I miss homework.

In less than a month, I will complete my final exams at Swansea University, finishing my semester abroad. Two of these exams are worth 100% of my final grade. One exam is worth 90% of my final grade. My final exam, the only multiple choice test I will receive this semester, will be 50% of my final grade. To be honest, the thought of all my grades relying on one test performance terrifies me.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper demonstrates how I feel about studying notes without practice homework problems.

I would have less of a problem with the ways grades are determined in the United Kingdom if I had more of an opportunity to practice what I’m learning. Over the past three and a half months, I have had only five homework assignments to work on and turn in promptly. My classes which rely on finals alone to determine final grades have not even offered optional homework problems. Old exams from past years are the only study tools I have and the answers are not included.

I’ve truly realized the true value of homework and I can’t wait to return to the United States where the value of homework problems as a learning method is more fully realized. I know I will eat my words in no time upon returning to Illinois, but let me share with you the reasons why homework is actually kind of really awesome.

5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Complaining About Your Homework

  1. You have the opportunity to develop your problem solving skills. Since elementary school, teachers expect students to solve problems, but students receive little instruction on proper problem solving techniques. No, I don’t count the scientific method we learned at the beginning of every junior high science class because I remember memorizing the steps for a quiz and never consciously using the scientific method again. This teaching failure causes a deficiency in these skills. The best remedy is to use homework problems to become a better problem solver.
  2. You have the ability to practice and apply what you’re learning. Here in Wales, my only opportunity to apply knowledge is with past exam papers which cover all of the class material in a mostly non-linear fashion. I’ve had very little opportunity to check my knowledge and understanding of concepts as I go. Homework, no matter how tedious, ingrains habits and methods to complete complicated problems into your brain. Last semester, I complained about how tiresome solving matrices became after the fifth homework problem, but now I actually miss it.
  3. You’re forced to study the material. It’s easy to say you understand something after reading it, but the truth comes out when you try to apply what you’ve learned. Homework makes you think beyond the words on the page. Learning does not mean understanding. Understanding comes from applying what you learned and making connections. Homework is the catalyst that turns learning into knowledge.
  4. You receive feedback on your work so you know what you don’t understand. In the UK, professors aren’t supposed to post exact answers to their past exams, even though these exams are all we have to study. In the US, my heart always dropped to see a red line slashed through the last half of a long homework problem. But this also told me how to fix it. For that, you should be grateful.
  5. You’re making major mistakes on small homework problems instead of the exam. In retrospect, homework is worth a mere fraction of your grade, no matter your education system. However, most of my grades result from homework and my reaction to graded homework. I practiced concepts in my assignments, understood what I needed to study more, and focused on the hard problems from past homework assignments. I missed hard problems on small homework assignments, but this led to focused studying so I could succeed on important tests.

This being said, there is such thing as too much homework. Students with an overload of assignments (myself included) may go through the motions and might look for shortcuts instead of seeking learning from coursework. There must be balance. I would love to see a couple more assignments from my classes in Wales to better check my knowledge and understanding.. The other solution is to create practice problems with guided and unguided solutions. Generally the UK describes its college education system as less supported than the US, but that does not mean UK classes should offer no support.

Overall, homework is a great opportunity to learn. Please, take advantage of it next time it’s offered to you.

At the airport in January, preparing to fly for eight hours from Detroit to London for study abroad.

Over three months ago, on a dark rainy night, I arrived in Swansea, Wales with two huge suitcases of almost everything I owned. After an hour of running around in the dark with luggage, I finally figured out how to pick up my keys and move into my current home. It took some adjustment to get used to study abroad, which I expected. However, I was unprepared for the adjustment of a friend who had also come from Illinois to Swansea with me.

