Am I in the Right Room?

I’ve spent the better part of two hours typing a blog that will sit in draft mode until further notice. The gist of the conversation I was hoping to stir concerns our responsibilities as teachers and parents in the avenues our children and students make. Not all engineering students will become engineers. Not all designers become designers. And we should all understand that that is okay.

I switched halfway through my undergraduate from mechanical engineering to industrial design. Don’t get me wrong, I could grasp the concepts, I just couldn’t produce the math. In my professional career as a designer, my area of expertise has always been more function than form, but I’m still not producing the numbers. That’s what engineers are for. And I don’t expect engineers to always get the form right. That’s what designers are for.

Does this mean my math professors didn’t teach me correctly, or did my engineering colleagues have terrible art teachers? No. Most students will be better at one thing over another; it’s how we become specialists in our respective disciplines. But let me pose this, if an art teacher had taught more like an engineer, or the math teacher had thought more like the artist, would things have turned out differently?

I had parents that backed me up when I decided to turn around. I had tears in my eyes when I told them I was quitting one thing to do another. But it was worth it. For all of us. I ended up in a career I didn’t hate with the best teachers I could have asked for. I grew stronger in my relationship with my parents through honesty and open conversations like that one. It changed my life for the better.

Now, I am fortunate to be in an immersive field of study. Industrial designers learn concepts of form and function, conceptualize through drawings, receive feedback from students and teachers both, and iterate through physical models until the final form is delivered, usually a full-scale working prototype. It is extremely satisfying. It requires the input of the student. It requires the student’s peers to make comments and provide feedback. It’s a shame other fields of study do not have this same opportunity.

Or do they? Does this translate to other disciplines? How does a history major build? Is it only though their writing, or does it require physical travel to places of historic significance? Or both? What if you can’t get there from here? What if it’s too cost-prohibitive? What if you’re too ill to go? What if you have obligations outside of academia that we all find ourselves in? What if’s can kill dreams.

I think this a world preparing itself for VR. Advances in the technology are going to shift what we can do, and make accessible the inaccessible. Adbhut wrote a good blog with plenty of questions we still need to examine and answer. Using VR?AR, can we experiment with how we teach engineers through the lens of the artist? Can we create a virtual art class that designs sculpture through the algorithms of human bone growth? What new information will be passed, exchanged, and shared by those students, as was pointed out in our latest GEDI readings?

I am hopeful. It is my opinion we are already providing more avenues for students to learn than ever before. We are beginning to provide the most current of tools and are creating more. The students are also already changing how they learn if given the space. Hopefully we are able to guide them toward meaningful lives, able to help them correct themselves when that path gets rough, and even have the strength to say it’s okay to turn around and find a different path. And hopefully, it is because we’ve already exhausted all other options, and not because we told them they weren’t good enough.


19 thoughts on “Am I in the Right Room?

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Ben. It feels really great when your parents have got your back. You have posed some really intriguing questions here. I don’t think at any point changing one’s path is wrong, if it gets too rough. And as you said, we should understand that it is okay. I am hopeful too that the learning experiences and avenues that students are getting are only going to get better. Technologies like VR/AR are opening up many more exciting possibilities for enhancing the process of learning, as never imagined before. Thanks again for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Adbhut! I got stuck trying to distill the VR/AR into a blog post, then lost my train of thought. It turned into a mess of tangents, so I shelved it. Maybe another post in the future!


  2. Great post as always, Ben!

    I am likewise hopeful for the accessibility in learning that VR might provide. I’m glad you had the support that you needed to make the right decisions. I hope that others struggling with these choices might hear your story and learn from you.

    Just a quick note, in my experience, a history (or sociology!) major can build through writing, building exhibits, websites, or even by incorporating aspects of theatre into whatever they’re constructing.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to know the broader aspects of other studies. I didn’t think it was just writing, but having never been a part of that field, I really didn’t know. Thankful for the insight!


  3. Awesome post, Ben. I like the idea of building beyond boundaries of a discipline to further one’s education. In fact, I believe that as we continue to develop and we understand the fundamentals of our discipline the only option to continue your growth is to go beyond your field. We as graduate students see this this line crossed often I think. Your story of anguish on changing your life’s direction (not an easy step period) is a good example of many paths laying forward if you seek to make that move.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tim. I continue to question my choices, even here in grad school. I came here into a field I’m already familiar in, and finding few things of interest. However, the class I’m taking outside of my field, like GEDI or HCI or history are so fascinating! And, they’re changing how I look at my own field. In parallel with what you said, I hope we can cross more lines!


