds. Grr!

All said though, engineering will give you an excellent, excellent education. Question is whether or not your son wants that education.

By Ariesathena (Ariesathena) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 12:39 pm: Edit

For chem-e, I only needed one physics course, but I took all of my chem electives in quantum and kinetics, so I learned more.

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