The Mark of the Jandal

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Beyond the Bubble

One of the strangest/more challenging thing for me here is being in groups where most people are not engineers. It is strange for me to think that I have spent the last 12 years more or less surrounded by engineers --- analytical types who have been conditioned to solve problems. The last five years of that was spent in graduate school. This is an environment where one chooses their words carefully because vague statements and hyperbole leave a person open to a verbal assault. Being the argumentative type, I enjoyed this environment. It left me with an appreciation for understanding a problem from various angles and choosing words that were the most explicit or exact.

Being an engineer has its drawbacks also: Antisocial tendencies coupled with never being sure where to properly place apostrophes and commas. Really though, an oncologist that I worked with in grad school frequently mentioned literary figures, artists, or musicians I'd never heard of. When I'd say "whose that?" he'd commonly reply with some variant of "do you ever get your head out of a book long enough to see what's going on around you?" There is a bit of truth to this. I remember working out my schedule as an undergraduate and noticing that we had six credits --- two, three-hour classes --- of electives.

I asked one of my professors about the lack of electives and his response was simple and pragmatic: In order to fulfill the requirements of ABET (the engineering accreditation organization) and graduate students in four years we didn't have the time for many electives. Speaking as a chemical engineer with my small sample size at the University of Arkansas, many of my fellow students were from lower to middle class families. Education was not just a way to keep ourselves busy for four years. Rather, it was a means to elevate ourselves economically. People willing to put in the time and effort at school could obtain well paying jobs with decent benefits.

What relevance does all of this have on my stay here in Samoa? Being plucked from a community of scientists --- (not just engineers) people who are very logical and practical --- and placed in the Samoan/volunteer community really makes me appreciate the incremental changes in my thinking which have occurred over the last decade.

Most problems have solutions which can accommodate constraints (physical, sociological, economic, etc.). Sometimes these problems are easy to solve. For example, when buying a new car there are hard constraints: how much money one can spend initially, recurring costs, seating requirements (family of five), automatic transmission, etc. There are also soft constraints: safety ratings, how nice the car looks, etc. On the other hand, many problems do not necessarily have clear solutions (e.g., the Israel/Palestinian conflict). To many people, problems exist in the latter category where they should/could in the former. The dilemma is being able to approach a problem and systematically break it down into manageable chunks.

This is one place where education, especially graduate school, has really helped me. When I am posed with a problem, I almost always fall into a process where each step logically follows the next. Possible solutions are eliminated until I'm left with a set of possibilities which require some qualitative assessments to be made in order arrive at a final solution. There are of course drawbacks: trying to explain new concepts that I am familiar with to people who have never seen the material before can be really difficult --- you know the primary responsibility of teachers.

I'll start out working on a lecture, say teaching protein structure (chemical and 3-d) to the students. I think to myself, this should take five to ten minutes at a maximum. As I start preparing the lecture, I come to the realization that this is a pretty abstract concept for people who have never seen this before. These are the good days --- coming to this conclusion before class. A few classes have come and gone where I realized that the last twenty minutes of class were a blur and the students did not have a clue as to what I was discussing. I try to talk to the students outside of class to probe them for what they understood. They are too embarrassed to say so in front of the class, but they will give me enough information personally to let me assess what they got from the class.

After what I will call the bad classes, I'll start the next class off by asking probing questions. This will give me a better assessment of what they picked up from the last class. If it's really bad, I'll whip out a set of notes with different and hopefully better examples. I've retaught at least one entire class and I've redone the majority of three classes. The good news is that I'm getting better at this. A challenge here is that I don't really know the students background that well. It's a balance: trying to keep them from getting bored with material they are already familiar with and not moving at a speed they cannot follow. Of course, I speak too fast also.

Dealing with the volunteers poses it's own set of challenges. When I deal with the students I approach them with a couple mental guides: they are fairly young academically and they have a different background. As an example, these guides limit analogies I can use when explaining to people and I'm not as anal about phrasing they use. When I start talking to the other volunteers, I sometimes revert back into the academic mode: statements should be precise and correct (the Bobs would be proud), overreaching or illogical statements should be called out --- it's almost habitual at this point. I'm sure I come across as being very aggressive, and I've probably rubbed a few of the volunteers the wrong way. Heather could no doubt sympathize with some of them, and that's why they are probably so easy to meet her.

When I told my grandmother (on my mothers side) that I was going to grad school, she told me that I needed to grow up and get away from "that school environment". I thanked her for her opinion, and went to grad school. I doubt joining the Peace Corps is what she meant. However, her argument did and still does have merits which I'm starting to see a little more clearly.

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