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Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I'm reclaiming a little space to write today, despite being so busy my head has been spinning lately.

Tonight I have a huge test in Chemistry over three chapters: ionic bonds, covalent bonds, and stoichiometry - the main calculation base for equations in chemistry. These calculations involve conversions from mass (grams) to moles (number of molecules in a unique element's molecular weight), and all kinds of related calculations like solute concentration, diffusion of multiple chemicals, titration, empirical formulas, and so on. It's starting to get difficult to understand and even harder to be able to relate what I am learning in casual conversation. And I am still just in basic chemistry. Biochem, genetics, and molecular biology loom on the horizon.

So I am going to write about learning instead. A week ago, I was terrified of this upcoming test, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to learn all this stuff in a condensed amount of time. On top of that, I'm trying to learn an equally complex subject of biology, working full time, trying to remember what my wife looks like, and finding time for friends and leisure.

Yet somehow I did it, or at least I feel like I understand what I set out to learn over these last three chapters. For me, it's a several-step process.
1) I read the topic I am learning to get familiar with the vocabulary and concepts. I don't delve too deeply into the details. I need to put it together first.
2) I go to lecture, where the teacher then fleshes out the concepts. In any other learning situation this is like going to a seminar or hearing an expert.
3) I usually then go back and read the topics again and start to work through details. Most of my learning stress is over the transition from concept to details, because it takes time, which is often in short or poorly configured supply.
4) Then, I teach. Here's what I did this past Saturday and Sunday, and it was where the learning magic happened.

On Saturday and Sunday, I met with some school peers to study for this chemistry test. Both days were awesome because I got to connect all the dots of the information I learned. As I worked through problems and worked through explaining my understanding of how this stuff all appeared to work - and received peer's understanding, it all started to make sense.

On Saturday, I covered some topics about ionic bonds with Michelle that really solidified my understanding and helped her see the magic light bulb - stuff she was having trouble with suddenly appeared easy. Michelle is brilliant already, so it wasn't a hard stretch. But that light bulb, when all the stuff we've read and had explained and given to us finally switches on, is a great thing.

On Sunday, a larger group of study pals and I were churning out equations. Here, the practice was great. It made sense to all of us and we got to see the larger patterns of what we were trying to do. And you could start to see the comfort level and expertise improve rapidly. Joy (my dietician cohort) was kicking my butt in equation-processing-speed. A couple of other students showed up and were still working on concepts. We spent time explaining and working through it with them which also helped reinforce it in ourselves. I had a particularly fun conversation after study was nearly over that afternoon with Ashley and Aba where I got to explain some of the magic I see in the periodic table's structure, and got to see the light bulb switch on with both of them.

Learning, achieved. It can happen very rapidly, or very slowly. I see a lot of kids in classes work on rote memorization without concept application. For me, I start with concept application and work into the details. It makes remembering terms easier because there is a place to put them. And, I understand the work better, the concepts, and have a place to see where innovation could happen. Or, where my knowledge is limited.

One of the most oft-heard complaints in class is "I don't know how to study", by which I think they mean, "I don't know how I learn". I'm glad I am figuring out how I learn. After all these years in school. :)

Finally, I had a great conversation with pals Tom and Jen the other night about learning distribution: where kids seem to learn less (or perhaps just differently) nowadays but each person has a unique perspective and they work at sharing information rather than isolating it or becoming expert in it. So, balance of the system is achieved even though the individual may not have a full specialization (using an biology entropy analogy here). At first I didn't know if this is a good way to do it, but I'm thinking about it, particularly the "basic" level of what needs to be known in order to be a useful member of the collective. Thanks, Tom & Jen!

Off to do some work and then to study some more this afternoon to fortify specific formulas like molarity and titration in my head. By the time you read this, my test will be done.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Week 4 came to an unexpected close: Dallas got record-levels of snowfall so my chemistry test scheduled for last Thursday is postponed until this Tuesday. I DID take the biology test on Wednesday and I think I did awesome on it. I knew at least 90% of the answers, and several others I did a little process of elimination based on what I did know. I expect a good grade on that, and this cements me into the coursework - not that I was hugely worried, but I feel confident I can carry on at least through the semester.

Then again, chapter 4-5 in Biology is about how carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and nucleic acids are made and right now it's giving me a headache. But the snowfall created a somewhat relaxed weekend for a change, and I decided to get ahead. Lots of studying for the lab test on Monday, and chem test on Tuesday. Plus, reading ahead to try and shortcut my learning curve.

