Long Read: The Other Kind of Learning

I don’t know why I haven’t posted about my education abroad yet–it is why I’m here, after all (even if it seems like many of my fellow exchange students came here to party, and even this blog has been focusing on cultural exploration).

How class registration works here: So most students take 3-6 modules (what they almost exclusively call classes here) per semester. The majority take 4 or 5, and UCEAP requires us to take at least 4. International (non-graduating) students apply for 10 modules a few months before arrival, then get automatically approved for 3-4 of them shortly after they arrive. Then there’s a bidding period where you can apply further to get into modules, even though exchange students get low priority. Another tip for prospective study-abroaders reading this: from UC Irvine, if you go with UCEAP, grades you get abroad will transfer over, but if you go with IOP or another third-party exchange program, only the units will. Also, save all the uploaded lecture notes and syllabi from IVLE (NUS’s centralized online class portal, the equivalent to UCI’s EEE), because those all disappear at the end of the semester, unlike at UCI, where some older class sites are still accessible. I use too many commas.

My experience: I personally got into my top choice for modules. I’m pretty close to graduation and just needed to take a few common classes (GIS and petroleum exploration for expanding my skillset, math to improve a previous grade, and Chinese for personal reasons[1]). Craig applied for both math and computer science classes, and only got into one computer science module, and that was after the active bidding period. My impression is that Chinese, Business, and Computer Science are the most impacted fields of study for exchange students here.

My modules: I also may or may not sneak-update this post with my final grades (they won’t be great or horrible, I predict) and commentary after the semester, if I remember.

GE2215 – Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
The National University of Singapore (NUS) doesn’t have an Earth System Science major, and in fact, it bugs me that my major is different at every school. I like how UCI has it set up, with an Environmental Science (B.A.) and Earth System Science (B.S.) program to differentiate between the policymakers and the scientists, but other UCs have Environmental Science (B.S.), Environmental Management (B.A.), Earth & Space Sciences (B.S.), etc. NUS has Environmental Studies (NUS-honors-only) and Geography. 2 of my 4 modules here are in Geography, and GIS is a pretty in-demand software program to know right now in my field. They have an upper-div GIS class series at UCI for social sciences majors, but its first course isn’t offered every fall quarter, and they’ve discontinued the GIS class for Earth System Science in favor of remote sensing using ENVI (which is also a useful tool).
So GIS is insanely cool. A lot of Earth System Science is working with specialized software behind a computer as well as doing fieldwork or being in a lab,  so I’ve had light experience with the MATLAB and ENVI software before from previous classes. The difference between this class and those are a) GIS is actually more user-friendly, with little to no coding or special commands needed beyond possibly Python (regarded by many as the easiest coding language, and definitely preferable to MATLAB), and b) the lab instructions provide all the data with thankfully specific instructions for you, so you’re really working with the software for most of the lab rather than dealing with technical problems or hunting down relevant data on government websites. The last one’s a valuable skill to learn, but you get enough of that already in other classes.
Now to what GIS actually does: it’s like advanced Google Maps, where you can tag and record data points for tracking sociological and environmental trends. With the correct datasets gathered and synchronized off of government websites, many of which are underanalyzed, you can predict the spread of wildfires or diseases, track and classify populations and urbanization across years, or estimate where the best place to build the next hospital in Singapore is. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too; NUS has an entire GIS minor, and this class is just the first core part of it.
The lectures aren’t much worth going to, though (for me). They don’t correspond to lab very well, and are either incredibly simple or needlessly technical.

