Monday, October 19, 2020

E-Dorm Life- E-MADness

Engineering classes before the capstone tended to fall all over the spectrum. The fact that I wrote about the capstone before any earlier ones is further evidence that these memories all came bursting back and flooding into my brain in random order.

I still maintain there was an air of practicality missing from many courses. A key year one class that should have been offered was: 
“Vendors who give less than a pile of rat droppings about your deadlines.”

Honestly, in my first fifteen years being paid to do engineering, I used exactly three equations:
One was wrong.
One needed so many simplifying assumptions that it became meaningless.
And one was to prove a claim that more fluid will flow through a big tube than a small tube.

I did have an early class on Manufacturing Methods with a retired engineer as an instructor.  He would frequently throw in practical advice such as:

“Always make sure there isn't a hammer on top of a ladder before moving it.”
Note- this advice was provided the day he had a big band-aid on his head.

“Never take apart a car engine and rebuild it in your basement, because you’ll never be able to carry it out.”

His best advice was the answer to a blanket undefined question he posed:

“You are given a technical issue to solve at your new job, what do you do first?”
The room full of student engineers bombarded him with suggestions of building models, taking measurements, and consulting textbooks. 

He said, “Wrong!  You find the oldest engineer in the place and take him out to lunch. Chances are he’s worked on something like it already and can tell you the promising solutions and pitfalls before you start.”

We did have one highly detailed, hands-on undergraduate course- Engineering Modeling and Design, or EMAD. 

Every major has classes designed to weed out those who are not truly willing to commit to the topic. Organic Chemistry, Microbiology and Non-Newtonian Physics are famous ones for the sciences.  I found myself in one of those classes for Aeronautical Engineers- Theory of Structures.  (Technically, all Aero courses were those classes, another reason I avoided the highly specialized concentration...that and wanting a job.) I couldn’t fit the Mechanical Engineering equivalent into my schedule and did not realize what it was until classes began. I found myself facing the thought of spending an entire weekend working on nigh impossible problem sets for what would count only as an elective. In addition I'd be missing the Juggling Club’s annual trip to the UMass at Amherst Juggling Festival.  
It was the only class I dropped in all five years and two degrees at RPI.

For all engineering disciplines, EMAD was the "weed out" course.  It was three credit hours and a disturbing NINE contact hours. The main class consisted of projects, the tracking of which happened in three normal classes a week.  In addition, it had six weekly hours of rotating side labs on the practical engineering skills of CAD, Spreadsheets and the Machine Shop.

Shortly after I survived the class (and I still have the button to prove it), the "practical" building level increased further, where the projects involved the creation of actual mechanisms that would compete against other students' work.  In one of my final years, the Communications Center hallway was filled with devices that had to empty the contents of a juice box into a glass. When one realizes the amount of engineering it took to get the juice into the box in a stable manner in the first place, the nature of the class becomes obvious.  My favorite entry involved a waterproof cube, a funnel, and a large, spiked, pneumatically driven hammer.

Our design requirements were all on paper, but the lab sessions provided hours of weekly engineering "fun."

The CAD section used the same light pen oriented primitive CADAM software I’d end up using on the Lightcraft.  Naturally, when I reached graduate school, the University switched over to Pro-Engineer solid modeling software.  It could have been everything I learned in undergraduate  CAD classes was useless, but when I started a real job, the only system we had was the 2D Cadkey system anyway. 

In spreadsheets, I learned a highly valuable lesson about making sure the signs and the operation order were correct in formulas.  In my tabulated data for the distance a paratrooper was from the ground after jumping, I forgot the gravitational constant had to be negative, and there was some confusion of parentheses that led to exponential instead of multiplicative calculations. Therefore, I showed definitively that a few minutes after yelling, "Geronimo," my hapless jumper would have passed out of the confines of the solar system. 

The most hands on session was in the Machine Shop.  The first day they gave us a giant list of safety rules to memorize for a test.  Jesse, a Computer Science major who had his own “weeding” classes to deal with, took one look over my shoulder and summarized it as, “Keep your d*** out of the mill.”  Jesse was ever a bastion of practicality.

In a massive statistical unlikelihood, I was partnered with a young woman in the machine shop.  She was massively intelligent young woman, but also an extremely precise and meticulous young woman.  During everyone's rotation in the shop, we were tasked with making a cannon, in order to take us through all the equipment in there.  The barrel was turned on the lathe (a rare case where the part moved and the blade was stationary, meaning occasionally cannon barrels became lethal, room crossing projectiles). Rough cut offs were on the horizontal mill (a double buzz saw like metal chopping contraption that inspired Jesse’s assessment). Finer cuts were done on the vertical mill (an adjustable, giant, drill press looking, metal shearing thing). Finally, hand tools were used for the assembly.  My partner would operate the equipment with a keen focus on holding the dimensions as tight as possible. This meant, for example, she’d pass the vertical mill slowly over her part to make the center groove, removing a layer approximately six to seven aluminum molecules thick each time.  With the amount of time left in the class period after she was done excessively reduced, I resorted to bathing my parts in a sea of  lubricating oil to allow me to bore off the whole groove in two passes without setting it too badly on fire.

