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Some ideas for improving the MAE department at UCD

by Jason Moore — last modified May 25, 2011 08:18 PM

I wrote these ideas down and sent them to our department grad student advisor a while back and thought I'd tidy them up and post to the web, so other folks could see them.

I was invited to participate in the prospective students day at our department this year (you know the day we try to woo the top 25 applicants to come to our department for their grad degree). I had a nice time, but I think it was mostly because I actually got to speak with other current grad students and hear a bit about what they thought the department is like. It got me thinking about several ideas I have about improving the department and this is what I wrote to our grad student advisor a couple days after the event.
I had a good time this week interacting with the prospective students. That was the most engaging one I've participated in. I particularly enjoyed the Q & A session, but not just because the prospective students asked good questions. What I found more interesting was listening to my fellow grad students perspective on things. The different views of the department, profs, etc were enlightening. The contrast of new to old grad student opinions was certainly apparent and I hope I shared some of my wisdom from the past 6 years. This leads me to a few thoughts I have about life in MAE that I'd like to share with you:
1. We need a forum for grad students to communicate. I had only previously met a few of the current graduate students that were participating in the events this week and most of them I met in the past year. And I've been here almost 6 years. This certainly may be primarily my fault, but I think there may be more to it. The bagel days are great, but it seems only 1st years attend. We need more avenues to meet our fellow students and discuss important matters about school life. The meal you organized in the fall was the first in long time and I think that was great. I remember in my first year or so, Amelia, organized a Q &A session for current grad students. I'd love to see one of these a quarter. It could be something where we ask the chair, staff and profs questions. Or it could be something where we ask each other questions. I can also imagine some kind of email list for social activities and even one to discuss wading through department/university bureaucracy, research questions etc.
2. A "what it takes to be a grad student in MAE" wiki that is written by grad students. We have the grad student handbook but this doesn't tell you all about the non-paperwork related things. A way to write down and share advice, tips, etc for other grad students would be very valuable.

3. Forum to communicate to researchers (certainly in our department, but a school wide method would be good to). I continually find my self in a position in my research where I don't know how to do something or I don't have the tools to do it. I typically ask my lab mates and my immediate Profs for help. Often that works, but many times it doesn't and I need tools or help outside of my small study sphere. Just within our department we have lots labs with lots of tools and lots of really knowledgeable profs and researchers, but we have very little idea what they do, what they know and what tools they have. It would be amazing if we could communicate so that we can help each other and share the knowledge and tools. The kind of work we are excepted to do these days can't be done by a single person, you are almost always faced with the need for interdisciplinary knowledge. Our department isn't so good at working as a team on these interdisciplinary things. These are often the kinds of questions I have that I think could easily be answered if I could somehow get the ear of the many researchers in our department all at once:
  1. Does anyone have a rate table to calibrate rate gyros?
  2. I need to learn the mathematics of a Kalman Filter, has anyone worked with these before?
  3. Does anyone know about X? (X being anything in MAE related research)
I often have these questions and my immediate peers can't help me. I then trek the hard road and somehow figure it out or buy some expensive equipment, only to find later that the guy in the closed lab next to me knew all about it and had the equipment I needed. This is absurd! What a waste of everyone's time and resources. And we miss the opportunity to work with others in the department. An email list or forum could be a solution to this, but I'm sure there are others.
4. Closed labs. Virtually all of the labs are behind a windowless, closed and locked door. I hardly know what goes on in anyone's lab. Occasionally on picnic day you get to see inside of some labs, but in general we don't know what others are doing. I'd love to have yearly lab tours by and for the researchers in our department. This could help solve #3. The occasional MAE seminar by a researcher in our department isn't really enough. I've been here 6 years and continue to get surprised about different peoples labs. I just wish that happened early on.

5. Shared resources. This is probably a Engineering College wide issue that relates to 3 and 4. I spent a year in the Netherlands @ TU Delft and found that all the labs had windows so you knew what was going on. Secondly they had this fantastic room called the "Measurement and Tool Room" or something like that. Anytime I needed a tool like a temperature sensor, digital level, data acquisition box etc, I'd walk down to that room ask for the item, sign my name and then go use for what I need. When I was done, I turned it back in. This was amazing. Every lab in the college doesn't have to have a digital level. So instead of the College buying 50 levels, they buy 5. Most tools and equipment are used rarely in the labs and there is no need for lots of them. This was a beautiful system. It also employed undergraduate students to manage the room. I'm sure it saves a ton a cash even with paying an undergrad to do it.
6. We need a representative(s) at faculty meetings. At Delft, PhD students are not students, they are employees. This may be very common in Europe. We got to attend faculty meetings an be part of the decision making process. It was fantastic, I was in the dark about so fewer things. I've been in school for 11 years post graduating from high school, yet I still am treated like a lowly undergrad in many ways. Grad students have virtually no voice in decision making in the department and college. We have some from the GSA for the university as a whole, but little beyond that. If we could at least have one or two reps at faculty meetings that could report to us, give us a voice in the decisions, and create a stronger link among the department, staff and students.
Ok, that's a lot. I'll stop now. Six years builds up lots of thoughts about how things work, I'm sure I have many more. I hope that they are constructive.
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