In light of the deep, systemic changes that are being proposed for traditional engineering curricula (especially proposed reductions in lecture hours devoted to hard technical material), what in your opinion is the best argument in favor of the notion that the existence of the Google search box can compensate for the concomitant loss of formal course material coverage? (I can easily formulate multiple arguments against it without assistance.)

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    "In engineering, assertions of the form "Well, they don't really need to know Newton's second law -- they can Google that if and when they need it" are becoming more and more common." [citation needed] Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 12:19
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    As an engineering educator (with significant industry experience), I think I kind of understand the question, but not well enough to post an answer; however, I teach my courses the way I think they should be taught: lectures are not tailored to those with short attention spans; so long as I can find a good one, texts are required; problem sets are intensive; in-class exams are challenging even with a one-page "cheat sheet"; etc. In short, I do what I think is best in preparing my students to go out into the world and do engineering. If my institution doesn't like it, I'll go somewhere else.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 14:53
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    Your assertion that students aren't getting fundamentals seems wrong to me. Can you cite a few engineering programs where students don't take math, physics?
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 17:59
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    Your example of Newton's second law suggests otherwise, since that will be taught in the standard physics sequence. Perhaps you can edit your question to clarify what kind of fundamentals you were referring to? And then cite a few programs where those fundamentals are not taught. If you can't do that, then the premise of this question seems off...
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 19:39
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    As far as I can tell, this question comes down to a misunderstanding of what a "modernized" engineering program actually is.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 19:42

3 Answers 3


I will also answer the modified version of your question, which asks specifically about using Google.

Nobody is suggesting that because of Google, students no longer need to learn course material. However, thanks to Google and the abundance of high-quality information that student engineers can find through Google, there is an ongoing shift in

  1. the role of the instructor in helping students learn the material, and
  2. the way students demonstrate that they have mastered this material.

First, given the availability of high-quality information, explanations, textbooks, and lecture videos even on specialized topics, the role of the instructor has shifted away from "standing in front of a room and delivering information that students should ingest and then regurgitate on an exam". Instead, instructors can devote more time to answering students' questions about, and teaching student how to use, the material. (This kind of instruction is not as easily supplemented by textbooks, lecture videos from top universities, and similar materials.)

You can see why this is in questions like Professor only teaches what is already in textbook. Should I quit going to the lectures?. A lecture that just repeats information is not an efficient use of contact hours for many students.

Second, given that students have, and will continue to have, access to high-quality reference materials throughout their careers, there is a recognition that having committed the knowledge contained in this reference material to memory is not an indicator of an effective engineer. Rather, students (and professional engineers) need to be able to identify the right knowledge to use, find it, and use it properly. Thus, assessment of students has shifted toward demonstrating ability to use knowledge, and away from rote memorization and regurgitation. The shift in instructional strategy is partly to support this.

(Of course, students still end up memorizing some formulas and things that they use often. And they still need to "know" enough to be able to identify and find the information they need, and evaluate whether they've found "good" knowledge.)

In other words: Students still need to learn fundamental material, but:

  1. Some contact time with instructors that was previously devoted to repeating the material, can now be spent engaging with the material more deeply.
  2. Students show that they have mastered the material by showing that they can identify the right knowledge to apply to a problem, find that knowledge, and use it. Students don't need to show that they can memorize lots of material.

Your question seems to come down to "Give me an argument in favor of this extreme hypothetical scenario (graduates of engineering programs not having studied Newton's second law)", on the grounds that current trends in engineering education are likely to lead to this eventuality.

I doubt the premise of your question. It is a classic example of a slippery slope fallacy; shifting the balance in engineering education towards more hands-on applications of engineering, will not necessarily lead to elimination of most of the fundamental basics.

There are some very good reasons in favor of incorporating more hands-on work into the engineering curriculum, for programs that currently don't have much. One reason is: students who learn material out of a textbook but do not have a chance to practice its application, are not necessarily able to apply it, and do not necessarily have as deep an understanding of the material. (I see this firsthand in my own students.)

Another relevant aspect is the depth vs breadth balance, and the duration of the degree. Given how broad most fields of engineering are (mine, electrical engineering, definitely is!), it is not possible for students to take in-depth coursework in all subfields in the course of a bachelors degree. Instead, students take some basics (math, science, a couple of fundamental EE courses) and then they tend to specialize and gain depth in one or two areas. This is unlike your example of a physician, who undergoes much more schooling and has time for more breadth and depth in a specialty. Engineering education is much more condensed, and companies that hire engineering undergraduates understand this - they will either expect to train new hires on the job, or they will only hire students with the right "specialty". For those in the latter category, it is especially important for graduate of our program to be able to show that they are "ready to work" in that specialty, which means they should have engaged in substantial project work in that specialty.

