Tag Archives: Engineering

Physics and computers; ah, the memories!

About this time thirty three years ago, I was getting ready to go back to Rochester Institute of Technology to complete my freshman year. I started out as a physics major, wanting to explore cosmology, relativity and so much more theoretical science. A rude awakening lay in wait for the naive young man…they make you learn all sorts of basic physics first and do lab work.

And, to my dismay, take chemistry.

Of all the sciences, chemistry is my least favorite. Yes, even less than biology or the fuzzy sciences like psychology. I really did not like those lab reports! Nor did I like basic physics, despite having a phenomenal staff to student ratio (just nine freshman physics majors) and a great advisor in Dr. V. V. Raman whose grandfather won a Nobel Prize (for his discovery of what came to be called the Raman Effect)…and who got his doctorate under another Nobel laureate, Louis de Broglie. Yes, that Louis de Broglie (though I did not know that before wikipedia came along).

Unhappy with the physics prospects, I changed majors (to computer science) … and after only one year in Rochester, I also changed schools. I stuck with computer science because I was always a pretty good programmer. But another rude awakening was on its way…software was only part of the major. They make you (or at least made me) learn hardware stuff, too. Keep in mind this was the early 1980s and we had to design things like not so simple circuits to drive an LED display. Logic gates and all. Things that are off the shelf now. I eventually dropped out of UConn, but at the tail end I was doing some work for a professor and friend that was cutting edge virtual reality. I wrote code that took what a camera traced from the outline of a person in front of a special screen and translated any motion to stick figures on a graphic display. Kind of like what Xbox Kinnect does, but very primitive. But, I didn’t like hardware, and left it behind. Oh well. I’ve still dabbled in programming over the years and discovered that having learned in a linear world (Fortran, Basic, PL/1, various assemblers for mainframes to minis to microcomputers) that object-oriented programming is a struggle – the concepts don’t fit the “first this, then that” frame of mind.

So, why the trip down selective memory lane? Well, I still get into theoretical physics; just on my terms. I’m re-reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and loving it. I read Lawrence Krause’s A Universe from Nothing earlier this year and loved it as well and want to go back and finish a Brian Greene book I set aside four years ago. Yeah, the math is far beyond me and will always be (only because I have no desire to learn it now), but popularized versions of the subject are still engaging and tell the story without complex equations. And like my computer programming experience, there are concepts in physics that my mind can’t seem to wrap itself around without a lot of extra time that I find in short supply. Things like quantum particles popping in and out of existence, or maybe not existing at all. Cats that are both alive and dead.

But that’s why I’m an engineer now…grounded in practicality. For…

…scientists dream, but engineers do.

PE Epilogue


I passed!

Really glad I don’t have to take that exam again!  Four months of study and eight hours of testing.  Eighteen years since I graduated from OU with that BS in Mechanical Engineering, and 10 since I graduated from TAMU with a MS also in mechanical, I knuckled down and learned in less than four months all I needed to know to pass the civil engineering professional engineer exam.

As promised (to myself, at least), here’s how I did it:

The Studying

I started by reading all of the pertinent chapters of Michael Lindeburg’s Civil Engineering Reference Manual (10th Edition, published before they reformatted the exam, but still up to the task.) I made copious notes of equations and concepts.  None of which I used after I started studying in earnest and never brought in to the exam anyway.  But, what that did was get me thinking academically again, remembering the few cross-over topics from mechanical to civil that I had long ago forgotten, and it gave me an overview of the 85% subject matter that I had never seen.  Oh, I’ve been around civil engineering for the 18 years since undergrad, but not in a design capacity, and certainly not from a actual calculation perspective.  Other people did that – I just reviewed drawings for constructibility and common sense (which unfortunately is sometimes lost on architects and engineers).

Anyway, I was struggling for a month with the balance of adding a different self-discipline to my life and trying to (re)learn all of this material.  Then, as noted in my PE Preps…the saga continues post, I stumbled on a tip from a woman who had failed twice but passed on the third try.  She said that she didn’t bother studying the material, because she’d have to look it up anyway when she didn’t know how to solve a problem.  Brilliant! Economy of time!  Why spend all that time studying things that may not be on the exam?

