First Week Finished (6 – October – 2019): Modules, Books, Simulation Software and a Tip for Group Projects

The first week of university presented itself lightly, but while expectations were not met it gave me some time to revise circuit theory which would be much needed as background for electronics. My schedule for the third semester will consist of the following subject matters:

  • Computer Programming Project [2 ECTS]
  • Numerical Methods (Lectures, Laboratories and Project) [4 ECTS]
  • Biomedical Signal Processing (Lectures and Laboratories) [4 ECTS]
  • Electronics (Lectures and Laboratories) [4 ECTS]
  • Introduction to Biomaterials (Lectures and Laboratories) [4 ECTS]
  • Medical Imaging Techniques (Lectures, Laboratories and Project) [4 ECTS]
  • Computer Aided Calculations (Lectures and Laboratories) [2 ECTS]
  • Polish Language [2 ECTS]

All together eight subjects in total, however one less than in previous semesters due to the dropping of physical education. The problem with previous semesters has always been to have breadth but at the same time depth of knowledge which presents a great challenge. Let us see what we have to work with.

Physical education is, to me, the easiest module because it does not require intensive studying. Choosing a martial arts for physical education if given the choice may increase workload if instructor and your fellow colleagues in this area of fitness are serious (this would translate to the need to practice more regularly). However, it would be a more worthwhile sport than simply going to the gym if done right. Other than the benefit of self-defense, it can also present a way to improve endurance in other exercises depending on the warm-up and intensity of practice executed. However, it is generally impossible to become an excellent martial artist without practice with a partner if your goal is self-defence as in any real-life situation you will not be dealing with air (unless your main goal is only fitness). If those surrounding you are not engaged enough or have preferences to practice with certain people other than you then it is perhaps best to opt out of physical education if possible and find a school to join that has a more appropriate atmosphere. But then why would physical education even be important if it does not contribute to any grades since doing something like fifty pushups does not teach you about solving double integrals? More about this in a later post.

Language is, in my opinion, another very easy subject but only from the perspective of class dynamics (this ease can have problems). While for first-time learners it can be incredibly difficult, having a good grounding in the basics of a language can make learning other parts enjoyable. Emphasising grammar exhorbitantly will lead to the problem of lack of conversational skills and trudgery when applying in other real-life situations. Many people advocate the learning of a language via the memorisation and constant practice of complete sentences and whole phrases. This approach has great merits but I believe that it can only be effective if the learner has some prior background of the language such as having learned the basics first concerning sentence structure, retaining a small but useful vocabulary and knowing some of the grammatical rules. Set phrases are good for beginners but, for more inflected languages such as Polish, should be supplemented with lessons on grammar to enable aspiring bilinguals to more flexibly create sentences and to understand them when their syntax has been manipulated or there are subtle modifications in the general meaning. However, a good rule of thumb would be to practice both recognition and recall of words which can be tested in a variety of ways, for example, from translating sentences in one’s native tongue to the foreign language without the help of a dictionary (all about forcing memory), and speaking of course. Starting out just by the recognition of words and phrases may be a good motivator but if not complemented with its counterpart it will run the risk of turning the student into the equivalent of an asymmetric duplex interface.

  • Jak się masz? Jak się macie? – Both phrases are used to ask how someone or some people are doing, as in the English “How are you?”. However, one weakness of memorising set phrases is that in the second phrase (Jak się macie?) identification of the second-person plural verb conjugation instead of that of second-person singular may be lost. This expresses the importance of supplementing lessons with grammar. While this is a rather innocuous example and in actual fact the two phrases may be used synonymously (especially for the second sentence by those who had grown up in a communist environment where the second-person plural was considered a formal way of address), in more advanced conversation this could increase misunderstandings in other phrases.

Returning to the first point mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph, problems begin to arise when fellow colleagues are not enthusiastic to learn a language. This can happen because of a variety of reasons of which the major ones could be:

  • Seeing language lessons as a time to relax from the stresses of core studies. And its synonym, being too overworked to switch mental orientation as it is no surprise that language learning can be more intensive than solving an algebra or some other technical problem.
  • Signing up for language lessons for a language that you did not want to learn in the first place because of a lack of choice (this is especially true for central European universities where learning a second or third language is mandatory).
  • Coasting along or not seeing the immediate value in learning a language.

There are solutions to such issues but I will cover them in another post. But because of an atmosphere of disinterest in the class, learning a language can quickly become boring and dull especially when others are not on a sufficient level to practice with you or simply do not care. If this occurs and the teacher has no control over the classroom, and it is impossible to change language learning groups, it would be best to opt out of the classes by asking to take an exam or a test which would exempt one from taking up language for the semester. And then self-study the language if it was truly what you wanted to acquire. In the long-term it would save time, especially for those who need to commute or drive for moderate to long distances to attend language lessons.

