How many MIT grads does it take to hook up a light bulb?

Article By : Paul Rako

Engineers weigh in on the importance of teaching the principles of engineering as well as the practice.

My friend Rob sent out a funny video showing how MIT grads can’t hook up a flashlight:

I like stuff like this since so many of my pals went to MIT, including Professors Lee and Lundberg, not to mention half of the folks at Analog Devices. My mentor Bob Pease also went to MIT. Rob noted that our first instinct when faced with a problem should be to get more information. He pointed out, “I had a couple of questions I would have returned with. What is the battery voltage and current sourcing capability? What are the operational characteristics of the bulb, including voltage and current? The "a wire" thing had me concerned as well. Why not two wires? But seriously, MIT grads can't work this out?”

Another pal also saw some issues with the video and pointed out it was a bit of a set-up. He noted, “Well, obviously, the video appears truncated, so we don't know its original premise. However, even at a distance, most of us could see what appeared to be 115V bulbs and a 1.5V battery, except for the last example, which had an appropriate bulb. Again, the film only showed students who didn't succeed, with one exception. I would guess that the kids who knew the answer were edited out. Because the film is (I think) incomplete, we can not know the original context of its message. It's probably a documentary that was cut up for click-bait. Nonetheless, at 5 years old I was taught that in order to make a bulb light, there must be a circuit.”

Audio guru Stephen Williams wrote back, “To give an honest opinion I need more info on why the video was made. Seems like it was made to ‘prove’ a presupposed point. That is, its propaganda. Yes, an engineering graduate should have some rudimentary grasp of 3rd-grade science. But it is probably so far removed from the average course of study and what is relevant to their specific specialized career path, that it almost is a setup, a trick question, so we can put them down and feel better about ourselves. Yet these stories abound. So we all can feel good that we mastered "flashlight 101" in grade school. I did, pretty much as soon as I could read.”

Audio guru Steve Williams still has his 69-cent copy of “The How and Why Wonder Book of Electricity.”

The book has a section titled “Activities for junior electricians.” There is an explanation of how a flashlight works and the circuit needed to light a bulb. Apparently, this book is not on the MIT curriculum.

High-power design engineer Richard King noted that the “specific specialized career path” Williams mentioned might not be all that desirable. He said, “I remember something from one of Robert Heinlein's novels, ‘The Lives of Lazarus Long.’ The quote is, ‘A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.’” I guess we could add “Wire a light bulb” to that list.

An un-degreed mechanical engineer buddy who prefers to remain anonymous summed things pretty well. He explained, “Yeah, I have seen this over the years in my working life. I see mechanical engineers that are otherwise quite sharp, but act shocked upon finding out a round end mill can't make a square-cornered pocket. I show them a lovely 3D animation of the tool cutting in a computer simulation. They exclaim, ‘Oh, I see, got it, no problem!’ Then the next week, I get a solid model with radii on the bottom edges of a pocket, while still leaving the vertical ones sharp. Sigh. Then again, I might come off looking just as bad if one of those grads quizzed me about doing a bubble sort or what matrix algebra is.”

I have also been flummoxed by things that people thought I should have known. When I was finishing my senior year in college as an EE major, I visited my Auntie Helen’s house. She mentioned their Sony Trinitron TV was on the fritz. When she asked if I could fix it, I had to tell her that I didn’t know how a television worked. Not even a black-and-white one, much less a color Sony. She was shocked. She verified that I was a senior and had taken all the classes. I tried to explain that I was taught the principles of electrical engineering but not the practice of making a TV. So I could do matrix math and bubble sorts, but I just couldn't fix her TV. At least I could hook up a light bulb to a battery back then.

Paul Rako is an engineer that writes and a writer that engineers at Rako Studios.

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