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Why Is The Sky Blue?

2006-05-04

The story originated about 10 years ago. At that time, there was a course in my department, teaching junior-level students some computational methods, which would be used to solve engineering problems.

With the advent of computers, we would think that this course should become increasingly important. Using powerful and fast computers, we can perform numerical simulations on computers, investigating bridge constructions, airplane designs, etc., saving so much resource and time that are required if laboratory experiments are to be conducted.

Instead, it happened that, in my department, an influential professor, joined by several professors, authored a book on how to use a commercialized computer package. This package essentially coded various computational methods into black boxes, or executable files, with only inputs and outputs for users to specify and obtain.

Somehow these faculty members were able to persuade the chairman to eventually revise the departmental curriculum, to phase out the computational-method course, and to replace it with a course teaching students how to use this computer package. Before the revision of the curriculum, I was the principal instructor of the computational-methods course for many years. When the meeting to discuss/determine the revision took place, I was entirely unaware of it, and was not invited to participate in.

Recently I surveyed online 11 departments in peer institutes in the U. S. None of the department conducted such a package-teaching course, and every department offered at least one computational-method course. I printed out this hard evidence in hard copies, and gave one copy to the chairman. No response.

I am not saying that this package is not useful, nor am I saying that learning to use it is not beneficial to our students.

But the department can, for example, set up a clinic center and hire a teaching assistant for the package users to visit if they have questions. Or the department can conduct a one-week tutorial seminar to teach beginning users. Furthermore, we are in an engineering college that is supposed to produce engineers. We are not in a vocational school that produces manual-looking technicians. Engineers do not learn only “how”. They should learn also “why”.

Instead, the curriculum was revised to benefit these faculty members. They receive annual royalties from the publisher, and enjoy some degree of credibility and fame. Students are victimized. They pay the tuition to learn something that they may be able to learn by themselves, or to learn in one week, instead of in one semester. The knowledge they learn is of informational type, not of logical type.

The former is typified by: when did the WWII break out? Answer: September 1, 1939 when German troop invaded Poland.

The latter is typified by: why is the sky blue? Answer: must know principles of radiation --> must know principles of light scattering --> know that the radiative intensity is inversely proportional to the wavelength to the 4th power --> the wavelength of blue is the least among all colors of the visible light --> so, the sky appears blue to our eyes.

If the students themselves do not desire to learn Computational Methods for Engineering Problems, they victimize themselves. But in this case mentioned above, the law was erected by lawmakers to victimize the law-abiding students.

When a robber robs us, we can report to the police. But when the law robs us, whom can we report to?

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