On Probability/Statistics Education for Electrical Engineers

I am talking a course in random variables and stochastic processes this semester as a prerequisite for a communications systems theory course I want to take next semester. Why is it a prerequisite to communications systems theory? This course in random variables and stochastic processes aims to teach spectral estimation and signal detection, which is of course important for understanding how receiver technology works. Essentially, it lays the foundation for some of the theory in communications systems. The course description for this course is as follows:

Probabilistic descriptions of signals and noise, including joint, marginal and conditional densities, autocorrelation, cross-correlation and power spectral density. Linear and nonlinear transformations. Linear least-squares estimation. Signal detection.

Before starting the class I was looking forward to this course initially, but my confidence wavered as I flipped through the textbook for the course. The first half of the book looked boring with pages and pages of integral equations and abstruse mathematical notation. Ugh! Double integrals! Stuff I’ll never use and quickly forget after the course is over.

Yet the last half of the book on stochastic processes looked very interesting: statistics, spectral estimation, entropy, and Markov chains and processes. Perhaps there would be hope after all, and the course would focus on the application of probability theory and random variables to real-world engineering problems?

Unfortunately though, the textbook is quite poorly written, introducing concepts but providing no real justification or rationality for why any of the material really matters. Instead of explaining things, the author points to complex equations or mathematical expressions. The book has numerous examples, yet the examples skip steps and make all sorts of assumptions that are not clearly explained. Why is such an equation used? What led us to use such equation? The book, and the course as well, are in such a frantic push to get into the heavy meat of the course that we just blast through distribution functions and random variables, not stopping to examine anything, ask why or how, or even put into perspective the importance of what we are learning.

The textbook, and the course that follows this book, instead focuses on performing calculations. Never-mind discussing the material and its application to the world around us. Instead we shall perform calculations and show how clever we can be with algebraic manipulations with the problems at the end of each chapter. Lets just do some calculations and call that learning and mastering material. My greatest frustration with electrical engineering education is the focus and obsession with performing calculations. I wonder how Computer Science curriculums cover this material?

I shall stop ranting. I will get through this class because I have to, but I don’t have to like it. I am hoping the will improve. I’m going to find a supplemental book to hopefully gain more of an intuition for this subject material. I’m also going to learn how to do the calculations with MATLAB, because if I’m ever to use this material again, it will be with the help of MATLAB or R.

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