Best way for a non-student to learn basics of electrical and mechanical engineering?
May 11, 2007 9:20 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way one could learn the basics of electrical and mechanical engineering?

I'm interested in learning the fundamentals of these two disciplines. I realize they are quite large in scope but I'm only looking for the very basic stuff, enough to get me to hobbyist level profiency. What is the best way to approach this?

Book recommendations are welcome and encouraged but the less money that needs to be spent, the better. I've seen MIT's OCW but a lot of the courses seem to be mostly incomplete.

Related bonus question: I'm going to be living quite close to the University of Waterloo in a few weeks. While they don't offer much in the way of night classes, I've found a few courses that run MWF and have hour long lectures around lunch time, which would allow me to break away from work during my lunch hour and sneak in. Is this kind of thing even possible? For anyone who knows UW specifically, what are the chances I would be caught doing this if it was a big lecture?
posted by saraswati to Education (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a particular part of mechanical engineering that you're interested in? It's a very broad field .. there's thermodynamics, mechanics, heat/mass transfer, fluid mechanics, machine design, materials, etc. What's your current knowledge level on this sort of stuff?

If it helps, we (mech engineers) used (for intro courses) Incropera & DeWitt for heat and mass transfer, White for Fluids, Kreyszig for Engineering mathematics, Smith for materials science, Norton for machine design, Hibbler for statics/mechanics ... don't remember what we used for Thermo, it's at home. These textbooks were, and are likely to be, very expensive.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:36 AM on May 11, 2007

Likewise for electrical engineering; it's a broad discipline. Are you interested primarily in circuit design? Analog? Digital? A bit of each? Are you trying to learn how to build robots?

Give us a bit more info and we'll probably be able to help more.
posted by JMOZ at 9:39 AM on May 11, 2007

I'm a 4th year mechanical engineering student at UW. I don't think you'd get caught, but we pay a lot for those lectures and there are certain students who would be extremely resentful of a freeloader. There are a fair number of attentive profs who would recognize a new face. Particularly if you're not in the typical age cohort (excepting upper year classes with masters students).

Also, unless you went to every lecture, you might miss a concept and I bet asking a question in that vein would be awkward considering your non-student status.
posted by KevCed at 9:55 AM on May 11, 2007

It looks like you can apply/take courses as a part time student.

( Fees are ~$489/course/term, with an extra fee (~$23) for part timers.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:59 AM on May 11, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry, that's all information I should've included.

I guess when I say basics, assume I'm coming out of high school and starting in an engineering program at university. What would I learn in year one and maybe a bit into year two? That's the kind of knowledge I'm looking to get.

Now that you mention it, the topics covered in robot building are kind of what I'm looking for. So any good books on that subject would be helpful too, as long as they don't assume I know more than someone who would be just entering university for the subjects.
posted by saraswati at 10:01 AM on May 11, 2007

Response by poster: KevCed, I definitely don't want to come off like a freeloader. I guess personally as a former student I wouldn't consider someone who just came to the lectures, quietly took notes and didn't ask any questions a freeloader but if that would be the general opinion I would want to avoid that.
posted by saraswati at 10:04 AM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: You probably are interested in things like "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" or "Fundamentals of Mechanical Engineering." As for electrical engineering, you really probably want a basic circuit design class. The standard text (which is pretty good) is The Art of Electronics by Horowitz.

Also, I'm not sure I agree with KevCed. I've been on both sides of this (student and instructor), and I've never cared about people who were auditing (who also aren't paying). I've also never met anyone else who cared, either. Let's not fool ourselves; the money is for the degree and the services that come with being a student. The per-class fee is what you pay to have an official record of having been in that class and for the resources you use. Unless you were going to enough classes to get a degree, I can't imagine many people would care.

You might even consider asking the professor/instructor if you're concerned. S/he won't waste his/her (or his/her TA's, more likely) time grading homework or exams, but I've never met anyone who would object to someone attending lectures. (A seminar might be a different story). And if they DID mind, would you really want to be there?
posted by JMOZ at 10:05 AM on May 11, 2007

Also, I don't know if they still make them, but those "100 in 1" electronics kits that Radio Shack used to be pretty great. If you work through some of their projects, you start learning what various components due, and then you start making your own circuits. The first few won't work, but the kits are (well, used to be) pretty hard to mess up too badly.

For robotics, some of the Lego kits might actually be pretty good. I know these things are toys, but they're sometimes surprisingly sophisticated.
posted by JMOZ at 10:08 AM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: If robotics is your goal, after you get the basic mechanical & electrical concepts in your head, get Grant Imahara's "Kickin' 'Bot". It's extremely well written and explains everything in very understandable fashion, as it's geared towards such school-age teens in First Robotics clubs as well as adult hobbyists.

There are TONS of sites with robot-building info out there too, when you start looking for answers to specifics. Good luck!
posted by mattfn at 10:20 AM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: I think you would do well to get a copy of Oppenheim & Willsky's Signals and Systems to get the basic mathematical foundation of EE. AoE is a good book as a reference and a guide, but for a more rigorous treatment of circuits, you should look at Grey's Analysis and Design of Analog Integrated Circuits or Sedra & Smith's Microelectronic Circuits. These books are a step above your basic circuits course but they cover transistors (BJT & FET), diodes, amplifiers, switches, etc.

For control systems, I recommend Franklin & Powell's Feedback Control of Dynamical Systems.

You could build a library of these books for pretty cheap if you buy them used. I think it's best to work from these fundamental texts rather than trying to piece together a self-study curriculum online--the texts I mentioned have lots of problems and exercises, which are key to understanding the material.