MA1104 – Multivariable Calculus
The equivalent of Math 2D at UCI. I’m actually retaking it here to replace my previous grade, even though I don’t need to, since it’s the last math class my major needs and I didn’t fail the class last time. Still, my last grade (D+) was the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in any class ever, which serves me right for underestimating college in my first quarter at UCI. I’m also just bad at calculus.
I’ve always had a mixed relationship with math. On one hand, I love numbers and computations. I’ll bet myself against anyone on multiplying or adding numbers in my head[2]. The math section of the SAT (the American high school equivalent of A-levels, but with less academic questions and more of a specific style of reasoning) was fun for me. But when it comes to “actual math”–to identifying patterns, to reasoning abstractly, to anything more complicated than single-variable calculus–my mind just checks out.
The good news is that this module is organized really well, and I feel confident in what I’ve learned even if I don’t think I’m doing that well in class. The professor uploads files early and makes students teach each other during tutorial, and we even got an introduction to MAPLE (a powerful math software, even if I’ll still stick to WolfRamAlpha for graphing needs) in one tutorial. For our homework, we get each individual problem (we do about 4-5 per assignment, and they’re tougher than the tutorial problems) graded, as opposed to maybe 2-3 random problems out of about fifteen simpler ones at UCI. The questions on the midterm exam here were much harder than the Math 2D exam questions, though–we had 6 multi-step problems ranging in difficulty (including a proof, I can’t stand doing proofs) as opposed to 10 elementary homework-style questions. I also believe the grading curves in NUS are less generous than UCI’s, from what I’ve read and heard (only the top X% of people in a class can get an A or B, etc.). That being said, most of the classes at NUS depend on the final exam for the grade–more than at UCI–so I still have time to study more. The way retaking classes at UCI works is that you can retake a class that you get a C- or lower for, and your second time replaces the grade of your first time–so all I need is a C- or better here, and my overall GPA will improve. Takes a bit of pressure off.

GE3244 – Fundamentals of Petroleum Exploration
This is the class that I’m most confident I’ll do well in, even if part of it is because I’ve already taken a geology class at UCI. I’m still learning a lot, though (both about the geology of oil and gas specifically and about oil and gas exploration worldwide), and the professor uploaded a sample midterm so we’d know his testing style–I love when professors do this. The one gripe I have about this class is the structure of our group project. Group projects in general seem more common at NUS than at UCI.
So each group was assigned one country and told to analyze its geological features and history in order to make an argument (in the form of a powerpoint presentation to the class) for drilling there for oil and gas; my group was assigned Nigeria, the world’s de-facto capital for oil spills and other atrocities[3]. In short, this class completely brushes over the sociopolitical and ethical ramifications of petroleum exploration, focusing on the geologic and economic side of it. The project was easily manageable, though, and introduced me to NUS’s library resources.

LAC1201 – Chinese I
I’ve already posted about learning Mandarin, but this is where I’ve met the most fellow international students (and interacted with people outside UCEAP the most), so I highly recommend taking a language class at NUS if you have the module space for it. That being said, the pace of the class really picks up during the semester. Due to a quiz early on that I forgot to study for, and my nervousness about taking a real language class[4] given a genetic hearing problem that I have, I elected to take this class P/NP (pass/no pass). I regret that now–the class isn’t difficult to do well in if you study. Chinese characters seem really complicated to memorize until you realize that a lot of the more complex ones are just the components of more basic characters put together.
My least favorite part of this class is the textbook, which pretty much determines our lesson plan. It lacks a more thorough appendix at the back, and doesn’t teach us the most relevant phrases (it does a decent job, but misses “bathroom,” “airport,” “what time is it,” etc. and numbers are scattered throughout chapters instead of being listed in one place).

Some more ramblings:
– Two of my classes–Chinese and Petroleum Exploration–offered optional field trips/outings (the former to celebrate the mid-Autumn festival, and the latter to study rock formations in Sentosa, an island off southern Singapore). I didn’t go to either, but I thought that was cool that they had those.
– Library resources are decent, though I’ve only used them briefly, and I’ve also only been to the Central Library. I don’t even know where the other libraries on campus are, besides the Chinese library. My biggest aid in finding scholarly papers for research projects is still good ol’ Google, so it didn’t bother me, for example, that I had to connect to UCI’s web VPN to access EBSCOhost’s academic search engine.
– Generally, my professors are excellent with email responses and with updating us about upcoming deadlines. It’s also a lot less common to visit professors during office hours here, but I rarely did so even at UCI (not that it’s not a good idea). I’m not the ideal student.
– All of my labs and tutorials are personally run by a professor rather than a graduate student/TA, and class sizes are generally slightly smaller than at UCI. I’d say the educational quality and workload is about the same overall, though I prefer the quarter system to the semester system by far.