In essence, this brings down the core and intensive number of subjects to seven. Be that as it may, this still presents the problem of acquiring depth in each subject. While not every subject will take an equal amount of time to learn one key concept, as it may be easier to learn one key concept in one subject than in another, difficulties are abound when switching mental orientations on a regular basis. Mathematics is essential for learning Circuit Theory and Electronics, not much of a paradigm shift here. But designing a circuit for a particular purpose is more difficult than solving a set of prescribed problems whether from mathematics or electronics. Therefore, the difficulty may not inherently be in switching from topic to topic (especially if they build upon one another or are inter-related in some ways) but may be in switching between levels of activity. For anyone planning to work in corporate after graduating from Information Systems in Medicine, simply having completed a degree is not enough and this is often true for all degrees. A degree is truly important, as it is a sign of perseverance and to a lesser extent mental aptitude, but other skills are required as well. In a computer-oriented field, making yourself more attractive often means having a portfolio of projects undertaken for one. Though, working on projects to improve a portfolio can be tiring as it takes more mental energy to design rather than internalise theory from a book. And then comes the question how are you going to make yourself stand-out? Designing a game is nice but there is a saturation of them. Then something related to the simulation of the mechanism of action of a specific disease or drug or an algorithm that can calculate the potential for X disease occurring given certain parameters, if the firm is more oriented in the sciences. But then that would require a good grounding not only in simulation modelling but also in biology, perhaps medical biochemistry, immunology, etc… Here then, not only does one have to come up with a scheme for the application, but also apply different areas of knowledge, make use of practical programming skills and come up with a way of testing the final product. This is a different paradigm to simply internalising theory. While theory is important, priorities say that it should not be your only goal for finishing university. Concisely, university, especially technically-oriented, should teach students how to design.

Breadth lacking depth is not very useful and comes across as superfluous while depth lacking breadth is too narrow-minded. Since simulation is a complex topic in itself it will be left for another time. Instead, let us focus on applied knowledge. One proposition would be to have a systematic study plan that consists of a few parts of theory and problem-solving mixed with a few parts of reading journals or scientific papers. Due to the length of this topic and the provided example, it has been moved to a separate post. The reason for why I would recommend such an approach would be that not only can scientific journals and papers reinforce concepts learned from core subjects but also foster a mind for applying concepts to real-life applications (of course not all papers are oriented towards the applied sciences, and sometimes non-applied knowledge can also be important). Additionally, if searching for a topic for a bachelor’s project or planning to enter the research stream, having internalised information from such sources can enable one to be better prepared for designing a project or a research proposal as one can draw from a pool of previously internalised ideas and other information rather than only having theoretical knowledge to work with. Obviously, due to quandaries in the academic world with the present-day “publish or perish” attitude and the temptation to go on ego-trips which translates to more incomprehensible material (showing off knowledge rather than communicating it), you can face great setbacks rather than intellectual development when taking this approach. But I will try to tackle these problems next time.

Nevertheless, depth will always be a continuous challenge at university especially when there are assignments and projects competing for your time. Projects can be especially fatal if they are done in groups. Motivation has always been a constant headache, especially when colleagues believe that they will be passed anyway regardless of their level of effort. Motivation has always been a great obstacle to overcome especially when you are serious about the group project but others would rather coast along. From personal experience, the fear of failing a module is not nearly sufficient to persuade effectively. In my opinion there is a lot of leeway given to students in central European universities, and while this reduces the stress on passing on the first attempt it lulls the lazy and uninitiated into sublimity. Motivating other group partners can be done but depending on the social dynamics can be a lengthy process and may bear no fruits in the end especially when group partners feel a sense of entitlement. It has been found in one social study that assigning simple tasks to individuals in a group project that would then be executed upon successfully would provide people with more confidence and enthusiasm to carry on with greater and more difficult responsibilities, notably in the face of failure, than initially delegating large blocks of a project to be accomplished (Prescosolido, 2003). This approach can have merits when the deadline of a group assignment is moderately long or a great time away. But with work that has to be finished on a tight schedule there may be no room to gradually build confidence and so to be an effective unit everyone must sensibly tackle larger portions of the project in a shorter amount of time. I will not bother with further details about group projects, since there are in existence thousands of articles detailing their advantages, disadvantages, models and so on. However, if you are ever in a group project never underestimate the need to come up with a plan literally written on paper that everyone would agree on. That way, everyone’s responsibilities are stated clearly with explicit deadlines and no ambiguity. Therefore, if someone fails to deliver or contribute due to laziness then you have clear grounds for expelling them and they cannot return to exact revenge on you because of feelings of entitlement. Although it takes more effort, having a clear plan of action in the beginning would prevent a lot of pain and hassle in the future particularly in protecting your reputation and the validity of your actions.

Because, as mentioned, the week was light, there was not much of a chance to get a feel for all subjects. So far, only Electronics and Computer Aided Calculations took place. Ideally, I should be doing some self-study for other subjects nevertheless. In the previous week I took some time out to do some revision for circuit theory.

I have plenty of books at the moment but before I can recommend any of them I must have some exposure to them first. But for those who would like to master all the fundamentals of circuit theory I would highly recommend Robbins’ and Miller’s “Circuit Theory and Practice”. With all concepts explained in blocks and with plenty of exercises all the way through this book is very digestible. After completing it I would then recommend heading over to “Principles of Electronics” by Sangeet Choudhary. Another very digestible book explaining everything from the fundamentals of electricity to transistors, operational amplifiers and switching theorems. However, one criticism I have of it is that it only consists of multiple choice questions as exercises.

As circuit theory simulation software I am using OpenModelica. While intuitive for creating simulations of circuits I would not exactly endorse it because of the difficulty in getting it to run on Linux. I suspect the issue to be broken source-code packages. It yields no results on Synaptic Package Manager and installing it from the compilation of source code spits out errors that won’t go away no matter how many dependencies you try to resolve. I would opt out for PSpice but my installation manager tells me the package available for Linux is broken. In the end I settled for the option of downloading the pre-configured Virtual Disk image to be run under Oracle Virtualbox from their official website. While it runs perfectly on my current desktop environment, it does seem to be the least-preferred method in a way due to the amount of disk space the .vdi file takes (7 GB). But the fact that it is advertised for home and industrial use adds some attraction to the product that might overlook its non-user friendly set-up. Let us see what I can do with it. First up, I will have to make time to read its lengthy manual.

That shall be it for the first post. I will be sure to come up with more continuous updates and with posts that consist of a greater depth and breadth of content.


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