Start motivated, Get worn down.

Environmental engineers tend to be the idealist, almost 50% female subgroup of the engineering discipline. We get students who want to change the world, help improve access to water and really want their work to be meaningful. Somewhere between the 4 semesters of calculus, 2 semesters of chemistry,  2 semesters of physics and one semester of biology though, you end up with a group who, sure, started because those were there motivations but really they just want a job.. And thats before the environmental engineering classes have even started.

My undergraduate institution tried and I give them credit for that. But the engineering curriculum is intrinsically designed to beat a lot of your interest in problem solving out of you before you even get started. We traditionally have undergrads front load their studies so they get the general elements out of the way. I really don't think this makes sense. 

Freshman in college are some of the most idealistic people in the world. They want to be the change and they do it whole heatedly. Seniors on the other hand, have seen things, and are basically worn down by the time they get out, if they get out. I think the drive that freshman have comes from the excitement of getting to choose what you learn. For the first time! You want to help drill wells to bring water to remote populations? You're finally in the space where you can learn how to do that!

I think engineers strive in project motivated environments. That's why we became engineers. Too many of my courses were designed to teach fundamentals with little context and I'm beginning to see the value in designing a course where, yes you will need to learn how to treat water, but maybe because you have chosen a community or an issue that appeals to you. 

I'm not sure I can get rid of grades but I can get rid of the idea of rigorous testing to prove a point. In today's world, engineers need to know how to find, apply and understand when equations are valuable. They don't really need to memorize the equations themselves because there is simply and I hope truly no environment in the real world where they would find themselves designing a plant or a project all on their own. I appreciate that extrinsic motivators don't work, because honestly you can cheat, and the consequences can be disastrous. 

Most of us come to college with some intrinsic motivation and I think its our job as educators to make sure we foster it rather than go out of our way to squash it. 


  1. Hey Ishi,
    I got a glimpse into the world of Engineering education from your blog post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Looking back at your experiences to date--undergrad & grad, what do you think you can do differently so that your students don't feel like they're having their spirits crushed under the pressure and weight of a rigorous program? Are you already doing things differently? I'm sad at the thought that students are losing their fire before they even begin!

  2. I think this idea of genuine motivation and drive and dilution of it transcends to other disciplines as well. I began my education as a premed student taking all the science prerequisites: chemistry, biology, anatomy, etc. The memorizing was draining and you would often have to remind yourself why you were there. Yes many of these courses are necessary, but the format is not. I have asked the same question, why do we need to memorize equations that are readily available in a real world project? You also bring up a great point that project based learning may help keep that motivation alive. I think this learning format can develop other crucial skills like critical thinking and group work.

    1. Not sure why it says unknown but Carlisle wrote this comment!

  3. I agree with your blog. Coming from the engineering discipline as well, I definitely feel that when something is started we have high motivation and high expectation that slowly degrades into something that is doable and will equip us with that we need to know and out the door. I think we can do better in tying in the technical material (which is important) to the goals that incoming students may have. For example, with statements like "those of you that are interested in water, this is why these calculations are important and why you need to know them." I think that type of information allows the student to feel more invested in whatever topic and ensures that they learn it to the best of their ability.


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