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.