Previously, we discussed the boost in self-confidence gained during the course of doing a PhD once we realize that it’s OK to admit to not knowing everything.
However, starting to study for the FE/EIT exam made me truly embarrassed by just how much of the engineering fundamentals I had forgotten since allegedly becoming an engineer. FE stands for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, which qualifies one to be an Engineer-in-Training, the first step to becoming a licensed professional engineer or PE.
When I was in college, I never heard of this exam that is apparently a ritual for final year engineering undergrads across the country. In my first job after graduation, I worked under a PE, but I never thought of trying to become one. When I graduated from college, I thought I was through with exams, and when I finished my PhD, I was absolutely convinced of it. I want no more tests! No more studying for anything!
Until my husband came home one day and said he was being encouraged by his company to go for his metallurgical PE. I thought about it, then told him I’d sign up for the April 2012 exam with him. We could study together. It could be fun!! Also, I liked the idea of refreshing my memory on my fundamentals. It would be good for me. Throwing myself into the deep end of the pool is my preferred method of learning how to swim.
Surprisingly (or not), my husband punted the exam. He stood by his decision as soon as he witnessed me studying. Forget him, I thought. I’m going to kick this exam’s butt, and then I’m going to get my PE, and then I will be a metallurgical master.
I did my homework and in early January, Lindeburg’s FE Review Manual and the board-approved calculator arrived in the mail. If you buy this particular book, at least your money will be refunded if you fail the exam. Fifty-four chapters and 3 months to go? Let’s do this!
The first day of studying was a harsh wake-up call. The brain is like a muscle – if you haven’t exercised it in a while, it’s going to be stiff and sore. I started with a diagnostic math test, and couldn’t do half the questions (in my defense, I didn’t realize I was supposed to take it after completing all the math chapters). But seriously? I remember doing problems exactly like these straight out of the textbook. I bypassed first semester calculus by getting a 5 on the Calculus BC advanced placement test, and now I can’t do an integral? Oh, it was incredibly slow going. Fifty-four chapters, plus diagnostic exams after each unit? One chapter per day, one hour per chapter? Not likely! This is not going to be a good time.
Little by little, as I worked through the initial chapters of math and physics, it started to come back. All those little mental tricks and mnemonics I came up with so long ago to solve math and physics problems through countless problem sets and tests. Just like riding a bicycle. I know that sounds like a total cliche, but it’s true. OK, maybe more like a Hollywood amnesiac.
In high school and college, I was always great with book-larnin’ and I was an awesome test-taker. I do great when handed the criteria to meet to be successful – the real world tends to be short on grading rubrics.
Looking at the big picture, the important thing isn’t being able to still do integrals after 10 years, it’s that when the need arises, we have the tools to figure out how to do it. We were exposed to it in the past, we already did all the hard learning before, and we can refresh our memories to do it again. In theory.
We all kick out old knowledge to make room for what’s relevant and salient now and especially what’s used on a daily basis. I may not remember how to do every type of integral of solve a differential equation like I once could. But as a practicing scientist and engineer in materials and metallurgy, you better believe I can tell you about all the families of aluminum alloys and point you toward the ones which are strongest or more corrosion-resistant. For instance.
On the other hand, I can still recall my landline number from 3 houses ago and the face of every guest star I’ve ever seen on The X-Files. So go figure.