Monday, April 25, 2011

New Car(s) Dilemma

Test drove a new 2012 Civic Sedan. Drove nice, nice dealer but visibility is baaaad. I have to sit way back due to my height and the beam between the windshield and side windows is huge.

Also, I wanted to drive a Focus to see how it drove next to the Civic, but the dealer was a psycho. Never leave your real phone number on an internet car dealer form. They'll call you all the time. I'm scared to go into the lot.

Between an Outback and a Forrester, the Outback clearly wins. Getting a nifty rearview camera on it.

As for the second car, oddly enough it's tied between a Subaru Impreza or a Chevy Cruze (that's the odd one). The main tradeoff is a bigger engine and AWD in the Impreza vs gas mileage and cheaper sticker for the Cruze.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fantasy Curriculum: Physics is OK (for the most part)

My delusions of grandeur with my fantasy curriculum continue. Yesterday, I discussed how I would change the math part of the curriculum. Today, I'm tackling physics. If yesterday was a blindsided, no-holds-barred tackle, then today is more like a two-handed-touch tackle.

Physics really isn't a major issue for most ME curriculum. Probably, most programs have two physics classes, one on basic physics (equations of motion, etc) and another on electromagnetic theory and maybe optics. My basic physics class was ok but I would have liked to see the math stuff tied in a little more. For instance, yesterday I stated that I didn't get the relationship between derivatives (vel, accel, jerk, snap, etc) in math. I only heard about them in physics. I'd like to see that link strengthened significantly.

The bigger issue I had with basic physics was the EM theory part. Rather than rant and say all physics is terrible, I'm going to chalk that up to a terrible professor (RMP has literally 1.5 stars for ~140 ratings). Out of 100 students, there was a total of 1 physics major and my guess is this prof didn't like engineers.

Aside from the prof not appearing to care, EM theory can be taught from too high a level. I mean, do young engineers really care about the derivation of Maxwell's equations? No. That doesn't mean they're not important (they really are!). But that doesn't mean you should waste 4 classes with endless derivations to get 4 equations that are in every physics book.

This brings me to my only issue with physics. And it's basically the fundamental difference between physics and engineering. Physics is all about the journey to the answer and understanding those concepts that get you there (ie: endless pages of derivations). Engineering is all about using tools that are in a toolbox to solve a problem. The method and end results means two different things for engineers and physicists. Thus, there is some source of disconnect would could be improved.

If I explain it in higher terms, an Engineer with a 2% error away from their initial assumption would say "I'm good to 2%". However, a Physicist would back correct their initial assumption by 2% to reach the goal of 100%. In physics, it seems more about your initial hypothesis whereas in engineering, it's all about how far you are from you're desired target.

To me, it seems that engineers and physicists talk about the same things but there's a miscommunication. For engineers to really grasp physics concept though, physics needs to be explained how an engineer would think and then slowly build into more physics concepts. If you don't do that, you risk a complete miscommunication between both parties and the education level will decrease.

I'm not sure you'd make a complete overhaul to the physics concepts discussed, rather, the teaching style should be addressed. Maybe only seasoned Profs who knows the quirky differences between engineers and physics should teach it, or maybe someone totally green should do it to see if they can come up with something better. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fantasy Curriculum: All out assault on Math!

A few weeks ago (7 eons in internet time...) I posted on Engineer Blogs a snippet of ideas for how I would change the mechanical engineering curriculum. This mainly focused around one thing: have all ME required courses taught by ME faculty. It's pretty simple. If you're a ME student, you probably have ~120 hours of ME degree courses that you need to take. If they're all not taught by ME faculty, you're getting shafted in your education. That's just my opinion. However, it seemed from the initial comments that there's bunch of people that would like that.

In my original post, I picked on a few non-ME courses that I would like to see changed. Today, I'm going to specifically discuss the Mathematics and Statistics curriculum parts of a typical ME program and how I'd like to change them. I realize I'm totally biased and haven't had a good math teacher in college but I'm also going to assume I'm not alone in this boat.

The biggest reason for swapping math profs for ME profs is the application of the math. When you're in a math class (even math for engineers) it's always math for the sake of math. I took a graduate math course called "Advanced Applied Engineering Mathematics". There was never any actual applying of the math. Engineers don't care about math just because it's math. They want to use it. If you don't have examples of it, you're talking to zombies. Math prof's don't give practical examples. However, ME profs can.

This brings me to the second biggest reason for changing profs. Math profs want to teach math students who think like them and approach problems like them. ME profs want to teach to ME students who think like them and approach problems like them. It's pretty simple and basic but it doesn't make sense. And ME profs are as qualified (if not more qualified) to teach engineering math courses because they use it on a regular basis.

Most universities have the math courses front-loaded before the ME courses. A better approach is to actually teach the math in the same course where it's applied. I'll give you an example. One of the basic things about derivatives (and 2nd derivatives) and integrals is the relationship between position, velocity, and acceleration. I don't ever remember hearing those three words in my basic calc classes. That's a shame. Probably these concept should be taught as part of the basic physics course.

