— David Wagner 2008/02/01 12:42
I would like to figure out how to build things better and show people how to do it.
At the front of a crowded auditorium, Dr. Bagley passed a few words of encouragement along with graded engineering analysis exams to each nervous student queuing before him. I grinned, relieved, when I saw my score, then he surprised me by asking whether I'd consider changing my major from civil engineering. My response, “But, I like to build things,” though accurate enough for the brevity required at that moment, didn't tell the whole story. Had I been prepared for the question, perhaps I could have told him more precisely, “I would like to figure out how to build things better.”
This is the reason I chose undergraduate study of civil engineering, though I was inspired to do so by an architect looking for some help with mathematics. In an appendix to book one of “The Nature of Order”, Christopher Alexander asks for help developing a formal mathematical description of the theory he describes verbally and visually in this work. But few architectural programs include a great deal of mathematics in their curricula, and in fact, the material in Vitruvius' classic “Ten Books on Architecture” are a more accurate outline of a modern civil engineering program. Over the millennia since its publication, as a topic in the Ten Books has been understood mathematically, it has moved from the domain of architecture to that of engineering. For the mathematical background needed to understand how to build things, I completed a bachelor of science in civil engineering, magna cum laude, at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). A score of 90 on the Fundamentals of Engineering qualifying exam is further evidence I have learned the basics of modern design and construction techniques.
Of course, it takes more than mathematics to build things; politics is involved in nearly every aspect of construction. In 2005, I campaigned for a seat on the board of the San Antonio River Authority. Although I didn't win that election, I placed well and learned a few things about how politics works in Bexar county, Texas. In 2006-2007 I served in a much more modest office, that of Corresponding Secretary for the Texas Mu chapter of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honors society. And, if the decision to set some smart people of good character to build something conventional is a political one, the decision to build something better (but different) is even more so.
The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation graciously awarded me a grant to work on an independent research project with Dr. Hogenaur, a UTSA civil engineering professor, now retired. With his help, I was able to develop an original mathematical model to determine the optimal proportions of clay, sand, and straw to use in each different layer of a composite earthen well. This project reinforced how many branches of mathematics are applied to civil engineering problems. and how the mathematics developed in one discipline can be applied to another. Each component in the system at each level of analysis required a different mathematical perspective. For example, the overall optimization framework is a linear programming economic model, and I was lucky to find a direct analytic (and linear!) solution to the differential equations describing the mechanical behavior of the composite as a whole, but the properties of each layer of the composite is stochastically estimated from empirical geotechnical data.
In short, my regard and enthusiasm for mathematics has grown as a result of this and other, less formal research. I must admit I'm an inveterate tinkerer. Besides experimenting at home with unusual civil engineering materials such as papercrete, recent projects I've indulged in during academic breaks include some in electronics such as experimenting with inexpensive very low power electronics including microbial fuel cells, a very simple circuit to boost less than one-half of a volt to a more useful potential, and what I hope are improvements to both the theory and operation of the crystal radio. I've also kept my computer programming skills current by learning major programming languages as they've become widely adopted and practicing techniques by doing things like writing a C program implementing a neural network of infinite impulse response nodes using only addition and bit-shifts. To learn digital hardware design, I wrote verilog code to reprogram the FPGA in an embedded linux ARM system to perform as a video card and drive a small (480×320) monochrome LCD. Various branches of mathematics have been invaluable to understanding and improving each of these diversions.
There is one other point to mention. In addition to applying mathematics myself, I also enjoy showing other people how things work, and how to make things work better. During the last four of eleven years enlisted in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) I was trained as an academic instructor, and later certified as a master instructor for the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine. Teaching and developing course materials for Bioenvironmental Engineering (including one of the Air Force's first college-accredited computer-based courses) taught me one thing above all others; I really enjoy teaching, so I can sum this all up very briefly.
I am pursuing graduate study to figure out how to build things better and show people how to do it.
— David Wagner 2008/11/25 14:17
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