How does a non-science major structure a self-guided science/engineering course of study?
December 23, 2011 1:28 AM   Subscribe

How does a non-science major structure a self-guided science/engineering course of study?

What I want to do: I want to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam in order to qualify to sit for the USPTO Registration Exam (aka, the "patent bar"). Fortunately, MI and NH allow non-science majors to sit for the FE exam, so there's definitely a route for me to do this, which, f*ck yeah, I plan on doing.

What I need to know in order to do that: All the stuff listed here. Holy hell. I'll probably go for the "Other Disciplines" tack unless the consensus is that it's better to focus on a single area.

My background
: Liberal arts degree, 12 years out of college. I'm a practicing lawyer and recently passed the Customs Broker exam, so I'm not a complete dummy. Back in college I barely scraped by with a C in the most basic algebra class that my university would give credit for, but that's because I was being a lazy dick. I've worked through all of algebra, geometry, trig and most of pre-calculus on Khan Academy and feel pretty comfortable with the material so far (fully conscious that he's not covering everything in those topics), and I'm increasingly motivated with my studies. In about three months I've gone from struggling with basic division to chuckling at references to Bill Cosby with regard to sin(a+b).

I can comfortably fit 25 hours of study a week into my schedule and I'm giving myself one year to do this, so please let me know if I'm crazy for thinking that's enough time.

What I'm asking
: Since my math skills today are about those of a reasonably smart high schooler, how do I best synthesize/sequence the remaining topics I need to study? Like, when do I start paying attention to physics; during or after my pre-calc? Should I do statistics before or concurrently with biology? That sort of thing. I'm not expecting anyone to have a single comprehensive answer, but if anyone thinks I should learn topic a from subject b before I study topic c in subject d, I'd really love to hear your advice.

posted by holterbarbour to Education (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add that this really *has* to be self study; while I do have a lot of free time, I'm chained to my desk for most of it. Plus, I live in Korea, where I'm unlikely to find a tutor who speaks English and is willing to tutor me before 7 am.
posted by holterbarbour at 1:38 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: Which topic are you going to sit for in the afternoon session?

Maybe start by selecting that, then find the recommended course of study from an engineering school that teaches that. That would give you a good outline.

A general recommendation: learn calc before physics. I wish I had only ever learned calc-based physics. The other stuff was a waste of my time.

Get a few good FE review books so you have plenty of problems to work out.

And, man, good luck. I was thinking about taking the FE, and was studying for it when I was unemployed after I got my BS in mechanical engineering. I was amazed at the amount of new stuff I needed to learn that wasn't covered in my undergrad work. I needed to enlist the help of my EE friends to teach me some stuff that was in the general section that I had *never seen before* in my ME classes. (I never did take it, as my career went in a direction where it wouldn't be helpful.)
posted by chiefthe at 2:15 AM on December 23, 2011

Response by poster: There's a bunch of stuff I don't know about even in the Other Disciplines section, but there's even more I don't know in all the other afternoon choices as well. Have you heard that any choice is "easier" than the others?

As for learning calc before physics, that's just the sort of advice I'm looking for at this point. Thanks!
posted by holterbarbour at 3:20 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: You also need good math competence (pre-calculus at a minimum) for chemistry. Chemistry will definitely help you understand molecular biology better (assuming you decide to do the 'Other Disciplines' track).

To me as a biologist, this seems like a tremendous amount of material to learn by yourself and I would think that your lack of resources for a laboratory experience is going to impact your learning--a lot of this stuff is best learned by doing. All of those lists basically look like the results of 4 years of college study. Since it sounds like you have essentially no college level math or science experience, college algebra doesn't count in most of those programs, I think you might need to lengthen your timeline.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:38 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: I agree that a grounding in calculus will help with physics, chemistry, but also almost everything else you'll need to be studying - electrical, mechanics, strength of materials. Differential equations would also be beneficial for thermodynamics, heat transfer, fluids.

I've never heard of one section being more difficult than the others, so I would advise you to figure out which of the sections would be most useful to you in your future career path. If you are wanting to go into patent law, I would guess Mechanical, but I am a Mech E but trade and education, so I am probably biased.

Other advice? Get a copy of the handbook that you'll have during the test and use it extensively in your study. You should know it backwards and forwards - not the information itself but where to find what you need. Don't waste time and brain space memorizing stuff that you can easily look up in the book. You'll get a fresh copy when you go into the exam room, so you won't have bookmarks or notes.

Good luck. I passed the test my senior year of college with basically no studying because I considered the previous four years to be an extended study session. Honestly, I don't know how realistic it is to jam all that into one year of 25 hrs a week. Are you good at taking standardized tests? My impression coming out of the test was that it was testing test taking ability more than in depth engineering ability & knowledge. Also, looking at the website, it looks like the pass rates are pretty high, so that is encouraging as well.
posted by pallas14 at 5:07 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: One of the important things about the FE is also to get very familiar with what's in the handbook. I basically taught myself stress/strain during the test using the prompt and the handbook (I'm an electrical engineer).

