In our private beta, a university maths educator asked this follow up question:

Math Engineers Use

Did you find it beneficial to have about four semesters of calculus? Maybe you do not use anything from it, but it does enhance your mathematical reasoning, which does have a positive externality on your engineering skills?

In the comments, Trilaron said it is "kind of a poll".

Can Engineering.SE answer the OP's question, or similar? If so, how should it be worded so that the answers help us to build a quality site of useful information about engineering?

Related questions:


3 Answers 3


That particular question is several kinds of bad.

You could find several mutually contradictory answers, none of which would be any more or less right than the others.

It's inviting a bunch of opinions.

It's also too broad.

And contains at least two questions in it.

Furthermore, I think dcorking's suggestion of:

What benefits are there for practising engineers from undergraduate applied calculus studies, including ODEs, PDEs, complex analysis, Laplace transforms, Fourier analysis .... ?

makes things worse. There are several targets there to aim at, and that's a telling sign of a bad question.

  • $\begingroup$ Good points. I think that much more precisely targeted questions would be much better for the site, like "Which ODE solution methods are applicable to a practising electronics design engineer, and why?" But I think the broader question is also relevant. We tolerate mutually contradictory answers at Workplace.SE and Parenting.SE, so why not Engineering .SE ? $\endgroup$
    – dcorking
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 15:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @dcorking - I'm not sure we want to tolerate "mutually contradicting answers". Unlike workplace and parenting issues, engineering problems generally have a correct answer or a set of correct answers. Even though there may be multiple paths to get to that answer, there's still a "best answer" out of the bunch. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 15:18
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Using the math question as an example, the correct answer is "it depends." Some engineers never need to reach back to their calculus days. Others do. And others of us are forced to go re-learn statistics because of obscure techniques that are required for a particular projects. </sighs heavily>. Anyway, back to that question - it all depends so in essence we're trying to predict the future through that question. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 15:20

I actually agree with both of the positions expressed so far: There are major issues with the example question but I think it could be rewritten in a way that solves its original problems. I am a big believer in the power of aggressive rewrites to bring questions "in bounds" and in the right and responsibility of the community to work with authors to make this happen.

The example question

Whether a particular "out of bounds" or borderline question can be salvaged depends largely on the type of answers being solicited. Questions that are clearly written with no other goal than to elicit poll-type answers are not likely to be salvageable. In this example, I don't think that's the case. Here's the first revision of the post in question (emphasis mine):

I am from the mathematics StackExchange section, many of my students are engineering students at University. I was wondering what kind of calculus do you real engineers use? I have known two engineers. One from airplane design and another from metrology. The former used very very little calculus, some ODE's with constant coefficients by linearization. The latter used only basic math, no calculus, with some excel. I want to be honest with any engineering student so they know what awaits them.

Also, a follow up question. Did you find it beneficial to have about four semesters of calculus? Maybe you do not use anything from it, but it does enhance your mathematical reasoning, which does have a positive externality on your engineering skills?

Stack Exchange is all about questions that represent an underlying problem to be solved. Here, the problem is clear: The author has a responsibility for providing a mathematics education to engineering students, and wants to convey realistic expectations to them about how this material may be applied in their career. This is a problem that experts in our field are uniquely prepared to solve, therefore we can and should rewrite this question in a way that will elicit high-quality answers that solve the author's problem.

The elusive high-quality answer

What is a high-quality answer? What does that mean? Is it about technical correctness, good formatting, length, lots of upvotes, freehand circles?

Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand identifies a guiding principle of Stack Exchange with the following analogy:

Incoming questions are a universal constant, all around us in countless billions. But answers — truly brilliant, amazing, correct answers — are as rare as pearls. Thus, questions are merely the sand that produces the pearl. If we have learned anything in the last three years, it is that you optimize for pearls, not sand.

