1966 to 1971 – Those Anecdotal Five Years …. – The Practical(s) : Civil Engineering – Practical rigours practically upturned into joyous occasions (!) – [1]

If the practicals of Electrical Engineering were an enigma to me, the practicals of Civil Engineering turned out to be acid test for my inherent sense of practical applications. I do not remember much of what we had done in the Civil Labs, but two outdoor field projects – the chain link survey and the theodolite survey. Of course, I should confess that I remember them for wrong reasons.

Chain Link survey that did not link in the end

I understand that one of the popular sites for the chain link survey field projects was Swastik Society, a upper-middle class residential society opposite H L College Commerce, in the Navrangpura area of Ahmedabad.

On the appointed day our batch duly assembled at the location. However, I am almost not able to recollect how we transported the hardware or actually conducted the survey, what seems to remain deeply etched into my memory are our (undeservingly) joyous holiday mood, the ire of the residents of the area and the goof up in the practical.

From the day the schedule for this field practical was announced, we had started looking forward to this major outdoor experience – not with the curiosity of putting our sense of practical application to the real field test, but with joy of one-day picnic. As a result, from the moment we landed at the field site, we were too raucously loud and noisy for any decent residential area. When I try to look back now, I can certainly visualize how loud that noise would be in the serene afternoon silence of an upper middle-class society. I do not remember whether we indeed chided up for this uncivilized crowd behaviour by our staff, and if we were we paid any heed to it or not. But I still very clearly recall the severe, but too decent for a rowdy crowd like ours to appreciate, chidings of some of the ladies of the society,  As I look back, I wonder how were we not banned entry forever for these field projects in the society!

Well, we did manage to run through the actual measurements on the field. However, when the results were plotted down on a scale drawing, we were aghast to know that the start point and the end points were so much off the mark that our end point would actually land up a couple of kilometres from the real end. However, it seemed that almost every batch would goof here, with some degree of difference. So, our teachers readily offered us some ‘practical tips’ to bring the semblance to the measurements vis-a-vis the reality.

Our friend Dilip Vyas, has captured the mood of such chain link survey practical so well:

Being admitted to Mech. Side, I had Civil for only one year. Part of almost introductory Civil Eng. was chain and compass survey which was I think done sometime in July/August period. Since group of students and supervisor cannot just go anywhere to do it, it was done around LD in nearby Government societies. As it happened, we had to do chain survey in H Colony which was just in our back yard. On the appointed Survey day, there was no regular college. The practical was to commence in the early morning. Being Mechanical students, we tended to take anything to do with civil lightly. Almost bordering on condescending negligence. With the benefit of whatever wisdom has come with age, now I realize how stupid that was. But when you are eighteen and have just entered the rarefied word of your first choice of college location and engineering branch (AM was usually first choice and usually comprised of highest marks getters along with AE. AM meant Ahmedabad Mechanical and was among nine choices offered. Three college locations – Ahmedabad, Morvi and Suart – and three Engineering branches were the order at that time), I guess you do tend to be somewhat fool of yourself !

So anyway, we finished the survey before two o’clock in the afternoon and decided to take advantage of free half day by going to newly opened Rupali theatre which had the added attraction of 70 mm. screen. It was showing My Fair lady. I now know that the film is considered a classic but, on that day, combination of having spent most of the day out in hot Sun, having missed lunch and watching the film had given me a severe headache. Later, to compound the misery, when we had to plot our survey in Civil Engineering drawing, final two points came out about two centimetres apart because of sloppy work we had done in the field. Luckily teacher in charge at that time was understanding (and as it turned out, was soon headed to US on Immigration Visa) and gave us a pass to adjust the error and project turned out to be Ok.  The drawing part of this, and other drawing projects later, are stories in themselves.

Now, I understand, that they do not need chain to measure the distance. I have seen surveyors doing similar work using laser like device which gives you a very accurate distance between two points.

Before I draw any conclusion, it would be in good order to recount the experiences of another field practical – the theodolite survey.

1966 to 1971 – Those Anecdotal Five Years …. – The Practical(s) : The Encounters with Practical Electrical Engineering

As I started writing down this piece, I had had quite serious introspection about what would have happened if I had to continue my studies for the graduate degree of Electrical Engineering.

I must candidly admit that my introspection remained at the surface level only, One reason perhaps is that, at the back of my mind, I always thought that I am writing memoirs here, not the treatise on how I should, or should not, have taken up my studies. Another reason seems to be the fact that electrical engineering has always remained an abstract subject with me, even when I had had occasions to deal with the subject later in my career, so why to rationalize , or justify, that rightly or wrongly perceived abstractness!

