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My Opinion on Electrical Engineering Studies in the Technion

About this Document

This is a reworked version of a post I wrote to a mailing list about what I think of the Technion close and after graduation. Some of it may be applicable to other high education institutes.

Document Information

Written By:
Shlomi Fish
First version (published in Hackers-IL):
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/hackers-il/message/3480 (published in 31 October, 2003).
Web page version:
2007-March-31
Last Updated:
2007-March-31

Licence

Creative Commons License

This document is Copyright by Shlomi Fish, 2007, and is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Unported (or at your option any later version of that licence).

For securing additional rights, please contact Shlomi Fish and see the explicit requirements that are being spelt from abiding by that licence.

The Article Itself

Introduction

We’ve discussed the Technion before on Hackers-IL and I don’t see why we should not again. Here is my up-to-date impression from it. I don’t know how much it applies to other universities.

I’ll divide this opinion into pieces:

1. Quality of the material covered

The quality of the material is very good, in my opinion. It is quite up to date and relevant to what we have to learn, with a few exceptions (like the infamous teaching of C-Shell programming in Matam and Mamat). But as a general rule, there aren’t many complaints here.

The material seems to cover basics and foundations instead of cutting-edge technologies, which is a good thing, in my opinion, because a university’s purpose is to teach just that. The latter is best taught by experiencing.

2. The Faculty

The lecturers seem to know what they are teaching well. Whether they are able to convey it well, varies from lecturer to lecturer (and in large part from student to student). As for conveying it in an interesting manner - that’s probably even rarer, but still at an OK level. I don’t think other universities differ much in this respect.

The T.A.s (Teaching Assistants) are usually better than the lecturers at conveying the material, but I encountered a few really bad T.A.s.

An interesting thing to note would be how much the members of the Faculty were enlightened in the sense that they were familiar with cutting edge developments, open-minded, etc. This came as a disappointment to me a bit as from my impression most of them were not interested or knowledgeable in anything beyond their particular field of expertise. It was much more evident due to the fact that some of the hackers I know and many of my fellow students were such enlightened people.

One possible explanation is that the things I found enlightening (such as computer science, open source, Perl and other dynamic languages, etc.) were not mature enough or completely irrelevant when the lecturers learned them, and that there’s now a generation gap with the more computer science-inclined students. I also suppose it’s impossible to know everything there is to know about Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

3. The Workload

The workload was very high most of the time. In some courses, my partners and I spent days on end on preparing the assignments. (and I’m a relatively bright person). Luckily, in Electrical Engineering most of the assignments are pair-wise, which is a great system, as both students can help each other and there’s a more discipline to get the work going. (see for instance the Pair Programming practice).

This is not the case in the Mathematics Department, for example. In the course “Set Theory” my partner and I prepared several exercises together (which were extremely long, even for both of us) and each received half the credit for them.

Generally, I think that there should be a decent amount of workload as it forces one to know the material better.

Why work pair-wise?

Nadav Har’El ranted that pair-wise programming encourages slacking or uneven distribution of work. However, I disagree with him in his complaint, and would like to explain why the Mathematics department is wrong here.

    1. First of all let’s see what is the worst case scenario. One partner does all the work. The other one slacks. Then the exam day comes. The one partner passes (hopefully with blazing colours), and the other one gets 0. Test is at least 60% of the grade. So the other student fail.

    2. The slacker prepares for the exam intensively close to the end of the semester, while not learning before that. So he passes. Does he deserve the grade? I suppose - as he still knows the material and worked hard.

    3. So if someone slacks he still fails the course. (Factors and other monsters non withstanding.)

  1. Should the Technion do anything that it can to prevent students from not doing their homework properly? After all, they can just copy from references. At a course I did - “Image Analysis and Processing”, my partner and I sat for days on end solving each of the four exercises. Since we didn’t do some things properly (or not according to what the one who graded the test expected) we were graded below 94 and above 80. But there were many 100s in the grades list. So my guess was that they copied it from a reference.

    I don’t think a university should be concerned with that, because there are many ways to cheat, and the time of the graders is precious.

