03 November 2006

Certifiable? Indeed

The final exam for Fundamentals of XXX Engineering is scheduled as a three-hour ordeal with some wiggle room before lunch for those who might "need a little extra time."

The instructor warned us that the first part of the test would be closed-book covering a particular diagram he handed out on the first day of class. "You might well find it useful to memorize that diagram," he said several times over the course of the week.

I have this "thing" about memorization. It cost me a couple of letter grades in chemistry, because I just never quite saw the point of memorizing a chart that I could just as easily hang on the wall over my desk and refer to it as needed. If you use something day in & day out, you will slowly memorize the useful bits and refer back to the rest, right? It's not laziness; it's just that I prefer to fill my limited number of active brains cells with useful things.

And so I looked at the diagram, allowed the concepts behind the diagram to fill some of my brain cells, and went to bed early (while my classmates were out cramming for the final. Yeah, sure: They were out being 21-year-olds.)

I finished the final in about an hour; call me an over-achiever. The "memorization' part was simply a matter of matching words to picture, rather than actually having to come up with the words from a blank slate. And so I was extremely glad I had not wasted a lot of time trying to memorize anything. The remainder of the test was fairly straightforward, with about 10 questions I had to answer with a SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess).

In the end, I missed four, thus passing the course. Not bad for a gal without an engineering degree. My success was apparently of great interest to the other engineering instructors; it seems they'd never had a non-engineer in one of these classes before. And thus, my progress was a curiosity, like the dancing elephant: It's not so much that the elephant can dance well, but that it can dance at all. Happily, I managed to dance quite adequately, thus opening the doors for other non-engineers who might have some interest in these classes and for myself to expand into other Fundamentals.

The company does a cool thing with certificates for these classes. A photographer comes in one day during class and shoots a group photo, which then becomes the background for your certificate of completion. It's a cool thing, and I've hung it proudly on the whiteboard in my office. I'll look for a nice frame this weekend. Yeah, I'm certifiable... and certified.

And, dangit, I'm very proud that I took a step outside of my 'comfort zone' in the right brain to spend some time in the scary left brain. It was well worth the trip -- but I am very glad I don't have to live there all the time.

02 November 2006

Pushing and pulling

Another day of class is past, and I learn a little more every day. Some of what I learn is actually about XXX Engineering. Other educational lessons are about people, my employer's policies and what makes engineers 'tick.'

Fundamentals of XXX Engineering is just one small part of a series of courses my employer offers to its baby engineers. The gang of young-uns in my class are mostly fresh from university. They are, as I mentioned yesterday, from all over the world, including a few countries that did not yet exist when I was their age. (Scary)

They are part of my employer's effort to hire these kids out of school, before some competitor or big oil company notices that they are breathing. (The oil industry is a hot place to be right now.) Their studies are part of an 8-month "boot camp" of sorts, teaching them all about the different jobs they might do with my employer, and teaching them the basics of engineering for each of 10 or so various job categories.

The classes for each specialty comprise four days of instruction and one long final exam. On each instruction day after the first day, there is also a "quiz," so as of today we've had three tests, and tomorrow (Friday) we'll have our final exam. To "pass" the class, you must have either an 80% average on all four tests, or 80% on the final itself.

The foreign students note that if they fail two of these Fundamentals of XYZ Engineering courses, they are sent home & probably lose their jobs. So they are very intense about their tests. Furthermore, there is a rumor of a prize: If you get 100% on all four tests in a class, you get a jacket embroidered with the word "ACE." No one in this group has seen one, and several of the most competitive guys are extremely eager to be the first to earn one.

Many classmates -- expecially the non-native English speakers -- find the tests very difficult because the teacher has tried to be 'tricky' with the questions. He uses sentence structures like, "True or false: The bubbles in Coke are not a factor in pushing the straw out of the can." So you have to determine the truthiness or falsiness of a "not," which is hard even for native English speakers. (It's hard enough to do this stuff without some teacher messing with words just to try to confuse you, right?)

His standard answer to student queries about test questions all week has been, "What does the question say? Read it carefully." This, today, was his downfall as one word girl and some engineering guys all answered what the question asked, rather than what he 'meant' to ask....

Today's test assessed our ability to plug numbers into my employer's wicked-cool XXX modeling software and produce other numbers. Basically, one question asked, "if you stick a straw into a Coke bottle, how hard can you push on the straw before it bends?" The teacher wanted the answer to be a negative number beause we were pushing down; we argued that 'push' isn't the right technical term for what he wanted, so our positive answer was quite correct.

Anyway, the point is not that this silly argument 'raged' for 15 minutes of class time before we won it, but rather the fact that all of us who argued have 95+ averages in the class, and missing one question doesn't affect our 'grade' one whit. And there are no jackets on the line because everybody missed at least one question on the very first test. Go figure. And don't even try to suggest that we just like to argue. ;)

01 November 2006

School Daze

This week and next, I'm taking a class for work. It's a cool thing when your employer pays you to expand your mind. This week, the expansion is Fundamentals of XXX Engineering. The XXX is a useful and interesting oilfield technology that is a key part of my employer's business and which I write about pretty much every day but have not understood as well as I'd like.

So I'm in a classroom this week with 15 or so young engineers from around the world, and with widely varying command of the English language. I have a huge amount of respect for people who can do this sort of technical work and reading in a non-native language. I have enough trouble with it in my own language.

My last science class was about 1980. Go ahead and do the math there, if you can remember how: 2006 - 1980 = long enough to forget all the calculus you had to have to get through Intro to Physics. Now calculate the volume (in barrels) of fluid you'd need to fill a 4-1/2-in.-diameter, 9,000-ft-deep gas well (and that's the simplified well without all the other stuff inside of it). You now have some sense of my struggle this week. These equations are, as the instructor notes, "pretty basic math." Unfortunately, I have not used much math since college, except for the occasional glance at Quicken to see whether there is still money in my checking account. I mean, who remembers how to calculate the volume of a cylinder, except maybe Pepsi bottling engineers?

Classes this week run from 8:30 til whenever we're done, and all day long the instructor is stuffing our brains with information, explanations and oilfield stories. I'm technically auditing the course, so I don't have to take the daily tests -- but I do because I feel like tests are part of the learning process. For the "kids" in the class, their grades on the tests greatly affect their future with the company; for me, a grade is just an acknowledgement that yeah, ok, I get it. And yet, I stress over these things, just like I always did for 'real' tests. Go figure.

Amazingly, although I do nothing but sit on my butt all day long in the classroom (and eat too many cookies on our hourly breaks...), I am exhausted. My brain is unaccustomed to this level of workout, which means it's probably a good thing and a potential ward against senility (or a cause of senility, depending on how you look at it). However, I'm going to wait and sign up for Fundamentals of YYY Engineering after my brain recovers from this onslaught.

Next week, I have a management course: My employer is a "Seven Habits Company," so we all learn about Stephen Covey's theories on balancing life & work, etc. Compared with this week's crash course in "why you didn't finish that science degree you started," it should be a gas.

Speaking of gas, I'm procrastinating (ooh, baaaad thing according to 7 Habits) on my Engineering homework to determine whether XXX can plop a cement plug safely in that aforementioned gas well. Oh, did I forget to mention that every day after 8 hours of classroom instruction we also have reading & modeling homework? My brain hurts.