Category Archives: Gender

what is a “competent engineer”? (possibly this is just part 1)

mumble academic success mumble

Thinking back, I can’t remember accurately how I felt freshman year. Now if I’d written things down in a blog post… So here I go, reporting on how I feel now as a senior.

Lately, it seems like my conversations with people outside of bland filler (well, actually useful filler like knowing what is going on in my friends’ lives, but I qualify filler as things not really interesting to people in general) is focused on theorizing about how people learn.

I feel like I’ve been lost the entirety of my time at MIT. About all I can say for myself is that I can graduate and I am competent enough to… to? I honestly don’t know.

I’ve always been trying to find that missing something that would let me have a happy pset / general academic experience. When I say that I don’t learn well in the traditional academic model, I’m resigned, not “too cool for school”. Maybe if I were more confident in seeking help. Maybe if I trusted that if I asked my friends questions, they would make the correct judgment call for themselves about their level of hosage versus their obligation to me. Maybe if I studied the material better so that I could ask credible questions (instead of my general “?___? what is everything” that I know can’t be answered effectively) at office hours. Maybe if I didn’t care if I should have tried harder, should have read the textbook, should have attended lecture, should have not taken a class without the prereqs, and spoke up in office hours anyway.

But maybe all I needed to do all along was be optimistic enough to bug people to help me. Maybe I wasn’t missing anything except believing, trying, not flailing around and simply thinking things are doable.

I don’t know. I had a pretty wonderful psetting experience recently. And thinking back, I can’t remember a single instance where I had an experience like this. Even given my terrible memory, it can’t have been more than a handful of times. I’d given up. I’d concluded that the only thing to do is muddle along and build things and try to figure out — if I could do it over again, what I would try to do to get the most out of my classes. What if it wasn’t that I was incapable of learning from school, but rather that I just never figured things out? That would mean that to help other people like me, the key isn’t to make cool things to build, but rather to figure out how to learn the most from lectures and not flail around and get lost and lose self-confidence in the meanwhile.

So much for being secure in my goal to remain excited about everything and defiant about not digging deeper into a subject.

Lately an MIT admissions blog post title Meltdown has been making the rounds. It’s really popular because it strikes a cord in most / many students here, but not everyone. Is it better or worse to experience extremes of emotion? As usual, I suppose there is no single optimal Kp for the relationship between amount of stress and drama / emotional response in a person — but I can still wonder if there would be a more optimal one for me. How do I become competent? Yet even the competent people I know feel inadequate to some extent. So what hope is there?

I know, I know. I’m focusing on negatives again.

Maybe I can try that as an experiment — not care what people might think, just care about what makes me happy. For just a few weeks, not care about the fact that I’m never on time either to meetings or with homework, take that as okay. This is something I am working on. I am just a person with flaws, which is okay. (At least I haven’t killed anyone). YAY more experiments! πŸ˜€

I think other people would find this weird. But it makes me feel better, so what the heck. I’ll be that weird person with the weirdly personal blog. Because it’s my blog.
edit 11/1/12 AHHHH i am such a terrible group person person.  i… i’ll leave this up here because i think everyone else deserves a reminder that you’re lovely.

what are real engineering

A lot of my confusion stems from trying to understand what counts as being a real mechanical engineer. Or what I would define as success.

Here are potential answers:

  • Having the confidence to build parts that people can rely on and won’t fall apart
  • Creating a start-up that reaches the injection-molding stage and is cash-flow positive
  • Being able to use and even more so maintain and fix mills and lathes and other shop equipment
  • Being able to competently TA a class and answer technical questions
  • Getting As in my classes
  • Being knowledgeable like Amy and Shane and Charles in being able to tell you how to build and source almost anything
  • Being internet famous for technical things
  • Being able to fix anything that breaks
    • Knowing about cars
  • Being able to make awesome things from trash
    hi nick
    you should update your blog even more, i swear you’ve made at least three more instruments since then. of course I’m one to talk…
    • Being able to identify useful things from trash
    • Having professors like you and think you are competent (or at least not disappoint them)
    • Being able to help underclassmen
    Basically this is a compilation of thing I wish I were better at.
    One thing at a time, I suppose.
    Oh nyancat. This has turned into another of those whining about incompetence posts. It’s interestingly hard to convince myself to tout my competencies. I can only do it when I feel really angry or snarky. I remember Amy and try to convince myself to not constantly focus on my incompetency, but rather accept it and work to remedy it. So that I can be that competent female engineer that the younger me could point to and say, that is someone I would aspire to be. Which is another annoying thing, competency is inseparable from the issue of gender disparity for me. -___-;; It’s kind of distracting and rather useless in terms of actually becoming competent.

