Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Economics of Academia (Part 1)

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss a reader's question on the economics of academia. Essentially, the reader asks why can't we have 20:1 class ratios and lecturers being paid $100/hr and not worry about bringing in research money.

It's not an easy question with a short answer so expect a few posts on this topic. I start out by comparing those constraints to a typical community college model.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lesson Plans Down the Drain

Today, I thought I would be writing to say "Yay, I got a few lesson plans done so I won't be totally scrambling in my first few weeks". It turns out, last night, I found out my first Lab Module for my class, and first two lectures are completely wrecked. Plus, all my subsequent labs/lectures (which build on the first one), are all screwed too. I need to back up for second to give some context.

Part of the Lab Course I'm teaching will deal with data acquisition and signal processing. Currently, many of the students use LabVIEW but hate the interface. So, as part of the course, I was going to introduce them to Data Acquisition in Matlab, something I've been doing for the better part of 4 years (and talked about my love of Matlab here).

I wrote a whole new lab based on using Matlab as the data acquisition and data manipulation environment. I made fancy pictures, charts, snippets of code, etc. Then, last night, as I was working on my lectures to compliment the lab, DrWife had a great idea. We were giving NanoGEARS a bath and she was playing with some rattling toys. As she was shaking them, the pitch (obviously) changed when she was loosely holding it versus tightly holding it or when it was underwater. DrWife suggested that would be a great classroom demonstration. I could tie in damping (via water) or adding stiffness (holding tighter). And, because it was audible, it's much more interactive than just showing sine waves to the students.

I could use Matlab to acquire the signals, analyze the signals in the Fourier Domain. Add filtering, etc. So last night, as I was trying to acquire a simple audio signal with Matlab [using instrhwinfo('winsound') ], all hell broke loose. It turns out, in the new x64 version of Matlab (R2011a) only CompactDAQ devices are supported!?!?!? WTF? So all that legacy code that I've built up over 4 years is entirely down the shitter. So none of my sound examples will work using the standard code (now called legacy interface). And basically any DAQ card you purchase from NI, Agilent, or any other vendor won't work. CompactDAQ devices are such a small part of the possible hardware spectrum for data acquisition that this is a joke.

And the beauty of all of this is the computer lab at SnowU just fucking upgraded to x64 Matlab R2011a. So none of those computers can use Matlab to acquire signals with the data acquisition toolbox. Basically, I've planned 5 labs around using a used-to-be-mainstay piece of software that now is completely worthless. Now I have to scramble to make new lectures and a new lab manual centered around LabVIEW (another worthless software).

I've emailed, I've called, I've posted on the forums but I can't get any response as to when Matlab's going to fix their problem. And it is a fucking problem. Researchers want the new x64 Matlab because it supports 8+ GB of RAM, meaning much higher computation rates and memory. But for researchers dealing with instrumentation, like me, I also first need to acquire the fucking signals!

I would love to rant more but I have lectures and labs to redo. Fuck!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Freshman Advising

One of my service tasks that I am scheduled to do this year is freshman advising. At SnowU, they take freshman advising very seriously, whereas I'm not so crazy about it. I mean, apart from the social transition (and that can be a bitch for many students), the actual academic advising portion should be straight forward.

In engineering, unlike the Arts, students have to take 96% of their classes within their major (or general engineering). In other majors, you could have as little as 30% of your classes within that major (think Anthropology, History, or Communications). The one think about Mechanical Engineering that is so nice is you have this great little chart that says "Oh look, these are the 4-5 mandatory courses you have to take. No room for electives." Your decision is already made for you.

As incoming freshman, they don't know this, which is where I guess I come in. And I know things can get more difficult when you factor in skipping classes for AP Calc and Phys, etc. but even then it's not that hard.

So all in all, this shouldn't be so hard. But if you dig a little deeper, there's definitely a flaw with me advising freshman students. It's the blind leading the blind! How am I supposed to advise them on a graduation track that I don't fully understand yet?!? Yes, I should be able to get up to speed very quickly and this will help me get used to the curriculum. But still, I feel like these freshman will be like "Oh yeah, well my advisor doesn't know shit because he just started working here."

Any thoughts/advice/words'o'wisdom for me?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Writing in Style

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss how I love sketching with my fountain pen and how my colleagues think I'm weird for doing so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Procrastination to the Nth Power

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss Procrastination to the Nth Power which is a combination of procrastination, deadlines, perfectionism, and biting off more than I can chew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Don't want to write, don't be an engineer

I apologize to my readers for being such a slacker. I've managed to keep up with my Engineering Blogs posts but my own posts have been seriously lacking. I've had a quasi-political BS thingy at work that forced me to submit for a different request-for-proposals with a closer deadline (and less money!!) than I really wanted to. In the midst of working on that proposal, I got asked to talk to a prospective undergrad about our engineering program since everyone else is basically taking the summer off, so it seems.

Two thoughts came to mind while talking to Prospective UnderGrad (aka, PUG!). 1) did I really start looking for colleges during my junior year of HS? I know I didn't visit any (lack'o'$$$) and I don't think college crossed my mind until senior year. Probably, the really smart kids in my HS started then but I was not in that group. Anywho, thought number two is more important.

PUG was nice enough to mention a few Unis he was considering and visiting. I tried to stress the focus and direction of SnowU and why I decided to join them, hoping to convince him and his mom that SnowU would be just as good as the other fancy-shmancy schools they were considering. For you Oatmeal readers, I definitely focused on using a modern sales pitch. One of the things I mentioned to PUG was that he should expect 100x more writing that he would ever believe possible.

I think my line went something like this: "I know you're very interested in building stuff but you should also expect to write, a lot. Basically, if you don't want to write, major in English or Literature or History but don't major in engineering." (I also went on to say that this is true at any university, not just SnowU.)

So, this was me trying to be Sincere, Helpful, and Knowledgeable. Now, I know I reached PUGMom because she appreciated me being forthcoming about the expectations of UG engineers. She said of the few schools they already visited, everyone else focuses on the "cool, hand's on stuff" like Baja, labs, and ASME projects but no one mentioned writing. I focused on those things too but I said I wanted to make sure he was fully prepared to enter into engineering and know what the expectations were.

So, do you think it was stupid for me to lay it all out there for a high school junior that engineers spend just as much (if not more) time writing as they did building cool shit? Were you told this before you entered into engineering? What are the odds that he'll actually come to SnowU? Any takers?