Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Summer plans - the unedited version

Couches are surprisingly comfortable places to sleep. A bunch of us crashed in the Foundry's lounge under flimsy blankets this morning, warmed largely by the fireplace and the jackets we were wearing. I woke up this morning to the sound of people leaving for class and Dan Cody trying to tug his power cord from under the couch cushion I was sleeping on, rolled off the couch towards the fire, and spent a happy half-hour learning a new text editor, reading about startups, and typing this post.

I like being migratory, being able to live with my work, with those I work with. I like being able to set my schedule, my deliverables, being beholden first of all to myself. Ironically, I think I'm more productive that way, measured by the amount of things I'm able to produce for other people. Maybe I'm a natural wanderer. Or maybe it's that I need to pare down on responsibilities, that new places are good because I'm slightly unburdened when I get there, and I keep running from place to place so obligations don't build up so fast.

Either way, this summer will be an interesting experiment; I'm going to try to go the entire time without a "real job" (as defined by the parental units) and see if I can eke it through on odds and ends. I know I can at least survive, because my aunt needs a house-sitter and their pantry has far too much food (and $200 is more than sufficient to buy enough calories for 2.5 months and I definitely have that). Then probably get an actual internship for the fall to bulk up the savings before I head off on my trip around the world in Jan. or so.

Ah, yeah. My post-college plans. I need to type them up better so I can formally announce them, but the nutshell is that I'm taking "time off." I've been saving for the last three summers to be able to do this. I am going to have no money whatsoever afterwards (ok, a few thousand bucks I've put in my retirement fund that I will never touch unless I need a heart transplant and can't afford it or something dire like that), but it's going to be worth it.

I'll be buying a round-the-world ticket and visiting engineering universities around the world. I want to see the different subcultures of engineering education - you learn Maxwell's Equations whether you're in Shanghai or Colorado, but the way you learn them, the reason you learn them, how you use them - the culture, the pedagogy. I'm hypothesizing that each school and each country is different somehow in the way it shapes and trains its engineers, and I want to see if that's true and how the students turn out differently, if they do at all (and if they don't... well, then why?) How do they train engineers in India? Is that different from how they teach them in Japan? Does this make a German engineer work differently than an Australian one? Is the demographic of who becomes an engineering student different in Russia than in the United States? Can we use this to get a better understanding of how to train engineering students in general? Can we figure out how to make engineering education more accessible to everyone who wants it?

Broad questions, I know. That's why I've got to finish that research proposal - so I can make sure that I've got a good chance at getting useful information to start answering them.

President Miller says I should write a book. Sherra Kerns thinks I should take a road trip and visit universities across the country first to get a baseline of different American institutions. I might do that, if I can find a way to get a car since my brother gets the Camry when he goes to college. Or I can convince myself that biking is sane - it probably isn't, but the romance of the idea is compelling enough for me to have a hard time shaking it.

Better announcement coming soon, since I promised my profs that I'd be able to tell them something shortly and I need to turn my hack of a proposal into a nicely digestible one-pager so I can give something to the people who keep asking me what I'm up to. But in any case, that's what I'm working towards, and I'm going to go as soon as I'm convinced I've got enough money to see it through and enough background learning to do it well (I will leave no later than my 22nd birthday, to put a deadline on things; that's May 2008).

Any suggestions for engineering colleges to visit? Classes or professors to see? Countries to hit, pedagogical techniques to watch out for, things you're curious about related to the way engineers are trained? Companies to talk to? I also want to talk to companies about how they perceive the way engineers are trained, and to pre-college students and their parents and teachers to see how they view engineers, how and why they prepare themselves to study engineering if they do at all (but that's a a side bonus, a much smaller component, and my focus is on engineering universities themselves).

This is going to happen, but the details of the plan are subject to change. This is the rough draft of what I've got, what I'd tell you if you asked me what I was doing right now. Working towards making this reality. (Actually, I've been working towards it for the last 2.5 years. I only just got the courage to start telling people this semester.)

Right then. Broke my spacebar last night trying to demo to a Wellesley student how keyboards worked. Time to hit IT.


L33tminion said...

Or I can convince myself that biking is sane - it probably isn't, but the romance of the idea is compelling enough for me to have a hard time shaking it.

Bike! Down with cars! On a practical note, avoiding owning a car is a really good way to save money.

L33tminion said...

Also, I don't know if Japan is on your grand tour, but if you end up there before mid-July, be sure to visit me in Tokyo.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've thought about this already...

... but I would recommend starting very small. In doing work like that, I've always found that the first site you visit/person you talk to/experiences you have totally change how you think about the project. If I were you, I would take some time before the semester ends to wander down to BU or MIT and sit in on classes there and get a feel for what's going on. I suspect that will really shape your plans moving forward.

Sounds fun! Good luck!

Mel said...

Sorry, Sam - I'll hopefully be getting to Japan during the trip, but won't be leaving until late August at the very earliest (probably several months later, at least). Hope you're having fun in Tokyo, though!

Anonymous, that's a really good idea. Thanks! I'm trying to sit in on classes at other colleges this semester, and it's interesting to see the differences in campus culture (although the sample sizes are way too small to draw any conclusions on, and I don't yet know how to observe classrooms properly... but practice is good).

Along the same note, one of the strangest (to me) things I'm learning about social science is that it's okay to change your experimental procedure throughout the experiment. Normal, even. Actually, it's pretty much expected for the beginning of an experiment - your first few interviews at a location, and so forth... setting up and testing your instruments (not sure if I'm using the right language to describe this here).

It's a very different way than how we're usually taught to think of experiments. It's neat to see how sociologists, anthropologists, and other social science researchers have dealt with what you mentioned - that the first sites/people/experiences totally change your perspective on something.