Orgo and physics and math, oh my by Paul B. '11
57 units of academic fun fun fun. Now with humanities!
Believe it or not, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my MIT career so far was simply planning my class schedule for this semester. For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with schedules, calendars, planners – all the inventions that, artificial constructs though they may be, nonetheless help govern and organize our lives. Combine that fascination with the fact that I was taking classes I was genuinely interested in, plus a general excitement to begin my second semester at MIT (keep in mind this was back during IAP, before I’d started having to actually do any work for these classes), and you can hopefully understand why I was so excited to finally set my schedule.
The final product looks something like this.
There are a few things I like about this schedule, and a few things I don’t like. I like, for example, that it’s symmetric about Wednesday. I like that I always have an hour or half-hour break after 11 am, which is great for getting lunch, catching up on email, or working on a p-set. I mostly like starting class at 10 am. And I really like that my day ends at 2 pm on Monday and Friday, since that leaves me with a solid four-hour block of time before dinner, which is really fantastic for getting research done.
On the other hand, notice how I have six hours of class on Wednesday? 20.020 is pretty laid-back compared to my other classes, which is great, but still – six hours is a long time for a college student! I mean, that’s almost as much time as I spent in class in high school!
Hopefully you found that last paragraph amusing, since I was being intentionally facetious (which is one my favorite words ever, by the way). But really, it’s true: even though you spend far less time actually in class as a college student, the level of intensity skyrockets. The professors move pretty quickly through the material, and sometimes even the most organized lecturers sometimes can’t explain everything they would like to. If you don’t know what’s going on because you slept through a lecture or you didn’t do the assigned reading, the professor simply can’t go back and re-explain everything just for your benefit. Unlike high school, homework really is homework; you won’t be given any time to do it during lecture – and trying to finish a p-set while also taking notes is generally a bad idea.
That’s not to say students don’t get individual attention from professors at MIT. To the contrary, I think most professors really go out of their way to make sure they’re accessible to their students. After lecture, all professors stick around for at least a few minutes to answer any one-on-one questions people may have. Whether you’re asking about a concept that you found to be unclear during lecture, bringing up an interesting additional point that wasn’t raised at all during class, or maybe even asking for a UROP, the profs are definitely wiling to hear you out and help you in any way they can.
I’m not just saying that to make my professors look good – I really do mean it. A case in point: last semester, Melis and I ended up having an awesome interview with Eric Lander – who basically runs the Broad Institute, while also teaching 7.012 in his spare time – an opportunity we seized simply because I took the time to ask Dr. Lander if he’d be willing to do an interview one day after class. If you’re interested, the transcript of the interview – which Melis and I published in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Journal – is available online here.
Beyond the professors, MIT also has, like most colleges, teaching assistants (TAs). TAs are generally grad students, though in some classes they’re actually professors. In addition to generally helping out the lecturers and other course administrators with some of the “grunt work” that keeps classes running smoothly, TAs also run recitations. Recitations (which are limited to roughly 10-20 students) are basically your chance to review the material presented in lecture, run through some sample problems, and ask questions about the p-set in a relatively low-stress and personal zone. They also leave ample opportunity for general hilarity, but that sort of depends on the TA.
Anyway, hopefully you found the last few paragraphs enlightening or, at least, interesting – because I’ve actually digressed quite a ways from my original goal of simply talking about my schedule. Since my classes are, basically, awesome. And now, here they are! (Presented, in true MIT fashion, by ascending numerical order.)
5.12 – Organic Chemistry (5-0-7)
In which we study Lewis dot diagrams, molecular structures, stereoisomerization, chirality, chair cyclohexanes, acid-base reactions, and much much more. Chemistry, biology, and the related engineering disciplines (a.k.a. Courses 5, 7, 10, and 20) all require this course, which also satisfies one of the GIRs. I enjoy the professor’s lecturing style, plus he’s very organized and provides awesome lecture notes based on his PowerPoint presentations, which are in themselves very well done. The first test is Friday, so I guess I’ll find out how much I’ve learned pretty soon.
[In case you were curious, the numbers X-Y-Z in parentheses indicate that the class entails X hours in lecture and/or recitation, Y hours in the lab or studio, and Z hours spent preparing outside of class (reading, p-seting, studying for tests). The sum C=X+Y+Z gives the total number of “units” each class is worth (usually 12).]
8.022 – Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism with Theory (5-0-7)
The logical follow-up to Physics I: Mechanics, I like to think of 8.022 as 8.012’s little cousin. So far it’s been much more math-based than 8.012 was, which suits me just fine. We’ve raced through the first three chapters of our textbook, covering Coulomb’s Law; the electric field; the definitions of divergence, curl, and flux in Cartesian, cylindrical, and spherical coordinate systems; the electric potential; Gauss’ Law; Faraday cages; and other fun electrical things. The class also features three optional labs, the first of which I did last week; pictures perhaps to follow. The professor is pretty good; and, ironically enough, my 8.012 professor from last term is now my TA. Small world, eh?