    possible competencies

    Things I am good at:

    • I’ve traveled. A lot. I will always have a fascination with cultures around the world.
    • I’ve worked with biology
    • Wanting to fix things. Being angry yet entertained at the state of the world.
    • Being enthusiastic about people learning to build things
    • Thinking in absurd ways
    • Having lots of different interests
    • I can speak and read Chinese
    • ?___? I have no idea. Nothing on here is technical competence…
    I’ll leave it an open question for now. In the meantime, I am going to go sleep in the sofa under my loft, which somehow makes me feel better (except then I don’t want to get up), and then wake up and finish my overdue essay. Oh, and talk to facilities about washing trash cans at 8:30 am.
    segue! hello there, trash cans behind the student center.
    something is really off about my solidworks dimensions. oh well.
    i felt silly for spending hours CADing nyancat. but after spending hours CADing a trash can (yes, I suck at CADing / CADing efficiently) I would happily go back to internet meme engineering. Also then I don’t have to look at my teammates’ CAD and feel terrible. Oh right, I’m supposed to feel inspired by other people’s work.
    speaking of nyancat, 2.009 professor wallace shows up in a nyancat shirt sometimes.
    speaking of nyancat part 2, one of my hallmates (ben katz) got contacted by the creator of nyancat. He legit engineered nyanhat thing.
    Speaking of classes…
    Strobe Lab 6.163
    Lab 5: Bullet Photography
    In other news, I have been making shiny strobe lab pictures, even if I’m neither building high voltage strobe circuits nor going to get more than a bare minimum B in that class.
    Bullet going through a stream of water. GIMP composite of four images, flipped horizontally.
    this was the setup for the water stream photos
    this was the setup for the LN2 carnation shots and shows location of the rifle (which we didn’t touch, the professor shot it)
    These pictures were with: Andrew Schlaepfer, Merritt Boyd, Monica Ruiz, and Prof. Bales
    They’re so pretty! This class doesn’t make me feel any more technically competent though.
    Well, anyway. Aside from classes and wondering how other people define competency, I’ve been mostly unproductive in terms of projects. My immediate project will be the persistence of vision poi project, and then I have two major goals (aside from getting a job or getting into grad school).
    • Help make sure the open source hardware bootcamp in China happens this summer
    • Implement my kits idea in some form, where a concrete engineering curricula is implemented using physical kits combined with online delivery of content
      (eek. I have to talk to a professor about this. Also this is my one chance of getting into grad school. Also, remind me to braindump about 2.007x sometime, which is the alternative to implementing this as my own startup…).
    • Actually document my projects. I harp on people to document their projects, but I don’t really have my own cohesive documentation scheme ^^;

    With respect to thoughts about school, here is a pretty well-known TED talk:
    A transcript can be found here:

    MIT Course Majors Male Female Ratio, Fall 2011 (scraping with google docs)

    as seen at stata; click to see larger pic

    when i saw this in stata a few days ago i legitimately wondered for a few seconds which way this was color-coded until I saw a note (cropped out in this pic), which made me smile. At MIT and hopefully in the general world the imperfect gender ratios are really not so noticeable unless you’re looking for it. MIT is wonderful (I say this now because I have no finals this term, all project classes that I loved even if I didn’t do as well as I’d’ve liked)

    Anyway, there were no citations! so I decided to go off and investigate on my own and treat it as a data visualization exercise (hi, upcoming IAP / startlabs / c2c / metrify).

    EDIT: Derp! I data-failed. You can see civil/environmental engineering (course 1 — see if you’re confused by the numbers) is definitely off. : / messed up copying and pasting somewhere. Will redo this for realz one day (they have data for multiple years, I want to clean it up automatically).

    sorted by %
    sorted by course number

    data source
    Here’s the data I used (I should just email them for the csv’s, but I thought this would be a simple data scraping exercise):
    What tripped me up is that the women vs. everyone listing of majors is ever so slightly off, and I have to decide how many distinctions I want to make. Do I really care about 2 vs 2A? not really. If I care about 6-1 vs 6-2 vs 6-3, do I just drop 6-7?

