Electives can contribute significantly to professional growth

July 24, 2007
Taking electives can help you broaden your skills, says Dirk Willard, in this month's Field Notes installment.

It was a late Sunday night in January at the University of Dayton library. I’d been pouring over Dayton Power and Light’s manuals on overhead lines for hours. “So, what do you know, all those electrical engineering electives weren’t a waste after all,” I told myself. A year of vocational electronics in high school probably helped, too. After a couple of days, I could prepare electrical specifications and a basic design package for the water treatment plant I was hired to engineer. Overhead service was required because the pumps fed from an aquifer in a floodplain. Where would I have been without those EE courses?

It made me think of all those times electives had proved valuable. I doubt if I could have passed the Engineer-in-Training (EIT) exam without a course in statics. That course later allowed me to ace stress analysis at UCLA I’ve designed agitator supports, vessels, brackets, even conveyor lines and a compressor base with what I learned in those courses.

Once, an elective even helped me get a job. I was hired for an environmental engineering firm because an ex-professor there, John Eastman, remembered me from the environmental elective he taught. This proved to be one of the best educational opportunities of my life. From John, I forged a better understanding of economic analysis and learned almost everything I know about wastewater and watertreatment systems.

As a student, I thought electives were a waste of time and money. Little did I know that what I learned in John’s class would help me redesign the drains for an entire plant and develop a two-dimensional plume program to model an HCl release.

Companies don’t hire engineers for a specific assignment nor is our field an assembly line. You can’t foist off the mechanical engineering just because you’re afraid to specify a bolt diameter! Besides, being unable to do a job will limit your career, at least in project engineering.

At one company, the span for a belt conveyor was too great. Boxes were getting damaged because the conveyor was, in the words of an hourly worker, “springy.” Another engineer dodged the issue. I ran some beam calculations which made it clear that a few stiffeners would increase the moment of inertia. A couple of welds later and boxes traveled safely on their merry way.

While working for the same company, I made use of some graduate courses I took in aerospace engineering. There seemed to be no limit to where the company could apply compressed air; they could have benefited from CP’s August 2006 article “Energy savings are often opportunities disguised as problems”. We had overrun the capacity of the utility lines. How do I know this? I ran compressible flow calculations that showed that we were nearly at sonic flow in the main. I reckon the plant had wasted $80,000 before I sorted this out — all because of that course in rocket propulsion.

Sometimes other departments explain material better. For instance, a course on fluid mechanics taught by the mechanical engineering department explored areas like aerodynamics and nozzle theory in more detail than my ChE class; I especially enjoyed the laboratory class that accompanied the course.

I took a graduate course in quantum chemistry to fill some time before going on active duty in the Air Force. The most useful idea in the course was the “partition function.” This math construct relates total probability to a series of wave equations times their individual probability. The partition function shows up everywhere in math, science and, lo and behold, engineering.

A course in matrices proved useful later in developing phase equilibria blocks for material balances. Unfortunately, all I remember at the time was that I did poorly in this course and the instructor was, let’s say, a bit different — in his “red ball jet” sneakers, shot-glass-thick black-rimmed glasses, tie-died T-shirt and holey jeans.

Electives in 20th century history and economics also paid off. As I traveled around the world on different projects I understood the local culture, at least a little.

Not only have electives helped broaden my horizons, they also taught me how to learn differently, away from the insular teaching methods of chemical engineering. Far too many engineering students, in my humble opinion, focus on the problem sets and not the theory. As I have progressed through my engineering career, I have found that continuing education meant broadening my education even further into areas like quality assurance, six sigma, statistical analysis and reliability. A useful analogy might be that pyramids aren’t built straight up but with a broad base to support the head stone.