Why do I now suck at STEM?
Knowing my ambitions are to one day work in the STEM centered field of aerospace, this essay might seem a touch controversial, but so is my academic transcript so I feel I can explain some things…
When I was in high school, I excelled in math, science (especially physics), and really anything when it came to STEM. I understood it, I could process it, and I was very much in the top of my classes when it came to it. My weakest subjects were by far social sciences and English, or to group everything together ‘the arts’.
Flash forward to my 5th year of university, my final semester of my undergraduate degree- there has been a complete transition in my academic standings. My design, English, and history classes have moved into the honours with distinction, but my engineering courses have dived into the ‘oh god I hope I pass’ range. And yet, my interest and love for the material has not changed. So what did? Why do I now suck at STEM?
Throughout my Bachelor of Design degree, I participated in what’s called the ‘engineering route’. Meaning, all my electives were senior level engg courses (primarily mechanical and civil) that I otherwise would not be eligible to take. As a result, I experienced two worlds during my degree, one highly ‘academic’, structured, and objective (engineering), the other being non-linear, more exploratory, and targeted the messy nature of human experiences (human-centered design). Although both design and engineering have multiple similarities (which is a conversation for another day), a large difference is the approach to tackling and understanding subject matter.
When I transitioned into the bachelor of design program, I had never participated or taken a single art class. I have a distant childhood memory of walking down a street and thinking design could be a cool career. But as far as knowledge, understanding, and capacity to execute- I really had none. Therefore, due to nessisity I had to engulf myself in the field of design and attempt to restructure my thought process and how I tackled assignments.
When it came to my studies I worked alone. It was an absolute requirement. In engineering, although sometimes you got support from other students, your work was individual. BDes quickly dissolved this; every project was heavily collaborative, and group based. I had to adapt to thinking not as an individual but as a team member, learning to include other opinions, avoiding individual bias and communicating thought process to both group members, clients, and users. When it comes to human-centered design, its essential to have different perspectives, backgrounds, and expertise in a room tackling the issue. Something we learn to understand is controlling our assumptions about human behavior. You rarely relate to a user, therefor your behaviors, thought processes and opinions may not align with the wants, needs, and expectations of the people you are designing for. I began to become adjusted to this iterative, debate like approach to design.
Another thing I learnt; is you’re work is never complete. Often you end up sacrificing your nights, not due to time management but rather ‘if I spend 6 more hours on these renders’ they will be that much more successful in executing an idea. Often projects were left unfinished- this is due to the reality that a month is a very short period for a human-centric design (that is if you want to include user research, reviews, prototyping and iteration of course). There became understanding on an ever-changing line of completeness. Each assignment subjective to the material. Each assignment requesting a varying number of contents that could effectively explain the design.
These learnings contradicted the approach taken in my engineering courses. I began to struggle with the linear, weekly assignments, each requiring exact results or solutions to a problem or lab. I was also beginning to realize that unless you are spending 100% of your time to learning the various facets it was almost impossible to keep up with the lingo and discussion (i.e.. Myself only doing 1 out of the 5 engg classes that my peers were doing made it very difficult to maintain a competitive understanding). It was taking me about 3x more time to understand a problem then the engineering students. Synchronously, I was beginning to find my voice as a designer, understanding the design process more, learning how to focus on specific factors of a solution, or map a path to ones that wouldn’t be feasible within an assignment’s timeframe. I really began to enjoy and thrive in the design environment and courses. There was a level of vulnerability, honesty, and humour in many of our assignments, that formed human connections and friendships I value very highly to this day.
Do I regret it?
There was an steady transition of grades from high to low in engineering and vice versa for design. Because of that, my GPA and transcript has suffered heavily, especially when looking at the averages achieved in the general route of my program. But now knowing the time, stress, and shot to my grades that would occur if I did the engineering route within BDes, would I switch to the general route? Absolutely not.
I truly believe that forming a nexus between different disciplines and fields can unlock break through thinking and creative curiosity. I am no where near an expert in Matlab, stress analysis of materials, or gear systems. But what I’ve learnt to bring is a design perspective who thinks about the user and their experiences while understanding the technical lingo and hopefully facilitating better communication, and collaboration across backgrounds in knowledge. I would like to think I can sympathize with both worlds in how they approach problems- I have been in many rooms where designers and engineers’ smash heads on the best direction. Often leading to frustration and sometimes resentment, it’s been beneficial to have strategies of navigation that can overcome these roadblocks in opinions.
These skills, I think will prove more useful in my pursuit of the technical field of aerospace through a human-centered design perspective than a high GPA. Do I stress people will see that I failed math 115 and barely passed it the second time (absolutely). But what I hope to do is utilize my skills of communication as a designer. I didn’t get 100% in MecE 390, but I now know Matlab can represent stress and strain of different fabrics. And that understanding, for example, could move communication forward in a transdisciplinary project developing a series of durable clothing for people living in cold climates without warm shelter.