Although I was a little anxious about taking this class, given my experiences with 8.012, I’m happy to report things seem to be going well. On the whole 8.022 does seem easier, plus I now have a much better understanding of how to prepare for MIT tests in general. Although I had been prepared to switch into 8.02 if I found the material too hard or the pace too fast, we took our first test this morning and I did quite well – so I’m happy to report that it looks like I’ll be sticking with it.
18.03 – Differential Equations (5-0-7)
Ah, math. I like this course a lot, in large part because differential equations are incredibly useful for basically every science and engineering discipline; in that respect, 18.03 is my first real engineering course. Just to show you how important differential equations are, according to our professor, about 140 courses at MIT require 18.03 as either a pre-prerequisite or co-requisite. That’s a lot of courses.
So far we’ve covered slope fields, first-order linear ordinary differential equations, Euler’s method, integrating factors, complex exponentials and roots, sinusoidal functions, and input/output models. I haven’t quite made up my mind about the professor yet – some of the lectures were mediocre, but some (like the one on complex exponentials, including my favorite formula ever) were really awesome. Our first test is Wednesday – who’s excited!?
20.020 – Introduction to Biological Engineering Design (3-3-3)
This is easily the most unconventional course I’m taking this semester, as well as one of the most fun. The first 3 up there refers to two 1.5-hour “lectures” held every week, except that lectures in 20.020 are really more like conversations between the two instructors and the other 25 or so students in the course. Each lecture starts off with a fun but thought-provoking challenge or workshop – on the first day, for example, we built model airplanes. On the second day, we were supposed to deconstruct an ordinary tape recorder into as many individual components as possible…then put it together the next day. It almost seems silly, but each challenge is supposed to make us think about how the real world applies to biology, ways we can make biology easier to engineer, how nature cleverly solves physical problems, and so on – and it seems to work.
In addition to lecture, we also have a three-hour “studio” period on Wednesdays (denoted by the second 3), which are designed to allow for sustained and/or creative thought on a particular topic. In the first week of class, for instance, we watched presentations from the iGEM Competition (2006 and 2007); in the third week, we gave presentations on the problems and issues that mattered most to us. Coming up with solutions to some of these problems is going to be the major focus for the rest of the course, so that’s pretty exciting.
21W.746 – Humanistic Perspectives on Medicine (3-0-9)
Finally, we come to the humanities section of my life. Because MIT requires all students to take 8 classes in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, most students fulfill that requirement by taking one “HASS” class each semester they’re here. Last semester, though, I took four science classes (5.112, 7.012, 8.012, and 18.02) and no humanities, which turned out to be a pretty interesting experience. It’s definitely doable, but even so, I wouldn’t really recommend taking four science classes your first term unless you’ve given it a great deal of thought.
Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to finally be taking a humanities class again, since it gives me an opportunity to exert parts of my brain that didn’t get a ton of use during the first term, particularly my creative urges (general chemistry doesn’t usually involve writing poems) and my forensic facilities (you can’t really argue with a line integral). I consider the class I’m taking right now to be a bit of a hybrid between a class on the history of medicine and a general survey of how doctors think, work, and act.
21W.746 has no formal lecture component; instead, we have two 1.5-hour discussions where we sit in a circle and discuss various topics as a group, sort of in the Socratic fashion. Outside of class, much of the focus is placed on completing the assigned readings – since if you don’t, you won’t have anything productive to say during discussions (and will just sound like a fool when the professor inevitably calls on you to talk). There are no tests or p-sets; instead, our grade is determined by three major essays (the first, which required us to rewrite the Hippocratic Oath and justify our changes, was due last Thursday), peer review of each other’s writing, revising our essays based on our classmates’ reviews, a book review, an oral report, an oral presentation, and (of course) class participation. If that sounds like a lot, in some respects I guess it is – but you have to understand that all of these assignments are spread out across the semester, so it’s pretty manageable if you work at it consistently.
This entry is getting ridiculously long, plus I have quite a bit of work to do (i.e. studying for those 18.03 and 5.12 tests I mentioned) – so I’ll cut things off here. Before I go, though, a few miscellaneous thoughts, from most important to least:
- Decisions are about three weeks away! If your mental state is anything like mine was last year, I imagine that news is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. The release date has not been set yet, though (as usual) it should be around March 15th. I’m sure Matt or Ben will make an announcement on the blogs as soon as they know for sure. I know it’s tough, but hang in there – I’m rooting for you guys. :)
- Although MIT’s online course catalog has a pretty decent course planner utility, I used a website called ATLAS instead. ATLAS is the brainchild of Scott ’08, a Course 5 junior who’s graduating a year early (!) and also happens to be pretty good at cooking up computer code. One of my fraternity brothers, Scott is known around the house for enjoying the finer things in life – especially good food, sleeping in, and the scent of vanilla. Give ATLAS a whirl and see what your class schedule might look like next year!
- This comic pretty much sums up my life. xkcd knows me so well.