This Blog Is Now a Book!

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This Blog Is Now a Book!

In August 2013, I published the content of my blog in a book – text, pictures, and all! Check it out.

Compare and Contrast

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I’ve been back in the United States for nearly 2 months and I’ve completed 6 full weeks of courses back at Rensselaer. Despite the passage of so much time, I still struggle to truly understand what makes my Danish and American educational experiences so unique.

Upon returning to school, after four full weeks at home, I was inundated with emails, events, training activities, assignments, and meetings, in addition to trying to find time to catch up with friends. After all of my careful planning, my efforts to continue my enjoyment-of-life streak came to a standstill; I’d describe my American college lifestyle as an appropriate reflection of our American way of life: fast-paced, busy, and “on-the-go”.

Academically speaking, it seems like we want to squeeze everything in, whereas Denmark gave me an inspiration to spread everything out. Americans enter college with the preconceived notion that they’ll spend 8 semesters studying courses and then earn a diploma. Toddler sized onesies claim “Harvard Class of 1999” to establish the pace of our educational experiences from an early age. Of course, like with any generalization, there are exceptions, but on the whole, Danes take a much more relaxed approach to completing their education.

In many cases, the Danish students I’ve met only have a rough timeline for completing their school work. Without the pressures of high tuition and unsupported costs of living, gap years are commonplace before or during a Danish university education. In case your memory fades you, I’ll remind you that Danish students are supported by 5,000 DKK (~$800) each month for up to 6 years during their education. This allows freedom to sample several fields before settling on a discipline, as well as time to adequately gain skills for a career.

I’ve been utterly perplexed in juxtaposing my educational experiences from the perspective of knowlege/information, testing, and assignments. Whereas I completed an oral exam, 2 midterm exams, 1 midterm project, 2 midterm reports, and 3 final exams for my 4 courses in Denmark, in the first six weeks back home, I’ve submitted 3 written exams, 4 design projects, 10 quizzes, and roughly 20 homework assignments. In addition to the absence of breaks during lectures (the 1 minute when my Modeling & Control professor continues writing notes does not count), the information push of my engineering courses can be overwhelming to the degree that I question the effectiveness. Lately, a major question for me has been, “do students actually KNOW what they are LEARNING, or is an education simply more blasts of information for our Internet-saturated generation?”

Perhaps it’s clear by now that I’ve developed some thoughts based on my educational experiences. I’m actually beginning to analyze the effectiveness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curricula for one of my courses in order to provide advice for developing graduates who are more qualified to work in the professional world. With time, I’m sure more ideas will come, but for now, I’m left wondering why we teach and attempt to learn the way we do.

Earlier I suggested that our learning styles are a reflection of our social pace, and I’d like to support that idea with some more examples. On your lunch break, is it your priority to enjoy your lunch, or to get ready to be somewhere else? When you see someone and ask “how are you?,” how long and hard do you listen for your friends to confide in you? (Our tendency to blindly ask about and ignore our friends’ feelings drives the Danes crazy!) At the grocery store, do you dart your eyes along the shelves searching for familiar items, or stroll down the aisles contemplating ingredients for a new recipe and opening your taste buds to new foods? And in the morning, when you wake up, is there anything more important than your decision to make today one of the happiest and most enjoyable days of your life?

For me, I’ve come to realize that “stopping to smell the flowers” implies a speedy trip past the garden of life; however, when you create a habit of building these flowers into your routine, you’ll build a connection with a small country in the North Sea, and in return, meet the happiest people in the world and a handful of friends to last a lifetime.

Danmark, jeg elsker dig. Denmark, I love you.

Teachers, marks, and “making assignments”

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Okay, so I cheated. I didn’t cheat in regards to “Teachers, marks, and ‘making assignments,'” but I back-dated the last post after I finally added the pictures and posted it. My last few days in Denmark were filled with festivious goodbyes, outings, and dinners, leaving little time to write any conclusions about my days in Denmark. Now that I’ve safely made it home, celebrated Christmas (Jul) and New Years (Nytar) with my family, I’m finding time to leave some parting words.

Of course, I didn’t sort, organize, and pack my life in three different directions, catch a plane to Copenhagen, and rent a room at a university just to experience life in a foreign country; I went to Denmark through a study abroad program. With this idea in mind and all of my courses complete, it only seems reasonable that I include a few words about the study part of the experience. Most of my perspective, of course, comes from comparison to my American education.