  2. When the two partners are competent and they both sit down to solve it, there can be wonderful synergy. I’ve experienced it first hand many times. Often I was more successful at getting the exercises right and often the opposite (varying from course to course and from exercise to exercise) but we both had an easier time, and we both learned a lot from each other.

  3. And it’s more fun, than solving it all alone. Man is a social animal. One is solitude, two is a company. Psychology matters.

  4. I’m not implying something stupid like it will prepare people for pair programming in their work (which may or may not happen). People can get used to pair programming or pair solving very quickly because it’s natural.

  5. As an analogy, most scientific articles have more than one writer.

  6. I believe people will have enough chance to “work on their own” during their studies, as you say. There are many such courses, and some students solve each their own version and then compare it, for peer review and criticism. (There’s a documented teamwork “pattern” for this too.)

4. The Tests

By all means, tests should be easy in comparison to the handed-in assignments, so those who have learned well throughout the semester will score highly (while those who don’t won’t succeed too much). courses.

Note that I’m not saying that tests should be too easy. However, students who slacked off in the semester will not be able to succeed in even relatively easy tests with good coverage of the material in the homework assignments. I once talked with one of our department’s engineers about it and he mentioned that when he was in the U.S.A. he was impressed from a certain university (I believe it was UNC) where the students take about 4 courses each year, each with a high homework load, where they have to dedicate a lot of time for this. Then the tests are very easy in comparison to the homework, so people who worked hard on the homework can easily pass, while the slacking students are still not better off.

In the Technion, this system is not present in most courses. Some of the tests were OK, others were extremely out of context with the material that was learned. This is one point that makes me extremely unhappy about the Technion. After a while, I decided that taking courses that renewed a lot to me was risky, as I risked a bad test, and so took a lot of courses in whose material I was very knowledgeable in. That way, I can pass the test even if the test is out of proportion to the material that was conveyed. It is sad that the Technion causes people to take this path, as obviously one of the objectives of the higher education is to teach people things they don’t know.

Some of the tests were simply downright too long. Or a test in the “Internet: Architecture and Protocols” course that expected the student to prepare a trace of the TCP protocol by hand (without having covered this material in home assignments).

5. The Students’ Body

I was very impressed with the quality of my fellow students (at least those that I came in contact with). Most of them were hard-working, intelligent people who were also honest and trustworthy.

My friend (and fellow student) told me that when his brother started learning Medicine in the Technion, he complained about the fact that while he had been the smartest kid in his high school class, some of his fellow students at the Technion were smarter than him. This was not really the case for me. From my impression, some of the fellow students were more or less in my level, while other were inferior in many ways, intellectually. Still, even the inferior ones were honest and hard-working and so I won’t dare label them as “bad” in any way.

6. Conclusion

I’m not sure if studying in the Technion was a wise decision on my part. By all means, it took a very long time (11 semesters and two vacation semesters, as well as two summers that were spent doing projects). While it taught me many things, I also felt that I was learning new things during the time I was working (before I joined the Technion), and was also learning new things by experiencing on my own, and from various resources on the Internet.

I don’t believe I would have able to study the more Electrical Engineering-parts of my study, on my own. This is one reason that I don’t regret having studied Electrical Engineering, instead of Computer Science, which I’m almost certain would have been easier for me as I am a programmer by trade and an able mathematician. I have a knack for computer science, while I don’t for many of the less mathematical or less CS-ish courses I’ve had to learn.

Maybe I just happen to be a bright student who cannot handle high loads too well. Maybe I just hate to spend all my time on studies and also like to have other interests like working on open source projects, or corresponding with my friends. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these two facts, and it’s a shame the Technion could not have made it easier on me. If I could study hard the entire semester and then be sure I will score high on my tests, it would have made the work worthwhile, and me less frustrated as a result. But as it is, it’s not the case.

Right now, my general impression of the Technion is more or less positive. But I’m still not sure it was worth my time.

7. How Workplaces Treat the Diploma

Here I have a lot to complain. It is unfortunate that some workplaces treat university diplomas as a necessary pre-condition for getting into some positions. Due to the recent recession, some workplaces have gone far enough into demanding to accept only cum-laude students or those with a high degree.

Let’s face it: many university graduates write damn right hideous code. And many of them are honour students. Also, many people with very little qualifications can write very good code and have a very good output. I don’t think people with diplomas necessarily make better engineers, or better team-heads, or better managers.

