Professional Development for Engineers

The University of Waterloo started a new course two years ago. No, it wasn’t in its usual strong fields of mathematics or computers. It wasn’t a bleeding edge technology program or law.

It was Professional Development for Engineers.

This was a course to be done by engineering students during their co-op terms. It stressed ethics and morals. It introduced and reaffirmed the importance of professionalism as an engineering student and later on, hopefully, as an engineer.

I hadn’t heard much about the program before I actually had the opportunity to take it. Perhaps this was because it was new or perhaps the students at the time didn’t want any mention of the traumatic experience that it is. Allow me to elaborate.

The passing grade for any PDEng assignment is 75. Throughout the semester, the average for these assignments has been, for the most part, below 50. Now this initially sounds bad. But it gets much worse. See, if we fail, we’re allowed to resubmit the assignment after improving it. The average for the resubmits is still, unfortunately, a fail. Okay, maybe we weren’t expecting to be English majors on signing up for engineering, but I did pretty damn well in English in high school and I’ve failed quite a few assignments. The problem isn’t language or grammar or spelling.

You see, I’ve heard from organizers that a goal of the program they don’t openly tell you is that they like to see students fail on the first submission. It’s not that hard to fail let me tell you. The assignment questions are worded so poorly and vaguely that they could fail just about anyone for anything they please. I spend most of my time, not actually writing the assignment, but wracking my brain trying to psychologically decrypt the true meaning behind each assignment. Since you can almost be certain to fail if you follow your first train of thought, it’s usually worth it to second guess yourself several times before starting to write.

One thing that adds to the difficulty of passing is the fact that most of the topics covered are pretty much common knowledge. If you didn’t know, it’s pretty hard to write page after page about common knowledge. There always comes a point where you’re not sure if something’s so common knowledge that it defies explanation. The questions boil down to something along the lines of “a) do something clearly illegal b) do something illegal but wouldn’t land you in a jail cell with Bubba c) do something illegal that you could get away with d) THIS IS THE CORRECT ANSWER”. Now choosing that correct answer isn’t very hard. It’s the part where they say “please explain in detail your choice” that gets a little tedious. As a result most of my answers, and I’m sure most of the answers they receive is pretty much BS.

I’m not sure how a program built on this basis really affects the judgment of students. Even though the ‘correct’ answer may be clear, real world experience, unfortunately, does not mirror what you answered in an ethics course. In reality, life is a combination of uncountable shades of gray. Right and wrong are not determined by absolute rules. They are determined by the past, current, and future situations. Additionally, to answer something on e-paper is one thing. To actually act on that in real life is totally another matter. I’d consider myself a fairly ethical and reasonable person. However, even in my case, I saw questions which I answered like an angel, but doubted whether I could act in the same manner in the real world.

I understand the reasoning and idea behind the course. It’s to get us to ‘experience’ situations that we may not have been in already. However, the implementation is essentially a total failure. The questions ask what you would do, but in reality they mean what you should do. Everyone can talk the talk, but to walk the walk every time is beyond even the most skilled person.

[tags]university of waterloo, pdeng[/tags]

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