So I bought a microscope. It’s on its way this week. My friend Karen who is going to be a vet and has taken nearly exactly the coursework I am undertaking for my pre-requisites has one as well. And so do some other classmates who are getting into the medical field. So, I caved under peer-pressure a little, and microscopes are just cool if you are into all this.

I remember getting a microscope when I was a kid – for my birthday, and how much I enjoyed science. It’s kind of funny how I was all into this stuff in 5th grade and then somehow it turned into art and then computers. So, it’s somewhat gratifying. And this new microscope has all the modern features not available to an 8-year old in the 70s. Like, I can hook it up to the computer and take pictures of my microscopic discoveries.

It's not the best time to be making purchases like this, but it seems like one of the trade offs you sometimes have to make. It'll make the experience richer and is a small investment (relatively) to improve the eventual outcome. As I read through the books I keep wanting to see the stuff being talked about. I'm only able to be in the bio lab for 1 1/2 hours twice a week and that time is frantically spent doing lab packets and experiments. No time for wonder.

My first big hurdle hit last week, where it really sunk in that I won't have much time for work when I actually get into the MCN program, in a year or so. Without work, there's no income (like most of 2009), and savings are pretty low because of it. I have been hoarding what I can with the work I am doing, but it won't be enough to get me through approximately 3 years of work. So there are decisions to be made. I'm not stopping the ideal because of money, but it sure makes a dent.

So off I go - had a good valentines evening with Dawn, and studied a lot this weekend. Now wrapping up the night to get some sleep early. If all goes well, I can start the day off with a workout, some work, and then back to school.

Shout out to my friends who haven't heard much from me lately because I've been so busy. Nod to Tom and Jen who are partying it up in Vancouver at the Olympics.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Go ahead. Be explosive.

Week three of classes is complete, but the studying must go on. The first three weeks of biology and chemistry were reminiscent of things I learned in high school, and as dim as that past is, I still found that I understood what we were talking about in these classes. Now, however, the realm of the really unknown is creeping in. For example, we're learning about electrons in much greater detail: their orbits, direction, spin, pathways, and all sorts of things like that.

We've covered the the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and some Einstein equations and quantum numbers, quantum angular momentum, and so on.

I'm probably making it sound more impressive than it is, because my chem professor has told us we are only seeing the results of some heart-stoppingly difficuly equations, and I believe him. I'm walking into a lot of this not knowing what the hell we are talking about, but after digesting it some, I seem to be asking the right questions. I also seem to be the only one asking questions. A couple of times the professor said I am thinking one class ahead - that the stuff I am trying to figure out - because it doesn't make direct sense - is more complex than what is covered in this class. But, he said he likes I am thinking that way, and the things I am figuring out on my own are very good. Even if I don't totally understand it, my thinking is right.

What's really been interesting is that these past 3 weeks have really highlighted how I learn. I never did a lot of great studying in high school and so rather than focus on that lack, I see it as an opportunity to learn how to study MY way. I'm finding that I have a 3-phased approach: read the chapter, listen to lecture, and read the chapter again. This leads to the 4th-phase: epiphany, where I totally get what we were reading and being taught. It's quite an "Aha!" moment each time.

What I've discovered also is that I have a terrible time with rote memorization of words. Just reading words or memorizing terms is almost impossible for me. I have to connect something to it and visualize it to really remember it.

This weekend is a challenging weekend: I have several social events happening while at the same time I need to study for two unit tests (Chapters 1-3 in Biology on Wednesday ad Chapters 1-3 in Chemistry on Thursday). Both will be tough. I'm told VERY tough. Good. Bring it. Let's see what I've learned. I also have to start studying chapter 4 for each class. Busy weekend.

So, I am off to go attend an information session at the school I am hoping to eventually attend: UT Southwestern Medical Center. My first social activity of the weekend. Catch ya next time!

P.S. First lab in chemistry yesterday. I did NOT blow up the lab, despite promises to the contrary.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Uncommon commonalities

Monday came too quickly this week after studying pretty much all weekend long. My first homework of the semester was due on Monday - some practice questions for extra credit in Biology. They were over Dimensional Analysis, a way of converting from one unit to another that involves the metric system. I love it and wish I'd known about it in high school. It's entirely possible I was taught it then. :D

As I arrived on campus and saw stressed classmates in the study and help areas, it became clear that there are different levels of students. It seems that most of them hadn't given themselves enough time to do the work, and didn't understand what they were doing. I was really surprised that nearly everyone I spoke to said they only did 3 or 4 of the 12-problem assignment. And then as we were about to turn in the work, I saw people hurriedly copying things they forgot to do because they hadn't read the instructions well (show work in pencil on another sheet of paper) when the teacher re-iterated them just before turn-in. In contrast, I felt like a geek for being prepared - 3 pages of clearly shown work on 12 problems, answers boxed, etc, ready to go when I walked in. I also felt smart. And I'm just surprised at the seeming general level of unpreparedness. Maybe I really am from another planet. Or, as my grandmother often asserts - a genius. They really made me look like a genius.

