Global Perspectives: Leg 3

Riva S. Vitale->Lugano->Lake Lugano->Zuirch->Dublin->Banbridge->Glaskar->Dublin

10:00am on Thursday June 6th marked our departure from the Villa and the beginning of leg 3.  The structured and well thought out itinerary had come to a close and I had a week to get myself to Dublin and do something interesting, exciting, and fun in between.

I took a train to Lugano with four other participants under the hopeful assumption that we might be able to rent a sailboat for the afternoon.  The morning looked cold, foggy, and not very hopeful but the crew of Kevin, Kat, Kelsey, and Angela stepped up and said they were in if it worked so off we went.  Right around noon the weather cleared, the wind picked up, and after a conversation—mostly done through hand gestures—with a man who could only speak Italian we found ourselves sailing away from Lugano towards the Italian Cliffs on the far side.  We hadn’t been asked to pay or even leave any type of collateral and without having a common language we had managed to gain the trust of the employee at the wharf.  The afternoon was great and the crew dispite their claims to have little to no sailing experience did a great job of manning our 18’ Violeto and I got to relax on the front deck.  The wind died a bit on the way back but we all managed to catch our connecting trains with a few minutes to spare.

A train to Zurich, a picnic on the banks of Lake Zurich with a thunderstorm over the alps in the distance, and an evening at the City Backpacker all followed our sailing excursion and on Friday morning I found myself doing the airport thing again with my bike to prep for a quick hop over to Dublin.  From the Airport I took a bus to Banbridge, had an adventure to find some pounds, and jumped on the bike for 15 km with only an address to guide me to 17 Glaskar rd. where I was supposed to find my sister and her friend’s relatives.

Against the odds I made it and got a good view of back roads of Northern Ireland in the process.  I was met at the door by Garrett, who laughed a bit at my appearance and then said he was expecting me and invited me in.  I was put up in the “grannie” flat and had my own bathroom.  This house which was connected to a 30,000 chicken operation and horse boarding farm was to be my home base until Tuesday.

I cleaned up helped cook the first of many wonderful meals and waited for my sister and the rest of the girls to return from their adventure to Belfast.  It was great to catch up with Marybeth and the evening was spent outside over a great meal, good wine, and a bit of “buskin” music.  The next day I did a quick 50 km ride, ate, and ate, and then went to a family gathering where we again ate and drank and ate and drank.  We danced till the sun came up and took a taxi back home where I was employed to break into the house because we had forgotten the keys.  Slumber consumed most of the next day but on Monday I got out again and did a 105 km ride that circumnavigated the Moore Mountains on the Eastern Coast.  I saw the green castle, ran through a farmer’s field when my dirt road dead ended and hit 80km/hr on a downhill between Hilltown and Rathfrieland.  I cleaned up and again we ate, drank, and danced in celebration of the wonderful time we had on the Fletcher’s Farm.  The next morning I caught a bus to Dublin with Marybeth and Shannon.

The bike ride from the airport into Dublin was fun, not direct, and longer than expected but I got there eventually and settled into the hostel Killian for two nights.  Night one was spent at a “Steeple Session” Listening to Mark Hayes and a Celtic Singer perform in a Unitarian Church.  Night two was spent listing to a traditional Irish jam session at the Cobblestone pub away from the touristy part of town.  At one point there were 4 fiddles, 2 Irish flutes, a Lyre, two banjos, a bagpipe of somekind, and an accordion playing together.  It was great.

The trip home the next morning was relatively uneventful and when mom and dad met me in the airport I was excited to finally be home.  I am quite a few steps closer on the never ending path to gain a global perspective and all the better for the steps that I’ve taken.

-To all those who helped in any capacity along my journey.  Thank you for making it all possible.

Global Perspectives: Leg 1

Blacksburg->Poconos->NewYork->Dublin->Frankfurt->Wurzberg->Kirchberg->Augsberg->Kempton->Zurich

Before it began I drove from Blacksburg, VA to Pocono Lake, PA where over two days I gathered the necessary gear, packed and rested.  On the morning of May 20th, 2013 my bike, my gear, my father, and I loaded into the pickup truck and drove towards JFK Airport.

