A Pencil and Paper Guy Falls in Love with Engineering Calculation Software




A few months back, my colleague, Cosmin Negru, told us about his first experience with Mathcad, and I thought I would do the same. But our stories are quite different, and his is rather more exciting. Whereas the story of Cosmin’s first Mathcad use centers around the benefits he received by finding and having Mathcad in college, my story underscores the benefits I missed out on by not using engineering calculation software in college.

So let me start there—in college.

Before engineering calculation software, chalkboards were used.

Wait, was that seconds or degrees back there?

The case for doing all the math by hand

I don’t know many engineers who use hand calculations in their job, but in college, as least at my school, hand calculations were par for the course. So at the outset, doing calculations in college is a bit “old school” compared to an actual industry job. Even so, I was yet more old school in how I did my calculations than most of my classmates. Whereas they would use their graphing calculator to do all the heavy lifting, such as computing definite integrals or derivatives, I generally opted to do the more complicated calculations by hand. There were two primary reasons for that.

First, calculating those integrals myself kept me fresh. I didn’t want my ability to do math to deteriorate. I didn’t want to depend on my calculator for results. And on the one hand, I think this was good. Not to pick on my classmates, who are all brilliant people, but I think over time they somewhat forgot how to actually do calculus themselves.

On the other hand, there comes a point when you know something well enough that you just aren’t going to forget it. And at that point, it’s best to let a tool do those things for you for the sake of efficiency. It would be pretty foolish of me to refuse to drive a car because I was afraid that I’d forget how to ride my bike.  There’s that point at which I can say, “Integrals? Well, it’s kinda like riding a bicycle. You just don’t forget.”

I’ve mentioned before that I had professors tell us that on tests we only had to correctly set up the problem without actually having to solve it all out because they assumed we knew how to perform the necessary mathematical calculations.

Second, I didn’t I didn’t trust graphing calculators. Now, I know that makes me sound like one of those people who refuses to use Google Maps because “a good ole’ atlas isn’t going to give me the wrong directions!” But it’s not quite like that.

Graphing calculator

How do you know it's right if it won’t show its work?

Perhaps a better way to state the matter is that I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t make a mistake typing in the equation, and if I did make a mistake, I didn’t trust that I’d be able to identify that I had made one. Those TI-89 calculators are powerful, but you still are typing mathematical equations in a single line, with lots of parentheses and “^” symbols for exponents, and the like. I didn’t like spending so much time verifying that I had entered everything correctly, and even then not feeling certain. At least when I pressed “Enter”, the TI-89 would display the equation in more or less natural math notation, which makes that a much better option than Excel. Nevertheless, I just always felt uneasy about that whole thing.

So yeah, I was a pencil-and-paper kind of guy.

The case for not making everything harder than it needed to be

When I was hired at PTC as an Associate Application Engineer for Mathcad, I had heard of the software, but had never actually used it. And as I began to work my way through tutorials and online training and such, I remember my first reaction was that I wish I had known about Mathcad in college!

With the natural math notation for everything, I wouldn’t have had to worry about whether I had entered my equations correctly. It was immediately so easy to see what I had typed and how it would be processed. And the units—the units!! I remember times when my Heat Transfer professor would assign homework problems that used U.S. Customary System units instead of SI, and he would just tell us to pretend the units were SI and calculate accordingly because dealing with the engineering unit conversions was just too much of a pain and a major waste of time. If we had been using Mathcad, that wouldn’t have been an issue.

Symbolics would have been useful for solving equations symbolically. Granted, for homework and tests, I needed to show my work. But I could have used Mathcad to verify that I had ended up at the right answer, which would have saved me some missed points due to the inevitable sign error that humans are prone to make in their calculations from time to time.

Writing papers and reports in Word and using that less-than-ideal equation editor was painful.  It seriously makes my stomach turn to think about how much time and frustration I could have saved by using Mathcad instead (with the huge added bonus of all of those equations being mathematically live)!

A letter to the department chair

I could go on, but the point is, I wish I had used Mathcad before it became my livelihood. To make my case, shortly after starting at PTC, I actually contacted the Chair of the Engineering department at my alma mater and suggested that he look into making Mathcad available to students.

Thinking about making your life easier with mathematical calculation software? Make sure you choose a tool that supports the specific math you do and allows you to centralize all engineering knowledge and design intent. Download our checklist Choosing Mathematical Calculation Software for the six decisions you should make when choosing software.