Saturday, March 18, 2017

Winter 2017 Recap: Academics

This quarter has been one of the most challenging I've ever had. I feel as though I've grown a lot, although I don't know if that's actually true. Can I point to any one thing that is different about how I move through the world now? I feel more solid as a person, more capable. My confidence in my leadership has increased a lot. Some of the old hunger, which didn't exactly leave, is back--the hunger to do all the Silicon Valley buzzwords--disrupt, innovate, etc. I still don't know what I want to do once I graduate but I am on a path to find out.

At the same time, I am incredibly fatigued. I'm writing this on Saturday after dead week, going into finals week, and let me tell you: I did nothing productive yesterday. Absolutely nothing. As a consequence I have a boatload of stuff to get done this week, especially today and tomorrow, but I just could not work yesterday. My way of life is unsustainable, and the only reason I've been able to get through this quarter is because I am young and in good health. This can't last. Thankfully, this is the only quarter in which I'll be taking five civil engineering classes.

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Ricochet - Starset

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Things I learned from my classes this quarter:

When you take five classes, you can't put enough effort into each one as they deserve. Still, I got quite a lot out of my classes this quarter. An increased urgency that things need to change and change fast: the environment is not going to heal under the BAU case, and the way we do things now is beyond screwed up. Energy efficiency is good, it makes economic sense, it improves quality of life--there's just so much low-hanging fruit here. The construction industry is ripe for change, both in the practices and processes of how things get done and in the mindset we bring to buildings. Rome fanatic that I am, I have been more and more trying to keep an eye on infinity. I want to build things to last, I want to build systems that are resilient, that can sustain themselves hundreds, thousands of years into the future. This is what I mean by the old hunger: I am asking myself, more and more lucidly, what do you have to do to die satisfied?

At the same time, I am more and more impressed by the value of and need for a deep and broad body of experience and empirical knowledge. My legal aspects of engineering class resonated the least with me, but still--the law has a long history, different contexts have different interpretations of the same words, and the answer is always "it depends." Our professor told us up front not to look for information on the internet because we didn't have the experience to parse out what is and is not relevant, what could and could not apply. I don't buy that 100% but I do think that the more I learn what I don't know, the more I see why it's dangerous not to know that.

On a more tangible level, in my concrete class, most of the equations we use are empirically derived. There's a lot of respect for empirical methods, for empirically derived results. We cast and tested concrete beams and cylinders, and despite all our imperfect workmanship, it all behaved beautifully. This was my favorite class, partly because it felt the most real, partly because the instructor is someone I've already worked with for various extracurrics, partly because the way the class was taught emphasized understanding principles and processes. And it was the class in which I felt I could ask good questions, which actually furthered my knowledge.

I took a CEE elective that I've been waiting to take for two years, and it was...not actually as awesome of an experience as I'd built it up to be. But the lab--the lab was great. The professor is something of a legend in the department, having taught the class for decades, and is always driving toward the most up-to-date information, towards innovation, towards "hacking"/reverse engineering standards, to taking things apart to figure out how they work. This class went a little farther along the spectrum between rigor and empiricism than concrete, past my optimal point--that is, sometimes it feels like I'm pushing equations around without understanding the physical significance of each term, which I categorically do not like.

Overall, although I've been put through the academic grinder this quarter (will my GPA survive? To be determined), I feel more and more certain that civil is the right track for me. The problems that civil engineering seeks to solve are the problems that I seek to solve. I've been hanging around architects more often this quarter and as a consequence have been thinking more about how people interact with the built environment, how huge of an impact it really does have on people's quality/way of life. I feel, more strongly than before, the power and potential we have.

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I'm going to lump my extracurrics in this post as well, because they're all civil anyways:

Grad students are hard to lead. We are really behind on organizing things for next quarter. Industry people don't seem to care much what you learn in school, yet they will present things that are very complicated and hard for a lay person to follow, which makes me think that their academic knowledge is just so ingrained that they don't realize anymore how specialized the knowledge is.

My competition team has been much more of a growth experience for me. We did very, very well at competition across the board, and some choices I made as captain certainly helped get us there. Of course I made mistakes too, but I'm happy with my overall strategy, i.e.: giving people responsibilities and encouraging debate and differing opinions. I can't think of everything and I don't know best. I'm less self-assured than the previous captain but I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing, because it makes me more cautious, it makes me double-check, and it means that other people on the team get more of a voice. There's also a difference between effective delegation and not doing work and I definitely put in my share of work. But giving people opportunities to succeed, giving them opportunities to earn praise and recognition, is good. I'm much more about positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Still not sure if thanking people for their work means that they'll be less inclined to do it (because it seems like "above and beyond" to do anything) or if they'll feel appreciated.

We had a grad student advisor who actually did stuff this year, and the expertise he brought was very, very valuable. We also got feedback from professors on our presentation, which strengthened it a lot. Rely on people who know more than you do. Even busy people often enjoy the chance to be a mentor, to provide guidance.

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With my deeper immersion in the major, the question of my future has come into sharper focus. Structural engineering or sustainable construction? I think that structural engineering would be more intellectually fulfilling to the part of me that remembers how good it feels to understand a math concept and feel it fit into a deeper framework of knowledge. It seems higher, more abstract, more rigorous. But at the same time, I want to work on real problems. The problems in the industry don't come from not having good enough math, they come from misaligned incentives and skewed priorities and bad processes.

I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I will be working this summer for a construction company, as hands-on as it gets without actually being in the trades. I'm hoping to gain a lot of insight and clarity from that.

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Second post coming after finals about the non-academic stuff that's been going on this quarter.

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