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What Engineering Textbooks Should Be Like

Engineering textbooks tend to be very hard to understand. One could say that they are usually poorly written. The main reason for this is that they are highly mathematical and often they do not provide clear explanations of the graphs, charts, equations, and tables presented within. While engineering is a highly quantitative discipline, it is often hard for students to understand new concepts simply by looking at an overwhelming series of poorly explained equations, especially when many of them are just steps in the derivation of a more significant equation.

Stupid Excuses Professors May Make for the Poor Quality of their Textbooks
  • "This book is not poorly written. My students are just lazy. They want to have the information spoon fed to them."
  • "This textbook makes the material as understandable as possible without oversimplification."
  • "If my students want an easy to understand book, they should buy the Cliffs notes."
  • "I shouldn't make this stuff easy to learn, because if I do, there won't be anything challenging about this class. Engineering students need to be challenged or they won't be good engineers."
Key Points for the Design of Good Textbooks
  • The variables used in engineering textbooks should be standardized. It is tremendously confusing to students to see the same equation written three different ways.
  • Every concept should be introduced in a qualitative manner before it is introduced in a quantitative manner. They shouldn't just be a blur of equations.
  • No engineering textbook should be written by engineers alone. They should be a collaboration between an engineer and someone with a strong background in educational psychology and technical writing. Every textbook has an editor. These people should do more than correct grammar. The only reason that an engineering textbook should be written by engineers alone is to protect their fragile egos or to cut costs by not hiring additional writers.
  • Every table, graph, chart, and figure should be labeled in a way that explains what the student should learn from it.
  • The layout should be such that it is clear which equations are the most important. Although derivations are extremely important, perhaps they should be put in sidebars so that the main body of the text flows better and appears less overwhelming. If the text only contains a few equations, it is much easier for the students to read it and get a general understanding, then go back and read the derivations to refine that understanding.
  • Exciting trivia should be included to enhance the enthusiasm of the students. Learning should be a form of entertainment.
  • Digital textbooks would be much better than conventional printed ones.
The Advantages of Digital Textbooks
  • Every technical term can be linked to a definition of that term. This would allow even the laziest of students to quickly eliminate any confusion about what a word or term means.
  • The teacher could easily standardize the symbols that are used to represent variables in all of the equations. This could be done by filling out a key that is then used to update all of the student's textbooks.
  • Such textbooks could contain lots of multimedia enhancements and simulations. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Students could have the benefit of hundreds of hours of lab work at little cost and with little risk of injury.
  • They could include lots of self-tests for the students which provide them with immediate feedback about whether they are right or wrong. Getting immediate feedback is extremely helpful to learning.
  • They can be inexpensively reproduced. This is especially good for schools in developing countries or public schools that are operating on a low budget. While this may be bad news for the publisher, it would be incredibly good for the world in general.
  • They can easily be searched through and translated. Text to speech programs could be used to make them easily accessible to the blind or otherwise handicapped.
  • They can contain the primary sources of information instead of just including references.
  • They could be organized into a modular format so that teachers could quickly create custom textbooks for a course.
  • Multiple explanations of the same concept could be presented.
I just finished writing a engineering textbook, in the area of applied electromagnetics, specifically the Method of Moments. One of the key motivations was the need for a book with recent, up-to-date information in the field. However, my primary goal with this book was to alleviate problems I saw with other books in the field (as well as many journal papers): Many authors just don't understand or care about What Engineering Textbooks Should Be Like.

Having read through many good (and bad) engineering books, I'd like to first expand upon several points made by Born2rule, as well as add my own.

Key Points for the Design of Good Engineering Textbooks

  • 1. Standardized Variables: Most authors do a fair job at this throughout their own work, however if drawing upon another reference, the author should do their best to rewrite and integrate the equations using their own notation if possible. It confuses the student when different variables are used for the same quantity. This is especially problematic when the book comprises a collection of chapters from many different authors, or if it reproduces exactly the equations for a journal paper without adapting it for context and application.

  • 2. Thorough Explication: This is where in my opinion most authors simply fall flat on the job: They just leave out too much information. The worst thing a book can do is mumble "it can be shown that" and just write an answer down. This means "I am too lazy to show you or derive it myself." The author needs to show the student how it's done. Do the hard work and derive the equations, then summarize them in the text. Show the steps of the derivation. This is not spoon-feeding. It shows the learning student how problems can be solved, and provides them with insights into solving other problems of similar design. They will be able to pull out your book once they are practicing engineers and refer to the derivations for refreshers as well as new ideas.

  • 3. Showing The Money: Some authors omit key parts of an algorithm or the equations actually used to compute important quantities. Or they refer to a different book, or to "private communications." This is often done so that the knowledge remains with only a select few (the author) who can then charge their astronomical consulting fees to help you solve problems. This doesn't help the student, it pisses them off. It makes them mad that they paid $150 for your book. This is bullshit. This is the reason I will get piles of hate-mail from spiteful academics: I put it all out there. My follow-up book will be a collection of this hate-mail. It will be awesome.

  • 4. Words: Engineering books are by nature technical and obtuse. When learning a new subject, the student will be harmed by brevity. The author should do their best to provide appropriate context for the equations found in their book, which will help the student to flesh out the concept in their minds as they learn. Quantitative can proceed qualitative, but only if the reader already knows what you're talking about.

  • 5. Examples, Examples, Examples: Nothing helps a student more than well thought-out examples. These examples should explain all the key details and reasoning, as well as a thoughtful and thorough summary of the results. Figures and plots should be clear and to the point, and be free of extraneous data. Using the information contained in the book, it should not be unreasonable to expect that the student would be capable of reproducing the example for themselves (provided they have the appropriate software/computer/equipment, etc).

  • 5. Good Equation Typesetting: LaTeX is obviously preferable, but the author should make a decent attempt at well-formatted equations. Using the Microsoft Equation Editor is grounds for an immediate stab in the face.

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