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How to approach school?

  1. Nov 25, 2008 #1
    Hi, I'm in my first year of engineering. To my disappointment, I've found that my curiosity to physics and math have died down over the weeks. I feel like I'm learning everything by rote - getting decent grades but not really understanding anything. The real learning comes from studying in the holidays. I hate it.

    Richard Feynman used to criticize this kind of studying. Einstein said it's a miracle curiosity survives formal education.

    Should I take a lighter load and study thoroughly? Do I have to compromise somehow?

    Please share some experiences.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 26, 2008 #2


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    Absolutely take a lighter load. You must achieve understanding of what you study or not progress. A lighter load means YOU HAVE MORE TIME TO STUDY.
  4. Nov 26, 2008 #3

    It's absolutely true that most engineering/science/math courses end up moving through content too quickly to give students a grasp of conceptual understanding or appreciation of the application of the processes being studied (in the standard formulation of content) to processes in the natural world or in the design of technological innovations. If you look at the required curriculum, professors usually have to move at least one chapter per week. It takes skill and experience to learn how to navigate that without reducing the course to rote... both on the part of the professor and the student.

    So here's my advice:
    1) Talk personally to upper-level students at your university (in your degree program or related degrees, and students that you know and respect... perhaps honors students) to discover which professors might be the best to take. I generally looked for the professors that were considered difficult but worth the added effort because they were excellent.

    2) On your own end, read the material and start to work through examples and problems in the text before class sessions. This will allow you to have some familiarity with the material so that you can listen for the interesting things the professor says in class... and ask questions about the material (either in class or afterwards, during office hours etc.). Note that for every class it's generally the case that you should be putting in 2-3 hours of study per week for every credit hour of class (so that being a full-time student with 12- 18 hours of credits should be a full time job, if not more!)... often you should really be putting in MORE than 2-3, if you're really working (school was at least a 60-80 hour week for me at times!)​

    Even so, sometimes it takes years to really gain insight into concepts and really understand them, and if you want to get though a degree program in a given amount of time, you sometimes just have to (sadly) slog though. :frown: Appreciation and understanding should develop more and more over time, and this development should never stop, as long as you maintain your curiosity. What I'm concerned about now is that you do state you are losing your curiousity. So, my advice on this front is that you should try:
    3) To sometimes look at simple texts: like introductory concept texts or materials (ex. Bloomfield's "How Everything Works" etc.) and demonstration guides (like Mr. Wizard's things or The Exploratorium notebook). You can find cool demos to try online, and some science museums have good websites. Sometimes the most interesting things can have the math removed... and you can think about how to model the math (ex: ask yourself: Why do race cars have spoilers, and then how would I calculate the force generated by the spoiler... what variables would I need to know?).

    4) To build something complex. I've been most recently fascinated by online guides to building cheap vacuum pumps (although I haven't done it yet due to time!). I've known students and colleagues that have built tesla coils, robots that track their paths and avoids objects by sensing, etc. Building provides a LOT of conceptual understanding, as you have to design and surmount hurdles!

    5) To do outreach or tutoring. This actually makes TEACHING fun (getting to find new resources for my class and generating new problems for students)... perhaps it might help you keep your curiosity if you do some outreach to students at lower levels. A professor at our university in the department of education surprisingly has a great link to engineering here and gets students to volunteer tutor at local high risk schools. I didn't do this as a undergrad, but I was on the tutoring staff at our university for science and math (covering all chemistry, physics and math topics)... it often made me develop better understanding as I had to review and work through concepts that I hadn't experience for a while... asking the tutored students to first explain what they were thinking to me, then working through possible misconceptions! Oh yeah -- you can also dabble in tutoring online here! :biggrin:
  5. Nov 26, 2008 #4
    Keep in mind that physics and engineering, like all pursuits in life, require a huge amount of unexciting work.

    I do not mean to say that physics is boring, but for many courses you are investing in your understanding. It will pay off later.

    Consider, for instance, how many hours you needed to learn to multiply two integers, surely without exciting physical examples!
  6. Nov 26, 2008 #5


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    Sometimes the danger of lightening the load is that you also have more time for other things as well. I once lived with a political science student who took only three courses per semester so he would have more time for video games.

    The trick, in my opinion, is to stay ahead of the class if that's at all possible. Based on the syllabus at the beginning of the term you can read ahead of the lectures so that you're not seeing material for the first time in the lectures. Try some sample problems. That way you will have relevant questions on hand and will be able to pay attention through material you find specifically challenging.

    This isn't easy. For example, dedicate one hour every day to reading ahead. Do it first thing in the morning. If you have five classes that day, you have 12 minutes per class. Scan through the relevant chapters. Try a sample problem. Look stuff up online. An extra hour may seem like a lot to ask, but you'll likely find that you can solve assignments faster, and you'll understand the material a lot more.

    Good luck.
  7. Nov 26, 2008 #6
    Spread your four years over five. Take Calculus I/II, Chemistry I/II, and all of your general education classes the first year.

    Then you can start your "real" freshmen year with a greater understanding of the approaches taken in your Physics classes, you'll have Multivariate completed before taking Physics II, and extra room for electives in your senior year.

    This will also expose you to a greater amount of varied material your first year. Philosophy along with "Soft Sciences" like Economics, Psychology, and Sociology will really build a foundation and appreciation for the rest of your schooling.

    I suppose it depends on your learning style as well.

    Most important is to go at YOUR pace, and not the one rough-cut for everyone. If you aren't learning then you aren't learning... and that needs to be addressed. From my perspective, I think that having a head start (completing Calculus I/II) develops a system of thought and slightly higher degree of maturity that makes other material (such as physics) much more approachable and more easily absorbed.
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