The traffic was mild by New York standards and I was dropped on at JFK 3.5 hrs before departure.  Laden with two Orlieb panniers, a Rack Pack, and pushing my Trek up to the check in counter caught a few peoples attention.  The man at the desk was unfamiliar with Air Lingus’ Bike Policy but before long I had secured a personal escort to see my bike through the airport. Thirty minutes later the Trek and I bid farewell at the gate to meet again in Frankfurt 28 hours later.

The plane brought me to Dublin and a quick bus and train ride turned my 8 hour layover into a meeting with my sister over a wonderful Irish breakfast in Center City Dublin.  The next flight, delayed slightly, brought me to Frankfurt where I anxiously awaited the arrival of the Trek on the oversized baggage conveyer.  She arrived and I quickly set about assembling her for the eminent and ambitious adventure.  But alas the last train to Wurzberg that evening had no bike car.

Before long we scored a bench in a quiet corner that didn’t have armrests.  It was an ideal mattress and with bike chained up and valuables under my head I settled in for the night.

The 5:00am wake up and following train ride ferried us to Wurzburg via some beautiful mountain passes and an in-transit clothing change had us ready to ride upon our 9:00am arrival.

The day was long but the riding beautiful.  I felt free and route took me through fields, woods, villages, and towns via bike paths and roads that each had their own distinct feel.  The destination emerged as Kirchberg an der Jangt around lunch time.  As a small town no one had heard of getting there with limited access to maps was a bit of a challenge.  My journey took me through high farmland that had an eerie resemblance to central Pennsylvania with the exception of the language on the road signs.

After 7 hrs in the saddle and 130 km I descended in to the Jangst valley and saw Kirchberg emerge from behind the trees.  The welcome I got filled my weary body with joy and when they showed me my bed I couldn’t contain it.  The generosity of the Holtz family was heart touching.  I showed quickly and then joined a local German family in a meal, history lesson, and tour of the area before enjoying a pint or two at the local pub.  I fell into bed that evening exhausted but with a grin on my face.  This was going to be a grand adventure.

The next morning after breakfast, again with the Holtz’s, I saddled up and headed towards Creilsheim the next large town on my route.  The plan was to ride about 100 km that day but my knees had other plans and the decision to take a short cut 30 minutes into the ride resulted in an amazing 4 hour adventure in the jangst river valley.  My bike, my gear, and me rode, walked, and carried ourselves through a combination of dirt bike paths, farmers fields, old mill words, and beautiful bridges on the Radweg an der Jangst.  A gorgeous trail but not one intended for bikes loaded down with 40 lbs of gear.

I made up for lost time by catching a train from Creilsheim to Augsberg where I moved on to the next host in an apartment on the south end of town.  Again I was greeted with enthusiasm allowed to shower and provided a free dinner.  The conversation this evening was in English but getting to know Tobi and Naira and hear their stories about studying in Germany and Brazil and their adventures as couchsurfers around the world made my excursion sound a bit more reasonable.  I slept in the next morning and then bid them farewell after being laden with snacks for the day to curb my hunger on the way to Kempton.

My knees encouraged me to take a train most of the way to Kempton and when I arrived I meet my final host at a gas station on the edge of town.  It was raining, cold, and my only correspondence with Michael had been two emails and a 30 second phone conversation.  My bike was too big for his car so he told me to follow him to his house on my bike.  We turned down a highway hung a right and then started up a hill where he quickly started to pull away from me.  My mind was wondering where we were going right about when Michael hung a right onto a dirt road that lead to a farm house on the edge of a field.  Couchsurfing for the win.

The next two days were spent with the Family Ott on their Dairy farm on the outskirts of Kempton in the Allgau region of Bayern.  I joined them for meals, got a tour of the local town and attended a barn party Friday evening that had live music and about 1000 people dancing and singing along.