Like pallas14, I considered my engineering study to be an extended study session. However, a lot of the material on the general section seemed to come from what's typically identified as "sophomore curriculum", i.e. systems-related coursework.

Definitely start with calculus - you're going to want to understand integrals, derivatives, differential equations, parametric equations, and it would be very useful for your later study to be able to translate coordinate systems between each other (i.e. cartesian to rotational).

I see you are familiar with algebra - that will help calculus, because often times, there are identities you can use to simplify problems (partial fractions for factoring takes way too much time).

Btw, the FE doesn't record in your EIT license which second-section you take, so that choice should be based more on what you find interesting/useful such that you'd learn it anyway. I found the EE section to be easier than the general.

Calculus-based physics will be useful to an extent as a means to understand later engineering, but if you find a good systems coursework they end up re-deriving all the physics identities anyway from the fundamental conservation principles (Conservation of e.g. Linear/Angular Momentum, Mass, etc.).

Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by bookdragoness at 5:45 AM on December 23, 2011

Response by poster: I'm pretty handy with a standardized test; the customs broker exam requires intimate familiarity with not only the entire Title 19 of the Code of Federal Regulations, but the entire tariff schedule as well. I ranked 31 out of just over 1000 people taking it in October. While the material tested there is obviously totally different from the FE exam, the testing style--requiring you to know a honking big reference source backwards and forwards for use during the exam-- is very similar.

Hearing things like the one year timeline bordering on the unrealistic is also useful; I'm still very much in a position of "I don't know what I don't know." I'd rather revise my expectations now than face time pressures and disillusionment later.

I've already downloaded a several-hundred page .pdf of the FE reference manual (the test session handbook) and have been slowly digesting a page or so at a time (obviously not very far in yet). Anyway, calc for pretty much everything, that seems to be the consensus.

I may lean towards EE not only because there's (so far) one vote for it being easier, but also because the tech industry in Korea is enormous and patent litigation work is a goldmine here (Apple v. Samsung, anyone?). Keep the good advice coming, everyone!
posted by holterbarbour at 6:49 AM on December 23, 2011

MIT Open Courseware is your friend here. Try to find a tutor to meet with once a week to go over problem sets.
posted by apparently at 11:50 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: I didn't do the FE (I'm Canadian), but the material there looks like a pretty comprehensive survey of a 4 year degree program. If I remember the course load correctly, that's around 45 courses at 40 hours each of lecture time, plus an average of say 15 hours each of tutorial or lab time, plus an average of let's say 60 hours of homework (assignments and studying). So that's 5175 hours as a rough (probably conservative) estimate. At 52 weeks a year, that comes out to 99 hours a week.

Now, your self-study may be more effective than the time in an engineering program, but I don't know if it would be four times as effective.

I'd start with the advanced math. It's a foundation for everything, and it's hard to learn new principles in a practical topic like materials if you're also struggling with the math at the same time. If you are having a hard time with the math because it's too abstract, then the rest of the material will help you, since it's somewhat more applied. The math section is 15% of the AM grade; 7.5% of a year is four weeks. So give it a month, and see how you're feeling. It's the bedrock, so it will likely be slower going, but if after a month of studying you're struggling with it, you have an idea. If you're rocking it, then full speed ahead.

In general, the order they present topics seems to be a pretty good one. Math first. Chemistry's good to have for fluids and thermo. Aspects of chemistry come up in materials as well. Statics is key for dynamics, and to some degree for mechanics of materials. Ethics and econ are totally unrelated to the other material, and may be nice breaks. The same to some degree for statistics and computers.

Of the disciplines, both electrical and mechanical seem to have the best relevance to patent law. If some of the material speaks to you, then look to that discipline; for instance, if you enjoyed the chemistry, thermo and fluids parts, head towards chemical. But if the credential is the most important thing, the afternoon of the Other Disciplines exam looks pretty similar to a second, more advanced go-round of the morning material. Doing more material in the same topics will reinforce the morning topics and seems like the easiest way forward to me. But also the most theoretical; the material in a specific discipline will enable you to understand actual technical content on that discipline.

Other Disciplines vs. a specific one seems to me a little like the difference between spending two months in lessons to learn a foreign language, and spending a month of lessons and a month of immersion. The former will involve repeating similar exercises and may be the easier way to pass a test demonstrating a constrained body of knowledge; the latter is in some ways harder, but gets you to the more useful skills.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:59 PM on December 23, 2011

« Older Help me spread 1960's style cheer?   |   Finding a new orthodontist for my braces Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.