My Hardest Week Yet

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As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been meaning to write a series of posts for my London trip with Annie Liu, and a post for my weekend trip to Skye, and there should be another one coming up for the Lake District… but I haven’t been able to even think about really anything outside of the two assignments I have due this week (they’re turned in now, thank goodness). Everything I’ve experienced this week has compelled me to reflect on another part of my study abroad adventure that I haven’t talked about yet – school.

I’m not here to rant about the challenges” I’ve faced at the university or the sometimes unfair-but-necessary difficulty of being an engineer. Nor am I here to add to the common myth that classes abroad as “easy.” Instead, I’d like to express my appreciation and wonder for this University – I’ve learned SO much and been intellectually challenged in each of my classes in their own way.

I’m taking four classes here in Edinburgh:

  • Numerical (Mechanical Design 2B)
  • Ops 2 (Unit Operations 3)
  • Cognitive Science
  • Medicinal Chemistry

I’ll start by talking about Numerical – which is the reason I’ve barely left my room this whole week. My numerical class has only two assignments for the whole year and one was due today. Our assignment was to design a truss-arch bridge using Matlab. This bridge had to span 8 meters across a canal and rise at least 1 meter for a span of 1.5 meters to allow the passage of boats underneath the bridge. We were allowed to select from three materials (steel, oak, and douglas fir) and needed to check that the bridge satisfied deflections and factor of safety criteria, then minimize our bridge design for cost and weight.

This was hands down the most challenging assignment I’ve done to date. I spent a collective 50 ish hours doing a literature review, creating functions in Matlab, writing a report, editing and troubleshooting… a lot of troubleshooting. I’m not sure if it was the time crunch (I should have started earlier), the fact that I’m not super great at coding, or the actual problem that made it difficult, but I feel SO on top of the world once I finished the report because everything just came together and it was SO great. Working on this project felt like doing a mini-research project and I loved that challenge.

Here’s a small taste of the bridge I designed and a map of all my functions!

 

Similarly, I had an assignment due in my cognitive science class, again programming based, and again relatively challenging, but again I learned the material at such a deeper level than I would have if I wasn’t challenged (starting to see a trend here?). You know those moments when you think you understand a concept and you KNOW you could definitely answer an exam question about it? My cognitive science assignments always call into question that confidence because it makes you realize that maybe, just maybe, you only understood the concept but not the TRUE basis for the concept? For example, the assignment we just completed was based on the concept of categorization its link to determining the meaning of words (have you ever wondered how babies figured out that mom means mom and dog means dog?). I thought I understood the concept of clustering “like” words together into categories, but my assignment pushed me to thinking in a different dimension in a manner of speaking. It had me thinking about what trends in clustering told us about the semantic space or the space where all words exist. I spent about 20 hours on this assignment, which is about half the number I spent on the first cognitive science assignment (getting the hang of things).

Here’s a snapshot of the assignment. Happy to talk more about this 1:1 if it sounds interesting because I find it fascinating!

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 9.52.29 PM.png

But Annabel, what’s so exciting about all this? You’ve just told us about two very difficult assignments that were so difficult you couldn’t think about anything beyond those assignments and basic human needs. Yes, this is true, and it was amazing experience. To dedicate oneself completely to thinking deeply, learning, and problem solving for whole week? It’s incredible. Akin to climbing a large mountain – all mentally of course – tiring, but fulfilling. Of course I had times this past week when I felt extremely anxious and couldn’t relax, or felt like I wanted to throw some things and just wanted it to be all over, but looking at final products of this week? Very very satisfying.

And this has me thinking about the American education system.   This is not the first time I’ve thought education, I also recently borrowed a few books about it as well, but specifically this week has me thinking about the merits of my education here in Scotland compared to my education at UT. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home university – Hook’em for life – but there’s always room to improve. Some things I’m particularly intrigued by at the University of Edinburgh:

The grading scale is different with a 30/100 as passing and 70/100 as an A. Since assignments are still up to 100 points, this suggests that assignment could be ~30 points more difficult than a similar assignment in the U.S. In other words, this grading scale suggests that a 70% understanding of the assignment still gets an A, and if we assume the standards for learning here are the same, it means that possibly 20% of the material is “extra challenging.” Of course I could be totally off base with my logic, but the idea of challenging students and giving them more space to rise up is really appealing. I believe people rise to the challenge they’re given and if we are constantly challenge throughout our education… think how much we’ll learn!

They ask you why. Why do you think you got these results? Why do you think it happens like this? What does this mean? These are all common questions in class and they’re not rhetoric. Students are expected to think about these questions and give an answer. By tying new concepts to fundamental students already understand (the answers to the why question), students learn and understand concepts faster rather than memorizing them.

Teachers are rated on teaching and this has profound affects on EVERYTHING in the classroom. Teachers here teach better, their lecture slides are more comprehensive, they are more engaging with their students, they solicit feedback, and overall their classes are more enjoyable. I have never found propane splitters to be more interesting because my Ops 2 teacher is just THAT good. Also interesting, it’s not uncommon for my professors to say “oh everything will be online and I’ve typed up a set of everything I want you to know… so I just want you to relax and enjoy the lecture.” Is that not the coolest?

Overall the difference between my education in Edinburgh and my education at UT seems to center around the preference for quality versus quantity. Education in Edinburgh prefers quality over quantity; most of my grades in my classes come from 1-2 assignments or exams and that’s it. Contrast that with the U.S. system of quantity over quality; we have assignments every week and multiple exams. While frequent revisiting and practicing of concepts definitely promotes memory consolidation, these assignments lack the depth and it’s my opinion that we need to both. We need frequent testing, like short lecture quizzes or problem sets, to rapidly test and confirm our learning and understanding, but we also need projects that encourage us to push our mental boundaries. Things we learn deeply don’t just stick, they become engrained, almost like a pair of lenses we can look through to understand the world.

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