The reverse co-op and the education MVP

Many colleges have a co-op program for business and engineering majors. It allows students to get much more work experience than they typically would. Starting in their junior year, co-op kids will work every for 6 months instead of taking classes, ultimately delaying their graduation by a year.

I love the concept–anything that helps prepare students to work is a good idea in my book. But I would push it even further. As it stands, co-op programs still fit within the four years of school ideal. Co-ops simply tweak that model to add work experience on the margins.

Why not flip the basic approach? Instead of starting with two or three years of classes, you could begin with 3 to 6 months of work, and add in just as many classes as needed to be more productive in the next co-op. The ideal could be a minimum of three years of work, which could then be tweaked to add education on the margins.

How much school would students need? It would ultimately depend on the particular jobs, majors, and even geographies at play. And so I don’t have a definite answer. I can, however, offer a framework for how to approach the problem, from my time as a software product manager.

When you’re taking a new product to market, you have an almost infinite list of features that can be in the first release. How do you decide what should be included? A helpful starting point is to recognize that you don’t actually know. You can and should analyze the customer base, similar products, etc.

But there’s a good chance that what you think customers want won’t be what they actually want. Too much up-front planning is thus a waste of time.

For this reason, modern software engineering increasingly favors creating the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). To get the MVP, you often think in terms of use cases. Some feature will meet 50% of the use cases, others 75%, and so on. You continually ask yourself: is this feature absolutely necessary for the first release? You eliminate as much as you possibly can.

You might end up with a release that only meets 50% of the use cases. That’s fine. You will also knowingly release something with bugs. That’s also fine. The goal isn’t perfection. It’s to get your product in front of actual users ASAP. They will tell you what features to develop next and which bugs to fix first. Done right, this approach minimizes waste and maximizes customer value.

While education is  not a for-profit business and shouldn’t be run like one, aspects of this mindset can be helpful. Many college majors seem to have adopted the opposite of the MVP approach, including much more knowledge than most students will ever use.

In terms of electrical engineering, I’d describe the approach as: if there’s a 10% chance any EE anywhere might use a certain snippet of knowledge, teach it to everyone without exception. I can think of no other reason to force EEs to take, e.g., intro chemistry.

A better approach would be to get students into the workforce as soon as possible, and for the education system to adapt, learn and change in response to what students actually want and need.

With all that, here’s a first pass on how I’d structure the MVP degree for electrical engineers:

  1. Definitely include: calculus 1, physics I and II (classical mechanics and E&M), basic circuits, intro circuits lab, intro programming course, and some sort of project-based design course.
  2. Definitely drop: any abstract math class like matrices, Laplace transforms, advanced circuits, microcontrollers, chemistry, chemistry lab, all general education requirements except maybe writing.
  3. Probably should drop but I can’t bring myself to do so: advanced E&M (my area of research!), solid state physics, all advanced senior level courses.
  4. Can’t make up my mind (which almost always means you can drop it): calculus II, differential equations, writing.

Note that the above is only what we’d require of students. If schmucks like me want to take plasma physics and quantum mechanics, we should be free to. And obviously the above list could change as we learn more. That’s the point actually.

But as a general goal, reducing course requirements is a good first step. I find it grotesque to force people to sit in a classroom for any longer than necessary. Degree requirements should be closer to an associates degree than what it is now.

Which brings me to my closing thought: If a BS or BA has already become the new high school degree (i.e. you need college for a middle class life), a useful corrective for us reformers is to reverse that trend. We should want to make the associates the new bachelors.

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