Hope that helps on the EE end of things.
posted by scalespace at 10:24 AM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: "The Art of Electronics" might be difficult to learn from on your own, although for your quest I would get a copy. For electrical engineering nothing beats NEETS for making it easy to grasp otherwise difficult concepts. I don't know of any similarly basic texts prepared for mechanical engineering. Some of the prep books for the Engineering Fundamentals exam might work. They take a very cookbook approach. I like Polentz, but I think his is out of print these days.
posted by caddis at 10:30 AM on May 11, 2007

I agree that if you are concerned then you should go ahead and talk to the professor/lecturer. If they are fine with it, no one else matters. The students don't have to know what you're up to. They might think you are assessing the class or taking notes for some compilation.

Anyway, if you just sneak in and (1) it's a big lecture hall (2) you always sit far from the front and (3) it's not some kind of super-interactive class, I think your chances of being "caught" are very low.
posted by bread-eater at 10:50 AM on May 11, 2007

UW has grown a lot since I was there as an undergrad, but it's still not all that big. You could probably sit in a first year course, but anything past that and people will know you're not part of the class. I saw the same 80 guys every day, every class, for 4 years. Will anyone care? Maybe not. But someone will notice. You'd be better off trying to enroll properly.
posted by GuyZero at 11:07 AM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: Hi, I'm a sophomore electrical engineering student.

The big thing that is essential for learning any engineering discipline is math, especially calculus. MIT has a great textbook (I prefer it to the standard one I purchased for $100) that will take you up through the beginnings of multi variable. Calculus will allow you to understand fundamental physical and engineering concepts. As you progress through calc, you can pick up physics - I don't know of OCW's offerings in this area, you might have to buy a book.

You should absolutely study the fundamental math and physics, but also play around with real hardware. I don't have any good pointers there - just pick something you think you can handle and try it.

I'd heartily second the recommendation of The Art of Electronics mentioned above.
posted by phrontist at 11:37 AM on May 11, 2007

saraswati writes "What would I learn in year one and maybe a bit into year two? That's the kind of knowledge I'm looking to get."

Year one isn't going to have much field-specific coursework. Math and physics, basically. Maybe some light introductory classes to teach you how to do a bit of programming, or to use some computer design tools.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:46 AM on May 11, 2007

  1. Calculus
  2. Newtonian Physics
  3. Calculus
  4. Linear Algebra
  5. Differential Equations (aka Calculus)
Well, that list could continue for a long time.. The funny thing about all that is, once you get past the "omg math'z'hard" phase, it all becomes very instinctive. For example, there are tons of graphical methods which hide very sophisticated mathematical concepts. You really have to meet the math head on to get to the later phases though, I think.

Also check out the Technology section in the FrequentlyAskedOfMetaFilter page, how to learn electricity/electronics has come up many times. Not so much with mechanical..
posted by Chuckles at 11:57 AM on May 11, 2007

Year one for mechanical engineering was, as Mr_roboto said, mostly math and physics. If you want to build robots, the book that we used which would probably come most in handy would be Machine Design: An Integrated Approach, by Robert L. Norton. I'm not saying it's the best book, but I haven't really looked at any others. You might want to take a poke at Machinery's Handbook, especially if you'll be making your own parts. Libraries might have it.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:09 PM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: Found some links for you that may help:

This site from UNL has some good basic course material and starts from the very basics (the math section includes algebra, geometry, etc. all the way through calculus, so you should be able to find your level and jump in). Statics, Dynamics and Strength of Materials definitely make up a large part of the "fundamentals" of mechanical engineering:

For fluid mechanics, try this page.

This page has a lot of material explained simply. At the hobbyist level to which you alluded, I'm guessing you're more interested in gears, levers, pulleys, cams, pistons, putting stuff together, etc. A lot of universities will just brush over this stuff these days, since electronic control can replicate a lot of this functionality much more easily, but these mechanical systems have an elegant appeal that I'm guessing you're interested in. The pages on gears, mechanisms, forces and moments, power tools, and equipment and processes are worth checking out to give you a good overview.

This page covers and simulates four-bar linkages:

This page is a link to download a free demo of Alibre's CAD program. Play around with it, learn how to design and model parts. Pick up any object around the house, and try to model it in 3D as an excercise. You can start off just modelling the simplest aspects of it, and then add detail as you see fit. Try designing a few parts and assembling them together. Learn how to print out engineering drawings from your models. If you ever want to design a part from scratch, you'll need the drawings to send it off to a machine shop.

Finally, my advice is to take stuff apart and put it back together. You will learn a lot this way.
posted by SBMike at 1:14 PM on May 11, 2007

I was mechanical student and then transferred to industrial engineering about a year ago.

For a mechanical engineer, the most basic and possibly the most informative would be learning forces act on a body?,next step is dynamics.. how forces act on a moving body?

Warning: The courses mentioned above use a lot of physics and math, so it would be helpful if you brushed up on topics like motion, newton laws etc.
posted by radsqd at 8:26 PM on May 11, 2007

Also familiriaze yourself with AutoCAD 2007. It is the primary software used for drafting 2d professional drawings. Although there are many software that include advanced 3D modelling and analysis like SOLID works and Inventor, 2D is still primarily used atleast the place where I work for my internship
posted by radsqd at 8:31 PM on May 11, 2007

I'm not certain the instructors or students would mind, I mean, I wouldn't really care if someone came in to quietly take notes, but I know there are people in my classes who would.

UW doesn't have the same common first year as most other universities. For mechanicals, the first half of first year is basically common, mostly a repeat of high school math and science. Topics include calculus, linear algebra, chemistry, physics (dynamics, kinematics, etc.). The second half is a bit more focused, but still general stuff like computer programming, electrical circuits.
posted by KevCed at 7:25 PM on May 12, 2007

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