In January 2012, I decided that I wanted to study abroad in January 2013. Instantly, a good friend and fellow chemical engineer decided that she wanted to study abroad as well and would come with me wherever I went. Together, we planned our study abroad experiences for January 2013 here in Swansea, already discussing the three week spring break we would do together as a tour of Europe. At the same time, we continued to take the same classes together and also decided to live in an apartment together for the academic year of 2013-2014 with two of my best friends.

After arriving in Swansea, all of my careful planning quickly dismantled itself. My friend and I adjusted in our own separate ways to the United Kingdom. We settled into different methods of thinking and dealing with our new situations which we believed to be the “right” and “correct” way so that we failed to understand the other person. Sadly, both of us thought more highly of ourselves than of each other. This led to a lot of disagreements between us that unfortunately poisoned our friendship. I did not go on a grand tour of Europe with my friend for spring break nor will I be living with her next semester because we must now work to salvage our friendship as much as possible.

This sad personal story brings me to what, in my opinion, is one of the largest problems facing women in engineering today: Women react in unhealthy ways to competition and are more emotionally vulnerable to it. Women are catty and hold on to grudges a little too well. In my case, my friend and I competed over which method was the “best” way of living the study abroad experience. Generally men are more prone to reacting to an insult physically, exchanging a few blows and then making up the next day. Women, on the other hand, remember when someone wounds their pride all too well for weeks and make use of opportunities to exact revenge in a spiteful manner. This is a stereotype and not always the case, but it’s also mostly true.

Illinois’s 2011-2012 Society of Women Engineering Team Tech, a group of engineers who compete in a design competition that fosters healthy rivalry among women.

Engineering is a competitive program. In order to receive an A while studying at Illinois, 80% of my class has to perform poorer than I do. Being an out-of-state student on academic scholarship, I especially feel the weight of this competition and the pressure to perform. I also must confess to feeling a little schadenfreude when the girls who always talked behind me in my first college chemistry class dropped the class because it was too challenging for them. Competition is currently necessary in order to make the engineering curriculum function and it’s necessary in life as well. However, it fails to encourage women to pursue engineering because the competition in engineering can cause resentment and destroy friendships, especially for women.

Should girls and boys be educated separately in math and science? I don’t think so. I’m a staunch promoter of gender equality, outside and inside the classroom. That being said, girls and boys do think and approach problems differently. Girls and boys place different values on different things. Engineering is dominated by men so it is designed to accommodate their method of thinking more than women’s. In order to promote engineering to women, I believe engineering needs to design its sense of competition to be appealing to both men and women without causing the social strain I’ve experienced recently.

This post is part of the Woman in Engineering category to be used in a future ethnography. These posts reflect feelings and experiences from a student, not concrete truth and hypotheses.

Hello! Buongiorno! Ahoj! Guten tag! Bonjour! Dag!

Greetings in every language I encountered over the past three weeks and welcome to what will be a long, colorful post of some of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Ready? Allons-y!

Italy

Just a little bit of background on myself, I come from a family of Catholics whose favorite restaurant is the Olive Garden. So it should come as no surprise that Italy was one of the main countries I wanted to visit over spring break. I dreamed of seeing Rome and Venice, while my friend Paul longed to see Pompeii and Rome. For these reasons, we decided to fly out of London at 6 am into Naples, Italy and take a bus to Pompeii. A couple days later, we took a train to Rome and afterwards, we flew to Venice. All of the cities were wonderful, though unexpectedly Pompeii was my favorite and Venice was my least. Overall, Italy was beautiful, the food was delicious, and it was rich with history.

Pompeii

  • Favorite experience: The ruins! They are breathtakingly beautiful and give me a great insight as to how people lived two thousand years ago.
  • Best meal: Our Bed and Breakfast served us a homecooked three course meal including spaghetti and pork.
  • Sights to see: Walk around the village to the little market and souvenir shops to enjoy the little Italian town atmosphere.
  • You can skip: Taking a taxi or car around the little village. It’s best experienced on foot!
  • Wish I could have: Visited Mt. Vesuvius. It’s still active!
  • Pro-tip: Don’t buy an audioguide because it’s outdated. Your visit will be much more valuable if you buy a book and a map or take a guided tour with an actual tour guide.