All that aside, I really like the Biology class a lot. The teacher is great - she has a calendar and tells us exactly all the points and grading system and so on which removes all the administrative questions and wondering. She also has a great way of understanding the material and relating that to us in examples, interactive questions, and so on. The lab was a ton of fun even though it was basically working through measurement problems (volume, density, length, weight, etc). Biology is great. I'm learning a lot of really interesting and detailed things that clarify things I thought I knew, but have an inflection I'd not understood before. School rocks.

Chemistry is going to be interesting but it's moving at a slower pace. Tonight, the 3rd night of class we are getting into Atoms. The teacher is more ambiguous about the tests and has an interesting Scottish/Hindu/Asian accent I can't place which sometimes makes it hard to hear terms he's using. "Eelehmens" = "Element". But it's not a huge obstacle. He clearly knows what he's talking about, and he also is teaching me many things about chemistry I sort of knew about that now is becoming more concrete.

Overall, I have the theme of nutrition in mind, though, and I take examples from chemistry and make them nutritious. For example, you can determine units of energy to see how many kilojoules make a 100-watt light bulb run for x hours. I determined you can run a 100-watt lightbulb for 640 hours off of one Big Mac. Converting from kcals to joules, of course. The special sauce = calories. Hehe.

I'm also paying a lot of attention to the assumptions of things as we go through them. I want to make sure that the chemistry I learn and the biology I learn have a meaningful impact on the ultimate education for nutrition - that the reasons for science don't eclipse the benefits for humans. I don't want to get so lost in the science that I forget that humans are really who benefit or lose. In the business world I've seen technology and greed usurp the individual too often. Just because we can figure out how to remove diseases from food through adding chemicals and changing properties doesn't mean we've created a great thing.

So my break is over. It's been a break-neck speed week so far and I am ready to try for some sleep - it's a balance of staving off cedar allergies that are primed to attack when I lay down and getting my mind to slow down.

P.S. Don't heat up hydrogen peroxide. I learned today it explodes spectacularly, despite having only one more oxygen molecule than water (H202 vs H20).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Week 1 done

I'm really looking forward to chemistry lab, and tonight was going to be the first one, but there was no lab because it's the first week of class and they are still organizing and need to train us on safety and stuff. So I got to go home after the lecture tonight; no opportunities to blow shit up. It's probably for the best - I feel like hell. The poor girl next to me in chem lecture kept looking at me as if I might detonate. I kept trying not to cough and was turning red, tearing up. I was terrified I was going to cough and shoot one of the cough drops I had perpetually in my mouth across the room. "Teacher Killed by Fisherman's Friend" - I can see the report now.

So week 1 is officially done. Class at least. I have a lot of studying for Monday. Due on Monday: extra credit work for Biology - Dimensional Analysis problems. I also have to study 15 Latin words for our regular Monday Root Quiz. Each week, 15 more words + 5 words from any prior week.

I only need to read 1 chapter in each class however. This seems alien after having had to cram 3-4 chapters per week in my last class. I sort of distrust it. Speaking of which, I finally found out I got a B in Statistics. Nice way to start college again, especially after that speed of light class.

I think the hard part of my classes will be the memorization (I'm pretty bad at this) and the math because it's not a natural way for me to think. I have to find a way to turn my usual familiar logic into this particularly mathematical way of logic to get through Chem (especially) and Bio. But I'm really looking forward to getting deeper into both classes.

Exhausted. Off to bed. Please let me wake up alive tomorrow, slightly more resistant to cedar. Cedar how I hate thee.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Biology and Chemistry

It's on now. I have now had two classes: Chemistry on Tuesday (lecture), and Biology (lab + lecture) tonight. I am excited! I really like both professors, and I think I'm going to do well. The mean age of the students in class is "fresh out of high school" with a few of us old-timers there trying to learn something new.

And some of it is new. Some of it is common sense. My first homework assignment for Chemistry is to read the first chapter and to learn the metric system. For Biology, it's to not blow anything up in lab and to read the first chapter in the huge book. And to never miss a lab. And to learn the metric system.

