Thursday, May 21, 2009

Engineering in Classical Rome

A couple terms ago, as an elective, I took a course on Roman Art & Archaeology. The course as a whole was very interesting but one small aspect of the course really caught my attention. One of the items that we discussed was Roman aqueducts.

Historically, cities always had to be located close to a body of water because all humans need water to survive. This really limited where cities could be located. Before the classical period, there was no way to transport water across long distances (think about how heavy water is!) but in ancient Rome they engineered a system for transporting water across great distances using aqueducts.

Aqueducts were large structures that spanned great distances at a very slight angle. These aqueducts connected large bodies of water to remote city locations and used gravity to maintain a continuous flow of water into the city. Some aqueducts even ran through mountains – the engineers would tunnel through the mountain from each side and meet in the middle. This required incredible precision and is an amazing engineering feat!

When the aqueducts reached the city, the water was then directed into the homes and fountains of the city and for the first time in history, people had the luxury of running water into their homes!

It is really interesting to reflect on how much engineering has impacted the world – imagine life without something as fundamental as running water.

Final thoughts – what is yet to be invented that 2000 years from now will be considered as fundamental as running water?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Joining a new class, and course matching issues for exchanges

As I was writing this entry last week I fell asleep on my keyboard. Total failure! Now let's try again :)

So I have just completed two weeks with my new class, the Mechatronics '11. People there are all very friendly and I don't feel alienated at all. I'm even going to karaoke with some of my new classmates tomorrow!

Although I am now officially in 4th year, I am joining the 3rd year Mechatronics class for the spring term... and I get quite a few confused looks because of this. Actually, the reason why I'm joining a younger class is because I am making up for some courses that I have missed while being on exchange.

Since all students of the same class from Waterloo engineering usually share the same schedule, many complain that Waterloo's system is not flexible, when in fact that's not true at all. I have found that the class schedules are more of a "recommendation" than anything, and if you have good reasons to deviate from it, the academic advisors are more than willing to accomodate you. In fact, when I proposed my plan for a change of study stream and a second exchange to my program director, I was actually surprised as how easily it had gotten approved. I've found that as long as you have done your research, know exactly what you're doing and can find valid arguments as to why your plans should be approved, the advisors are usually very reasonable and gives you a lot of freedom with your classes. I know people who have switched study streams, taking double majors, taken two one-year work terms, extended their degree for a year for no big reason, etc. so I guess it's not uncommon to change your course plan in Waterloo at all.

The next thing I want to blog about, now, is the sacrifices you have to make to go on exchanges and such. I don't want to talk purely about one side of things, or to rave about all the good things of exchanges without mentioning the bad side.

First, going on exchange requires a lot of planning, paperwork and meetings with advisors. You have to be on top of your own things, choose your courses wisely, get them approved, prepare back-up plans, etc. both before and after the exchange. You cannot sit on your bum and expect your advisors to tell you everything you need to know; you'll have to do your own research, and schedule meetings with profs yourself. I have a friend who didn't consult his advisor after his exchange, and ended up having to stay for an extra term to make up a course he did not get credited for. It's a lot of work and it gobbles up a lot of time, but you'll know it's worth it once you step on your plane.

Then there's the course plan issue. Many students have messaged me about going on exchanges and many of them have been scared off because of the course matching problems I've had (4 out of my 5 courses couldn't get transferred). Having to make up for courses is not an uncommon issue for exchange students, but since courses taken abroad can be counted as "technical electives", most don't have to lengthen their degree and have no problem graduating in time. Sure, right now I am giving up my last work term because of my exchanges, but considering that I am doing TWO exchanges plus a minor in psychology (which requires 10 extra courses) and STILL graduating in time, it's really more than worth it. Plus, now I get to join other classes and meet new friends!

So the bottom line is, no pain no gain... Lame, I know, but it's so true! Going abroad and exploring a new country with friends from all over the world is an amazing experience, but if you're gonna have to work for it to deserve it! ;)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Being involved outside of your world - experiences from Engineers Without Borders

I remember wanting to come to UW so badly when I was in high school. I was going to an environmental engineer, and be involved in Engineers Without Borders (EWB), and that was how I was going to save the world. 