A last minute decision to spend one final evening with the Ott’s proved for the best as the train ride to Zurich revealed that the previously abandoned bike route would have included snow covered descents that morning.  The rest of the trip to Zurich, by train, marked the end of the first leg of my journey.  The snow-capped foothills passing by the windows helped me begin to transition to phase two of the journey.  It was time to pack up the spandex and break out the khakis

You can check out some photos from the trip here

The Scary Time Saving Black Boxes

The year was 2002 and I was a gangly 13 year old boy fidgeting in my seat at the back of an Algebra class.  I was being taught how to calculate minimum and maximum points along a quadratic curve.  I listened for the period wrote down the homework problems for the next day and then moved on to the next class at the bell.

That night as I tried to do my HW I quickly realized that the lesson did not stick and I was lost.  I asked my dad for help and he wanted to know if I could graph the functions so I could see what I was trying to find.   As I pulled out my TI-83 I said “Yah sure but I need to know the coordinates of that point”.  While I was navigating the 2” x 3” screen he pointed to something, said “I bet that could help you”, and walked away.

We had just discovered the Max/Min function on the TI-83 and I proceeded to use my calculator to answer every question on the homework in less than 5 minutes.  I had opened up an extra hour that day for exploration and adventures and I quickly set off to add a new section of wall to my latest and greatest fort.  By discovering the time saving potential of my TI-83 I was able to redirect my efforts to a new learning experience.  One I was intrinsically motivated to teach myself.

10 years later and after 5 years of engineering instruction I now understand why my teacher gave me almost no credit for the assignment.  He wanted to see my work.  My response was “I don’t have any.  My calculator did the work”.  While I can see the “importance” of showing my work and can now even see the fundamental lessons that I was being taught by those tedious hand calculations.  At the time I wanted to know why I was penalized for finding a more efficient way to solve the problems I had been assigned.

The teacher wanted to ensure that I understood how the calculator was getting to that answer.  The teacher placed a large emphasis on the basics and by showing my work and learning these basics I can now see that I built a foundation upon which to add more complex problems and calculations.  However as things get more and more complex at what point are we no longer able to understand all the inner workings of the black boxes that we use every day?  I am currently typing on a device which to me still represents a large black box.  I feel confident that I could understand most of its inner workings IF I wanted to commit the time to it.  But that’s JUST IT I have decided that it is not a good use of my time to understand the inner workings of everything my computer does for me.  I have made the conscious decision to spend that time learning something else.

Do you still wash dishes by hand?  The dishwashing expert estimates that a standard family of 5 who eats 14 meals at home each week saves on average 4.95 hours by using a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.  True TI-83’s and dishwashers have totally different applications but they are both time saving devices and time saved is time that can be used elsewhere?  Why is the skill of washing dishes by hand no longer of paramount importance?  That’s up to you to answer.  Dr. David Knezevic just gave a talk on “Changing the way engineers work”.  He alluded to a set of tools that have huge time saving potential for engineers working in industry.

One category of those tools are apps for engineers and I was excited when I heard that you can now download something on your smart phone that can perform almost every calculation that I was asked to do in Mechanical Design 1.  This would have definitely saved time but at what cost?  Do those fundamental principles deserve as much emphasis as they are getting or could these concepts  be conveyed in a way that captures their essence but opens up time for exploration elsewhere in the curriculum?

I don’t have an answer.  Instead I encourage everyone in the teaching profession to be wary of trusting the black box 100%, while being conscious of the potential positives of time saving technology.  I wonder if the near future will see a shift take place where tedious hand calculations in the “Basic” courses become as important as being an efficient human dishwasher.  Imagine the “Time savings” and else could you spend that time teaching a “Student”?

Training an Engineer

I have recently earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering degree from Virginia Tech.  Our department is one of the best in the country and I am contemplative of my experience over the past 5 years and the impacts and effects that this degree has had on me.  How has it impacted how I problem solve? How has it impacted how I view the world? And are these changes due to the requirements of the curriculum or the opportunities on beyond the curriculum that I chose to take advantage of?

