Reflection on learning

I've spent the overwhelming majority of my life in school because I value learning. Learning is an investment in my future, and the more I learn, the better equipped I am to take on the challenges I am bound to face. Most people consider time spent in school to be an investment that will pay for itself with future financial earnings; I think of it more as an investment in myself to build a more satisfying career doing work that I enjoy and appreciate. When I think back to how I learn best, a few instances stick out in my mind. Interestingly, none of these experiences are from engineering or design courses - this may be because engineering concepts come more naturally to me, or because I have the internal drive to learn about engineering without exceptional teaching, or perhaps even that engineering teachers tend to be less creative with their pedagogy than other teachers. Regardless of the reason, I'd like to point out three of these learning experiences that stand out among my lifetime of learning experiences.

The first occurred when I was a 10-year-old away at summer camp. Camp Sea Gull was known for its sailing program - they had a fleet of 50 Sunfish (13-foot sailboats), 20 Lightnings (19-foot sailboats), and several larger boats, all for the purpose of teaching campers to sail. As a ten-year-old in my second summer at Camp Sea Gull, I tended to do what my friends wanted to do, and that summer my friends liked to take sailboats out and get stuck in the river. I should say, we liked to take sailboats out, and we tended to get stuck due to a lack of understanding regarding how sailing actually works. As a result, my friend Ted and I had to be towed back to the shore three times early in the summer, and at that point I decided that I didn't like sailing. Toward the end of the summer, one of the counselors, David, offered to take me sailing and teach me "how to not get stuck," and so I gave it one last shot. With the help of his experience and patience, he got me to understand how the boat interacts with the wind and the water to propel itself forward. When I finally started to understand the concepts behind sailing, I started to love sailing, and I never again needed to be towed.

Before David took me out on that boat I had been trying to jump in and learn by doing, and to be honest, I sometimes still do that. But David showed me how I really needed to know a bit more about theory to get the hang of sailing. David made me think, perhaps in the most critical way I had ever done in my ten-year-old life, and while he probably doesn't know this, he instilled in me a love for sailing along with a drive for understanding how things work.

The next experience that comes to mind occurred my junior year of high school. Even though I had a strong dislike of history classes ever since elementary school (what's the point of learning history?), my desire to take as many Advanced Placement (AP) classes as possible won out when I signed up for AP U.S. History. This by all means should have been a boring subject for me - learning about what old guys did hundreds of years ago just didn't do it for me - but Mr. Adams surprised me. Mr. Adams brought energy into history class - he came in and played music, acted things out, and in all other contexts was willing to make a fool of himself to make learning about history fun. I still remember his "fast-flowing river dance", where he would basically just wiggle his body and excitedly tell us all to do the fast-flowing river dance with him. Every time a reference was made to the northern states' industrial development, he would say, "why? because they had fast-flowing rivers!", and he'd do his little dance. I don't think anyone ever did it with him, but everyone was amused, and because of that, we were all more likely to remember how the North developed better industrial capacities than the South because they had the stronger river currents to drive water wheels.

The energy that Mr. Adams brought to class was contagious, and I actually looked forward to history class that year because it was always entertaining and interesting. I should mention that this class was one of the most difficult classes I've ever taken - we learned so many details about more than three centuries of American history in one short year - but because of Mr. Adams I didn't mind that it was hard. It was one of the most rewarding classes I've ever taken - I got a perfect score on the AP exam, and I've reached back to my U.S. history knowledge more times than I can count in casual conversation over the past 10 years.

That same year I was also taking AP Spanish Language with Señora Vasconcelos. We students were in our fifth or sixth year of studying Spanish, and so at this point there was absolutely no English allowed in that classroom. Ever. Even if we were in the room before the bell rang, we would get a stern look and disapproving comment (and perhaps a participation grade reduction) from Sra. Vasconcelos if we were caught speaking English. That policy was a great teaching method, and we all actually got used to conversing with our peers in Spanish (or at least what we thought was Spanish) before and after class while we were in the room. Towards the end of the school year, Sra. Vasconcelos wanted to teach us everything we needed to know about pronunciation in a week, and she surprised us all by beginning that Monday by speaking to us in English. I don't think we had ever heard her speak English in 8 months of being in her class, so it was quite a shock. She explained that this topic is so important that she didn't want anyone to miss a part of the lesson. That week, we learned all about accents, dipthongs and tripthongs, hard and soft consonants and vowels, and strong and weak vowels ("u and i are weak"). I still remember everything about Spanish pronunciation, even though I haven't taken a Spanish course in 8 years.

Sra. Vasconcelos mixed things up that week. She was a terrific teacher year-round, but I remember that week in particular because as soon as I heard her say in English that this was important, I knew that she meant it. She didn't have to repeat herself or raise her voice, she simply had to surprise us to catch and hold our attention. This made a lasting impression on me as a learner, ensuring that I would remember those concepts for years to come.

These are by no means the only times that I've had meaningful learning experiences, but they are some of the most memorable. They were memorable because those teachers were effective in instilling lifelong knowledge about something that I had no prior interest in learning. Each of those teachers made me stop and think, either because of patience and one-on-one attention, contagious enthusiasm, or a surprising change of pace.

When I teach, I try to remember the lessons I've learned from my own teachers. Many learners like myself look for hands-on or application-based learning, and they don't truly understand something until they try it. I knew that I was this type of learner since before I met my counselor David, but he showed me how applications aren't enough. Students really need to have a theoretical foundation for why things happen the way they do, and finding ways to convey that theory in an interesting way is one of the great challenges of teaching. One way to do it is to convey lessons with enthusiasm a la Mr. Adams, and I always make sure I have more energy than the class when I start a lesson. If the students have more energy than the teacher, they get bored, restless, and distracted, but when the reverse is true I find that the students are much more likely to tune into what is being taught.

Finally, like Señora Vasconcelos, I try to mix things up. Energy alone can go a long way in teaching, but it goes even further when the students get actively engaged, when they are forced to think in different ways, and when surprises keep them wondering what will happen next. Employing active learning techniques, using prior knowledge from the students, and applying theoretical knowledge to concepts in the students' lives are ways that I like to mix things up in the classroom. Now that I reflect on it, I may have learned as much about teaching from these life-changing lessons as I did about sailing, history, and Spanish.

Lifelong learning

While teaching is an integral part of my career, learning is also a huge part of my life. Here are a few non-curricular learning activities I've been involved in.

  • Minor in Spanish Language and Cultures, 2003-2007, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

  • Course in German Language, 2007, International Winter University, Kassel, Germany

  • Course in Microeconomics - ECON 501, 2009, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

  • Course in Traffic Safety - HBHE 710 (Audited), 2011, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

  • Course in Life Cycle Assessment - EHS 672 (Audited), 2011, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

  • Course in Game Theory - Fall 2013, Stanford Online, passed with distinction

  • Course in Game Theory II: Advanced Applications - Spring 2013, Stanford Online, passed with distinction

  • Course in Social and Economic Networks - Winter 2014, Stanford Online, passed with distinction

  • Courses in Swedish language (7 total) - May 2012 - March 2014, Folkuniversitetet, Gothenburg, Sweden