After 3 years into my program, and 3 years being involved in EWB (helping out here in Canada and volunteering for four months in Malawi last summer), I don't really think that I'm going to 'save the world'. I am, however, still heavily involved and very optimistic that what I'm doing is right and will help bring about the change I want to see. I find that environmental engineering satisfies my interest in how things work and how to fix them, and I find that my involvement in EWB satisfies my passion for social change and human development. 

So I'm going to spend this post talking about what EWB does and how to get involved in EWB, as well as tell you about my personal experience with how I have grown through this organization. 

What is EWB?

In Canada
There are university and professional chapters across Canada, all working together to end poverty from home. Whether we are students or graduates working in the real world, EWB is all about getting Canadians involved in international development. We believe that Canada should be a leader in foreign aid issues. Through our members, we learn about development issues, discuss challenges and opportunities, and bring this message to Canadians. We try to keep our government accountable for its actions in foreign aid by trying to make aid better and petitioning the government

We also want all of our members to grow and become great leaders in whatever future endeavours they pursue. We do this through leadership skills training and one-on-one coaching. 

EWB works in four countries in Africa (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Zambia and Malawi) and partners with local organizations. We don't develop our own projects, and we definitely don't build things. There are locally run organizations already set up in the countries we work in, and we just want to help them to reach the goals that they have set for themselves. EWB is a strong believer in African-led solutions to African problems. 

So what kind of work do we do? 
  • We help develop entrepreneurial lesson plans for the Ministry of Food & Africulture in Ghana;
  • We research and help set up monitoring & evaluation systems in water and sanitation organizations (we're not the ones drilling the boreholes and hoping people use them - we want to know if these boreholes are placed in a good location, if people are using & maintaining them, if the organization's hand washing promotions are effective, etc.)
  • We help district assemblies (similar to a regional level in Canada) to record, maintain, and improve their rural infrastructure systems to encourage community led development
These are just some of the examples of our work...check this out for more examples of projects. There are long term placements (a year or more, intended for graduates) and short term placements (4 months, intended for chapter members). 

How to get involved

Join a chapter (preferably the UW chapter, but I am clearly biased here). There are so many different roles to get involved in! Planning events, running education sessions, trying to get engineering curriculum to include more development issues, fundraising for our overseas volunteers, being a Junior Fellow (4-month placement overseas), being involved in media relations, just being a general volunteer, and so many more. 

What I've learned from EWB

This could be a very long list...and this post is long enough so I'll try and keep this short! 
  • how to lead a meeting
  • how to be a good mentor for people
  • to think critically about development work (what is good, what is bad, how can we be doing better?)
  • how to get money from companies, the university, my family, etc.
  • better public speaking skills
  • different methods for creating change - through government or through consumer demand
  • that creating change is really hard, but when we win those small battles (such as getting more fair trade fruit in our local grocery stores) we've got to celebrate
  • an appreciation of the complexities of development (dealing with people and what they want is so much more complex than drilling a well)
And so much more...and the lessons are different for every person depending on who they are and what they are interested in. 

No matter what you decide to get involved with when you enter university, make sure you get out of it what you want to learn. The things I've learned from EWB are things I never could have gotten through class. So take whatever opportunities you can, and make the most of them. And of course, have fun at the same time. 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lady engineers in Kenya

As I mentioned before, I am volunteering in Kenya this summer. I am living at an all girls boarding school up in the mountains. I have no electricity in my house, but I do have a rooster to wake me up each morning!

This morning was my first day teaching. At assembly, when I was introduced, the principal said, "I hope she will motivate you to become engineers even if people tell you that you can't, because you are ladies."

This sort of got me thinking. In Kenya, I guess sometimes females are told outright that their gender gives limitations. While such a sentiment would certainly be uncouth in Canada, I think it still exists. In my experience, some people have expressed surprise when I tell them my field of study, or even confusion. What push back have you experienced, and what steps do you think need to be taken to irradicate the stereotype?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's Just Rocket Science!

In high school physics class, students learn how to calculate the speed and acceleration caused by forces acting on an object and the forces that occur when objects interact with one another. But what happens when you have a constant stream of fluid on an object? How can you calculate and analyze the force applied by a fluid?