  4. Hi Ben,

    Thank you for sharing your story with us in your post. One of the things I really appreciated about your post is how you reflect on the role of educators as student mentors and guides. It might be a universal truth that all young people struggle with discovering their interests and strengths (to some degree). Providing solid mentoring will have a lasting effect in the lives of our students; like a ripple effect our meeting them on their terms as individuals will teach them to do the same when they are the mentor one day.

    Double triple bonus points for the in-text shout out to your colleague Adbhut and his VR post during your VR discussion. Like you, I am excited to see the future of VR and AR as applied in the design disciplines. Have you gotten a chance to visit The Cube or see what’s happening over in ICAT? I had an opportunity to learn about some of the different applications of VR/AR on campus last semester and it was really exciting stuff. You should push your program chair to get industrial design over there for a tour & demos of their projects if you haven’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Sara. I’ve seen some of the stuff ICAT is working on and know some people working in the Cube, but I haven’t had my own experiences in there. That will be changing this semester, as my studio group is working on VR/AR with final presentations at ICAT. More visits over there are to come. Cheers!


  5. Ben,

    Really excellent post! I’m glad you’re at least heading in a direction that feels right to you for now.

    I wanted to comment on your question about how history builds. Now, I can’t answer that question about history but I will take a quick hop over to political science/international relations, where I come from, which is somewhat close to history. In the social sciences, we don’t produce a prototype or any type of physical result, but otherwise the process and the ‘building’ is very similar to any other field. Results only come through a long process of research, collaboration, analysis, polishing, and long attempts at publication. For us, the light at the end of the tunnel is the finished written product where our work has been accepted by the gatekeepers of (in theory) well-respected journals and it will go on to impact policymakers and the work of other academics. But, all that being said, you’re also right, VR could definitely have an impact on the tangible productions of social science fields.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So here’s another question: How different is the transition from analog research to digital, aside from speed? By speed, I mean quicker searching and ability to type I stress of handwriting. Are there different modes of expressing your field other than through journals and papers? I get it isn’t an art project, but I’m trying to think about digital teaching/learning and expression. It’s fascinating. Thanks!


      1. Ok. I’ll respond to that in terms of my own experience — as someone who came of age in the analog age. My graduate training was all about instilling content knowledge (which – fun fact – in History, is not about memorizing factoids but rather about understanding how different perspectives on historical experience are developed and defended) and learning how to find stuff – so, card catalogs, classification systems, taxonomies….no search box. Because I understood how those tools worked and knew something about “what was out there”, the transition to digital formats with really powerful search capabilities was incredibly empowering. Unlike my students, who think that if their first search comes up empty then “nothing has been written about that,” I have a set of skills and knowledge base that helps me search effectively and I rarely come up empty handed.
        And where keeping track of stuff goes, then of course transcribing, making lists, databases, etc. is much easier now. At the same time, the balance of handwriting vs. keyboarding has shifted back toward handwriting for a lot of things, especially taking notes or reflective writing. Writing longhand forces me to slow down my thinking and the physical act of moving the pen on paper helps me consolidate what I’m writing down in my head.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve had the same experience with creatively searching while younger colleagues get tied up. Is it the analog training we had? Did it prepare us to ‘go outside and play!’ when it came to research?


  6. Ben, I enjoyed the post. I found your post about being one thing or another when it came to engineering and design disturbing. In today’s academic setting, you have to be the uber-expert in a particular pigeon-holed subject area. In the real engineering world, the more “tools you have in the toolbox” makes you more marketable/billable. I am going to give this point alot more thought in the coming years of continuing with my graduate work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hate being pigeon-holed. I have too many ideas bouncing through my skull to be tied down to one focus. I’m hoping I can collect them and use as studio focuses for my undergrads in the future.
      And as an industry professional, I always preferred the engineer who was versed in a milling lathe and technical parts drawings because they were on the Baja team rather than the person who was bookish. Nothing wrong with bookish, but a well-rounded set of skills paid dividends for our company.


  7. I like your story on changing majors! I had a similar experience myself when i left undergrad as a biology major and entered grad school as a food science major. There were some similarities, but I found the transition difficult. I think if there were more technologies like the AR you talked about, I could have better visualized the concepts presented to me and made the transition easier.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ben! I think every discipline could have an “immersive” aspect to it – it largely depends on the creativity of the instructor. The VR is a good option, as well as other options – case studies, role-playing, foreign exchange programs through virtual means, break out games (, among others. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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