Required Coursees vs. Electives

In a conversation with a friend about a class that we are both optionally enrolled in he shared with me an interesting revelation.

“If this class was required, I mean if it was actually a class, I would have dropped it a long time ago.”

This friend of mine is incredibly engaged with the material and I have the pleasure of being a member of his team on the semester long project with which we are both engaged.  Theoretically you would thing that nothing about the class would change if it was required or an elective.  It is simply an administrative formality.  Yet something inherently different happens when students are forced to take a certain subject.  It is as if they shut down.  They refuse to engage.  They subconsciously decide that the body of work that the class is asking them to engagement is worthless.  Yet if they have willingly chosen to participate in this class their attitude changes.  Something is placed on the line when you as a student choose a class.  Are you more engaged because of the material or because you are genuinely interested in participating.

I view this class in which I am enrolled as one of the most important classes I have taken during my time at Virginia Tech yet I agree with my teammate and feel that requiring every student to take the class would ruin everything that I have been able to attach to.


As a veteran of the Virginia Tech Engineering Program I had the chance to battle amongst the trees of the Tech’s Curriculum for Liberal Education (CLE).  Of the seven arenas’ only four were not spelled out in my Enlistment | Contract and I am proud to say that I took full advantage of my 16 credits of freedom.  I chose my optional skirmishes as follows:

COMM 1014 (3cr. Area 3), ECON 2005 (3cr. Area 3), TA 2014 (3cr. Area 2), FA 2004 (1cr. Area 6), NR 3954 (3cr. Area 3 & 3cr. Area 2))

These are simply a set of symbols which contain little to no meaning to you as the reader unless you happened to have taken one of these courses.

The CLE’s are described as “Comprising 25 – 30% of an undergraduate’s credits toward graduation” and if the requirements for each subcategory are summed you will uncover that 36 credits are required to complete the CLE’s.  I wonder if this might be a bit misleading because while 36 credits make up 28% of the Mechanical Engineering’s required 130 credits I only consider that 16 of those credits as pushed me outside of my required course load.

That means that only 12% of my education here at Tech was devoted to this “Vital Component of my undergraduate education”.  What do they mean by Vital? How important is it to develop into a well-rounded professional when trying to get employed or is it more important to do a deep dive in your subject area?  I didn’t know so I’d thought I’d look around.

Here is what I discovered:

Credit Hours




Scientific   Reasoning and Discovery

Area 4


Writing and Discourse

Area 1


Ideas, Cultural Traditions, and Values

Area 2


Society and Human Behavior

Area 3


Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning

Area 6


Critical Issues in a Global Context

Area 7


Creativity and the Aesthetic Experience

Area 6

Certain Areas are weighted more heavily than others.  Why is only 1 cr. committed to creativity and eight times that to Scientific Reasoning?

 I uncovered two sites that masquerade as the homepage for a committee known as the UCCLE and discovered a schedule of meetings and list of minutes indicating that there is a “strong desire for ( A complete change) –to consider where the university might be going in the future and fundamentally restructure the CLE in accordance with that future trajectory.”

In an attempt to uncover what the university intends to do during this change I started to explore some meeting minutes and discovered that the postings for those minutes are not up to date on either site.  The first shows the last entry in 2011 and the later in October of 2012.  I am curious as to what has been going on since their October meeting and why I have had trouble tracking it down.  I guess time will tell what the Controllable Learning Experiment decides the future of Virginia Tech’s Curriculum for Liberal Education looks like.

A Slow Explosion

“Well we got no Choice”

The school systems have kibbled our thought into uniform, tasteless dog-food.

“Cause they found new toys”

Something called the standardized test has pressured educators and students alike to perform well on the “high-stakes” testing.  This has resulted in more drill and practice instruction.

“School’s out for summer…out forever…been blown to pieces”

The explosion is happening right now.  We as a society are becoming more aware that “Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources” and the resources are no longer locked up in a school or library.  They are…anywhere.  If you’re connected that is.

“No more…pencils…books…teacher’s dirty looks”

The glares, snaps of the ruler, and external motivators may be unnecessary if Nelson is right when he shares that “Everything is interesting until ruined for us.  Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting”.

“We got no…class…principles…innocence”

The trick will be to maintain the valuable aspects of our educational system as the structure transforms or disappears entirely.  When any and all information becomes available how do we learn to determine its validity?