Personally, I wish students took more fundamental coursework. But I also wish they did more practical hands-on work. I recognize that in the scope of an undergraduate degree that's not really practical, and that students who want or need that will probably have to do some graduate school.

But again, none of these are arguments in favor of an engineering curriculum that doesn't teach Newton's second law, or the Fourier transform, because that is an extreme hypothetical that is not the current practice, and that engineering educators are not generally advocating for. There is a balance, and that's what educators are going for.

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    "It is not possible for students to take in-depth coursework in all subfields in the course of a bachelors degree": This is true, but what has happened along the years, at least in most universities in my country, is that the courses both at the Bachelor's and Master's level have been softened in the content, because otherwise too many students would have failed them and too few students would graduate (university funding depends also on the number of graduates per year). Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 7:14
  • @Massimo that is unfortunate. But a different issue. The "rigorous to not-rigorous" axis is orthogonal to the "lecture-based vs hands-on" axis. (I am infamous around my department for assigning very challenging lab and project work ;) )
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 8:45
  • I suspect I've completely misunderstood the question... Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 10:20

This question reads a little bit like a polemic, but I'll answer from another perspective: someone who is in the position, at times, to educate physicians. I'm extremely skeptical that your engineering students don't know Newton's Second Law, given I was taught it in High School, just as medical students know what a brain is or does.

But when I teach them my area, what I want them to learn is how to approach a particular type of study, how to engage with a published paper critically, and be able to articulate - at least in broad strokes - the difference between an odds ratio, a relative risk, and a hazard ratio, and when those things might break.

I care about them knowing what a Kaplan-Meier curve is, not the formula for how you incorporate left-censored observations into that curve. I want them to know that p-values are a perilous thing that should not be taken as God's Own Word in a vacuum, but I do not care if they know how variance is calculated for a negative binomial regression model. I care about them knowing what an infection looks like, but when rubber hits the road and they need to treat one, I also care about them knowing they need to get an infectious disease consult.

Heck, probably 50% of what I work on is some form of survival analysis, and I don't know what the likelihood function for a Weibull distribution is. But I do know it's in Klein & Moeshberger, and roughly what page it's on. And more importantly, I know what to do with it once I have it.

Engineering (and I'd argue Medicine) are different from something like research chemistry because they are professions. The bulk of what they're doing is not research, its the application of well-understood principles and techniques to a common set of problems. Your physician doesn't need to know that beta-lactams interfere with cell wall synthesis by disrupting the last stage of peptidoglycan crosslinking - just that they work particularly well against gram-negative bacteria. In these cases, the practical, project-and-problem oriented learning you are railing against is precisely what their day-to-day job will look like, and they are the essential skills that they will need. For the alternative, just spend a few days on Hacker News reading all the rants about C.S. students coming out of top programs with lots of theoretical knowledge, but no practical idea how to do anything.

Someone doing research in that area needs to know that, but that also a specific skill set - and just as I would not treat patients, I would not want a physicist as an engineer.


The most sensical version of this argument that I've heard is merely an argument in favor of open-book examinations or take-home exams that more accurately resemble modern real-life conditions. It's not necessary to learn the formula by heart, because you can look up the exact formulation. (You're not likely to forget any important parts of Newton's second law, but for some of the more complicated laws of physics it's clearly more of a challenge. I remember being made to recite, word-exact, some law of diffraction - or was it dispersion? - because there were some easy to forget subtleties.) It's merely necessary to know how and when to apply it.

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    Would you be comfortable applying this reasoning ("know how and when to apply it") to your own physician? ("I don't care whether my doctor knows anything at all about the human body! As long as he can Google and manage to find the right prescription for me, I'm satisfied.")
    – anonymous
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 14:07
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    @NorthSpike You asked for arguments in favor. You got one. With regard directly to your comment, I'd be worried if my physician did not refer to sources like PubMed in those cases where he was uncertain of his own knowledge.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 15:54
  • @ Bob Brown, your scenario is based on your physician having significant background knowledge. The original question is based on the opposite assumption.
    – anonymous
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 16:04
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    Is here where I bring up how often physicians use guidelines and reviews published by their professional organizations?
    – Fomite
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 20:50
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    @NorthSpike You're strawmanning my argument, and what I said absolutely already applies to doctors. When they see something that doesn't show up in their waiting room every day, I expect them to look up the latest treatment guidelines! In fact, there are specific portals for exactly this usage.
    – nengel
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 2:12

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