Digital Systems, Electrical Engineering

This semester is busy, busy, busy! I have fallen head over heels in love with my digital systems class. So far we’ve done the “easy stuff, ” but it’s still so interesting. We started with binary, went to 2’s complement, learned basic Boolean algebra, eased into various gates and circuit design and just finished simplification and Karnaugh maps.

When I’m doing my homework for this class, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a brain teaser. I LOVE brain teasers. I think that brain teasers are such a valuable learning tool. I did tons of brain teasers growing up, and I think it was one of the best ways to learn how to think outside of traditional linear thinking. When the linear path fails, approach the problem from the other direction. One lesson that has ingrained in my brain is the technique of bounds checking. What are the constraints of the given problem? If it doesn’t have to be on Earth, try another planet. See what happens when gravity is gone. Do we have to be in modern times? What if we were in imperial China?

In the lab for the digital systems class, we built circuits on an educational prototype board using actual AND, OR, NAND, etc. chips. It’s one thing to learn the concepts when they’re these amorphous ideas that are pretty tough to picture. It’s another thing to actually build a circuit, send voltages through the various inputs and see the outputs predicted by truth tables and equations. This is another one of those things that must seem like ancient technology to practicing engineers, but seeing it in person for the first time is a little bit magical.

My other classes are going well. Physics is a bit of a struggle right now. The professor is incredibly passionate and does great demonstrations in class which really reinforces the big concepts. As a student, I’m left to learn how to implement the equations and concepts on my own. I think I’m doing pretty well so far, but his tests are take-home and so I know they’re going to be tough.

Tomorrow, I’m going to finish my last kit, and then I’m on to some new things with the Arduino. I can’t wait!


Binary and Logic

It’s amazing how some things just “click” and others take quite a bit of explanation before they really take hold. I had to read three different explanations of how to go from decimals to binary before I actually understood it. The first two explanations just didn’t vibe with my learning style or something. Who knows, they might have just been really bad explanations. I’m still trying to find that perfect explanation of logic and switches. I’ve consulted a number of books and online sources and I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding it but I’m not 100% there.

Today is my first day of school. Electrical engineering semester # 2 ! One of the most exciting things about today has been that I recognize all sorts of people in the engineering building. Last semester I came in not knowing anyone, and now I have friends and acquaintances that I recognize and can chat with. That fact alone makes this semester more fun.

So far it looks like my programming class will be fairly basic, but it’s going to be teaching C. I did Java last semester and it seemed pretty useful. We’ll see how I feel about C. I know that my digital systems class is going to be tough. All of my reading on computer history will be helpful for the first lecture or two. Then we dive into binary, hexadecimals, ASCII and boolean logic. I also found out today that we don’t have formal lab reports in my electromagnetism lab! My physics lab last semester took up quite a bit of time so I’m thrilled that the labs will really just take the devoted class time.

I ordered some parts for Jeremy Blum’s Arduino Tutorial # 2 as well as some more things to stock the lab at I JUST found out through a Google search of sparkfun that a bunch of their kits are available at Micro Center, which is just down the road from school!! I’m totally spoiled to have a Micro Center, Fry’s and a great local place called Tanner  Electronics within a short drive of my house. I know that many people don’t have these stores readily available. Mouser‘s warehouse is also local, I wish I could just go pick up an order but it doesn’t work that way.

So, my lovely readers, that’s all I have for now. Many more back-to-school updates coming.

A little semester recap.

I’m not exactly done with the semester but all that’s left is one final exam in physics. I currently have a 99 in physics so I’m not so worried about it. Also it’s in a week. So I have an entire week to study for an exam that I’m already quite prepared for. So looking back I’ve realized a few things and solidified some of my early thoughts on the engineering curriculum.

1) This isn’t law school. There is not a forced curve of 2.5 or whatever cruel torture they inflicted on us. What does this mean for me? If I work hard in my courses, it pays off. I spent many hours in the engineering reading room and in Starbucks before 6:00 AM and I’m going to have the grades to reflect that. [Note: I am a morning person. For some strange reason, I learn extremely well before most people like to get up. I’ve learned to accept this and use my “golden hours” as productively as I can.]

2) I really need to stop freaking out about grades. Other that one letdown, I’ve performed at a level that I think is indicative of my intelligence, grasp of the material, and hard work. I need to keep working hard, even when I’m doing well, but I really can relax a little bit.

3) I take a really unique approach to learning engineering. I’m putting in outside hours reading the history of computing and code theory so I know why I’m learning the things I’m learning in class. I love having context for my knowledge and I think it really enhances the learning process. I think too many students just fly through courses without taking a step back to consider why they’re learning the things they’re learning.

Get ready for the book reviews over the holiday break. I’ve LOVED my choices so far and hopefully Santa will bring a few more for me to enjoy over my time off.

Shout out!

Squee! I got a little shout out on my new favorite podcast, The Amp Hour. I have to admit, it was a little weird listening to two strangers discuss my decision to go into electrical engineering but I’m always open to opinions. I have a brief discussion of my story in my inaugural post, but I wanted to address some of the questions posed in the podcast.


