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.

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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!

The Beginning

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Four months ago, my emotions overwhelmed me, creeping onto to-do lists and hijacking one of my blog posts. Today, I confront many of those same emotions, on the tail end of my adventure, truly the journey of a lifetime. As much as I attempted the contrary, expectations latched onto my luggage, and I arrived in Denmark hoping to leave with a handful of new passport stamps. Within a month of my arrival, I was hygge, at home, comfortable, and satisfied.

To offer some serious perspective, hygge is uniquely Danish, the word, the meaning, and the usage. In English, the closest translation is ‘cozy,’ but hygge also encompasses the feeling of a social environment, of comfort, and of the love and joy of family and friends. My tattered copy of Lonely Planet’s “Denmark” devotes a whole paragraph to the word, describing:

…hygge refers to a sense of friendly, warm companionship of a kind usually fostered when Danes gather together in groups of two or more (although you can actually hygge yourself if there is no-one around). You don’t have to be lifelong friends to generate a hyggelige evening… hygge implies shutting out the turmoil and troubles of the outside world and striving instead for a warm, intimate mood. There’s no greater compliment that a Dane can give their host than to thank them for a “cosy” evening….

So you see, hygge is rather tough to idealize in a simple English phrase, but knowing I felt this sense of hygge, I easily reconsidered my unintended expectations and opted for quality enjoyment of several countries rather than a fast-paced preview of everything.

I feel busy. I’ve just packed every material item of my recent life, plus dozens of gifts, cleaned my room, and said several tough goodbyes to some very close friends. Okay, okay, I’ll be cliche and call them “see you laters”. Within 24 hours of my arrival in the United States, I’d opened most of my Christmas presents with my family, and within 48 hours, Christmas Day was entirely over. Realizing that junk has gradually collected and consumed my material life, I’ve spent the last week purging my bedroom at home in an attempt to elevate the quality of what I care about. Lesson 1: quality over quantity.

I feel hopeful. Experiencing so many new ideas and methods, meeting new friends from across the world, and holding conversations with such diverse perspectives gives me hope. The world offers so much discovery and I’ve only begun to sample its offerings.

I feel nomadic. Once again, I’m ‘home’ but between residences.

I feel supported. Throughout the past four months, I’ve been aided by new and old acquaintances, friends, and family, in person, by Skype, by email, through the mail, and in thought. To these people, tusindtak, or 1,000 thank yous! Lesson 2: allocate your gratitude.

I feel premature. Is this adventure really over?

I feel pregnant. Simply because I ate so many Danish kager and then came home to the holiday smorgasbord of food. Note, smörgåsbord is actually a Swedish word.

I feel static.

I feel infinite. For the first time in my life, I know exactly what happened with the time that has passed recently; I enjoyed it. There are no questions of “where did time go” or thoughts of
“time flew by”.

I feel conclusive.

I feel anxious.

I feel ready.

I feel open.

I feel dramatic.

I feel complete.

The New Kid in Town

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Believe it or not, in 48 hours I will be arriving at Terminal 3 of the Copenhagen airport to indefinitely say goodbye to Denmark and my life of the past 4 months. It’s been three weeks since I gave a complete update, but I’ve certainly been busy exploring! After returning from Berlin, I finished my regular lectures on December 1 and welcomed an American friend at the airport the following morning. I’m fairly confident that JP fell in love with Denmark even quicker than I did. Perhaps it helped that I’ve become a Danish ambassador of sorts and I exposed him to several of the Danish pastries with his luggage still in hand.

Over the past few months, I limited some of my activities and sight-seeing in the Copenhagen area knowing I would have a sidekick for adventures. Thus, when JP finally arrived and settled in, I knew that 2 weeks would easily be filled with fun.