Rome

  • Favorite experience: Mass with Pope Francis! As a Catholic, my attendance at the Blessing of the Oils mass on Holy Thursday was and will be one the most important spiritual highlights of my life. It was worth running through Rome, pas the Trevi Fountain, to get to the North American Pontificate and receive the last tickets they were handing out the day before.
  • Best meal: Tiramisu gelato! With tomato and basil gnocchi in a close second place.
  • Sights to see: Colosseum, for the history. St. Peter’s Basilica, for the beauty and reverence. Vatican Museums, for some of the most amazing art and sculptures in our world. Trevi Fountain, for a wish to make Rome magical. The Church of St. Peter in Chains, so you see more churches than just the Vatican and a Michaelangelo statue.
  • You can skip: The pizza. It may have been where we ate it at, but the last time I had pizza was in Chicago at Pizzeria Due, so it just couldn’t compare.
  • Wish I could have: Taken a tour of Rome, but we didn’t have enough time unfortunately.
  • Pro-tip: The Vatican is not that close to the actual city, so simply take a day to do everything in the area.

Venice

  • Favorite experience: Vaparetto (water taxi) ride early Saturday morning around the island because we were able to see all of the beautiful palaces on the Grand Canal while the rest of the city slept.
  • Best meal: Tagliatelle with pesto.
  • Sights to see: St. Marco’s Square, for the architecture. Glass and mask shops for the beautiful artistry. Otherwise, simply wander around and get lost instead of focusing on specific places.
  • You can skip: The gondola ride, at least if your student. They’re expensive and the water taxis are also boat rides on the canal!
  • Wish I could have: Visited the islands outside Venice where the glass blowers and lace makers live.
  • Pro-tip: Go to Venice with someone you love so you enjoy their presence as much as the magic of the island. Also, Venice has two airports so try to make sure you go to the correct one when trying to catch a flight..

Czech Republic

Whenever I mentioned Prague to people who had visited the old city, a smile would immediately cross their face and reminiscent gleam twinkled in their eyes. I knew there was something magical about the city. So after touring Italy I left my friend Paul at the airport as he went to the UK and Ireland, in order to meet other friends in Prague to celebrate Easter. Easter also happened to be my birthday this year, so it made the experience doubly special.

Prague

  • Favorite experience: Easter in Prague. Between the Easter markets and the beautiful mass I attended at Church of Our Lady in Front of Tyn, my birthday was amazing because of the joy of Easter seen throughout Prague. I feel lucky to have seen Prague at Easter.
  • Best meal: Risotta in balsamic reduction with tree berries. I don’t think this dish was very Czech, so I did try dumplings and goulash. However, the risotto was simply amazing.
  • Sights to see: Sandeman’s free walking tour for the history on various parts of the city. Prague Castle so you can explore the largest castle in Europe (but really, it’s a castle, the Czech are just stubborn). Funicular railway and Petrin tower to see over the whole city. Charles Bridge for the people, statues and artists. John Lennon’s Wall for appreciating the people of Prague. Infant at Prague for praying. Random carnival in the middle of Prague! Old Town Square for the beauty of Prague.
  • You can skip: Astronomical Clock. Well, actually, go once and see, but don’t expect too much.
  • Wish I could have: Visited the Jewish Museum. Spent five more days in Prague.
  • Pro-tip: The Czech Republic is on the korona (crowns) so don’t feel so rich when you have a thousand dollar bill because it’s really approximately fifty dollars. Also, don’t take two tours in one day. It’s too much.