The project part had less in class hours to deal with, but a much higher overall time commitment.  This is likely because of the gang I linked up with.  It was basically the reverse issue that I would later have on the Lightcraft and probably set me up with that amount of over trust in partners.

The only person I knew in my class was Chris. I’d met him tangentially the year before at orientation as he shared the first and last name with someone in our dorm who went to high school with Jesse. “Our" Chris decided RPI pressure was too much for him and left after the first year. 

E-MAD Chris, and his two friends, the German Karl (the lead) and Swiss Markus had the opposite problem.  I inquired about joining their team and they suspiciously asked, 
“What do you hope to get out of this course?” 
Having heard horror stories about it for the past year, I stated, 
“I am hoping to get out alive.”  
They glared as one, pumped their fists and said, 
“We’re going to get AN 'A'!!!!”

Luckily, their enthusiasm drowned out my blurting, “Oh good Lord,” and they let me on their team.

The three projects were increasing levels of difficulty. The first two were just for our group. We had to come up with an actuator design for an Octopus like carnival ride, followed by a park layout.  The actuator design required a few calculations, a drawing, a write up, and was relatively simple.  Then we all met in Carl’s room to put it together and they decided it had to be printed on his high resolution (in fossil terms) printer rather than the high speed (in fossil terms) printer in the computer center. 

Our report was assembled before Nine.

I got to go home after we printed it ...

at Three in the morning. 

The second project involved laying out the park. This was an indirectly practical lesson in dealing with vendors, as no one who made roads or pathways was willing to share cost and timing with a college student.  Therefore, we said screw the greenspace and paved the whole park, as we did get a quote from a concrete company.  It was during these cold calls to businesses that I got the information and quotes from a large nearby park with a zoo in it that yielded an unusual Method of Budget Development.

Aside- I also learned the practical vendor lesson in my graduate Mechatronics class. The electronic binoculars manufacturer that kept promising me technical specifications for my final analysis project finally admitted they had no intention of sending me anything.  By the time they did this it was very late in the semester. Learning a practical lesson about snatching last minute victory in a moment of panic, I took apart my radio/ cassette alarm clock, sketched it out, wrote down the names of all the electronic components in it, went to the Radio Shack Ben worked at near Price Chopper and Friendly's to get the specs off what they had for sale, and wrote up a detailed, and well-graded analysis. For the rest of my college career, my radio would turn on and off by itself at random times for random durations. I learned another practical lesson there, but I’m not sure what it was.

The final E-MAD project involved the entire class working together to produce an over one hundred page paper (not including about half that again in attachments) detailing an amusement park that catered to the handicapped.   

Karl, Markus and Chris immediately staked out their positions as class officers to run the whole shebang.

I immediately staked out my position of wanting to remain on the “Technical Path” that I have feverishly held onto in my twenty-seven year career and said, “SEE YA!”

I had several ideas for unique rides and was shuttled over to the “Attractions Team.” I came up with a pinball machine where guests would ride in the ball.  No they didn't roll, it was a mostly clear sphere on a bumpered disk with casters.  There were a couple of other rides, and an attraction loosely based on the original “Journey Into Imagination Pavilion” that focused on the senses.  Yes, I know the newest version of that location IS focused on the senses.  They totally stole my idea in an attempt to redeem themselves and bring back Figment.  Granted my idea may have been a little more extreme...or perhaps insane.  I had rooms of sound too loud for normal guests to allow deaf people to feel the vibrations, and motion simulators with fans for the blind (or people who closed their eyes) that could simulate other rides.

Yes, I know simulators and Virtual Reality can do that for anyone now and let them see it...Fossil, remember?

Basically, the rest of the class was doing simulated mathematics for engineering planning work, and I was doing technically sound creative writing.  Foreshadowing anyone?

For those who likes posting those supposedly real, "Professor Socialism Experiments" where everyone in the class is promised the same grade, therefore all the students end up slacking off and failing-  
We all worked out butts off under those conditions and got an "A." 
So there.

I guess my contributions were acceptable since the rest of my original team and one of their girlfriends maintained friendly attitudes when they all showed up at juggling club, for the gym credit. (More on that, you guessed it, later.)  

I'm not sure which team member she was the girl friend of since I think it switched in the gap between EMAD and juggling.  Then later it wasn't either of them. She was in my statistics class, and called to ask me to come up to her dorm room late one evening to help her study when a test was coming up. I had other stuff going on, and no clue what was going on in that class so I answered a couple questions on the phone and declined further assistance.  Not realizing she may have had more than statistics on her mind until about a week ago when I started writing this up may help explain my social life issues in college.


longbow said...

I decided way back then I was never going to an amusement park on the moon

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for reading. Glad I could provide a public service announcement!