Some of the things we enjoyed and visited:

  • kages (otherwise known as Danishes or pastries) – I challenged JP to a fast-paced version of my goal to try every type of kage.
  • We took a bike trip through Dyrehave (the nearby deer park) and along the Øresund (the body of water between Denmark and Sweden).
  • With Christmas coming, we both shopped for gifts for friends and family. Okay, so we shopped for ourselves too.
  • Swedish tomte (troll) hunting – not real trolls, but equally hard to find
  • Of course we had to cook and eat! The Danes were quite intrigued when we brought home the template for a gingerbread house one evening. According to National Geographic, we tried one of the top 10 ice creams in the world at Vaffelbageriet. We also dined in Copenhagen’s oldest restaurant, Apotek, or The Little Chemist.
  • We visited Tivoli, the world’s second oldest theme park, which is known for ornate Christmas decorations. The park offers rides and food, as well as gift shops and mini Christmas markets representing various areas of the world. If you remember, Bakken, the oldest theme park is about 5 km from my room, just on the edge of Dyrehave. Bakken is closed for the season.
  • Of course, a tourist’s trip to Copenhagen wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Little Mermaid, who never fails to disappoint with her size.
  • museums – Danish Design Museum, Frilandsmuseet (Danish WWII Resistance Museum), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
  • New Copenhagen tour – just as I did in Berlin, we joined a tips-only tour of Copenhagen, which even exposed me to several new sites and stories of the city.
  • Although we have IKEA in the States, it feels special visiting the store in Scandinavia, knowing the concept and designs originate from nearby Sweden. Plus, they have Swedish meatballs.
  • We enjoyed visiting nearby Malmö , Sweden, despite the absence of people. The streets were rather empty compared to Copenhagen. The response when we asked for a recommendation for Swedish food: “What’s Swedish food!? You can go try the meatballs at IKEA!” Nonetheless, Malmö was a fun afternoon adventure following one of my final exams.
  • One of my Danish friends also invited us to join her and her classmates at a hockey game in Sweden. We took a few trains, a ferry, and a bus to get there, and had a blast experiencing the fervor of the Swedish hockey fans.
  • Frederiksborg Slot – not too far north of Lyngby and Copenhagen, there’s a beautiful sixteenth century castle/palace.

Over the course of JP’s visit, I felt myself take on the new role of Danish ambassador. (No, I don’t mean the pastries, although I think I’ve nearly completed my mission to taste every type of kage in Denmark.) Previously to December, I’ve had very limited interaction with other Americans, and I’ve been representing the States to all of my other friends. Conversations frequently discuss the customs and practices of our home countries. I’ve recently learned that the Danes don’t really have many formal manners; there’s no way to say “excuse you” and it’s not very common to say excuse yourself when pushing past someone. But I digress.

With a new American in town and that American being my guest, I played host and Danish encyclopedia. I frequently pointed out variances and challenged JP to make connections between various social systems. Do you know why they have holes in some of the coins? For people with poor vision! Do you know why there are bumps on the sidewalk with changed textures at street corners? For people with poor vision! Despite the fact that these bumps are on nearly every public sidewalk, I’ve surprisingly never seen them being used. Unfortunately, I don’t know everything about Denmark, particularly the language. Although I now speak quite a bit of Danish, I often found myself pronouncing a word and then telling JP not to listen to my version of the word. Remember, my friends are some tough Danish teachers.

All in all, JP and I both had fantastic experiences during his visit. He’s told me that he already wants to come back and I immensely enjoyed sharing the information I’ve retained since my arrival at the end of August. Although I alluded to my final exams, I feel like it’s important to summarize the academic courses, which I’ll do in the following post.

Quick Update

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I’ve spent the past two weeks adventuring through Copenhagen and the surrounding areas with a visiting American friend. In playing tour guide and trip planner for my friend JP, I realized that in the past four months, I’ve become not only an ambassador of the United States, but also of Denmark. Sadly, his return to the States marks one week until my departure and the culmination of my study abroad experience. I have one remaining final exam, then a few days to say goodbye and return home just in time for Christmas. I know the end will be bittersweet.

Surely, I’ll be writing more about my final weeks in Denmark in the coming weeks and as I return home. In the mean time, make sure to check out the updated photos in the blog section titled “In Pictures: The Best of Fall 2011“.

Read one view of the English/Danish language barrier:

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