So I started on the problem solving.  Depressing at first (can’t I solve any of these without having to look at the answer?), but slowly the lights started coming on as I got more familiar with the texts and resources.  I worked through Six Minute Solutions problem sets (“typical” problems as might be seen on the test – yeah, right!) for Water Resources, Transportation, Geotechnical, eventually Structural and Environmental (which is now grouped in with Water Resources in one section).  That’s where I learned the equations needed, the concepts covered and the methods of solution.

Problem solution notes

I transcribed every problem I did to a blank page and after solving it on scrap paper, transcribed the solution.  Along the way, as I kept doing them and saw what worked and what didn’t, I changed my system:

– Important equations I wrote in green ink,

– Where I found the material in red ink, and since I used more than one resource, I wrote each in the margin, because rarely are actual problems worded the same as the samples

– The rest of the solution I wrote in blue ink to stand apart from the equations and the references.

I also used Indranil Goswami’s “Civil Engineering All-In-One PE Exam Guide: Breadth and Depth”.

It was not as comprehensive as Lindeburg, but it was organized into the five disciplines, and it was broken out into the subject areas identified on the NCEES syllabus.

As such, it seemed to focus more on what the exam really covered.

And it had a few sections that explained things better than Lindeburg. Lindeburg was still the text I went to the most on the exam, with Goswami second, my worked problems third, and the specialized sources (Transportation related…things I never use in my daily, professional life!)

The Methods/System

As the exam date got closer, Andrea would shake her head when I’d come down after four or five hours of study and declare I’d just finished re-indexing.  “Seems like you’re always indexing.”  Well, I discovered as I progressed through my studies that as time is at a premium (six minutes average per problem, remember?), and that I don’t have an eidetic memory, I had to economize on the frantic page flipping.  I copied the indexes for each of Lindeburg and Goswami, as well as the Highway Capacity Manual and the Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (both of which are poor!) and put them in a three ring binder.  Easier to flip a few pages than flop a book back and forth.

Tabbed indexes

Then I got the idea to tab the pages with the alphabet – less time to find the pages I want. And then I got the even better idea to re-tab the pages dictionary style, which I truly believe shaved precious time off of the flipping as I simply slid a fingernail under the tab I wanted (ingeniously lettered on the front and back, and taped down for durability!)

The one thing I would change if I had to take this again would be to highlight the line I looked up in the indexes when I worked the problems, as it’s a safe bet I’d need to look it up again for the exam. Drawing the eye to key entries instead of scanning down the page searching would save even more time.  I did do that for a few things toward the very end, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.

My problem indexes

I also wrote my own indexes for the problems I worked and put in a big binder. I numbered each page and then made tables of contents for each section with (too) brief descriptions of problem types, which problems were like them and as much as possible included the reference source again in red.

“Too” brief, I say because during the actual exam, I fumbled these indexes more than the others.  I knew what problems I had worked, but under the gun…

Still, the exercise in organization helped pinpoint the resources.  As it turns out, I did not use my worked problems as much as I thought I would, but I still think the prep time quite valuable.

The most valuable prep time was spent tabbing Lindeburg and Goswami.  On one of the forums I used folks kept talking about the “Scooby” method.  I found “Scooby’s” post (a mechanical engineer!) and liked how he tabbed his pages.  I had been using post-its, but those were clearly not very efficient.

Color coding by section was the key, with chapters tabbed on the side, appendices across the top, and special tabs on the bottom.   (That was a brilliant suggestion by someone on one of the forums – with the book lying flat on the table, I needed to see the most important flags without having to lift it up the pounds of book!)

And I tabbed the Goswami book the same way, with the same color code scheme.

The tabs and the indexes were the biggest help on game day.