Now, rather than rant forever, I'll try to discuss some constructive things. I'm going to assume a student needs the following math courses (some universities may vary)
Calc I
Calc II
Calc III
Diff Eq
Linear Algebra

For Calc I and II, I'd combine those into one course called Engineering Calc. I would keep derivatives, integrals (only shorthand methods), partial derivatives, equations of motion, and complex numbers/conjugates. Everything else, deep six it. You're not going to remember it anyway and if you need it later, you can learn it later. Also, I would hack down Calc III and Linear Algebra and combine them into one class called Multivariable Calc. You can only take some much of vectors intercepting a plane is space for so long before you kill yourself. And when you're talking about multi-variable problems, it probably good to introduce some matrices.

Statistics, I would kill completely. Totally useless course except for the first 2 concepts you learn about standard deviations and distributions. Everything else in the course was of the theory of statistics persuasion which is useless for UG engineers. Instead, I would tack that on to a lab course. I'll go back over this when I talk about chemistry.

Lastly, Diff Eq. Wow, words cannot begin to express how much I disliked Diff Eq. However, it is needed for Fluids, Vibrations, and Heat Transfer so it has to stay. It depends on how the curriculum is set up, but I think most students take this during their Sophomore year. Instead, I would pick whichever class needs it and shows up first (say Fluids) and have it co-taught with that class. This way, you'd take 6 hours of Diff Eq and Fluids but the profs would have to work in tandem. I know it's tough but we're trying to get the students to learn more useful information.

I think the math curriculum can be trimmed from 18 hours to 9 hours with some supplemental stuff added to a few courses. That frees a lot of space for other courses. I'm slowly building to my complete Fantasy Curriculum. Over the next few days, I'll tackle some more subjects. Thoughts on my assault on math?

Monday, April 18, 2011

There's no place like home

Ok, my blogging hiatus from moving is finally over! I'm back on US soil and it feels very good to be home. I can understand the language here, you know what to expect at stores, and prompt service is back.

Before the memories fade into oblivion of this move, I thought I would share with you my thoughts on international moving. Some of these may be tips, others rants, but hopefully there is some good information in there for anyone looking to relocate internationally.

Before the Move
  • Get a big plastic folder with dividers. That will help you keep track of everything. If you're moving with a family, household items, and pets, you're going to need to keep track of passports, flights, hotels, rental cars, shipping container, other mailed packages, copy of your (and significant others') work contract, pet vaccines, residency information, etc etc etc. There's sooo many papers and you will need to keep them handy. Make sure to travel with that in your carry on baggage.
  • Decide what absolutely need and what can come later with the rest of your household goods. Remember, even if you check extra bags, you'll still have to lug that stuff around. Between two adults, one NanoGEARS with stroller, and three animal crates, taking 3 checked bags and four carry on bags is a lot. If you can do with less, try to do so.
  • If you're traveling with pets, book their ticket(s) early and repeatedly call the airline to make sure they have a spot. You don't want to be stuck at the airport waiting for a flight and there's no seat for Fido. Also, take spare treats, food, and litter with container if you have cats. That can add a bunch of weight to your checked bags.
  • Check the weather at your new location to make sure you bring appropriate jackets. Going from 70 F to 30 F climate is completely reasonable in April, so it happens. SnowU was aptly named as we had two days of flurries when we arrived.
During the Move
  • Have as much patience as possible. You're going to be traveling, dealing with changing time zones, cranky partners, kids, animals. The more stress you make for yourself, the more it's going to aggravate you. These things compound on each other.
  • Get to the airport way early. Like 3-4 hours early if you're traveling with pets. Also, if you can have a friend with you to help with luggage, that's a plus. We would have been so screwed if we didn't ask a fiend. We had no way to handle it all plus watch a baby and animals. We arrived 3 hours early and made it to the gate 15 minutes prior to boarding (20 mins before takeoff). Animal check-in (at 3 locations!) plus excess baggage check and passport control can add a few hours.
  • When you land, make sure to have money in the local currency (dollars in this case). I didn't have any and didn't have time for an ATM (don't ask why...). A very friendly homeless guy actually ended up helping me (common for this airport) and I would have tipped him $20, but all I had was about $6 in quarters for tolls. Let's face it, international moves are expensive. The added $10 for expensive currency exchange is water under the bridge at this point.
  • Taking an international flight, then hopping in a car and driving 7 hours (across a major city during rush hour traffic) with 1 dog and 2 cats in the car can be done. Very dangerous, and I don't recommend it but it can be done. A better option would be to crash at a Motel 6 for 2 hours, then drive. Even if you're not staying for the night, $60 on a hotel room is still water under the bridge.
The Day After
  • This is where traveling with a pad of paper and pens is handy. Start making lists for everything you'll need. If you're solo, it's not so bad. If you have a family and a little one, you'll need to be very efficient in getting groceries and other items and still let NanoGEARS nap and snack when she wants.
  • Immediate things you're probably need: Phone (preferably mobile), Food and basic household snacks, dishes & utensils (paper or GoodWill), a few pots and pans. If you're living in a short term rental (as we are), it's probably not too clean so you will need cleaning supplies, possibly a vacuum, laundry detergent, dish soap, etc.
  • Try to get into a routine as soon as possible. Yes, I know you're tired but that doesn't mean you should sleep all day. You're only delaying the inevitable.
Other Thoughts/Comments
  • Food: Waaay more choices and waaay more expensive here than in Europe. Both good and bad. When you don't have those choices, you don't spend as much. At the same time, you miss having choices. Resisting the urge to splurge on every vice you've missed for the past 4.5 years is hard!
  • Customer Service: I'm sorry Europe but it's waaay better over here.
  • Rental Cars: If you have a dog that sheds, bring a lint roller with you. If not, it may cost you 220 euros for them to vacuum the car. It's a ridiculous charge and bullshit but you've got a plane to catch and no time to run to a garage to vacuum it.
  • Paperwork: There's a lot of unnecessary fat in it in the US. Maybe it's me, but signing 9 different forms for a place that you're only staying at for 6 weeks is ridiculous. Our sue-happy culture sucks. I'm going to miss Europe in those respects.
  • Apartment Complexes: Have no idea how to layout a kitchen properly! I love cooking but it's not going to be pretty in this thing.
  • And lastly, there's no place like home.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Busy with Moving

