It’s official: my first semester at MIT is over. After finishing four finals in three days, I packed my bags and headed back home to South Bend. By the time you read this, I’ll have been home for over a week – but as far as I can tell, not much has changed. And yet, at the same time, everything has. Including me.
A lot can happen in a semester, especially a semester at MIT. In retrospect, I realize that – in spite of reading the blogs, in spite of talking to upperclassmen and alumni, in spite of going to CPW – I really had very little idea of what college life is like. People talk a lot about the “transition” from high school to MIT. But the word transition implies some sort of slow, controllable change.
Let me tell you something: when you get to college, change is neither slow nor controllable – it’s a process that you barely realize is happening. Growth comes in spurts and spasms, and it can hurt. The transition is not a straight line, it’s a step function. And sometimes all you can do is just hang on.
Academically, I had a bit of rough time this semester, and the main reason was 8.012. At this point, you may be wondering (understandably), why did 8.012 make me so miserable…and for what matter, what is 8.012? Well, let me give you a little background.
As part of the GIRs (short for General Institute Requirements, a set of classes that everyone must take, or pass out of, in order to graduate from MIT), most freshmen take some sort of physics their first semester here. The vast majority take a course on classical mechanics called 8.01. Basically, 8.01 takes your typical college physics class and gives it a uniquely MIT twist called TEAL, which works for some people…and simply doesn’t for others. (Karen has more to say on this topic.) For those who don’t like 8.01, or who don’t have quite as strong of a physics background, there’s an alternative class called 8.01L, which covers the same material as 8.01 but at a slower pace.
And then there’s 8.012, the accelerated version of 8.01, occasionally called Physics for Masochists…and for good reason. Even before actually coming to MIT, I had been warned about the class’s notorious difficulty. As if that weren’t enough, my parents, who have always been incredibly supportive of me and all my academic endeavors, expressed more than a little surprise when I told them about my decision. Their main point: why would I want to put myself through such a difficult class so early in my academic career, particularly when I had no ambition to be a physics major? “Well,” I replied, “I think I have a pretty good preparation in physics from high school; and, besides, I really want to challenge myself this semester, to find out where my limits are.”
So I signed up for 8.012, and – at first – life was good. I loved the professor and his lecture style, I liked my TA, I did well on all my problem sets. And then, just when everything seemed to be going so well…I failed the first test. I had never failed a test before, but this time, I absolutely blew it. Looking back, I know where I went wrong. I had a basic grasp of the necessary concepts, but I couldn’t apply them to save my life. In other words: although I understood the fundamental physical laws, I was completely lost on the details of actually solving the problems. (I also completely blanked on how to do simple harmonic motion, which turned out to be crucial. Live and learn.)
Needless to say, this did not bode well for me. Do you guys know what fifth-week flags are? Basically, they’re an official sign that you’re struggling in a course – and, well, I got one in 8.012. At this point, being flagged was basically a formality, but it definitely solidified my understanding that this was pretty serious. I talked with my professor, my freshman advisor, and my parents at length about whether or not I should continue in 8.012 or drop down to regular 8.01. The unfortunate caveat: I had only two days to make my choice.
Thinking back to those 48 hours, when I was in the middle of making a decision that could potentially impact the rest of my academic career at MIT, one memory stands out particularly vividly. I remember running into one of my good friends who was also in 8.012, and going with her as she picked up an Add/Drop Form to switch into 8.01. As she took her form, she persuaded me into taking a blank form as well – just in case I decided to switch.
The irony of the situation? She had done far better on the test than I had.
Ultimately, I decided to stick with 8.012. I wasn’t happy with my performance on the first test, but my problem set scores were strong, and I was determined to turn things around. Call it a curse, but I’m actually a very stubborn person at times (although I generally prefer to use the word tenacious), and I wasn’t willing to give up on 8.012 just yet.
So I got working. I re-evaluated a lot of things in my life – how many extra-curriculars I was involved in, how I was spending my time outside of class, how I was preparing for 8.012 itself – and I made more than a few adjustments. I started going to my professor’s office hours, I began to ask more questions during my recitations, and – most importantly of all – I ended up becoming part of a regular study group. Because our problem sets were due on Friday, we met every Thursday night at ten o’clock, like clockwork, and didn’t go home until we’d worked out every problem together. Central to our success was the fact that we didn’t simply share answers amongst one another. Rather, we actually worked with each other to make sure we all “got” every problem, from beginning to end, so we understood not just the solution, but the process behind it.