Germany

In the third grade, my class once received an assignment to ask my parents what countries my family came from before they immigrated to the US. My fellow classmates returned to school the next day listing dozens of nationalities that made up their own unique heritage: Polish, Irish, Chinese, Nigerian, Scottish, Japanese, India, etc. When I had asked my parents, I was given only one primary answer: German. For this reason, I was really excited to visit Germany, land of my people, and especially Berlin. In the past fifty years, Berlin has witnessed some of the most important history in the world, events that still affect our daily lives now. So we left snowy Prague for a very cold Berlin on Easter Monday.

Berlin

  • Favorite experience: Palace of Tears, which was probably one of my top places for the whole trip. Palace of Tears was a testament to the families, friends, couples, etc. separated by the Berlin for over twenty years and it was located next to a train station where people could be reunited for a couple hours every few years. The stories were beautiful and moving. They made me think about the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain in a new way.
  • Best meal: Falafel! When we arrived in Berlin, it was 9 pm by the time we found our hostel and we were too exhausted to go find food in the city. So we walked down the street and found a cheap Lebanese restaurant. The owner was so happy to meet us on our first night in Berlin and made us feel at home with his delicious food.
  • Sights to see: Tiergarten, the former royal hunting grounds, to enjoy beautiful green space. East Side Gallery to see what a living memorial the Berlin Wall has become. Berlin Philarmonic because they offer free concerts on Tuesdays and their musicians are amazing! Topography of Terror because as a people, the world must never forget the Nazis and what they did to the Jews and German people. The Jewish Museum to celebrate the beauty of Jewish culture. Brandenberg Gate at night because it’s beautiful. Sandeman’s free walking tour because it’s a great source of information. Checkpoint Charlie for the history. Gartenmarkt because it’s the most beautiful square in Berlin. The Holocaust Memorial for obvious reasons.
  • You can skip: Nothing really. Berlin has a lot of important history that it can be hard to see, but you really should visit.
  • Wish I could have: Had more time at the underground part of the Holocaust Memorial. Visited the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Gone up in the Reichstag, but you have to make reservations..
  • Pro-tip: Almost everything interesting in Berlin is free!

France

I spent four years studying French in high school, four years in French Club, two years as French Club treasurer, and one year as French Club president. Every year, we learned French while also learning about the culture and the country. I loved every moment of it. For this reason, France was the country I spent over a week in. Earlier in March, I visited Paris for a weekend with friends from Swansea. This is why I only stayed in Paris for a day before going on a three day group tour to see Mont St. Michel and the castles of the Loire Valley. Afterwards, I left my travel companion, an Illinois exchange student at Manchester who was going to visit her family in Romania, to go visit the Junior Enterprise Europe Etudes in Strasbourg. I had a wonderful time visit Westminster Business Consulting in London so I wanted to visit more Junior Enterprises and extend Illinois’s Junior Enterprise’s international network. Also, it meant that I was able to live like a Frenchwoman and speak only in French for three days after not using my French skills since high school. It was exhausting, but very rewarding.

Paris (includes places previously visited in March)

  • Favorite experience: Eiffel Tower at night. It’s stunning to see the old city sprawling out into the dark night sky from atop the shining symbol of Paris.
  • Best meal: Anything from a boulangerie (bakery). We found a cute local boulangerie nearby and bought breakfast there everyday in March. The baked goods were easy on our budgets and delicious!
  • Sights to see: Notre Dame because you just have to go! Shakespeare and Co. bookstore because it’s a great little bookstore that’s awesome. The Louvre to see Winged Victory, Venus de Milo and la Joconde (the Mona Lisa). Jardin des Tulieres to watch kids play with sailboats in the little pools. Champs-Elysees for a shopping street even more grand than Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Arc de Triomphe because it’s beautiful! Sacre Coeur because it’s the real most beautiful church of Paris! Place du Tertre to admire the best art in Paris. Mur des Je T’aimes because “the Wall of I Love You’s” is a really cute place to find. The Conciergerie because it’s home to a lot of amazing histoy. Walk along the Seine at night to feel truly Parisian. Try macaroons because they’re delicious! Eat Berthillon ice cream because it’s also amazing. Place de la Concorde to remember the French Revolution. Visit the flower market at the base of Notre Dame because it’s really cute.
  • You can skip: Royal Palais because the Louvre is housed in a much more stunning building. Centre Pompidou unless you’re really into modern art. The Pantheon unless you’re into dead people or really like St. Genevieve like me.
  • Wish I could have: Visited Jardin du Luxembourg which was for some reason closed when we went. Taken a bateau mouche ride. Gone in Saint Chapelle. Visited Musee d’Orsay. Saw the Monet paintings in Musee de l’Orangerie. Visit Versailles.
  • Pro-tip: For food, head over to the Latin Quarter because it’s where all the students live so prices are much better there. Also, the metro is a little confusing, but it’s worth learning so you can go to one area for the day so you don’t kill your feet too much. Paris is quite large. Paris is also probably best enjoyed with someone you really love (or if you speak French like me!).

