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Thread: Life Lessons in Engineering

  1. #1
    Supporting Member rgsparber's Avatar
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    Life Lessons in Engineering

    It was the Fall of 1969 - Union College, Schenectady, NY. I was lucky. Didn’t think so at the time. My goal was to be an Electrical Engineer but I found myself in a Mechanical Engineering class taught by a demanding Professor Panlilio. Strength Of Materials was commonly called a “weeder” class because Freshmen were weeded out of Engineering by such classes. The material was hard. The homework pushed us to the breaking point. Besides, I had no passion for this field.

    The first gift I received from the Professor came as I finally figured out a particularly difficult concept. The breakthrough came around Midnight on a Saturday. A blindingly bright lightbulb came on for a tiny bit of knowledge. It took a lot of work for me to arrive at this understanding and the value of that experience transcended the material. I had learned that I could face a complex problem, keep trying, and could figure it out. In other words, I was learning how to learn.

    While my first gift arrived in a quiet room late at night, the second gift from the Professor was in class and was piercing. He had a shrill voice that became louder when an important point was being made. We were given a crazy hard problem to solve. Crazy, as in, where do I even start? Most of us just stared at the problem with a pathetic blank look. A few had horror in their eyes. Our collective trance was broken by words that I have grown to treasure – “Assume something!”

    Most of the students experiencing horror dropped the class. But for some of us, those pathetic blank stares transformed into furious ciphering. We had learned that it is far better to strike out in the wrong direction than to not move at all. Being on the wrong track is enlightening. You can recognize where you are which will help you see where you need to go.

    The class never got easier yet did become increasingly rewarding to master. One of the final exam problems was particularly memorable. I wrote 4 pages of equations. My answer was wrong yet Professor Panlilio gave me almost full credit. Why? Because he was testing my mastery of the two gifts. The exact speed of a fly relative to the ground as it was crawling up a pencil that was pivoting in a circle was just a means to that end.

    Professor Panlilio passed away on July 27, 2017. His gifts live on in the countless students he inspired over the decades. May he continue to live on in you.

    Rick

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    Rick

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    Supporting Member Crusty's Avatar
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    For me it was Professor Olsen, the smartest person I've ever met (scary smart in fact). He was my instructor for junior level classical mechanics. Our mid term exam was a three question take home exam that we had a week to complete. I'll never forget the second question, which was to write equations of motion for each of three hockey puck weights of different weights, connected in series by three springs of different spring constants pulled to a certain point and released on a frictionless surface. I used to swing by the computing center and pick up stacks of discarded large format printouts for doing my work on the backside because it was free and I remember that it took 11 pages to answer the second question alone and the entire exam took 23 pages. It wasn't anything to write home about but I passed.

    I'm convinced that I passed senior level Electromagnetic Field Theory because I shared a recipe for an easy oven baked chicken casserole with Professor Michalk, which he and his wife really liked. There were two questions on the mid term in that class and I had a brain freeze on one of them and all I could write was the fundamental equation, and making a 50 (at best) on the mid term should have been the kiss of death for that class.

    The single most important thing that I learned from them was to always go back to first principles and begin making order of the chaos from there.

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    If you can't make it precise make it adjustable.

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    Supporting Member mklotz's Avatar
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    "In other words, I was learning how to learn."

    That remark certainly struck a chord, Rick.

    In college it quickly became obvious that, in four years, they could never teach me everything I would need to know to function in the real world. Some pondering on that depressing fact led me, like you, to the flash of insight that I was there to learn how to learn and the real value of the courses was to provide a ground for that learning. Since then I constantly watch for learning generalities (like your "fail fast") that can be incorporated into my personal learning knowledge bank. I regard it as the most useful aspect of my intelligence.

    Many of my colleagues disagree with me, but I contend that a good part of understanding "how to learn" can be formalized and taught. A semester length course in the first term of the freshman year could vastly improve the college experience for anyone studying a technical subject. Yes, everyone has to tailor what's taught to the peculiarities of his personality but that's just another aspect of learning to learn.
    ---
    Regards, Marv


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    For me the saying was, "Learn how to think not what to think." The class was p-chem, quantum chemistry. Dr. Estler, who by the way caught and reported an error on "The Big Bang Theory" and was invited to come to a taping and meet the cast all expenses paid, gave us a final exam with a single question having to do with atmospheric chemistry, an area we never touched on. We were given a week to solve it, were allowed to ask any question of anybody, open any book. It took every ounce of thinking power I had. He says I passed the question, though I still don't know how.

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    These are all things I wish I understood in full, deep down when I was still in college. Life has taught a few things scene then, like learning "how to think" ( thank you Robert Bob Jessy Beardo Mahardy)

    One of the techniques that I have learned to use when stumped, even if just where to start when cleaning up a big mess or something far more complicated, is to find a "point of leverage", a fulcrum if you will. Perhaps a "known" that is assumed will not change, or anything too broken will be thrown out. I guess it is my way of breaking things down to make them seem manageable.
    Last edited by suther51; 04-13-2020 at 08:45 PM.

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    Learning to hardwire simple logic/timing circuits..... to take that ' leap of faith ' when you realize that to make the circuit count properly you have to start at the end then go back to the beginning to go on....thinkbackwards.

    In other words. Knowing where you want to end up will lead you down the path better than following the path wherever it goes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by neilbourjaily View Post
    For me the saying was, "Learn how to think not what to think." ...snip
    This is exactly the problem in most educational environments today. They have this exactly backward!!!!!! They are trying to teach what to think, instead of HOW to think.

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    Supporting Member rgsparber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hemmjo View Post
    This is exactly the problem in most educational environments today. They have this exactly backward!!!!!! They are trying to teach what to think, instead of HOW to think.
    I can't speak to "most educational environments" but there is a lot of pressure to "teach to the test". I am extremely fortunate to teach a class where the only test is reality. If what they build works, they pass. If it doesn't, they... learn from their mistakes. If they don't try, they fail.

    Rick
    Rick

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    Quote Originally Posted by thinkbackwards View Post
    Learning to hardwire simple logic/timing circuits..... to take that ' leap of faith ' when you realize that to make the circuit count properly you have to start at the end then go back to the beginning to go on....thinkbackwards.

    In other words. Knowing where you want to end up will lead you down the path better than following the path wherever it goes.
    There's also a concept that you learn in Calculus class called Delta-Epsilon proofs than can be a way to solve seemingly insolvable problems. You start in the normal manner working from the beginning towards the solution until you get to a point that you can proceed no further. Then here's the key, you go to the anticipated end result and start working backwards towards your previous stopping point and if you can reach that stopping point then you've completed the proof of an otherwise insolvable problem. Reading the completed proof from the top down for the first time, it seems like FM (freakin' magic) but it wasn't. This concept can be broadly expanded to solve real world problems.
    If you can't make it precise make it adjustable.

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    I remember an engineering test (all of ours in college were open book) where there was a long description of a motor driven system, frictions, efficiencies, etc. At the end it wanted to know the max cooling that was needed.

    The motor power was given up front. Cooling can't be more than the motor power. Done.

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