For Aron: Double Major

>> Sunday, July 5, 2009

Aron said: I'm thinking about double majoring. Some form of engineering (Still deciding which type, but I'm leaning towards mechanical) and sociology. Am I insane for even considering that? I love looking at how technology effects society, but I need a technical background to go into space habitation.

You're not insane, but what you're proposing is very challenging, especially if reading is still a struggle for you.

On the one hand, I absolutely love the idea of stretching the boundaries of a single engineering degree. In my opinion, engineers too often have tunnel vision, are clueless about the implications of their designs, of the big picture.

Let me tell you a story. My first engineering design class in college was for mechanical engineering. Our first design project in this class was a "personal fire escape device" for high rise buildings (~10 floors), with a 300 pound limit, a minimum and maximum speed, cost per unit, etc. It was pretty clear, although not said out loud, that the teacher was looking for a braking system for a cable/harness system. Ostensibly this was in response to tragedies like the MGM Grand Hotel fire and to reduce insurance liability. In case of fire, the hotel guest would strap on diaper attached to a cable in a black box and leap from the window, confident that the device would save him.

Immediately, my mind balked. I'm afraid of heights (a not unusual fear) and I know for a fact I could not leap from a window strapped to diaper no matter how much I wanted to. But that wasn't all I found wrong inherently with the concept:

  • 300 pound limit. I'm the oldest of seven children and I was used to sharing a hotel room with the rest of my family when we were children. My parents alone break the limit. Who decides who stays behind and who goes? How does a harness address multiple individuals (as couples also frequently stay in hotel rooms together). I don't see how you can assure everyone is svelte.
  • Maintainability. Imagine how hard it would be to maintain these items with a harness and cable in every hotel room. People would shove pencil tips in it or step on it or mess with the cables. Why? Who knows but I've seen professionals unable to control themselves - regular people do crap like that. What's more, inadvertent contamination: (drinks, fluids, dirt, dust debris) can have drastic impacts to the characteristics of the braking system. And, without opening the item up,the damage would be almost undetectable. The maintenance cost (and/or unreliability) would be huge.
  • People are at the mercy of the device. Even if it works perfectly as designed it can fail. The weight limit (0-300) is too broad to preclude the possibility of someone slender left stranded on the side of a burning building or someone heavy slamming into the ground at too high a speed. You jump away from the building, but the braking system just means you'll be slammed back against the building. If there's a huge fire beneath you, you have no options but going into it. If someone jumps out below you at the same time, you may slam into them - feet are better designed for unexpected impacts than heads, let me tell you. Any potential failure will be taken by the media as a clarion call - even if the vast majority make it out safety using the device - because the failures will sell newspapers/get viewers. That also spells lawsuit and isn't going to help with insurance premiums.
  • Non-emergency usage. By having it accessible in every room, you make it possible that some bored teenager or other thrill seeker won't be able to keep himself from trying out this emergency device in a non-emergency situation. There is no happy answer on this. Even if it works perfectly and the moron ends up unharmed, an angry parent is likely to want to sue (sadly, it's the USA) for putting their child at risk. And, if it fails, leaving a scrawny kid stranded on the side of the building or letting someone fall spectacularly to injury or death, again, the media will be all over it. So much for it being a good thing and who will trust it if a real emergency comes along?
Well, you get the picture. Within five minutes, I decided the proposal was fundamentally flawed so I set to work on what might accomplish the same thing, bring people to the ground at the same rate, for the same cost, but be readily maintainable, not accessible except in emergency, and be usable to by families, heavy/skinny people, and be something even a scaredy cat like me might use. I'd tell you about my solution, but this post is going to be long enough as it is.

What astonished me when we presented our results was that 36 out of, say, 40 students presented a harness/cable/braking in room system exactly as proposed. I'm sure most took pains to use the right materials and do the right math, but none of them had thought about how usable and useful it was. Even when I brought up my objections to the concept, my teacher defended it by saying someone had designed such a thing for emergency use on a roller coaster. Aside from the fact my issues were largely not applicable to the roller coaster scenario, he explained that it failed because they used aluminum instead of steel for the braking mechanism. That was my first experience in having a concept defended by catastrophic failure (someone was injured or died on the roller coaster device, apparently). It was, sadly, not my last.

So, what I'm saying long-windedly is that I think looking outside the engineering box is a wonderful thing for an engineer to do. I think it's wonderful you want to do so.

Is it insane? I don't know. Only you can decide. Even for the best and brightest, I think that's a pretty hefty challenge, but I can't say it's beyond you. Try. Even the interest in expanding your horizons make you a better engineer.

My only caveat is to not let it overwhelm you. Remember, what you need is the information, the knowledge, the perspective. If taking extra courses or writing extra papers looks like it's going to overwhelm you, don't be afraid of backing off of the double major and trying to learn that stuff on your own, either through auditing courses, reading required reading on your own or making nice with students in that field to open your own horizons. Burnout won't accomplish either goal. Understand your limitations and try to aim for things that push but don't break them.

I think it would be incredible if you could do this - and I don't know any reason you couldn't - but don't be discouraged if it's overwhelming. Learn all you can and you'll still be a better engineer for trying.


  • The Mother

    Oh, yeah. Challenging, alright. Especially for anyone with reading problems.

    One of my father's best friends is a human factors engineer. I don't think he had a sociology degree, but his job was to design controls for fighter planes that worked for the actual human types that were going to fly it. And to consider all the ways in which those actual guys could mess up even the bet planned systems.

    You could certainly carve a niche for yourself. The old stereotype about engineers is, in my experience, fairly true--they think technically, and often have to be hit over the head with practical (my father and my son have, however, found much more to talk about as the son has trained himself into that engineer mode).

  • flit

    oh now I have a question! Oh! OH! Pick me! I have a question!

    What sort of system did YOU design ...and did he recognize your brilliance and give you a decent mark for it?

  • Stephanie B

    Having worked EVA, the Mother,I know how challenging human factors engineering can be.

    Alright, flit, I'll get yours next since it's related to this one. I'm sure Aron won't mind if we take a small side trip.

  • Aron Sora

    No, I don't mind, please let people go before my dump truck full of questions. It's not fair to your other readers and to the world that I'm hogging your insight. And I feel like I'm hogging your blog. Plus, I want to know the same thing flit asked. Sweet, it's a win-win.

    I don't have to decide on a major or a major set (My school lets students triple major) till my second year. Plus, my first project sounds like a lesson in this. I'm given a real problem and I use my Engineering skills for community service. Comparing your experience and Columbia's Freshmen Engineering design course, it sounds like they are trying to get us to learn the human factor.

  • Stephanie B

    Excellent, Aron. Looks like the program you're entering is a good fit for what you want to do.

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