“School’s out completely”

The screen is ever-present in your average American’s life.  Nelson believes “computer screens can make people happier, smarter, and better able to cope with the copious problems of tomorrow…When you can’t tear a teeny kid away from the computer screen, we’ll have gotten there”.  I’m curious where there might be.

Pass the Mustard

Wooaa…What is this?

It’s weird and it moves and it’s strange and it moves when I want it to and woaa… I might be the one moving it.  What is it.  I can see it.  I can’t hear it or can I.  I can feel it sort of.  It doesn’t smell right now…but it’s still strange.  If I can move it I wonder if I can…

A child relatively new in this world is in a constant state of exploration.  Their brains are developing rapidly and their attempts to “understand” the world in which they exist is often done with all the senses.  Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, and Taste.  The baby is attempting to ‘Grok’ its hand.  And it could be said that the act of coming to an understanding reaches a climax at the point when the child places the strange thing into its mouth.  Here the child can simultaneously see that it is attached to its arm, hear the sound of saliva against skin, catch smells of whatever it last held, feel the intricacy of the thing against its teeth and lips, and finally taste that which the child may one day call a hand.

There is something important about fully engaging as many senses as possible with anything that you are trying to understand.  The Martian concept of ‘Grokking’ as presented by Robert Heinlein takes the concept of understanding to another level and perhaps connects with the childish draw to engage all of your senses in the effort.  To fully understand another individual and all of their experiences in the Martian tradition requires that after an individual dies “his friends eat what he no longer has any use for, ‘grokking’ him, as mike would say and praising his virtues as they spread the mustard”

I am not recommending cannibalism on any level or for any reason.  Rather simply reflecting on the interesting correlation between our childish fascination with putting things in our mouth as we try to make sense of them and Heinlein’s depiction of a Martian tradition to accomplish the same thing after an individual’s ‘corporate’ life has come to an end.  The both share an engagement of all our senses in an attempt to reach ‘fullness’ or come to a complete understanding.  As we augment our intellect and reality with technology are we unable to fully engage our senses and does that limit the understanding we can reach?

A Future Project

There is a project that has set out to Revolutionize Education.  They started in 2011 and they seem to be headed in the right direction.  The Future Project as they call themselves believes that in order to reverse the educational crisis we as a country need to refocus our view on the real problem.

The crisis they point out is that:

“70% of students in this nation feel school isn’t relevant to their lives. One in every four drop out. And worse, three in four check out.”

If 25% of the students are leaving the school system for good and the other 75% have checked out then I would agree that we have a problem on our hands.  In fact it leaves you wondering who the 7.2 million teachers in this country have left to pass on their knowledge too.  This project offers a potential solution to the crisis that revolves around reenergizing the school instead of rebuilding it from the ground up.  Their hope, as I understand it, is to instead rebuild the school from within by empowering the students and focusing on the real problem.

“We trusted our gut that the real problem was the way we think about and structure school – as places of achievement, not aspiration; exams, not exposure; grades, not growth; performance, not passion.”

When achievement, exams, grades, and performance are considered as a representation of what schools are made up of they look like shallow metrics when compared against aspiration, exposure, growth, and passion.  If you had to choose four words you would want to describe the place that your child will spend over 157,680 hours of their life which ones would they be?

A Basal Concept

A concept is built of smaller concepts which you already understand.  And if the main concept or the most recently understood concept is built of concepts then it would make sense that the concepts with which that main concept is build are also built of concepts and those concepts are built of concepts and so on.  I wonder if at some point the concepts can be reduced down to a point where they are no longer built of concepts and if they are not built of concepts then what exactly are they made of.  Memories, Emotions, gut feelings, images, places, or something else entirely?

What are those flashes that run through your mind when you think of an element like water?  Water is a fundamental building block of life for which we have developed a representation made up of 5 unrelated concepts W-A-T-E-R.  Yet the word also stands for more than a sum of its letters.  For me this concept triggers childhood memories, images of a certain place, and variety of sounds.  Are these instantaneous reactions to a basal concept, concepts in themselves or something else?  Something a bit more “Real” perhaps?  In my mind the reactions to this basal concept are not more concepts but in order for me to communicate what I am experiencing inside my head with you as the reader I must form them into concepts and therefore lose some of the “realness” of those concepts as I subconsciously categorize them.  I want to know if these basal concepts are fundamentally important in our ability to eventually build larger and more complex ones or is it possible to bypass the “realness” and still grasp the full meaning of a concept.

