Engineering Education and Skinning Cats

Among all the courses I took in engineering school, I recall only one as being a “true” engineering course…that was a course in servomechanisms and feedback control systems. But it wasn’t the course content that made it “true.”

I entered Northwestern University’s Technological Institute in the fall of 1957. I was on my way to becoming an electrical engineer. At least that was the plan. I had chosen engineering because one of my high school math teachers thought I had the right skills to be an engineer. I chose electrical engineering because I had always been interested in electronics.

I built a crystal radio when I was around 8 or 9 years old, and a one-tube radio a couple of years later, and in my teen years built an FM radio and amplifier from Heathkits (a company that specialized in selling electronic devices in kit form). My high school offered a course in radio electronics, and I took it. Somewhere around my senior year my friend Darryl and I took (and passed) the FCC licensing exam to enable us to work as transmitter engineers in commercial radio and TV stations.

The backbone of almost all engineering fields is mathematics. Aspiring engineers labored through two years of calculus (this was before calc became a high school course) and courses in differential equations, matrix algebra, and, for some, courses in Laplace transforms and Fourier analysis.

Mathematics is, after all, just a tool for engineers, and there were numerous courses in which applying all this math was necessary. Almost all engineering students took courses in physics, chemistry, static and dynamic mechanics, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics. Electrical engineering students also took courses in electronic circuits, AC and DC motors, power transmission, magnetic and electric fields, among others.

In all those courses, each question had a single right answer. Supply a different answer and you got it wrong. Servo was different. When the course instructor passed back the first quiz after grading, one of the students up front asked, “What was the right answer to question 1?”

The instructor froze for a couple of seconds, staring at the questioner. Then he scratched his head and replied, “Gee, I dunno. There must be a hundred right answers to question 1.”

That’s when I truly understood what becoming an engineer was all about. Engineers don’t think in terms of finding the single “right” answer. They look for alternative solutions to problems. In fact, I would bet that the first person to say, “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” was an engineer.


About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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