Castles

I’m going to describe the castles I saw a little bit differently, so here it goes…

  • If you’re a religious person: Mont St. Michel is a giant monastery on a little tiny island in the English Channel and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
  • If you like history: Langeais was where Anne of Brittany wed Charles VIII, uniting most of modern day France.
  • If you like war: Amboise saw some pretty brutal parts of the French Religious Wars including Protestants heads being put on pikes.
  • If you’re an engineer: Clos-Luce, the final dwelling place of Leonardo da Vinci, has a basement full of models of Leonardo’s ingenious sketches from the flying machines to a precursor of the army tank to the first car! The grounds outside the tiny chateau is dotted with larger versions for visitors to test for themselves.
  • If you like flowers: Villandry is known for it’s beautiful gardens of many types: ornate, symbolic flower gardens, a water garden, woods, kitchen gardens, etc. I don’t recommend going until it’s warm enough for them to bloom though!
  • If you’re interested in home decorating: Cheverny is a small castle still in use today by the family that built it. The rooms inside were beautiful and every inch was covered in grandeur.
  • If you like pretty things: Chenonceau is the classic French castle which is built over a river as if it were a bridge and was given to Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. Inside, the rooms are elegant and beautiful as well, save the room covered in black where a widow lived for the last decade of her life.
  • If you miss supersize at McDonalds: Chambord is the largest of the French chateaux in the Loire Valley with 365 fireplaces. The massive castle was only used for two months of the year for hunting so the grounds are extensive.

Strasbourg

  • Favorite experience: Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dame is my favorite church in all of Europe after seeing millions over the past few months. The exterior and interior were beautiful and I just instantly loved it. Fun fact: It only has one steeple instead of two, as cathedrals like Notre Dame of Paris usually have, because they ran out of money while building it. In close second, my other favorite experience was visiting the Junior Enterprise there because I made some great friends, spoke only in French for three days, and was able to experience French culture because I was staying with friends who are French. Strasbourg also reminded me of New Orleans for some reason which brought back some really great memories.
  • Best meal: A tarte flambees, also called a flammekuche, with choucroute (sauerkraut). I challenged myself by order sauerkraut and dark beer so that I would be trying all of the specialties of Strasbourg. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of beer, but the flammekuche avec choucroute was delicious. And our dessert afterwards was amazing too.
  • Sights to see: The market in the main square because it’s key part of French life and culture. The canal around the city for a beautiful stroll. Downtown Strasbourg to be enchanted by the winding streets and get the feel of small town France. The random menagerie in a beautiful park by Strasbourg’s university to see some cool animals including the stork, symbol of Alsace (region of France where Strasbourg is).
  • You can skip: Nothing! This town is beautiful and you should try to enjoy being wherever you are in the city.
  • Wish I could have: Seen the EU buildings there because Strasbourg is the official seat of the EU parliament.
  • Pro-tip: Always validate your ticket for the train, the tram, bus, etc. wherever you are in Europe. I saw someone fined because they hadn’t done so on my way to the train station.