I took four courses at DTU:

  • Tuesday mornings 8:15-12, System Safety & Reliability Engineering (System Safety)
  • Tuesday afternoons 13-17, Heat Transfer
  • Wednesdays 9-12 and 13-17, Technology, Economics, Management, and Organization (TEMO)
  • Thursday afternoons 13-17, Introduction to Micro-Mechanical System Design and Manufacture (MicroMech)

In most of the DTU courses, teachers limit graded assignments to just a few formal examinations. As you may recall, I had an oral exam in TEMO just before the autumn holiday; after spending several weeks preparing group solutions to four unique case studies, we were individually examined on our understanding of one case, selected randomly. In the oral exam, we had one of the course’s instructors and an external representative to collaborate and assign a grade/mark. With over 1,000 international students (out of about 6,000 total students), oral exams can be stressful for some non-native English or Danish speakers, but for me it was a relatively stress-free presentation of my initial experiences in TEMO. For the remaining 6 weeks of the course, we worked in the same group to present a solution to a specific company’s situation. Our teachers did not mandate any required working hours, but we typically held to the assigned course hours on Wednesdays and utilized a few of the many functional group meeting spaces that are spread across DTU’s campus. Halfway through the project, we presented our preliminary ideas to the company and our instructors to receive feedback. In the end, we’ll be graded on our group report (20 pages). The grade from the course will be a combination of the oral examination and this large case study.

With the exception of Heat Transfer, all of the courses I took had multiple instructors. Heat Transfer had one professor and a masters student to assist in explaining the problem solving. In each of the other courses, the course usually had one lead instructor, a team of administrators to organize the course, and several other instructors. The idea behind multiple teachers is that each can present the material that they have the most experience with, offering an expert’s overview into each topic in the course. Even with changes on a weekly basis, this system worked extremely well. In TEMO, the course of about 300 students was broken down into 6 individual classes, with 2 teaching assistants each. The teaching assistants helped us work through the case studies and challenged our thought processes to produce the best results. They also mediated some instances of group disagreements, but mostly for other groups. Each class had 8-10 groups of 4 or 5 students. Another noteworthy point is that in all cases, the teachers fully expected us to refer to them by their first name only. Mia. Eimantas. Søren. Niels. Igor. Nijs. Frank. Masoud. Hans. Giuliano. All first names. Never “Doctor,” “Professor,” “Mister,” or “Misses.” This idea created a clear platform to be comfortable communicating with the teachers, in and out of the classroom. Although there were always cases when no student volunteered to answer the teacher’s question, I never felt intimidated by my instructors.

Heat Transfer offered only one exam at the termination of the course. In Heat Transfer, probably my most challenging (and boring) course, the exam allowed 4 hours to complete 4 problems , which were based on the material that we learned over the course’s 13 weeks. We spent the last lesson reviewing and completing past exams to understand the format. In each of the other sessions, Masoud spent the first two hours mumbling over new material and Raja joined him in the last two hours to help us solve material-specific problems from the textbook. For an unidentifiable reason, these lessons bored me to no end, and I often went home after the lecture to work on the problems on my own. In the end, I studied most strenuously for the Heat Transfer exam, but considering I hadn’t completed all of the problems during the course, I earned my work. I felt confident that I passed the exam, although my solutions lacked perfection.

MicroMech also offered just one final examination, in addition to two intermediate written reports, submitted during the semester. I selected “ball nose micro end mills” as my report topic. According to the requirements, the first report filled 10 pages and covered the object’s critical features, materials, uses, and suggested improvements; I struggled to find adequate information for the second report, which required information about the processes for designing and manufacturing my “ball nose micro end mill”. The instructors will consider each of these reports for our final course grade, with no specific weighting. The final exam consisted of technical drawings for two different components, with a variety of questions about designing and manufacturing each. In the two allotted hours, I wrote non-stop, filling almost 7 pages. In this type of manufacturing-process design course, concrete answers don’t exist, so we’ll be graded on the feasibility and appropriateness of our proposals.

The structure of System Safety combined elements from all of the other courses: several instructors with intermediate and final assignments. I really enjoyed the material in this course, which offered conceptual and statistical perspectives for understanding safety, risk, and hazards for design in a variety of technical fields. The lectures rarely consumed the entire morning, but we typically had comprehension questions to answer and sometimes example problems to solve. Immediately after the autumn holiday, we had an exam covering the first 6 lessons in addition to the submission of a case study. For the case study, I worked with two Italians, a Lithuanian, and a French girl to study the hazards associated with a hydrogen refueling station. We worked together to analyze the case, but individually contributed pieces of the report. Also on the day of the exam, we had to present a short, un-graded summary of our case. Several weeks later, we had a second intermediate exam covering the next few chapters. In the end of the course, the surprisingly long exam included 13 questions with multiple parts. I didn’t have time to fully answer every question, but with solid marks on the previous assignments, I felt extremely confident about understanding the course.

All in all, my courses at DTU were far less stressful than a typical course at most American universities. The teachers challenged each student’s capabilities at a reasonable level without micro-managing and evaluating weekly progress. Essentially, I had a responsibility as a student to track my own progress and prepare for each exam. However, a significant difference as part of the study abroad “experience” is that passing the courses at DTU earns me credit at my home institution; the grades don’t impact my GPA. Of course, I put forth my best effort on each assignment, but I felt relieved to not stress about earning the best possible grade. Simultaneously, I never noticed a competitiveness to beat the student in the next seat in any of my courses. Everyone just wants to learn and understand something new, and did we ever learn!

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