So, rather than digressing into not-so-relevant areas, I will come back to the subject –

As I started ruminating into my memories of the electrical engineering practicals, the first thing strikes me even today is the awe that large swathe of space that the electrical lab presented, every time stepped into the lab building. Even today, I do not have any rational explanation for that feeling, because I already had had sufficient acclimatization with huge expanse of the LDCE campus, that of very large classrooms, large library and such other infrastructure as compared to my previous experience with the environment that I had had experienced at the schools.

I will take the help of experiences that Dilip Vyas has shared to build the base of my narrative:

“For me Electrical lab was a mysterious and a little scary place. My earliest memory of an experience with electricity was at about seven years old when during a Vastu – house-warming – ceremony at my Mama’s (mother’s brother) newly constructed home in Rajkot, a relative touched some switch and was immediately thrown off on the floor. People said Ramnikbhai was lucky because Rajkot had recently switched to AC current from DC, otherwise he would have been stuck to the switch and may have died!

“With that childhood traumatic memory, I walked into large Electricity lab on the east side of campus with some awe and lot of trepidation. Fortunately, our instructors also were either aware of our awe and inexperience or were scared that some stupid guy touching something and burning him or a machine. (By the way, it was all HIM at that time. No HER. ) And so, they were very insistent on not turning anything up without someone from staff did the final check on wiring connections and, even then, instructor will be the one who will do the honour of flipping the switch. I don’t know about the others, but I was more than OK with that arrangement.

“I do not recall any major up or down incident during Electrical lab sessions.

“There was also, just like CIVIL subjects, little bit of lack of interest (may be a smudge of disdain ? ) for ELECTRICAL. After all we were the chosen Mechanical branch students!! Though in reality, Electrical was on par with Mechanical and some students with better marks were opting for it with their choice. ( In fact, by the time of graduation, Civil Eng. Jobs were easier to find than other branches in those socialist time when Government was the biggest likely Employer of engineers. )

“Another contrast that I felt was that most staffers, and not just lab related demonstrators but department in general, on Mechanical side were more ‘fun’ than the Electrical side.”

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Simultaneous with our electrical engineering lab practicals, in the First Year, we were being inducted into the basics of theory part of the electrical engineering with topics like ‘parallel’ and ‘series’ circuits and electrical devices like motors, transformers etc. Till then, my exposure to ‘the electrical’ was limited to switching off or on the lights only. I even did not any occasion to see even a water filling pump!

However, like the other ‘engineering’ subjects that also we were learning for the first time, I had started to mentally accept ‘circuit diagrams’ as one of the basic tools of communication in the electrical engineering and recognizing the symbols of resistors or motors etc and those for the way they relate to each other in a circuit.

However, at the electrical lab, my encounter with the same real, physical, objects of so much of a different dimension somehow added to the awe that I felt with abstractness of concepts of ‘current flowing into the circuit’ or ‘voltage applied to the circuit’

Here there were boxes lined up across one wall of the lab. Each box had several light bulbs fitted in slots in different rows. As we went closer to the box, we could see that each had several electric bulbs with different wattages. We could, at least, make out that sum of bulbs in different rows would give us different total wattages. We were informed that these are the resistors.

Then as we looked around, we could also see that there were copper-wire-wound coils lined up in different shelves. We were told these were “inductors” of different inductance capacities. I was so naive at that stage, even when I physically see these coils I failed to comprehend that the copper-wire-winding when charged with electrical current, it would ‘induce’ a magnetic field, and hence the name – inductor. I do not actually remember when this knowledge had lighted up in my mind, but today when I think back, I could see how inadequately I was geared up to take up the practicals as the structured medium of learning.

And then came up the most revealing part of the electrical lab experience – connecting the actual circuit. what could be easily squeezed in less than a quarter page of a notebook, was now spread here all across the lab. Between the two objects there were long electrical wires in place of a short line of the circuit diagram, anything from one to three boxes (of electric lamps) for one symbol of a resistor,  a couple coils at a different table as ‘inductors, and so on. And top of all these, the switch was a ‘big box’ with a handle, which we were strictly not permitted to put on or put off!