Luxembourg

So on my train from Strasbourg to Brussels, there was ten minute stop in Luxembourg. I wanted to maximize the number of countries I had been in, so I hopped off the train for approximately two minutes just to say that I’ve been to Luxembourg. Success!

Belgium

Brussels is home to both the European Union Parliament and JADE, the board in charge of Junior Enterprise throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. On behalf of Illinois’s Junior Enterprise, I stayed at JADE for three and a half days where I had a lot of meetings with different officers. When I was free, I explored the charming city and the best way I can sum up my activities in Belgium is as such: food.

Brussels

  • Favorite experience: The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)! After visiting so many informational places in less than three weeks, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the MIM that much, but I love music and wanted to see what it would be like. For only two euros, I was given a pair of headphones and free range to walk around four floors of musical instruments as old as 600 AD to present. Whenever I walked by an instrument, it would play for a couple minutes over my headphones. I spent three hours simply listening to beautiful music played by equally beautiful music.
  • Best meal: Instead of buying lunch for myself on the day I explored, I bought myself chocolate because I was in Belgium. I regret nothing. So my best meal consisted of dark chocolate with strawberry filling, a chocolate mousse cupcake, and hot chocolate that was essentially molten chocolate. Runners up include: The waffles, fries, and the mango beer I tried at Delirium. Why did I actually like my beer? Because as the German with us exclaimed, “This isn’t beer!”
  • Sights to see: Walk into every chocolate shop in search of free samples because Belgian chocolate is amazing. Parliamentarium to learn more about the EU Praliament and how affects the world and Europe. Grand Place because the buildings there are gorgeous. Church of Notre Dame au Sablon because it’s pretty. Jardin du Petit Sablon to rest your feet and appreciate statues of important Belgians like William of Orange. Palais Royal because it’s a cute little imitation of Buckingham Palace. St. Nicholas Church for mass in a beautiful setting (I’m convince the Our Father in French is one of the most beautiful things to listen to ever.).
  • You can skip: Mannekin Pis because he’s really tiny and not that special. The metro because Brussels is an easy place to walk as long as it’s not dark.
  • Wish I could have: Found the murals of comics that are scattered throughout Brussels.Talked to a friend staying at the JADE house about visiting the actual EU Parliament while it was in session. Visited Atomium. Went to the Belgian Center of Comic Strips because I remember learning about it French class.
  • Pro-tip: All the tourist chocolate shops with free samples are near Galeries St-Hubert and Grand Place. The best chocolate to by is actually in Place du Grand Sablon because it tastes like heaven in your mouth and it’s cheaper. Also, if you go up to the cafe at the top of the Musical Instrument Museum, you have a great view of the rest of Brussels.

A few key travel tips and parting words:

  • Download the Tripadvisor Offline City Guide for the iPhone before traveling in Europe. I was never lost, visited the best attractions in every city, and ate where the locals eat in almost every city because of it. Even though I wasn’t using data and didn’t have wifi, my phone always knew where I was and where I was going.
  • Print out color maps of cities’ transportation routes (metro, bus, tram, etc.) so that you know what you’re doing upon arrival and/or departure.
  • Always have backup plans and emergency cash. Things will go wrong, but if you keep a calm head, you can overcome any challenge you come across while traveling.

So that was my trip and I’m happy to talk more about it with you if you ever consider traveling in Europe. Congratulations for making it to the end my amazing three weeks. Honestly, I didn’t even do these cities justice in showing how beautiful they were. I had the time of my life with so many different, unique experiences throughout out my trip. My advice is that if you ever receive the opportunity to travel extensively, do not hesitate! Take it! Finally, I must thank everyone who made my trip possible, especially my parents, and also thank everyone who made it amazing, especially my travel companions. The past three weeks were more than I could have ever imagined and I will always be grateful for the experience. As always, thanks for reading and please share with any other world travelers.

And the reward for finishing reading this post:

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