    assorted google spreadsheets of data from those sources
    cleaned data for charts

    raw data sorted for female / undergards

    raw scraped html table data

    where i tried to (see script editor) automagically clean up the data and failed:

    google apps code 
    I used for that last gdoc

    function loadImport() {
    var ss = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSpreadsheet();
    var sheet = ss.getActiveSheet();
    var data_sskey = "0Atr0HZeoMbmgdFYzNUdEN2NKM2lGbHV6OVN4YkJNTmc";
    var row_init = "13";
    var col_ug = "G";
    var col_grad = "M";
    var col_total = "O";
    var col_courseName = "A";
    var col_courseNumber = "Q";

    var cols = [col_ug, col_grad, col_total];
    //create arrayformulas for copying selected data over
    //e.g. =ImportRange("0Atr0HZeoMbmgdFYzNUdEN2NKM2lGbHV6OVN4YkJNTmc","Women!G13:G")

    //Add Course Names
    var finalRanges = [ '=ImportRange("' + data_sskey + '","Women!' + col_courseName + "13:" + col_courseName+ '")'];

    //Add Enrollment Data in alternating female / all
    for (var i = 0; i < cols.length; i++){
    femRange = '=ImportRange("' + data_sskey + '","Women!' + cols[i] + "13:" + cols[i]+ '")';
    everyoneRange = '=ImportRange("' + data_sskey + '","Everyone!' + cols[i] + "13:" + cols[i]+ '")';

    //Add Course Numbers
    finalRanges.push('=ImportRange("' + data_sskey + '","Women!' + col_courseNumber + "13:" + col_courseNumber+ '")');

    // Sets the column header names to match copied data.
    var columnNames = ['Course Name', 'Fem UG', 'All UG', 'Fem Grad', 'All Grad', 'Fem Total', 'All Total', 'Course Number'];
    var headersRange = sheet.getRange(1,1,1,columnNames.length);
    //var dataRange = sheet.getRange(2,1,1,columnNames.length);
    for (var j = 0; j < columnNames.length; j++){
    sheet.getRange(2, j+1).setValue(finalRanges[j]);

    //method getRange(row, column, optNumRows, optNumColumns)

    Google Docs Scripting Tutorials
    An excellent step-by-step free tutorial on ImportXML (similar to importHTML that I used), how I heard of xpath (which I didn’t end up need to use due to importHTML magic):
    other useful tutorials I referred to *shudders* speaking of government apis, I really should be less terrible and fix my github codeforamerica repos which I left half-finished. AUGH. I FAIL. This is why I haven’t applied to any jobs yet. Upcoming: post on why you shouldn’t hire me (with the caveat that I feel okay listing these because these are past mistakes that I don’t intend to make again).
    eeee shiny
    I also attempted to use google fusion tables but did not have a good experience.
    To investigate:

    Machine Shop Safety: Yale and the Missing White Woman Syndrome

    MITERS is a student shop on MIT’s campus. Funding-wise, we run independently of any MIT department, which is great since our projects don’t exactly fall into research all of the time. We also don’t have to pay rent or utilities due to being located on MIT property. However, this also means that for better or for worse we are subject to the scrutiny of MIT’s space administrators and Environmental Health and Safety staff.

    MITERS runs a delicate balancing act that, for me, strikes home two contrasting trends: increasing paranoia (and safety) over the years (perhaps best dramatized by 9/11 and Homeland Security), and increased interest in the amorphous idea of the “maker movement.” I am torn. Sometimes I am skeptical; Traffic mentions that the number of deaths from parachutes leveled off and has remained constant despite increased safety measures; what happened was that better safety measures made people comfortable with taking greater risks. Sometimes I am cautious; Traffic also mentions that we are all overconfident drivers, believing the past predicts the future as we confidently take to the roads (one study showed that ambulance drivers, because of the urgency of their mission and contrary to what many would think, actually drove “better” — turning sooner and driving more smoothly — than the average driver).

    Recently, the Yale death (I apologize to those still in mourning for this crass mention) has lead to scrutiny of the sort that makes all of us at MITERS a bit uncomfortable. Our machine tools are old and no one would mind a newer mill or lathe or better safeguards. However, we all seem to feel instinctively that too much scrutiny on any level is toxic to the creative haven of MITERS (and dear lord, apparently a ton of grad students will be moving into our building which will be fit for the Prime Minister of Singapore to look upon within a year or two — that’ll be interesting, but no point in worrying just yet). In reaction, my fellow MITERS officer Julian Merrick remarked that this situation seems reminiscent of Missing White Woman Syndrome, where there is a disproportionate reaction to unfortunate cases involving people of one class (white and female) as opposed to another (male, other ethnicity). Indeed, a google search turns up a thread on Practical Machinist remarking the same.

    One surprising constant throughout the ongoing whole process, however, has been people’s appreciation of the output of MITERS. Uniformly, people have been supportive of MITERS, even if we may have different ideas of the kind of support needed. Ultimately, I am hopeful that we will emerge through this with better safety and our core culture intact.