My discussion is dangerously flirting with recursion but I suppose that is acceptable on this particular day of the month.  Is a connection to the “real” world necessary in order to understand a basal concept?  And how many basal concepts do you need to grasp before you start to combine those concepts to build larger ones?  The absence of water and a feeling of discomfort may eventually combine to create what many of us call thirst.  And from there perhaps we can start to understand what it means to long or desire for something that we cannot immediately have.  What I am trying to get to is a few questions about potential fundamental differences between machines and a humans.  I want to know where a computer that is attempting to augment our intellect fits into the structure of concepts that we use every day.  Its goal is to help us pursue more complex concepts by assisting in the categorization of smaller ones.  If the computer can never internalize the flashes that make up basal memories what are those basal memories created with.  Concepts?  And if computer’s basal concepts are created of more complex concepts then we start a loop that indicates that the computer or device will be forever unable to internalize the true meaning of “Water” and instead be limited by the language with which the concept has been described.  Having just realized the full recursive-ness of this latest paragraph I am going to stop and encourage you, the reader, to share what comes to your mind when you think of “WATER”.

Augmenting Impatience

Engelbart in his essay on “Augmenting Human Intellect” for the most part explores the potential for a device to increase “the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.”  He goes on to describe in sometimes eerie detail several devices and programs that I interact with on a daily basis.  My particular needs are those of a mechanical engineer.  My problems vary but rarely come to a solution without the intervention of a computer.  Without a doubt Engelbart’s dream turned reality makes my attempts to uncover solutions to the problems I face easier.  The device is able to open more time for me to devote to another pursuit.  My Intellect has been augmented.

However, later in the essay Engelbart in a period of reflection shares that:

“One gets impatient any time he is forced into a restricted or primitive mode of operation –except perhaps for recreational purposes”

Sherry Turkle explores this impatience as it faces us in modern society in her book “Alone Together” she hints at potential side effects of this impatience.  She talks of how we handle our devices today and how we “touch a screen and reach someone presumed ready to respond”.  She shares stories and interviews about transformations in family dynamics as parent’s struggle letting go of their children.  The children feel trapped or under constant surveillance such that if they choose not to answer a call from mom or dad they often “get an urgent text message” which they may or may not feel obligated to respond to.  A mother shares her worrisome side of the story.  She knows “there is little reason to worry. But there is something about this unanswered text…She ends up imploring her children to answer her every message.  Not because she feels she has the right to their instant response.  Just out of compassion.”  We have created devices that augment our intellect when solving problems.  Rarely is a problem solved alone.  In order to collaborate we must communicate.  Therefore a device that assists our ability to communicate should also help to augment our intellect.  I have my doubts however that more communication is inherently better.  Quality of the communication is also essential.

Another interviewee of Dr. Turkle shares the difficulties of impatience in a law firm and some of the impacts that impatience has on the quality of responses and questions that he sees.  He sums up the problem well when he says “It’s not the technology that does this, or course, but the technology sets expectations about speed.”

Moments in Time

There are beautiful moments happening on beautiful mornings, all over the globe, all the time, sort of.

What is actually happening is an arc of morning is racing across the surface of the earth as Pre-dawn is transformed into morning.  So these moments can only be happening on a sliver of the available 510 million square kilometers of water, rock, dirt, sand, ice, snow, and biology that the earth bares to the heavens.  The width of that sliver depends on the number of seconds you personally, a solitary human, associate with the word morning.

But it’s the moments not the mornings that seem to carry the importance.  Many mornings have passed through regions of the Pacific Ocean without impacting any humans.

When we choose to share our moments with those people who didn’t experience the morning do those involved in the sharing miss a bit of the experience?  The question is if I choose to share a bit of a moment with someone somewhere else have I chosen to devote a bit of my attention to that someone or more accurately perhaps have I chosen to devote a bit of my attention to the process or actions required to do the sharing?  And if I have chosen to split my attention have I also make the decision to divert my attention from the moment at hand?  Can you choose to share a moment with someone not present and fully engage with the moment at the same time?

All of these questions bring seem to bring another question to mind which is what do I mean by “fully engage with a moment”?  And how does one most effectively perform such an action?  Is it even possible?  To me fully engaging in the moment is to let everything else drop away and to focus entirely on the stimuli that are presently entering your body.  The ability to reach this state of mind is rare and most often happens when I’m riding my bicycle.  I would be interested in hearing what you have to do in order to let all aspects of the past and present drop away?