Thursday, October 11, 2007

Some starting thoughts on SparkEs

Rant #1: (subject = grandmother) (direct object = me) (verb = fuss). Gah.

Rant #2: Installing and configuring Trac is like running a marathon through the woods. You know you start at A and end at B, and that the distance as the crow files is finite and not-that-bad, but the path keeps doubling back in weird loops until you have no idea how long it'll take, you're getting tired... and then THE ICE WEASELS ATTACK. I've done it a few times before in the past few years, but it's taken inordinately long each time (I'm finally taking notes this round) and it's... not my favorite thing to wrestle with.

So, yes. Content. Poorly structured and organized as usual. Ah, braindumps.

I'm convinced that we need a primer titled "What the heck does a SparkE do." There are many people in the world that haven't the foggiest idea what the (not-so-mystical) art of Electrical and Computer Engineering actually is. This isn't their fault or their shortcoming - it's our fault for not adequately communicating what it is that our field is for.

But if we don't do that, how are they going to know what we can do? And if we don't do that, how are we going to get more people - with their different talents and perspectives - to join us?

Disclaimer: I don't know what the heck a SparkE does. Heck, I'm not sure I barely qualify as one myself (despite the piece of paper that claims I can "BS my way through Electrical and Computer Engineering").

If you don't come in with some background in what you're studying, you can wander around in a haze for years because you don't see the big picture. I know this because that's how I spent most of my undergraduate education.

I spent most of my undergraduate education in a haze because I am a masochist. I chose my major (yes, ECE) with a dartboard and decided to stick with it because it was the degree that I knew the least about and thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how I could learn how to learn something I hadn't heard of before.

The answer, by the way, was "not very well." However, I did learn how to learn electrical engineering. I also learned how to learn, so thrown into a similar soup in the future I think I could flounder better next time - and in fact am doing so now.

But what I'd put in a document like that is what I wish I'd been told 4 years ago, and it goes something like this:

0. Engineering is not about doing lots of math or building shiny machines. It's about solving problems.

1. Electrical and computer engineering is about making things communicate. Whether they're circuit components, a wall outlet and your PDA's power port, bits of computers, computers, people (using technologies that you've made - cell phones, for instance), the point is to do whatever translation you need to do in the middle in order to get things to talk to each other.

2. To make a grand understatement: Electrical and computer engineering is a huge field. And I mean jaw-droppingly huge.

3. It's fun! This was a huge surprise to me. I totally didn't expect to have this much fun.

4. Hypothesis: there is a peculiar state of mind called "SparkEness" that ECEs enter at some point that gives them a peculiarly SparkE way of looking at the world (and fixing ECE-related things). It's kind of like... electric satori. (Younger SparkEs may have occasional experiences of kensho.)

It is very, very easy for SparkEs to forget that not everyone has had the same revelations, and that in fact most people are staring at acronyms and spaghettilike diagrams in terror while muttering the single debugging phrase available to them: "It doesn't wo-orrrrk."

The common explanation is that these people are "stupid" and that those who become SparkEs must be "really smart." This is not true. (Proof by counterexample: I am a SparkE.) It's just a different way of thinking about stuff that's hard to switch into if you're not used to it. Native English speakers have a tough time learning Mandarin, but that doesn't mean native Mandarin speakers are smarter than native English speakers. Same deal.

It's that last point that I find elusive and hard to clarify and explain... and hopefully, eventually, teach - or as John Holt would say, "t-each."* And it's that last point that's become the driving purpose of my life over the years; helping people slip in and out of different ways of thinking as they wish (especially technical ones, particularly those related to electricity and computers).

*T-eaching is turning your student into an obedient robot: follow this formulae, do this worksheet, clean the board, yes ma'am. In contrast, t-eaching is helping your student learn how to become her own master. The job of a t-eacher is to make herself obsolete.

So there are some thoughts, and my brain's swimming in them now between projects. Wonder what will come of it.

2 comments:

Andy said...

5. They don't sleep much.

>> (Proof by counterexample: I am a SparkE.)
Please. You are one of the smartest people I know. Don't lie to yourself.

Sumana Harihareswara said...

I was about to say a very similar thing. Come on. Self-deprecation is useful when you're an authority figure in a hierarchy; it reassures your subordinates. But there's no need to reflexively put yourself down, especially right now.