Reducing redundancy in engineering courses

Opinion by Joe Troderman
Sept. 25, 2014, 2:25 p.m.

Here is a list of courses: CS 109, CME 106, MATH 151, STATS 110, EE 178, MS&E 120 and STATS 116. What do all these courses share in common? The answer is that they are all introductory probability courses (well, MATH 151 is introductory theory). They also all fulfill the probability requirement of the Symbolic Systems major, which implies that they cover roughly the same topics; reading the course descriptions for all of these courses also confirms their similarity. ECON 102B also covers similar topics, but does not fulfill the statistics requirement for Symbolic Systems.

This kind of overlap of courses is not a single occurrence, or even a rare one in engineering majors. And it is an inefficiency: Primarily, it requires departments to devote faculty resources to classes that already exist in other departments and almost identically so. Moreover, it has the effect of limiting students’ opportunities to meet students from other majors in a classroom setting. It is one of the ways that the “Stanford bubble” becomes even smaller for engineers, who often have very specialized classes which people outside the major cannot take.

As a chemical engineer, I see the same students in all of my classes. This lack of inter-major interaction is troubling when one considers life beyond the undergraduate level. Most graduate classes and industry jobs are intersectional. In the setting of graduate classes, having students from different backgrounds provides different real-world examples and applications of a concept. In industry too, it is rare to find a project team consisting of people all from the same field. Working together at the undergraduate level in the classroom becomes a kind of preparation for the world after our undergraduate studies end. Stanford could be facilitating this in undergraduate engineering by eliminating redundancy.

Another example worth considering is fluid mechanics, where CHEMENG 120A, CEE 271M, CS 205B and ME 70 all cover similar topics, but through the specialized frameworks of their respective fields. The concepts are the same though, except that the graduate CEE course is a bit higher level as a graduate course. But having repeat classes like this is a real disservice to students: Everyone could benefit from learning to model fluid motion on a computer as is taught in CS, just as those CS students would benefit from understanding the concepts of what they are modeling, why they are doing so and how to make simplifying assumptions to reduce computing time. The one challenge this may face is in terms of adding more material to courses, and so it is a balancing act of sorts.

Exceptions to this model of redundancy exist in cross-listed courses, so a model already exists to resolve this repetition. But even if departments want to continue teaching their courses, there is no reason that students should have to petition to obtain credit for courses with identical material, and perhaps even have their petition rejected — e.g. if the CS department were to believe that the single coding assignment in CS 109 makes it significantly different enough from CME 106.

At the least, students should have the right to choose how they learn material: If a certain framework is more appealing, or easier for a student to understand or even simply more academically pleasurable, then departments ought to allow them to take a course from outside the department, rather than not even offer it as an option. For example, if a student found mathematical derivatives easier to understand as velocity or as a marginal profit than as an instantaneous slope, it changes nothing about the problem or the solutions. Pretending that only one mindset or pathway to a particular solution is acceptable is unnecessarily restrictive to students, yet that is what is at risk here.

And on the faculty end, I would love to be idealistic and imagine that every teacher loves to teach introductory classes on topics that may or may not relate to their own research. However, this is not the case. Simplifying by eliminating courses would free up faculty while also benefiting students. And if there are specialized, major-specific topics that are only relevant to each specific lecture, perhaps a more egalitarian option would be to hold a single lecture, but have in-major sections, which would still alleviate the burden on lecturers, but also give students the opportunity to meet people from outside their majors in the lecture section and while maintaining an emphasis on specialized topics.

Contact Joe Troderman at jtrod93 ‘at’

Joe Troderman is a columnist for The Stanford Daily. He is a member of the class of 2016 from Canton, Mass. (it's near Boston) pursuing a major in chemical engineering. Joe is passionate about the environment and enjoys playing poor-quality improvisational music on any stringed instrument he can find. To contact him, please mail him at jtrod93 'at' or P.O. Box 13387, Stanford, Calif. (even if it is just ad hominem attacks on his character, it will make his day to receive a letter that isn't for car insurance or bank accounts).

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