High-quality answers are the useful artifacts this network was built to collect. The blog post stops short of explicitly defining those "truly brilliant, amazing, correct answers" but we can take a look at the example it provides in this answer on Skeptics.SE, which is:

  • Direct
  • Objective
  • Thoroughly cited

This is almost the polar opposite of poll answers, which tend to be indirect, subjective and primarily anecdotal. Poll answers are neither authoritative nor applicable to all readers; a really high-quality answer above is both. "Optimizing for pearls" means enforcing question standards that will invite citation and objectivity while discouraging anecdote and subjectivity. Although Jeff's blog post focuses on downvoting, rate-limiting and question bans as the means to this end, it was written several years ago and community editing has received a bit more attention since then.

How to rewrite

Unfortunately, this particular question accumulated 16 answers before being locked. By the time this meta discussion was started, it had already attracted five answers, a hundred views and a couple dozen votes. One of the "golden rules" of editing questions is that you should not change them in ways that invalidate existing answers, even as the original author of the question.

With that in mind, I think a good way to rewrite this question at the time it was aked would have been as follows:

I teach mathematics at the University level. Many of the students in the courses I teach are students of engineering. I want to be honest with them about how they can expect to use calculus once they leave school and start working as engineers but, since I do not have an engineering background, I am not sure what to tell them.

I have known two engineers, one from airplane design and another from metrology. When I asked them about the math they use as engineers, the former used very very little calculus, some ODE's with constant coefficients by linearization. The latter used only basic math, no calculus, with some Excel.

My engineering students generally take about four semesters of calculus. Even if they do not use these skills directly in their professional lives, studying calculus will enhance their mathematical reasoning skills. How do I express the value of a strong background in calculus to my engineering students? In particular, how frequently can they expect to use calculus in their day-to-day work?

Dissecting the rewrite

Paragraph by paragraph:

  1. Background. Introduce the problem with relevant information. Here it's important to know that the author is not an engineer, so it's okay to introduce the author. In other cases that would be completely superfluous; e.g., "I'm not very good with statics, and I have a question." In the original version, "from the mathematics StackExchange section" was superfluous; the author's profile is easily accessible, and their activity on this site isn't directly relevant. Every bit of content in this paragraph comes from the original; only the presentation has changed.
  2. Research. Almost unaltered from the original. It's always nice to have more research, but this is the author's responsibility. I cannot force them to do more research and I should generally not expand on their research unless the question is a Community Wiki because it would misrepresent what the asker actually knows (instead, offer related reading in a comment or as an extra component to your answer).
  3. The Question. Sometimes users like to ask their question early in the post and then start elaborating and giving examples. Usually it's better to "bookend" the post by stating the question succinctly in the title and restating it fully and explicitly near the end of the body. Here's where I revised most aggressively, because this is the part that people answer (some people don't even read the rest of the question!). I rephrased the follow-up question as a hypothesis, which is a nice trick for focusing a multi-part question; answers aren't obliged to respond to the hypothesis, but if someone disagrees with it they'll probably say so. Finally, I expressed the problem faced by the author as a question, despite the fact that this is something the original revision never directly asked, and appended the more specific question that did appear in the original as a particular concern. This would probably be the most controversial element of the edit, since it takes some amount of faith in my interpretation of the original revision to believe that this "new" question preserves the goals of the post's owner.

One overall change I consider particularly important was removing the word "you" from the question entirely. This is not a discussion, it is a question; it should be formatted with the expectation of a broad audience. Many more people will read the question than will provide an answer and they should be thinking about the question, not about their experience. As soon as the author asks me what I think, I'm less prepared to absorb any existing answers. The "Facebook gene" activates; time to share! Now I'm looking to give you a story instead of an answer.

None of these changes prevent answers that are subjective or anecdotal. What they do is define an acceptable response in a way that not only guides answers but, perhaps more importantly, guides readers in voting on the answers they find. (Example: It's harder to justify trashing an answer that just says "You can use SketchUp" when the question is, "What are some free alternatives to AutoCAD?")