It therefore can hardly be any surprise that it took me quite some good exposure during the actual career that I could get the real difference between a squirrel cage and a slip ring motor! But, more surprising is the fact that I was already seeing the motors powering the machines in e Workshop practicals, and yet it never struck me to apply the knowledge of motor classification in identifying which type of motor is used for a particular machine!

By the time I had undergone a few more of such experiments, it seemed to me that whatever little I was able to understand in the theory had evaporated in the lab.!

However, before I came up to stage of seriously taking on the fight with that big bull of perceived fear of abstractness of electrical engineering, providence offered me a short cut! Before the end of the First Year, a notice was published that all the students of the First Year desiring a change into another branch can apply for such a change.

I immediately put my bet on the Mechanical Engineering – partly because that was the ‘in-thing’ at that time and partly because I could get respite from studying the electrical engineering for all five years. Early into the second year, lady luck smiled at me, and I got the transfer to Mechanical Engineering.

As I look back, it seems quite clear to me that I must have felt so relived then that I never ever gave a second thought to the possibility of how good (or bad) an electrical engineer been I had to continue with the Electrical Engineering.  Or for that matter, even was I a good enough material for the rigors of mechanical engineering?

I have a confession to make today – I am happy that I do not have to answer that question now !!?

1966 to 1971 – Those Anecdotal Five Years …. – The Practical(s) : In Practice

As I sit down to introspect today, I am still not been to clearly spell out my relationship with the practical(s) during the five years of the study of engineering.  Whether it was lack of interest, or lack of aptitude, or lack of skills, lack of appreciation of importance of the practical(s) for an engineering professional, I can vaguely define that relationship as the degree of connect only to the extent that I had with all other subjects- be it its theoretical part or the practical part. When I reflect a bit deeper, I can possibly see conditioning of a typical mindset that the environment those days would tend to mold.

In most of the middle and upper lass homes, the atmosphere generally inculcated the belief that during the ‘student’ phase of the life, a growing person had to study as best as the facilities available. The evaluation of the learning normally always gross total of all the marks that a student gets for all the subjects during the studies. The emphasis on studying was so much that the children hardly were given any other assignments that would either develop their aptitude for multi-disciplinary learning. It was the sacrosanct responsibility of the parents and the family to make available best possible resources to help the child pursue the studies, Correspondingly, it was considered to be prime duty of the child to study as much as he/she can, till a particular age or till the family could afford the total cost of study for all the children in the family.

As I had seen, during my Democratic High School (Gomtipur, Ahmadabad – a residential area in the textile mills dominated locality of eastern Ahmadabad) days, the friends who came from working class families, used to double up for many daily family-support chores. However, for the elite student class of the society – to which we belonged at bottom of the pyramid strata – the only activities that could possibly inculcate some aptitude for the practical life was a school picnic her or a short vacation tour there. If any school induced the students to create some kinds of working models or develop any performing art skill was considered to an ‘enlightened’ school. These schools therefore were considered ‘experimental’ schools because they dared (or imagined creating) unusual educational methods that included the practical(s) as well to the historically developed educational model of the school.

The studies till 11th standard those days, generally, was all about theories. The schools that offered multi-disciplinary education during primary, secondary, and higher-secondary stage were far too few. Most of the students of that period would see a laboratory, as part o the regular studies, only when they reached the level of college studies. Even at this stage, the ‘practical(s)’ were treated more a part of a given curriculum. One would study, or teach, the practical as all other subjects were being studies all these years.

As a result, I would tend to conclude that most of the students of those times were hardly aware that the structured studying was as much widening of the learning as it was developing the reasoning.

I, too, was a typical product of that system – certainly somewhat better than the then average – who had reached the level of studying engineering in course of the regular development of the life. That did not necessarily mean that I was attitudinally competent, or ready, to appreciate the importance of ‘the practical(s)’ in the pursuit of the engineering studies. I was not even aware that I will need to consciously cultivate several changes in my natural aptitude in order to really absorb what I was to learn during the course of my engineering studies. As a result, whatever shortcomings came up during the course of studies, my typical response was to accept them as it were rather than try to improve upon it.

In the retrospect, I do realize that It was only when I entered the ‘earning’ phase of the life that I could actually realize the importance what we were made to study during school and college. But that is a subject far beyond the scope of the present endeavor.

My memories and experiences of the practical(s) that will come up in my now to follow narrative should present that side of apathy. I candidly admit that the above disclaimer is not an effort to justify that apathy, but a sincere effort to present my perspective of that reality.

I plan to take my ‘(Mis)connections at the Electical Lab’ in the next episode.