Saturday, February 23, 2008

A sketch and a photo

Spring isn't really here yet (it's pouring today), but the sun has come out a couple times, and a few early bloomers have gotten started. Here's a photo I took while walking Wednesday.

Here's my sketch based on that photo. As you can see, I don't really enjoy drawing background stuff, especially mulch.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Learning beyond the classroom

Nobody ever taught me how to French braid. When I was a girl, my grandmother tied three thick strands of colorful yarn to a drawer handle and showed me how just, plain braiding worked, and I practiced on those until I had the feel of it. Braiding hair, though the same motion, takes a bit more coordination because the strands don't stay together by themselves. I figured out French braiding on my own many years later. I was laying on my bed, playing with my hair, and reinvented the technique for myself based on how I knew braiding worked and how I knew French braiding looked and felt. I've never French-braided anybody's hair but my own.

There are other things I've figured out on my own. I've had some formal training in technical drawing, but a lot of my drawing, both technical and especially artistic, I learned by fiddling with it, making mistakes, noticing what works and what doesn't, and just practicing.

With languages, there is a great gulf between pushing grammar exercises around and actually carrying on a conversation or reading real material. We do not learn our mother tongues by having somebody explain what a noun is*, and ultimately, we do not do well in additional languages without being exposed to them and then muddling along for a while. That's not to say that formally learning the grammar isn't valuable, but rather that it's not too effective by itself.

In many ways, I think that knowledge I acquire this way, and especially procedural knowledge, sticks a lot better than the sort that someone just tells me. When I used to have to memorize music for marching bands, I'd play it plenty of times, get familiar with it, then turn away from the music stand and feel it out all over again. Finding it for myself made it stick like repetition never could.

I've learned a great deal from teachers in classrooms, teaching in the traditional manner, or slight variations of it, but I have to wonder whether students, and especially students who are heavily kinesthetic learners, would be better served by a learning environment more geared toward guided experimentation and discovery. I think such an approach would more closely resemble the real world, as well. It is a process worth being comfortable with: experimentation, debugging, invention.

*A notable exception here is the written component of language. While I imagine that determination and practice could improve a person's ability to read given some basic knowledge, the beginnings seem by and large to require some sort of training. I'd be interested to know to what extent reading could be self-taught. If you know of any discussions or studies on the subject, please drop me a note.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

German engineering

All too often, I spend long chunks of time at work doing what amounts to clerical stuff, crossing t's and dotting i's so that drawings and the ECOs that accompany them can get through the system. I'm glad of the consistency it brings, especially down the road when it's time to revisit those drawings and find some information or further refine a design. It doesn't especially engage my mind, though.

Another chunk of time goes to designing and in many cases, redesigning, the parts of the large and complicated device that we are building. This is generally fairly engaging, but quite frequently done lacking various things that would make it easier or more effective: background information, time, the right people to consult.

This evening, fairly late in the day, I was introduced to an engineer visiting from Germany. I don't really know that much about him, other than that his name is So-and-so, he is from Germany, and he worked as a machinist for a time. My strength, operating the CAD software we use to keep track of this stuff, is something he has not tried much of.

I explained what he had come to learn about, a new device we had designed for our tool, and then we got to talking about the part where the new device attaches. The primary purpose of this part is to hold still, but that turns out to be harder to get right than you might suppose. Things like rigidity and squareness are very relative. Steel is floppy stuff, and there are times when one one-thousandth of an inch can be too much error. This was the nature of what we discussed intensely. this evening.

Mechanical engineers (or those of us engaged in solid design) are, to a large degree, geometers, and a great deal goes into making things fit together correctly so that what goes together fits smoothly and doesn't collide when it's moved.

We tossed ideas back and forth, but this was an intense session that effortlessly ran later than I usually stay at work. His drawings are much tidier and far more detailed than mine, though I can get a point across well enough. Indeed, that seemed to characterize the whole exchange. For all that I am casual and disordered in my work style, he is very meticulous with his details. I wish I knew more about his background and how he did what he did, as we brought up a problem, tossed solutions back and forth, and he looked longer and deeper and cussed (as politely as it's possible to cuss) as he spotted some tiny, subtle flaw in that idea. To be sure, there are times when this sort of examination of detail is not warranted. There is such a thing as over-design. When thousands of dollars worth of delicate stuff needs to not wobble, though, it pays to mind the fine possibilities. I hope I listened patiently enough that he was comfortable feeling around for technical words in a language not yet entirely his own.

How do we learn these ways of thinking, problem solving, caution, and iteration? Can they be taught, or must they be discovered through experience, as one learns a language? Would I be better or worse at my job if I could master that particular aptitude I witnessed tonight?

I wonder what else he knows that I don't, and whether I'll ever know my branch of engineering in that depth.

Labels: , , ,