Letter to All First Years

I’m just going to get some thoughts down here for my views on Pass/No Record at Olin and the student body’s perception of Pass/No Record. Pass/No record is a wonderful thing that Olin does to help with what can be a difficult transition from high school to college.

For a lot of people, myself included, their first year at college means their first year being away from home, from people they love, from environments they’ve become accustomed to, and really the start of a new part of their lives. That’s where it helps to have something like Pass/No Record. It takes away some focus from your academic performance and gives you the opportunity to get yourself situated.

Sadly, I don’t think this is the common perception of Pass/No Record at Olin. It seems as though we, as a student body, treat Pass/No Record as a time to slack off and not try our hardest to apply ourselves to what we’re learning. Something that feels very special about a lot of classes at Olin is that you get out of them what you put into them.

You have so much agency with what you choose to focus on in your classes that no two people will come out of the same class having gained the same things from it. This is easy to take for granted when it feels like you’re not learning what you think you’re “supposed to be learning” from a class, but the reality is that you can learn what you want to learn from a class. At least, you have a better chance to than you would with a narrower curriculum.

Let me explain. Over the summer, I had the awesome opportunity to work at Harvey Mudd and go through the course materials of a class there called “CS 35.” This class is the closest equivalent Harvey Mudd has to Software Design here at Olin.

Both classes are designed to teach computation as a tool with exposure to an assortment of powerful Python libraries. The point is to give the students an opportunity to do some stunning things with the power of programming.

However, when you look beyond the goals of the classes, and really pay attention to their structures, you begin seeing the discrepancies. Before I go on, I want to explicitly say that by no means do I think either class is better than the other. Both do a wonderful job of achieving their goal, but they go about it very differently.

Software Design gives students a ton of freedom to go where they want with Python and to develop creative solutions to the challenges it throws at students. The underlying core of Software Design is its open ended projects.

You start with a relatively simple, well-scaffolded project to get you comfortable with string manipulation. All of the high level code architecture is there. You just have to turn the ideas into computer code. The next project is also well scaffolded, this time with an emphasis on recursion. Again, the high level code architecture is there; you just have to turn ideas into computer code. How you do this is up to you.

Then we get to the part of Software Design that gets really interesting. You’re introduced to lots of different libraries in Python: web scrapers, data visualizers, game development, sentiment analyzers, the list goes on!

Then you’re told to go ahead and create projects that utilize these libraries. Software Design is truly an open-ended, project-based class, ending with a final project where you can go nuts with a team of people and develop your software skills in whatever the heck you want.

With this example, it’s fairly easy to see how two people could go through Software Design and get very different things out of the experience. I learned how to utilize object oriented software principles to make a simple game, whereas some of classmates learned how to visualize massive amounts of data. These are two very different outcomes from the same project, and projects are the backbone of this class.

Now let’s take a look at CS 35. CS 35 has students go through a series of problem sets that expose them to different Python libraries and challenges them to do some really cool things with those Python libraries. Students learn how to use Python for image processing, machine learning, file management, web interfacing, and so on.

It’s an awesome class, but it’s structured very differently than Software Design. Students in CS 35 come out of it with a shared experience, and shared knowledge. Everyone going through CS 35 will learn about image processing, machine learning, and so on. Students going through Software Design will have very different experiences depending on where they choose to invest their time. This makes Software Design a strong example of Olin’s self directed learning model.

With all this, the question remains: How does this relate to Pass/No Record? Pass/No Record is the epitome of self directed learning. You’re not doing it for the grade; you’re doing it for your own learning. No one is going to be there to evaluate and hold you accountable for the effort you put into your first semester classes.

It’s up to you to begin taking control of how you spend your time, to start figuring out how you best learn, to get what you want to get out of your classes, and to get what you want to get out of your education.

If you want to get better at sketching and communicating ideas visually, really pour your heart into practicing sketching in Design Nature. If you want to learn more niche programming skills, take what you learned in ModSim about parameters, functions, and arguments, and go work on a project in the Robo Lab. Start searching for the opportunities to work on what you want to work on.

Of course, figuring out what you’re going to want to work on can be really challenging. A lot of Oliners advise that you try everything all at once and see what sticks. It’s Pass/No Record after all, so why not go ahead and take the risk of overcommitment? Well, from my perspective, you shouldn’t because overcommitment is overcommitment.

You could try this approach and spread yourself thin over Baja, OARS, the Robo Lab, Ultimate, and all of your coursework, but there’s no way you’ll get what you want to get out of any one of those things.

Everyone on this earth has exactly 24 hours in a single day, no more and no less. The more things you’re doing, the less time you can allocate to any one thing. The less time you can allocate to any one thing, the lower the chance you can actually get what you want to out of any one thing. Also, the higher the chance that your personal health is going to take the hit for your overcommitments. Your sleep is important, dammit!

To remedy all of what I’ve said, I want to leave you with a piece of advice that I welcome you to follow or not follow as you see fit. Take advantage of Pass/No Record as a time to get yourself situated, to figure out how to balance your coursework, your extracurriculars, and your own personal health.

Don’t fall into the trap of seeing Pass/No Record as an opportunity to slack off and do whatever you want. Use it as an opportunity to prepare yourself for the rest of your time at Olin. Set up good habits now so that when you’re thrown into the more intense classes like QEA, MechProto, or SoftDes, you’re ready for it.

Everardo Gonzalez, your friendly neighborhood ModSim NINJA

One Last Note:
As a ModSim NINJA, I get to work with ya’ll and get some glimpses into your lives and how awesome you all are. There’s so much positivity and awesome questions! Keep that up! Asking questions when I’m lost and keeping a positive attitude in the face of some really intense challenges is probably the reason I’ve survived QEA thus far. Keep those positive attitudes and inquiring minds. Just make sure you’re taking care of yourself and not falling into the overcommitment no-sleep tired-all-the-time trap. It’s not a fun place to be, and yes, I’m speaking from experience.