One of the coolest things both teachers taught us on the first day is the dimensional analysis method - something I wish I'd learned in my first math class because it would have made my math classes afterward SO much easier. It's a form of factoring out units when converting from one unit to another (like years to seconds as in how many seconds in a year or like how many atoms are in glucose). But it makes doing those calculations almost breathtakingly easy.

I have a Chemistry lab and lecture tomorrow and then homework is on for Monday! Labs start in earnest next week. I'll be spending a lot of time in labs looking in microscopes at extremely small things, and combining elements together to make things "react". This is what all boys live for.

It's a pretty big change, going to school, not just for all the school stuff, but just for getting out of the house for a change. I don't care for the frantic drive TO school as I try to migrate from the day's work efforts to the night's learning efforts. But, the drive home at 9pm is pretty quiet and I pass right by downtown, all lit up and beautiful in only the way a big city can be.

Off to try and get some sleep for once. The mountain cedar has been terrible for both Dawn and I the last few days. I swore left and right this morning I had the flu, but it's merely the agony of cedar fever. It really robs the day of its energy and robs the night of clear sequential sleep.

One positive-ish note. I'm likely going to be losing weight going to school - it creates a large buffer in the midst of the day where I can't really eat, and makes me be more proactive about what I eat. Plus all my classes are on the second and third floors of these tall science and administration buildings that I have to scurry to each night as we move from lecture to lab classrooms. And, ultimately, I will be eating out less because I am busy. All this is good. See, school IS good for you.

Monday, January 18, 2010

29 pounds to go.

What can I say? It's been over a month since I promised to post about school and I've already finished one class. It was a beast of a class.

It's not that I don't like statistics. In fact I found it very interesting and extremely useful in processing information in a more mathematical way. But several things impeded my progress at a smooth learning process.

First, it was an accelerated class - 4 months of learning into 4 weeks. This meant two unit tests per week over 2-3 chapters each (there was a print + online test each week). I'm not gifted with math like my friend Janine (whose repeated pleas for leveling to 80 I have had to sacrifice in favor of higher education despite my better judgment - I can't complain, she has a couple of kids, a husband, a job, is in college for accounting, and she lives in Oklahoma - all difficult things).

So, not being gifted in math, my thought in taking an accelerated math class was to get it done with quickly. I also have work right now and I spend the day working and the evenings (usually until 2-ish studying). In retrospect, I should know that for classes I have trouble with I should take more time rather than less. So the initial problem was my faulty American-centric hurry and do it fast approach. Lesson learned.

My own transgression aside, it went downhill from there. This class was over the holiday, so I was able to take the first two tests of unit 1 after an intense first week. The second week was Christmas, so I studied like crazy around holiday cheer but was unable to take the 2nd written unit test because the college testing center closes with the rest of the college for the week between Christmas and New Year.

Week three was terrible because I was learning week 3 stuff (remember, it was over 3 chapters of unfamiliar mathematical formulas) and studying for week 2 stuff (2 chapters) so I could take the tests. On December 29-30 the primary software system we use for lectures, assignments, and online tests underwent regular maintenance - meaning I couldn't access it. Upon their return on December 31, they had a new bug that caused me and many of my classmates to be able to not save about 1 in 5 assignment or test questions and would freeze the system. I'd have to re-do the problem (this sometimes is a 30-minute calculation ordeal). I finally got the week 2 tests done in the late part of week 3, and crammed hard to get back to week 3 as I went into week 4.

Week 4 saw me taking the week 3 tests and catching up with studying for the last 3 chapters of the book. I took the last two tests Wednesday and Thursday this past week. Class over. Whew. On the last day of class, I got an email from the math software company saying they'd fixed the freezing/can't save answers issue. Frakking software industry. That I am currently part of.

The teacher emailed me today and told me that he hadn't received my 4th written test yet from the downtown test center I took it from, so I will temporarily have a "not complete" until he receives and grades it. So for now I don't know what my grade is. I suspect a B somewhere. (Calculating the weighted average is actually something I can do now, but I need grades to do it. My online score - 26% of my grade - is a 99.4%. My first written test was an 85%. The other grades are unknown).

So tonight I am writing because tomorrow it starts again - this time IN class. I start Chemistry 1 tomorrow evening at a classroom on the Eastfield College campus in NE Dallas. Wednesday starts Biology 1, which is a pre-requisite for Anatomy and Physiology. My weeks get busy, but I'll try to write in between homework, work, and that part of the day where sanity is renewed. I've heard legends say that they call it sleep.

Despite the intensity and drama that it sounds like, it's a lot of fun so far and I can't wait for the next classes to start.