I ask these questions because in the discussion about reforming the education system of this country there is a lot of focus on engineering education and how to best prepare engineers for the dynamic and fast paced world that they are entering upon graduation.  There is talk about creativity, and generating intrinsic motivation.  There is talk about the top traits that companies want to see in engineers and what should engineering institutions be focusing on when teaching an engineer.   There are rumors that our centralized system of education is not the most effective and is in need of a radical overhaul.

I spoke with a recruiting agent from Ford Motor Company several weeks back and was struck by her answer to my question “What trait do you most want to see in a prospective engineer when going through the hiring process at Ford?”.  I was expecting to hear that they were looking for creative engineers that could think on their feet and generate unique solutions to problems that the plant faced.  Perhaps I expected to hear that it was important to have demonstrated leadership skills during your undergraduate degree and have the ability to be a good team player.  Instead the answer I was given was simple “We are looking for someone who has the technical skills required for the position we are trying to fill.  The rest we can teach them on the job”.  She shared with me that while leadership experience and creativity were important it was more important that the engineer they hire have the technical know-how to solve the challenges expected in the position they are filling.  She mentioned that leadership skills and other less tangible skill sets will quickly make themselves apparent during the first few years on the job.  If they exist then the candidate would be considered for promotion.

This reminded me that while we can romanticize the image of the “engineer” as a problem solver of the continuously striving against the grand challenges it may be more accurate or common to refer to the position as a highly specialized technical trade.  A welder has the technical skill to permanently attach two pieces of metal.  An engineer has the technical skill to apply problem solving skills to his area of expertise and uncover the root cause of an issue.

Is there a disjunction between what academia is trying to create and what industry needs? Perhaps.  Looking back at my time at Tech I can categorize everything I did into two catagories; course work, and extracurricular activities.  When I talk with recruiters about things I learned, experiences I had, and skills acquired I mostly speak about what I did beyond my coursework.  The classes were the foundation, the technical skills I needed to be certified as an engineer who can plug a specialized hole in a process or system.  The most valuable experiences during my undergraduate degree were getting the chances to apply my skills on real world problems.  I got involved in these problems through Clubs and organizations, Co-op’s, Study Abroad experiences, and Undergraduate Research.  I wonder how much different my experience in these areas would have been if I had been required to do them?  How would that have transformed the attitudes that people bring to those projects and would it have negatively affected them?  I fear it might have.  Perhaps you’re an engineer and have similar or completely contrary feelings towards your experience.  Either way I would love to hear them.

Screen Time

Right now I sit in front of my computer screen.  I sit and I attempt to capture in the English language my thoughts and musings.  The attempt is not perfect.  I will not capture the pure essence of what is circling in my mind but the attempt to reach that perfection is valuable.  While it is valuable to strive for that perfection it is arguably more important to never let the fear of never reaching this “ideal” state stop or even slow my attempts.  Learning is a process, an experience, and without failure in these attempts I wonder if any of us can really “Learn”.

This attempt, this learning experience is one that is structured by the tools I am learning with.  I write in English, I type on my laptop, my prose is projected in pixels,  I can use spell check and could instantly lookup something I am curious on the pervasive internet should I be so moved during the middle of this learning experience.

I wonder at how the tools we use structure our learning and how aware we are of that fact during the learning experiences?  I am not interested in making a claim that any one method is better than the other but fascinated by the variety of experiences one could have in capturing thoughts through the written language.

Is your attempt full of the continuous edits and automatic spell checks that are the norm for typing or are your errors in an attempt toward perfection captured by the permanence of pen and paper?  Chalk on Slate, Marker on Whiteboard, Pencil on a 2×4, crayon on a cereal box, paint on parchment, charcoal on sandstone,  the options for transcribing something are endless and each and every one will offer a different tactile, sensory experience.  Each and every one has its own strengths and weaknesses and is best suited for a particular environment.  They are all important and they all affect the process of capturing your thoughts in a slightly different way.  In an attempt to reach perfection there are more options than this screen that I sit in front of and it is important that we try as many as we can while we can.  The screen is gaining popularity and is becoming pervasive.