[1] On a card–was it Mother’s Day? Father’s Day? A birthday? I wrote to one of my parents almost a decade ago, I googled how to write “Happy __ day” in Mandarin, and impressed them with my writing. Then I randomly promised them that I would learn Chinese. To be honest, I had only the faintest bit of interest in it then, but they’ve always nagged me about it.

[2] Everyone has different microtalents, like party tricks, they like to indulge themselves in to show off at the right moment. For some people, it’s casual parkour. For others, it’s unwrapping Starbursts in their mouths, knowing the first hundred digits of pi off the top of their head, or carrying on a spontaneous string of witty but groan-inducing puns. Mine is racing to beat someone who pulls out a calculator when they don’t need to do so.

[3] Oil is to Nigeria (specifically, the Niger Delta off its southern coast) what diamonds were to Sierra Leone. Shell came in during the 1930s, drilling started in the ’50s, and the rest is history. While petroleum companies led much of the advance in knowledge that we have of Western African geology today, the petroleum industry has led to gratuitous and unaccounted-for oil spills, funding of Nigeria’s governmental corruption, circumstances leading to minor local rebellions and escalation of existing conflicts, locals taking in pollution and needing to walk across large, shallow pools of oil just to get to their work and back, and economic reliance on a volatile, foreignly-dominated sector. In one instance, Shell, under guidelines or PR pressure to improve the surrounding community they were drilling in, built (among other structures) a hospital and a water tower. In the case of the hospital and water tower, they didn’t provide medicine, doctors, equipment, or water along with the buildings. Those structures remain empty to this day.
The government’s currently working on a landmark piece of legislation called the Petroleum Industry Bill that will enforce(?) increased accountability for oil profits. However, it’s been in the process of approval for at least five years, and has an unclear future. The good news is that oil is slowly overtaking less of Nigeria’s economy, even if it remains the source of more than 90% of the country’s GDP.
Source: Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, a 2010 photobook by Ed Kashi

[4] By ‘real’ language classes, I mean that I took Latin for two quarters at UCI, and plan on finishing the elementary series during my last quarter before graduation later this year. You are encouraged to enunciate words correctly, but you’re not tested on listening and speaking, which is a relief. Unlike Chinese but like Spanish, you also have to deal with conjugations right away.
Another note about Latin: You learn a lot of Roman myths and stories in the process, which is always fun, and a lot of your vocabulary is focused not towards communication with others in Latin (“how are you,” etc.), but rather, reading old stories and poems. So you end up learning a lot of words related to war, betrayal, politics, and death. Cute.

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3 Responses to Long Read: The Other Kind of Learning

  1. Aaron says:

    Hello, do you remember your GE3244 Mid terms questions? How similar were they to the example mid term provided?

    • Judy says:

      Hi Aaron,
      Thanks for reading my old blog! It’s been two years, so I can’t even remember that there was a midterm–most of my memories from that class were working with the final project, haha. I would trust the study guide/example mid-term; try to think of similarly-formatted questions to the ones you see with the example tests, and then come up with different variables (for example–and this is a wild guess–if one question asks you to name certain properties of shale, then prepare to name properties of sandstones as well; I feel like the questions would be more scenario-based than that, though). The only specific question I remember was one from the final, which asked what the current price of oil per barrel was–that shocked me, because I’d been studying only lecture notes, and hadn’t been keeping up with the news. It was a good reminder that the professor (I had Dr. Oliver) wanted us to study petroleum geology beyond the classroom.
      Best of luck!

  2. Aaron says:

    Hello Judy. Haha yes you do have a well written and interesting blog. Thank you for the quick reply and the advice. Hope all is good with post-graduation (:

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