Day Three: Decrepitude, or, Old in a Young World
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I have three classes in a row from 9 AM on. Morning classes at the University of Maine run from the hour until ten minutes to the next one.
When you are an old, slow beast like me, ten minutes is not sufficient time to pack up your books and notebooks and such in your wheelie suitcase (and believe me, you would use a wheelie suitcase if your chemistry book weighed as much as mine), make your way out of one building, trudge across a large expanse of space, enter another building, find the room you want, and get yourself and your possessions squared away in a new space. Particularly on a gaspingly, sidewalk-softeningly hot day like today, you will find yourself dragging into class at X:05, despite not having dawdled in any way.
I’m not sure what can be done about this, if anything, apart from doing everything I can to arrange my schedule next semester so that I don’t have any adjacent classes. (I’m not sure that’s even possible, but perhaps it’s worth a try.) I accept that I am older, slower, and fatter than the timetable designers probably had in mind, but still, I can’t figure out how students with actual mobility problems can possibly manage it. The buildings my classes in aren’t even that far apart. The furthest I have to go is from Little to Dunn. God help me if I had to get from, say, Dunn to Nutting. (Those unfamiliar with the UMaine campus can get an idea of what I’m talking about from the campus map.)
Apart from creative hydration and involuntary tardiness, today’s core experience was the first of the ECE 101 lab sessions. Unlike my General Chemistry I lab, ECE 101’s lectures and lab sessions are all part of the same course, with the same instructor. Our instructor in ECE 101 wants us to call him by his first name; I’m old-fashioned enough that this goes against every dealing-with-teachers impulse I possess. So far I’ve escaped having to deal with the problem by avoiding situations in which I would have to call him by name. One of these days, though, I’m going to have to either bite the bullet and call him Andy, or cement my status as the ancient fuddy-duddy of the class by sticking with “Prof. Sheaff”, which is incorrect as he’s not a professor, but does at least err on the side of respectfulness.
Anyway, the ECE 101 labs are held in one of the old laboratory rooms on the top floor of Barrows Hall, the EE building since time immemorial, and there we all found ourselves – 16 of the 60-odd students in this semester’s ECE 101 class, our instructor, and three graduate TAs. Our task for the afternoon: get started on the semester’s project, which is building a little robot that will ultimately be asked to navigate a maze.
We’re building these from scratch, pretty much. I mean, we’re not expected to go out and mine the silicon, extrude the wires for the resistor leads, and whatnot, but we’re starting with a piece of perf board and moving on from there. Today’s session involved gluing component layout diagrams onto both sides of the board, fitting 64 Wirewrap pins, and starting on the soldering-on of the components, which was interesting, since most of us had never handled a soldering iron before, and at least one of us who had (hi) possessed a track record approaching “disastrous”.
Let me just make this part absolutely clear: There were 16 of us (20 if you count Prof. – uh – Andy and the three TAs) in a room on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building dating (I would guess) from the 1950s, on a muggy 95° day, soldering. Yes. This was one of the occasions when the comedy flop sweat never stopped coming. And let me tell you, it’s hard to work with any confidence on tiny electrical components when sweat keeps dripping on the table.
Now, here is a fact worth considering: When you have a class of 16 people, and you (as the instructor) direct them to break up into eight teams of two each without providing any sort of guidance as to how this should be done, you will inevitably end up with one team, all the way at the back, made up of the two shyest guys in the room, who find themselves together pretty much by default. So today that was me and a soft-spoken 20-year-old we’ll call Matt. (Matt hasn’t actually done anything that would call for him to be anonymized, but he also isn’t aware that he’s featuring in some old guy’s blog, so it’s only common courtesy.)
Yeah, I did say that. It might not seem like it on the Internet, where everyone’s free to be as big a loudmouth as they like, but I can be paralytically shy under the right conditions. I’ve more than once received poor marks for in-class participation because I didn’t like to make a splash, and I’ve always been an especially lone wolf in practical tasks like laboratory classes, on the premise that it’s more work, but at least if I screw up, the people around me will only learn about it after the fact. Sadly, there is no place in the modern educational context for lone wolves; Group Learning and Teamwork are in, especially in the engineering disciplines. I suppose that’s reasonable enough. Not many bridges or power stations get designed by one guy working alone in a darkened office at night. Alas.
Matt and I actually worked pretty well together, despite both being so reluctant to impose that we sat and quietly watched each other commit egregious mistakes rather than risk giving offense by pointing them out in time to prevent them. Perhaps as the semester progresses we’ll get more comfortable in the roles and stop that. And we only had to pry out two of the pins and replace them after soldering the wrong component to them, so that’s not too bad for a first attempt, right? (I was obscurely satisfied to notice that some of our soldered joints actually looked nicer than the one the TA did during his demonstration for us.)
We did make a little conversation toward the end of the three-hour lab period. It came out in a chat with one of the roaming TAs that Matt’s a computer engineering major. The two disciplines are slowly merging; in another 20 years there will probably only be “electrical and computer” engineers. Right now you still have to pull a double major to get both degrees, but even the straight-up EEs (like me) have to take at least one programming class and do a bunch more coding along the way in some of the others. Later in ECE 101 we’re going to have to do some C programming in order to make the robot work once we’ve built it. I grumbled that if I’d wanted to be a computer programmer I’d have stayed in computer science, I came to EE to get away from the damn things, and offered to do all the hardware on the robot if Matt would do all the programming, but I think he thought I was kidding. The TA certainly did, though he did sympathize with my loathing of programming and microsystems in general. We agreed that Victorian electrical technology was the high point.
Speaking of micro-, I discovered another drawback of being an elderly person in a course of study designed for those freshly ejected from high school: I can’t see anything as small as a resistor resting between two Wirewrap pins well enough to solder it on without coming away from the afternoon with a kinghell case of eyestrain, and it wasn’t just because sweat kept dripping into my eyes. (And that was with brand new glasses; I picked them up during my lunch break.) I asked the TAs if they had a magnifying glass and they gave each other dumbfounded looks, indicating that no one had ever asked for such a thing before, but now that I brought it up it would be awfully handy, wouldn’t it?
(Did you know that it’s against University policy for one student to provide any pharmaceutical to another, regardless of said pharmaceutical’s legal status? I didn’t, until I went to pop some Advil and asked – because it’s only polite – if anyone else wanted some.)
I’m still having my doubts that this is quite the right direction to be going in, partly because I still don’t have any kind of confidence in my math skills. Of all the classes this semester to end up doing in a vague, arm’s-length, correspondence-school-style fashion, it would have had to be MAT 122, wouldn’t it? Regardless, Friday is the Add/Drop deadline, so if I’m going to make any changes I’d better be about it. I foresee spending a good bit of tomorrow groveling around the online course catalog and playing Pauli Exclusion Principle Bingo with section times. What I have now represents the very best efforts of a very nice lady in Prof. Musavi’s office before the semester began, but perhaps other students have dropped things and opened up some fresh options now.
Oh. And I think I’ll be looking into getting something along these lines, particularly if I’m going to be doing any more soldering. Which I am, if I stay in this program or anything like it.
Tomorrow’s my day off, for values of days off that include doing a bunch of online homework and spending some quality time with the course registration tools.