Preparation Resources

I mentioned some websites I used in earlier posts, but here are the ones that helped the most:
Civil PE Prep – where I found the tip to focus on the problems and not the study

Engineer Boards, PE Exam Prep Forum had LOTS of tips, questions and answers…an excellent resource!

The Yahoo group TexasPEExam kept me informed as to the status of the results posting, and did provide a couple answers to questions I had on the use of pens, etc.

Texas A&M still has 40 some hours of old video lectures as part of a review course it did for Fort Hood many (at least ten) years ago available on line here. I listened to a couple, but they got down way deeper into the weeds and spent too much time on non-exam topics in my opinion.


So…that’s what worked for me. I think I put in 300-400 hours of study.  Was there any doubt?  Hell yeah! You should have seen me at 12:30 after the morning session! I thought “Crap! Four months wasted!”  I felt better after the afternoon session, and better and better as time dragged on and on until the results were posted today. But there was still doubt.

Not any more!

PE Preps – Part the Third

Well, it’s July 19th and I have 101 study days left (102 if I use the 28th, but I need to make sure I’m ready with everything and if I don’t know it by then…). I learned an interesting tidbit the other day. I posted a question on a board about the use of post-it type tabs, because I had read that some states don’t allow them. The responses all indicated the post-its were okay, but that they had to be marked in ink. Oh, and any notes I have, whether on personal sheets or in my reference books! No one is allowed to bring pens, pencils, etc. – the testing agency provides mechanical pencils. So, why must my notes be in ink? It finally dawned on me why, and I’ll share at the end of this piece. (Friends who have taken the test – no fair spoiling it!)

So, I’m going back over my earlier notes – two sets: my current set and the ones I wrote up back in 2007 when I was studying the first time. I know now I would have been asked to leave, because I didn’t know about the pencil issue, and I had many, many pages of pencil notes. I’m still in the (re-)learning phase of my preparations and trying to cram a whole lot of info absorption into a short period. So, it’s understandable, but still frustrating when I look at something I wrote just two weeks ago with deer-in-the-headlights blankness. It makes me wonder which part of my brain needs to be switched to manage this – I can remember Bugs Bunny quotes, or lines from movies I saw 25-30 years ago, but not what I wrote last week?

Anyway, balancing the “second job”, home life, work and an additional factor are going to be one of the bigger challenges of my life to date. That 10 months getting my Master of Science degree at A&M was the worst, but this…well, given that I’ve already announced to the fam (as noted in the previous entry on this subject) that Halloween is going to be tough…

“Additional factor”? Yeah, I just sort of snuck that in there. I’ve applied for the Deputy Public Works and Engineering Director position at work (City of Plano), which will fleet up and take over the Director position when the current Director retires next year. So I am also preparing for the series of interviews that will start in August. Competition is going to be pretty stiff – at least one, and maybe one other, within the department have applied along with something like 38 outside applicants. I have heard that several of those candidates “look pretty good.” But I look better. (No lack of confidence here!) The job is perfect for me and I am perfect for the job; more to the point, I know what I can do for the City in that position – I just have to be able to demonstrate it to the interviewing teams. And I understand it will likely be teams. More on that later… (because I don’t know any more on that now.)

{Update: I didn’t get the job. They broke the news to me with “We selected Jerry, but we talked long on ‘How are we going to keep Jim?'” Flattery didn’t ease the disappointment, but the thought…}

Brain’s churning all the time, but it’s exciting. It’s a serious challenge – worthy of the time I’m putting into the PE study, the interview preparations, my work (of course), and an occasional D&D session. I’ll be missing out on fun stuff like drive-ins and sweatin’ to the Friday Night Lights tapings, but this too soon shall end.

So, the no pencil requirement…well, another rule is the test taker can only write in the test book and NOT in any of the reference material brought in (grounds for removal). I’ll tell you, I had to think a bit on why pencils were a no-no. It never occurred to me that it was about cheating. They want to make sure no one writes down test questions for future test takers. Yup. Never occurred to me. Now, what might have occurred to me was a suggestion posted in response to my question – rather than transcribe my notes in pen, I could just photocopy them and put them in a three-ring binder. But, I’ll get more value during the repetition of transcribing (see bit above about memory!)