The answer is through the study of Fluid Mechanics. It was my favourite course last term. I think it is really cool to be able to analyze the pressure and forces that a fluid will exert on an object and it is useful for so many different applications!

Fluid mechanics is used in the design of the following:

-Rocket Science – It is a knowledge of fluid mechanics that allows engineers to design rockets. They need to determine how much gas must be produced through combustion to propel the rocket at the acceleration that it needs.

-Aerodynamics of cars – The shape of a car can drastically change its performance. Cars are designed to allow the air to flow smoothly across them without creating too much drag (which really slows cars down). A car without much drag is much more fuel efficient – so this is pretty important!

- Environmental water systems such as dams – A dam has to be built to be strong enough to support the weight of the water it holds, so it is really important to be able to calculate how much force the water will exert on the dam

-Air planes – What makes a plane fly? Fluid Mechanics! The shape of planes’ wings are designed so that when the air passes around them, more force is exerted on the bottom of the wing and this pushes the whole plane upwards. Without a knowledge of fluid mechanics we definitely wouldn’t have the amazing huge planes that we have today.

As you can see, fluid mechanics has a lot of important applications, which makes it pretty interesting. Plus, it's pretty cool to be able to say that you really are studying rocket science!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

MSci 452: Decision Making Under Uncertainty

The most interesting and enjoyable course that I have taken as part of my Management Sciences option has to be MSci 452: Decision Making Under Uncertainty. The course deals with different approaches to decision making process by looking at factors (for example biases) that exist when we are making decisions under uncertainty. Last spring term, when I took the course, it was taught by Professor Scott Jeffrey who clearly enjoys teaching the course material and always has some great advice to share!

In addition to learning a great deal about the mistakes that are made when we make decisions, the course also focuses on how to improve this process. At the end of the term, we were also able to do negotiations, and I believe I speak for the majority of the class when I say that was the most enjoyable part of the course. During the various negotiations, we were partnered up and had to negotiate based on case studies, using what we had learned during the course. We had to negotiate deals for things like buying a car, selling an antique set, and getting funding for a project. This was a fun way to put in use the course material and interact with our classmates.

This spring, if you are looking for a course where you can learn a lot while having lots of fun, take MSci 452!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Summer Term in Kenya

This summer I've actually decided to take my 6th co-op term off, and instead travel to Kenya to volunteer as a teacher of math and science in an all girls secondary school.I was feeling pretty excited but now I'm just downright nervous since I leave on Monday. I'll be in transit for 18 hours, going from the Toronto airport to the Amsterdam airport and finally to the Nairobi airport. I'll then spend a few days in Nairobi and then travel to a village so remote that it doesn't even exist on Google maps!

I know I'll have some ups and downs over the next 3 months, but I'm trying to plan accordingly. For example, I'm packing some Crystal Light and instead oatmeal packets for when my mouth gets homesick, the complete novels of Jane Austen for when my girly and romantic side gets homesick, and an iPod full of my all my favourite songs for when my ears get homesick.

I'm also nervous about getting sick. I seem to react more strongly to food poisoning than others, and in Kenya I'm sure I'll be subjected to conditions less sanitary than here in Canada. I talked to my doctor and I think I've packed appropriate meds, including some rehydrating crystals for just in case.

Most of all, I'm nervous about being a good teacher. I love helping people reach their potential and I feel like I might have a big impact on a bunch of girls in a country where female education isn't a high priority. Hey! Maybe I can convince them all to be engineers!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Another term begins...

On Monday I am returning to work for the start of another co-op job. Although I'm sad to see my time off coming to an end, I am very exciting to begin my last co-op term.

At UW, all engineering students are in the co-op program, which means that every four months we swap between work and school. This definitely keeps life interesting!

I think my favorite thing about alternating between work and school is that it really makes you realize how useful all of your courses are. There are so many times at work when I have a moment where I stop and think "wow! this is exactly what I learned in --- class!" and so many times when I am reading a textbook and I realize "oh, that's why we do things they way we do at work!". It is really neat to be able to constantly connect learning to application. It really keeps me motivated in school because I have such a good sense of why I am learning what I'm learning and I know exactly how I will use it when I go back to work.

I'm really excited to find out what projects I'll be working on this term - whatever they are, I know they'll be interesting!