Summing up

We can effectively answer this question and others like it but user polls should absolutely be avoided. The ideal solution is for the community to assist the author in revising the question (how involved the author is and how much action you take without them varies) to discourage answers based mainly on anecdote or opinion and encourage answers based mainly on facts and evidence. Until and unless this type of question can be adequately revised, it should be put on hold.

The amount of attention and number of answers this question has received, plus continued comments from the author (1, 2) encouraging anecdotal responses, signal to me that this question has gone past the point where it could be reasonably edited into shape and should be closed. If there's a good related question buried somewhere in there, it can be asked on its own merits; if it meets our standards, as this one does not, I would not consider the new question to be a duplicate.

  • $\begingroup$ Related: How do we handle the lower-quality "this is my experience" answers that the question has attracted? A significant re-write would potentially invalidate those answers. That said, most of them have a low number of votes so the reputation lost from deleting them wouldn't be that much. $\endgroup$
    – user16
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ The 'this is my experience' answers should get fewer upvotes than 'this is what researchers have figured out' and 'this is what accrediting bodies say'. That should be enough. If 'this is my experience' is thirty years of practice observing dozens of engineers, it deserves its upvotes. $\endgroup$
    – dcorking
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 14:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @GlenH7 Users contribute answers to off-topic questions at their own risk. Any reputation they might gain therefrom comes with no guarantees. It would be a disservice to the experts who contribute to this site to award reputation for off-topic, inexpert contributions. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ I should be clear that I am not suggesting deleting individual answers to justify rewriting the question. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ Agressive re-writing a question just noises up the site and usually doesn't work anyway. It seems very rare indeed where a OP that wrote a bad question in the first place will actually cooperate with re-writing it. Usually they get defensive, aggressive, complain, or never respond. All of these make the original problem worse. Bad questions should be dealt with as expediently as possible, which means downvoting, closing, and eventually deleting. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 11:49

Yes, if rephrased.

This kind of question can provoke very useful answers

  1. Ask it as an actual follow-up question, instead of an extra paragraph in your first question.
  2. Don't ask about "your" experience. Ask about the benefits seen in a particular context. Experience has already been gathered by maths and engineering educators, by mentors and by engineering managers, who may have some idea of the kind of skills being used. Also, in practice, we benefit from the calculations, intuition and problem-solving skills of many of our colleagues: our own experience is very small compared to the overall experience we gather from working in a team for several months or years.
  3. Be specific about the problem you face. Is your class too difficult for your students or too boring, or so interesting that they are switching majors away from engineering to math? Do you want to increase or decrease the scope of math education in your college? Do you (or your committee) want to swap, say, a calculus course for a mathematical reasoning course, or a stats course, or a numerical methods course? Or something else?
  4. Be specific about the context, if you can. Do your students study the big four disciplines of engineering, or spend most of their time on a specialty like aeronautics or marine? Do most of them quit engineering on graduation (like my classmates did)? Do they become software developers, or management consultants, or PhD engineers?

There is not just one right answer. An answer written from the point of view of a research engineer developing new control system algorithms will be quite different from a design engineer following codes to modify piping in a chemical plant, and different again from an operations engineer.

But I think Engineering.SE should be welcoming enough to 'more than one right answer' soft questions, like Parenting.SE or Workplace.SE. The answers should reflect the diversity of experiences of the answerers, without becoming a dumping ground for low quality answers containing only opinion. Opinion should be backed up by reason and experience.

I think that subjective questions here should be accepted if they are on topic and they follow Robert Cartiano and Jeff Atwood's six "Good Subjective" guidelines from 2010.

I imagine that a non-poll question might begin with something like this, depending on the particular problem the questioner has:

What benefits are there for practising engineers from undergraduate applied calculus studies, including ODEs, PDEs, complex analysis, Laplace transforms, Fourier analysis .... ?


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