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30 August 2006
One of our first year students, Charlotte Kershaw, is a runner-up in this year's Engineering Subject Centre Student Award for her essay on 'How does your experience of your course compare with any expectations you may have had?' Charlotte's essay beat off stiff competition and made it to the final against fifteen other entries.
You can find out more about the awards at http://www.engsc.ac.uk/an/student_awards/archive/awards2006.asp and read Charlotte's essay below.
Before I started my engineering course in October last year I had very few expectations or ideas about what it would be like. Indeed, I had only the vaguest grasp of what engineering was. I had my spiel which I dutifully trotted out at every interview about engineering being about helping people, being about innovation, being about the application of knowledge to the real world, but how did one go about teaching engineering? I had no idea.
Of course I knew that there would be these exotic sounding things called lectures, but what would they be like? I imagined old men with interesting facial hair talking in monotones for hours on end whilst I scribbled furiously in an attempt not to miss the crucial point that would come up in exams. I pictured myself spending hours in the library, being given a topic and then sent away to learn it. I wasnt even sure what I would learn as an engineer, let alone how it would be taught. A lot of maths and electronics and structures, I supposed, but what was it that was going to make my engineering degree different from a maths or a physics degree?
As I told numerous interviewers, engineering is about applying theoretical knowledge to solve real problems, and the link between the theoretical and the practical has been a major theme in my course so far. At A level I often questioned how what I was learning could be applied to the world. For example, how could the existence of j, the square root of minus one, which didn't actually exist, ever be of any real benefit to anyone? I imagined joining the working world able to sit and solve differential equations and work out the reaction forces in pictures of ladders but with no abilities that were of any use. It has been a major relief to come to university and suddenly be showered with examples of how I will be able to apply my knowledge. Both lectures and practical work demonstrate how useful my degree is going to be, with many lecturers giving examples of disasters in the past involving, for example, a bridge collapsing, and showing how the situations which led to these disasters could have been foreseen and averted using only first year engineering knowledge.
Lectures are not the dull monologues that I expected but are littered with practical demonstrations which are interesting diversions, especially when they fail to act as they're supposed to, as well as being very effective ways to remember a particular principle. At Cambridge each lecturer provides a handout, so there is no frantic scribbling and you are free to listen. As well as academic lectures there are also lectures from outside speakers with topics such as the role an engineer must play environmentally, the importance of renewable energy, and new advances and breakthroughs in various different fields. The hours and hours I imagined spending in the library have also never come to pass. Although the library is a very useful resource when you have trouble grasping a particular topic, the lecture handouts contain ample information and papers of questions are issued every week to back up what is being learnt in lectures.
Something I did not expect was the abundance of practical work and experiments. At A level practical work was scarce and usually repetitive. I expected university to be no different, but now I have laboratory experiments 3-5 times a week and the subjects have been as diverse as programming a microprocessor to control a heater to loading a sample of steel until it fails, first at room temperature and then at -196 with the aid of liquid nitrogen. Each lab session is accompanied by a handout, and I very much like the way that, following a introduction, one is left to follow the instructions and figure things out for oneself, so that, though there is always help if needed, one is free to experiment, get things wrong, and fix the problems independently. I have found this to be a much more effective way to learn than the more controlled and constrained practicals I experienced at secondary school.
It is very true that, in general, learning at university is very independent. Though one is not left to sink or swim totally unaided every student is very much in control of their own learning. Though I was told this many times before I came to university I never really believed it, since surely it would be in the university's best interests to actively ensure that each student is working hard and is going to pass their exams. But, even if this is the case, every lecturer is also conducting research or consulting for a project, and none have the time or the inclination to continuously check up on students.
On the whole I have found my course to be very different to the few expectations I had before coming to university. The scope of the course has been far greater than I imagined and all of the doubts and worries I had about starting my university life, such as not being able to keep up with the work and failing to take enough notes to revise for exams, have been cancelled out. I am enjoying a greater degree of independence in my studies and, above all (an expectation that I never had, and one which has been to me the most important change between secondary school and university), I finally understand how what I am learning can be applied to the real world. Which is, of course, what engineering is all about.
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