I am currently preparing for my move to SnowU. I hope to continue my posts about my Fantasy Curriculum shortly, however, I wouldn't expect daily updates. This should all be over in about a week or so.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

Abuse of Power

If you've been following my twitter account (@profgears), undoubtedly you've seen a flurry of tweets about student expectations, terrible advisors, and politics of publishing. This stemmed from GMP's post the other day over at Academic Jungle and DrugMonkey's post on the subject clearly in GMP's camp. DrugMonkey's post heading The Care and Feeding of your PI: a tip for grad students and postdocs should tell you all you need to know about their position on the matter.

I clearly disagree.

As a grad student, you're not there to serve a professor at their beck and call. As a professor, you're not there to wipe the nose of your students. Both should have expectations and duties that are clearly laid out. I've already discussed this a few weeks ago. The professor (or PI, or whatever you want to call them) is supposed to be the student's professional mentor. The prof is supposed to be the student's guidem helping transition from a student to being a autonomous researcher.

This clearly breaks down when there is a lack of communication between both parties. For instance, the prof expects the student to publish as many papers as they can before graduation. But you'd be surprised how many students don't know that and how many profs don't tell their students that. So you have a prof that's expecting paper drafts and a student wondering what to do with their data. The student tries to schedule meetings but the prof has little time to discuss it. Months go by. Still no paper. There is increasing frustration on both sides.

Inevitably, a downward spiral happens and things turn to shit. The prof did a bad job of mentoring their student, yet from the prof's perspective, their student is a slacker. The prof thinks their student isn't working enough and so the student gets even less time than the minuscule amount the prof already gives them. The student gets frustrated because their mentor and career guide doesn't respond back to them and now the student starts worrying about graduation deadlines and whether they are even going to get a recommendation.

At this point, both are in the wrong because they didn't communicate with each other. But the professor is always in the power position and it should never be abused. And it sure sounds like some Profs/PIs do abuse that power by holding graduation and recommendations over their students' heads. Those are the same Profs/PIs that are supposed to be mentoring their students. That's a terrible situation to be in if you're the student because the one person you're supposed to go to for advice is giving you shitty advice and guidance. In the odd chance that student makes it to the next level, how likely is it for them to mimic their advisor's behavior? I say that's highly likely and I sure as hell don't want to be that kind of prof.


On the topic of publishing and who gets coauthorship, it's very hard to describe in 140 characters. My general feeling is this. Anyone who contributed to the writing, data gathering, interpretation, and oversight should be a coauthor. However, everyone one of those people should be capable of writing a significant chunk of the article. That doesn't mean only the person who wrote the article should be the sole author.

Here's how you test it. Ask each person if they could write the draft. If someone says they could probably get 60% of is done, that's fine (that's a significant chunk). If they said 10%, they don't belong as a coauthor. That's what the acknowledgements section is for.

In practice, most groups aren't that strict because everyone needs more papers to be considered successful. But if I adhered strictly to that, I'd be missing my prof on every paper. And for me, when I'm in that same situation, I want to be involved enough to always pass that test. Otherwise, I would and should expect my student to submit it without my name on it because I haven't contributed enough. But if it comes to that point, then there's obviously something else going on in our advisee-advisor relationship and there's a bigger problem at hand than coauthorship on a paper.