During the recession, I was rejected from a workplace because my grades were too low. When I wrote the original version of this article, I had an average of %82, which was not bad at all for a Technion student. (I graduated with an average of 84.6% which is even nicer, and technically makes me a cum-laude student). However, I:

  1. Didn’t take the second date exams if I succeeded in the first date, even with a very low score. Likewise, I never took a course a second time to improve the grade. I figured that the extra points were not worth the extra aggravation.
  2. I didn’t dedicate 100% of my time to studying. I also spend a lot of time doing other things, most of which increase my knowledge and competency as an engineer. I simply _cannot_ do that, because I know my grades will have only a marginal effect on my proficiency.

So, despite the fact I wrote several open source projects, and am a more able engineer than many perpetually honour students I know, I was rejected upfront, without even a calling to a job interview. Not all workplaces are like that, naturally, but it was still frustrating.

A person can get a good mastery of computer science from online resources and books alone. But unfortunately workplaces don’t seem to share this view from some reason, which is unfortunate, as they are losing a great deal of good candidates. (and accepting some very bad ones).

Recent Note: it seems that lately, the Israeli (and international) market began to recover from the recession, and there is now a genuine shortage of IT workers. As a result many employers have become less picky in such superficial candidate parameters as grades’ average, and are looking for actual coding abilities and competency.

8. Should I study or not? And what?

I don’t regret studying Electrical Engineering instead of Computer Science. Yes, it was harder for me, and took longer, and was more frustrating, and my grade as a CS student was probably much lower. However, I learned more than I could in CS, and it was more challenging. I preferred to be a tail of the lions than the head of the jackals. I have a natural knack for computer science, and to a slightly lesser extent - mathematics. On the other hand, I didn’t have one for many of the courses I studied. It should be noted that even someone who graduates from the Technion with a passing average, is way above the average intelligence.

Paul Graham muses that there are departments, where students find it too hard to learn so they switch to a similar and less demanding department. An example he gives is Mathematics majors switching to Computer Science. (Ironically, he studied Philosophy, which is considered one of the least demanding department). I didn’t know anyone who switched to Electrical Engineering from a different department. EE is widely considered, perhaps by myth, one of the two toughest departments in the Technion Prime (where the Technion Prime is everything excluding Medicine).

What I have second thoughts about is having studied in the first place. I’ve learned a lot during the years I studied, but a lot of it was from experimentation. In fact, I clearly recalled liking to work better than I liked to study, and that I felt I learned more practical things. However, before the Technion, a lot of the solutions I implemented at programs were much more superficial than afterwards.

I suppose I could have gained the same software engineering knowledge by reading many books or by reading enough source code. However, I’m not sure books give you as much exercise and hands-on experience as the curricula of studies give. At least not unless you’re both extremely disciplined and very auto-didactic.

One note that is in order, is that Electrical Engineering studies vary from university to university. In many places, there isn’t even a proper logic design course, or the students are given very little choice beside courses in programming proper. So I believe that you need to choose your college carefully if you want to have a degree more oriented towards computer science, computer engineering and software engineering.

So should you go to university? And if so what should you study? Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question. I do suggest, however, not to study directly after high school (or in some cases, the community or Military service). Take the time to work either voluntarily or for pay. As a software developer, I have found my experience working on open source software highly instructive. Many open source projects are run in a way that puts most software development shops to shame.

Furthermore, even when studying, don’t dedicate your life to studies, make sure to expand your horizons in other matters. People who dedicate their life to studies are closed-minded. By all means, you should follow current trends; contribute open-source software; “blog” - maintain a weblog, a web site, and write articles and essays; hang out with your friends and fellow students; or just have plain old fun or get rest.

Finally, don’t expect the university to make you a good programmer - it won’t. Don’t even expect it to teach you programming, if you don’t already know it. If you want to become a better programmer read my “Advice for the Young” essay, and also see the other links there.

Thanks

Thanks to Nadav Har’El, Adir Abraham, Omer Zak, Elizabeth Sterling, guy keren, Ido Kanner and other people from Hackers-IL and the Israeli Perl Mongers for commenting on early drafts of this article.