Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Back of the House

     In the restaurant business there is the front of the house and the back of the house.   The front is where the food is consumed and the back is where it is prepared.  I think that all organizations have back and front parts of their operations.  A week or so ago I took a stroll on the Cornell campus and focused on the activities comprising the "back of the house" support for teaching and research.  A couple of photos below show the kind of support we are grateful to have.
      Ski areas sure have a lot of "back of the house" activity to deliver a fun time on the slopes.   One needs to appreciate the lift attendants, snow groomers, ski patrollers, ticket sellers and mechanics who keep the whole operation going.   Many thanks to all those support people who make our time on the slopes enjoyable.   As the new season approaches I think I will try to more fully appreciate all those good people in any organization that are the unsung workers in the "back of the house".  I look forward to another season of feasting on the slopes.
Traffic Control

Monday, October 15, 2012

What's Your Lens?

   When explaining to me the reason for a book's or person's point of view my wife will tell me that a particular lens has been used.   I guess it means that the view is shaped by the distortions or focus that the metaphorical lens imposes on the situation.   Recently I  have been musing about the variety of lenses people use to view the world.
    Several recent events that I have experienced have underlined the importance understanding different points of view.   As many of  us anticipate the onset of the new ski season we react in a number of ways.   For the geezers who have 30, 40 or even 50 seasons under their belt there can still be an enthusiastic anticipation of one more great season on the slopes.  We can hope for lots of snow, great conditions, and another year enjoying the camaraderie of our associates and friends.  Even after so many yeas of skiing we can still feel the stir of excitement that we initially experienced in our first year of skiing.
   A week or so ago when we had a turn of colder weather, one of my Cornell associates stopped by my office on her way to coffee and asked me if I was looking forward to the ski season.   Her visit was prompted by not only her own anticipation of a new ski season, but more so by her 4-year old son's expectation to be skiing in a few days.   Observing his enthusiasm through veteran skier's eyes is heartwarming.   May he have lifetime pleasure at the sport.   In these early stages, his lens tells him he is an expert skier.  However, his mother's view holds at least more instruction to keep him in control and safe on the slope.
    This past week I also attended my 60th High School Class Reunion.   Our class of 28 graduates have met several times in the years following our graduation.   In the early years post graduation we did not meet.  However, we did begin to meet with our 25th reunion.   Our 50th was our biggest bash with the highest attendance.  Post the 50th we have had a lunch or dinner meeting almost annually.   At these gatherings the lens guiding the discussion tends to point to the past.   Certainly we have many good shared memories.   However, I sometimes find the sole discussion of the past depressing.   I prefer to view life focused on the future and enjoying the things yet to come.
    To conclude, I prefer to focus on the now and the future.   As an example, on my commute to the office, I try to put myself in the mindset of the artist, the agriculturalist, the naturalist. I can enjoy the rain, the sunlight, the cloud formations, falling leaves, new buds,  harvested fields, and especially the progress of new construction projects.   Onward good people.   I plan to make my lens pointing forward and as rosy as possible.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

No Longer Valued

    Conversation with my colleagues during my coffee breaks today centered around the evolution of education in my academic discipline.   In my early career and education the identity was engineering applied to agriculture.  We were concerned about agricultural machinery, farm structures, electrification, soil and water involving drainage and tillage and so on.   Our education focused on assuring that our students were well versed in mathematics, engineering principles and engineering design.   We were agricultural engineers.
    However, by the late 1980's the advances of biological sciences began to intrude upon our domain.  The focus on the physical began to be replaced by a burgeoning emphasis on biology and the engineering of biological systems.  In part our knowledge in the traditional engineering disciplines and agriculture was subsumed by the biological revolution.   As chair of my department in the late 1980's I recall writing about the coming emphasis on biology and the opportunities it afforded for our institution.   Educationally we needed to evolve to become a biological engineering discipline.   Some aspects of our traditional knowledge certainly no longer had the same value.  And perhaps it became no longer relevant to the needs of our students and society.  To remain valued and relevant we had to change both as mid or even late career faculty to embrace the new norm.   We did change.   From Agricultural and Biological Engineering in name  and practice starting 1988 to Biological and Environmental Engineering in the 2000's.   In the new normal we manipulate  biological systems with an engineering mind set to produce devices, processes and products relevant to the new world.   From this point on, the debate will be about how we need to adapt our education to be relevant for the next generation.   Perhaps we need to give our graduates not just the tools for the current environment, but also instill in them attitudes and capabilities to adapt to new paradigms.
     As I review the history of technology it is clear that some things we once valued become irrelevant as new technology evolves.  At one time the ability to operate a telegraph key was a prized skill.  With the advent of radio, television  and now the internet that skill is irrelevant.   In the early stages of computer programming, skill in machine language was prized since speed and memory were limited.  Today with massively parallel computing these older skills are much less relevant.
    Finally in my musing about value and relevance I conclude that all of us have a need to feel and be valued by someone or some institutional entity.  Even though we may no longer be operating at the cutting edge of intellectual creativity we still can remain relevant.