Many reasons. I went into undergrad convinced that I wanted to be a medical doctor and so I majored in biochemistry. I loved DNA and genetics and I thought that this would be the best fit. Little did I know that biochemistry was mostly horribly confusing cycles like this. I worked in a lab researching chemokines for about a year and a half and realized that my options were some sort of professional school, a PhD in Biochem or going into something like pharma sales. I spent a summer working at a large law firm and really enjoyed it so to law school I went.

Then, I learned what lawyering was really about. It was not the shiny 9-5 internship that I did over the summer. It was a job of long days, long nights and minimal weekends. In big firms, most of the clients are large companies and cases drag on for years, sometimes decades. I spent a summer in law school working at a local non-profit and loved the work but couldn’t see myself lasting very long before getting really burned out.

My husband likes to tell the story of one day during my first semester of law school, I was so frustrated with the socratic method and the “grey logic” that I pulled out an old differential equations book and started working problems. I craved the simplicity and beauty of pure math. I craved the notion of a “right answer.” I was too stubborn to recognize that maybe that was an indicator that law school was not the best fit for me so I finished law school.

Did I work as a lawyer?

I did a variety of internships during law school and clerked for a judge but never worked as a lawyer. Due to hefty scholarships and family support, I managed to get through undergrad and law school without loans, which gave me the freedom to head back to school. I was a little nervous about the experience but it’s just as magical as I thought it would be. I’m actually really good at it so far.

Did I tinker much as a kid?

Not really. I was more of a bookworm/math geek. I read . . . a lot. Anything and everything I could get my hands on. I had older brothers so I loved legos and such and I made various contraptions but I didn’t have anything as dramatic as Feynman’s propensity for fixing radios as a teeny lad. I LOVED “brain teasers” and those kind of problems that really made you think. I remember reading the “Sideways Stories From Wayside School” in second grade which introduced verbal arithmetic and I was hooked on that for a while.

Anyway, I really need to go study for my programming exam, so I’m going to end this fairly abruptly. I went to a lecture on robotics last night and I plan to address that later today, get ready!


Self Taught

Before I decided to go into engineering, like any good lawyer-to-be, I researched the heck out of engineering, electronics and careers in the field. One thing I kept hearing from successful engineers is that they learned the most from tinkering around. So far, this approach has been incredibly successful in my quest to learn my first programming language (java). I’ve learned so much more from just sitting around and writing programs based on examples from the book.

Our programming book has lots of sample programs that I always go through and physically re-type, run and then mess around with. Is this tedious? Yes. Has it taught me invaluable lessons? Yes. Often you retype the program and see just what happens when you forget a semicolon there, or put a semicolon after something that isn’t supposed to have one. I’ve seen what happens when you accidentally put a char in double quotes or forget brackets after an if statement. Once you actually make the mistake, it really sticks in your mind how to fix it and how to avoid it in the future.

So, this weekend, I plan to make my first foray into PCBs and soldering. I bought a cheap beginner kit where you build an alarm so if I fry the tips of the basic soldering iron, or nuke the multimeter that’s included in the kit it’s not that big of a deal. So many engineers that I’ve talked to say that playing around with things like this helps so much with the learning process. It also seems like it might be pretty fun! I’ll post some pictures of my disastrous attempts later.

Lifetime Learning

I love to learn. I sometimes do crazy things like read books that aren’t assigned in school. I had a classmate today that was AMAZED that I would pick up a book on my own that was related to my schoolwork but not required. A few weeks ago I started (and finished! I couldn’t help it) a biography on Paul Dirac. To explain why I would pick up a biography on a British physicist/mathematician, I have to first explain my adoration for Richard Feynman. When I was in high school, I read Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and adored it. The book is full of the most wonderful anecdotes and gives the reader an inspired, almost giddy love of math and science. I then got my hands on his physics lectures and other books and generally learned all about Feynman. Feynman had great respect for Dirac and so I wanted to learn more about Paul Dirac. I marched down to my local bookstore and picked up “The Strangest Man” by Graham Farmelo. I loved the book. Dirac is one of those physicists of the time that often gets overlooked for more flamboyant characters like Schrodinger , Heisenberg and Feynman himself.

Right now, I’m in my physicist phase but if any of you have any great recommendations of books on great engineers, send them my way!


So I already bragged a little on Twitter but I thought it was only fair to subject my blog readers to this as well. First round of tests was a success! I’m talking, A on a test with an average of 66 and a 95 on a test with a 77 average. This is exciting, oh so very exciting. I worked hard and it paid off. Now, not too long ago, I worked hard in law school and I was mediocre. I was smack in the middle.

Now, before my law school experience, I was what some might call a “high achiever.” In elementary school, I regularly won the monthly Continental Math League competitions. In middle school, I was a member of our Math Counts team (and yes, that is just as cool as it sounds. We had t-shirts, and got pizza at our practices, scoped out the one cute boy that would show up at competitions, it was awesome.) I was a National Merit Scholar. I was an officer in college in the Biochemistry and Genetics Society.