When next I post on this subject, there will be less than three digits of study days left. But who’s counting?

PE Preps: Part the Second

For those reading on Facebook, this is posted on my WordPress blog (https://jimrazinha.wordpress.com)

I have 111 study days left as of this writing for the October 29th exam date. I got an email yesterday that my application had been received and was being reviewed, and Andrea forwarded me another email today that I had been approved to sit for the exam. Quick turnaround, but then I had already been approved in 2007 to take the exam, so it was a simple matter to consider the additional experience.

So my plan thus far has been to read Lindeberg’s Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam, going over the major topics of each section. I have to say, civil engineering is a lot easier than mechanical. Well, it would be if I were taking the classes over four years. I just got another book, Indranil Goswami’s “Civil Engineering All-In-One PE Exam Guide” that I’ve glanced at while looking over the Lindeberg material, but I haven’t gotten deep into it yet. I think Lindeberg’s is very comprehensive and has more than the test will cover (okay, serious understatement that), but I’m teaching myself the fundamentals of Construction, Geotechnical (soils and foundations), Structural (beams et al), Transportation (road and highway design, capacity, etc), and Water Resources and Environmental. Of the five, Water Resources is most like my mechanical background. I took several courses in structural analyses as an undergrad in 1991/2, but wasn’t a big fan. Geotech and Transportation are totally new. Construction is actually new to the exam (since 2008) and there aren’t a lot of resources to help one prepare. Given most of my experience has been in the construction field, that would seem the logical choice to take in the afternoon, but again, there aren’t a lot of resources, so I have little idea of what kind of questions they can ask. I’m thinking not.

A note on the exam format for folks unfamiliar: open book – almost any book, but you shouldn’t bring things that you really haven’t used, certain restrictions on what format your personal notes can take (no stapled or ring binder loose pages) and what calculators you can use, four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon (40 multiple choice questions each). The morning is considered the Breadth portion and covers the five sections roughly equally (to make sure the engineer has enough knowledge of the fundamentals of the discipline). The afternoon is focused on one topic in Depth. Up until this October, the examinee was given all five and could choose which to do, but only one was graded. The powers that be changed the rules for this next round – I have to pick which to take when I register and only that one will be given to me. I guess the reasoning for the old way was “whoa, this is tougher than I thought…I’d better switch”, losing time, of course. This way forces the study focus, so I had better choose right.

Four hours, 40 questions means six minutes per question. And you usually have to choose the best answer…meaning that your answer and the four they give may not match, so you have to use your best engineering judgment! Say the question has to do with capacity; well the best answer may be the rounded up one to make sure that you’ve designed it well enough. Now, if it has to do with a safety factor, you might have to choose the one that is below the maximum you have calculated.

All the tips out there say to know the index and know the material. Just about everyone in the Civil Engineer Corps who took the PE I talked to said Transportation is the easiest as long as you have the references. Sure – if you took the courses! It does seem rather easy, but I’m trying to learn in less than a month. I already decided that I’m not going to take the Construction Depth, so I think I’m going to focus on the Water Resources and Environmental, because that seems easiest to me. Easy being relative, of course.

Anyway, my plan:

  1. read and learn everything by the end of July…so far, well, so far…
  2. re-read everything again if I “finish” early (I’m actually ahead of where I thought I’d be)
  3. start running through problems in August (I have several problem books with solutions, and some actually have the reasons why the wrong answers are wrong. I’ve not started working many problems yet because I need the material to sink in to a “yeah, I recognize that” level and know at least where to go to find the references in the books)
  4. focus in earnest in September on the Depth section while still reviewing the Breadth
  5. really focus on the Depth and weak points in October

There’s not enough caffeine in even how I make my coffee to sustain me. Must supplement.

(I’m already resigned to having a minimalist Halloween this year. It usually takes me a solid two weeks to set everything up and then I tweak for a week more. Bummer)

…to be continued…