Fast forward to the middle of December. The second of our two tests had come and gone, as had our big project. (My study group and I tested the “urban legend” of whether or not a penny dropped from the Empire State Building can kill a person below. Our conclusion: yeah, it’ll hurt. But kill you? Not likely.) Although the numbers indicated I was doing better than I had – and you know how we MIT students love numbers – I wasn’t in the clear yet. One challenge remained: the 8.012 final exam.
To put it bluntly, I studied harder for that test than I ever had in my life. I used every resource I had or could find on the Web. I took previous semesters’ exams, I worked through problems I had missed on old problem sets and tests, I read and re-read the book. When exam day came, I sat down to take the test knowing I had prepared as best I could. For the next three hours – yes, final exams at MIT are three hours long! – I worked as quickly, almost feverishly, as I could to get down as much 8.012 knowledge as I knew. The final was…difficult, to say the least. But strangely enough, during the exam, something…rather extraordinary happened. For the first time all semester, I actually felt like a physicist. I was making connections that I had never before thought possible, solving problems in ways I wouldn’t have believed I was capable.
When I walked out of the exam room, I honestly had no idea how I had done – whether I had failed or passed. But I couldn’t help but feel that I had achieved some sort of victory. When I think back on the past semester, that sensation is one of the memories I treasure most. I know it’s a paradox, that I would want to remember such a taxing experience. It’s sort of like the dual meanings of IHTFP: sometimes, it’s the worst experiences in your life that matter the most.
Ultimately, this story has a happy ending. I survived 8.012. I still have that Add/Drop Form I mentioned, and I plan on keeping it until the day I graduate…a memento, of sorts. Due to the Pass/No Record policy for first-semester freshmen, I won’t know by what margin I passed until I return to MIT, at which point my advisor will personally reveal my secret grade. Whatever my final grade, though, my official transcript will always bear the simple, modest letter “P.” And that’s good enough for me.
Ultimately, though, this entry isn’t just about me. It’s about all of us freshmen here at the Institute: my comrades, my peers, my friends, who struggled with me and alongside me – not just in 8.012, but in all the classes MIT has to offer. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Caroline, Laurie, Stunes, Michael, Mark, Jenny, Jedediah, Itaru, Maddie, Rob, Beebe, Bob, Tanya, Josiah, Clara, and all the others who helped me along the way. Even if you never read this, I want you to know that you guys are my heroes – the real heroes of 8.012. Without you, I know I would never have passed.
All that said, I got a lot out of 8.012. I walked into the class with a strong grasp of single-variable calculus, plus one year of basic experience with mechanics and E&M from high school. Despite my difficulties, I walked out with a much more thorough understanding of mechanics and Newton’s laws than I had ever thought possible. I still remember learning about momentum transfer (a.k.a. “how rockets work”) as one of the first lectures where I truly “got” something, even though I know I’m never going to be a rocket scientist. Thanks to 8.012, I got my first taste of what “real physics” feels like. Because ultimately, it’s not just about solving problem sets, but looking at the world and discovering models, equations, solutions. That’s pretty special, and in fact that’s why I fell in love with science in the first place.
If you choose to take 8.012 – and I would highly encourage all of you to consider it – you almost certainly will be challenged. But that’s not a bad thing, in my book – the entire college experience is about challenging yourself, after all. And 8.012 is not impossible. You don’t need multi-variable calculus or differential equations to beat it – although your work will be harder if you don’t have a solid grasp of single-variable calculus. What you really need is to be smart, adaptive, and (most importantly) willing to work. Ultimately, 8.012 is designed to be rigorous…not to break you in half.
Because when you get right down to it, there’s really no simpler way to put it: MIT is hard. And the transition can be difficult. But that’s part of the reason Pass/No Record exists – to help ease that transition, to tone down the stress (but not the workload!) of the first semester. These past four months have, without a doubt, been the most challenging of my life – and the most rewarding. I’ve learned more about multi-variable calculus, biology, chemistry, and – of course – physics than I ever thought possible. And, perhaps even more importantly in the long run, I learned what it takes to survive at MIT. At least, I think I did. =)
As we head into the New Year, I want to wish all of you the best of luck on your applications. Wherever you find yourselves in the fall of 2008, I know you have the power and the potential, not simply to do well, but to excel. When the world kicks you down, get right up and kick it back, because life is too short to worry about what could have been. Learn from the past. Embrace the present. Look forward to the future. And, no matter what else happens, always – always – live your dreams.