As I was finishing up my undergraduate studies, I realized that I had a few choices with a biochemistry degree. I knew I didn’t want to do med/vet school. I briefly considered pharmacy school but then decided that law school would be a great choice because I could work on biomedical patents. Then I realized that every patent attorney working in the “bio” field had a PhD or at least a M.S. So, I went back to my true love, math and engineering. It’s so exciting and I really do love it.

Now I do realize that I have a totally unfair advantage over these 18 year olds in my classes. I have some “life” under my belt. I’ve learned how to deal with difficult people, I know how to manage time, I file my own taxes every year, I know what a dollar is, I know how much each class costs and therefore how important it is to do well, I know when to ask for help, I know how to deal with emergencies and crises, I know what’s important and what isn’t. I put in the time I need to succeed in these classes and magically it’s working.

Let’s hope I sound this optimistic in a month!

School is cool

So school marches on. So far (*knock on wood*) I’m keeping up with my goals in terms of grades and so I’m relieved about that. However, I obviously haven’t had any tests yet and the quizzes I’ve had have been pretty short and simple. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to maintain my current grades since I’m aiming for, well let’s be honest, perfection. I’m trying to be realistic. I know I can’t get A+s in every class, but I really want all A+s. I’m pretty sure that everyone has the same goal but I’m trying really hard to achieve it.

Ugh. I need someone to talk me down. If I get a B, my world will not crumble. You would think I would have learned this lesson in undergraduate degree #1 or even law school. Nope. I’m still aiming for the stars. I guess this difference this time is that it might be possible to achieve my goals. Here (unlike law school) hard work gets you EVERYWHERE. There’s a little bit of natural talent and ability but you’ll get 95% of the way there by simply putting your nose to the grindstone and keeping at it.

Oh, so the other thing. In my intro to engineering class we have to do a group project involving an egg. So cliche I can barely stand it. We were given the option of putting together our own 7 person teams and then the leftovers would be lumped together on a team. Well guess who doesn’t have a team? Me. This is where I’m starting to feel the sting of not quite fitting in while in a class of all freshman. I’m also kinda nervous about being in a group. I’m very efficient with my time and committed to hard work and doing a good job. It is very unlikely that the rest of my group will feel the same way. I also have skills that many of these freshman do not possess. My natural inclination is to be really bossy and just make them do it my way but my husband seems to think I need to be nice and let these kids learn on their own. Fine. But if they spend more than 10 minutes socializing at each group meeting, I’m breaking out the teacher voice. Okay, fine, I’ll give them 20 minutes. See? I’m nice!!

Keep on swimming! Keep on swimming!

I had such high hopes for the Labor Day weekend. I was going to get so far ahead in all my classes and then I’d be able to “coast” for a few days. Uhhh, didn’t happen. My husband sprained his ankle something terrible and so he was around more than usual. I kept falling asleep throughout the weekend and I just felt off. I put enough time in to finish the things that HAD to be done but all those extras got pushed to the side.

So, I’m going to have to put in some hours this week to get my crazy math homework done, finish my first lab report, and do a little bit of physics and programming. Sigh. On the positive side, I really am enjoying what I’m doing. I love learning about how computers work. The whole concept of what writing code actually does is amazing! I can’t wait to get into the nitty-gritty of electricity. Also, I get to make matlab graphs for the first time this week. Wheeee!

To any lawyers still reading this, where do I stand with the law? Well, I try and obey it :). Okay, being serious, it’s been interesting how certain things keep looping back to law school in ways I didn’t think they would. As we talk in our programming class about different schools of thought regarding code, we keep discussing ways to keep other companies from stealing code and copyright issues. My intellectual property licensing class seems so useful when discussing licenses in my intro to engineering class. Patents have even come up in one class. I’m realizing that highly technical law might be something I’m really interested in after a few years working in the engineering industry. So, fingers crossed for bar results in November!

The Second Day of School

Whoa. That’s about all I have to say about day two. Okay, more specifically, that’s all I have to say about Advanced Engineering Math. This class is not a joke. We are not kidding around. The professor walked in, spent ten minutes going over the syllabus in a very, very quiet voice and then launched into some intense math. I already have visions of many hours spent trudging through practice problems in this course. As with most of my other courses, there are very few girls and I just don’t know how to branch out and ask for help from all these guys in class.

I’m hoping that I can be successful in this course with enough hard work. We’ll see how I feel in a few weeks.

On the other hand, my other course on the second day was physics. Physics was in a GIANT classroom with about 150 students. The professor was engaging and I’m pretty sure that it will be easy enough to do well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to have to put in the hours of work, but I’m confident that I’ll be okay.

Well it’s now Friday and I only have one class this morning and then I finally get to spend a little time with my husband. Hooray! I forgot what it was like to look forward to the weekend with such anticipation.