So, You Want to be an Architect? Hell No, Aerospace Engineer!

Detour Sign

You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you might find,
You get what you need.

– some band from the sixties –

 

The only computer in my high school was a punch-card computer. Believe it or not, there was a time when computers were programmed using little index cards with holes in them. There were hundreds or thousands of them

required for one program (that’s an app, for you youngsters). The entire batch of cards was fed into the computer one card at a time and stored in a box that cried out, “Drop me!, Drop me!” If just one card fell out of place, or if the machine chewed one up (as it often did), you had a

Tim Bjella - Highschool Yearbook
Tim Bjella, High School Yearbook 1982

problem. Drop the box and you may as well start over. Arrrgh! Even back then, who could possibly have thought that was a good idea? I did, actually. I had tech in my blood, along with plenty of youthful enthusiasm (somehow a few platelets managed to squeeze in there, too). A few years of higher education and one of those shiny, not-so-little computers would be mine.

Punchcard Computer

I applied to a number of East Coast Ivy league colleges: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and M.I.T., throwing in Stanford as a fallback. I wasn’t accepted by any of them. Great SAT scores, extracurricular service activities, various other Space Shuttleaccomplishments and even graduating Valedictorian from high school was not enough. I blame my parents for not donating a hospital wing. Was that too much to ask? So, I was on my way to the University of Minnesota. It wouldn’t end well.

I had dreams of aerospace engineering. It was the early eighties and the Space Shuttle was all the rage. I wanted to design spacecraft, and jet boots, and transparent bikinis (look, I was in high school. I didn’t realize until much later on that I could do that without a degree. {shakes head} all that wasted time…). Aerospace engineering was the place for me. Bikini engineering would be a side job.

I had designed spacecraft since grade school. How hard could aerospace engineering be?
I had been designing spacecraft since grade school. Aerospace engineering should be a cinch.

The first step to realizing my dreams: Introductory Physics for Engineers. This class took place in one of the college’s largest auditoriums, with 600 bleary-eyed students listening through the haze (possibly purple) about force and mass and all kinds of things completely unrelated to scoring with college girls. Come to think of it, not too unrelated, really. I should have paid more attention. It didn’t take too long to realize they were just trying to weed out the students that shouldn’t be there. Like me.

Each week concluded with a test. Always worth 100 points. And, every week me and my geeky friends would be annoyed by the even more geeky Asian students and their curve-breaking high scores (they apparently weren’t scoring the other way – o.k., neither were we, but there was always a chance.). They showed up the rest of us by achieving 7 or 8 points out of a hundred. Jerks. Not the Asian kids, they were cool. The professors. I averaged 3 points a week. 3 out of a hundred! That was a passing score, just barely. What kind of test garners a high score of 8 out of a hundred, week after week after week? One that wasn’t meant to test, obviously, but whose only purpose was to discourage.  But, I got back at them. I quit. But not quite yet.

Rough Road SignWhen the second quarter rolled around I was feeling slightly insecure and inadequate. It didn’t help that the teaching assistant of my calculus class, an Italian grad student who didn’t speak any sort of English I had ever heard before, kept asking me, “Wat? Are you stu-peed?” every time I raised my hand. Needless to say, I soon stopped asking questions. Physics was also getting harder (which is how I learned it is physically possible for something to suck and blow at the same time).

My physics professor was a man known for his Marxist rants in the student newspaper and his Muttley laugh, which everyone would laugh along with (but mostly at) in class.

He was not known for his teaching. He would assign homework problems in areas of physics we hadn’t even covered yet. To this day, I still recount to my therapist one of the physics study problems: Calculate the force created by an electric field based on some unintelligible equation taken from a crashed alien spaceship – without visiting Area 51 or seeing the equation or knowing anything about physics. Not to spoil it for you, but first you had to figure out the shape of an electric field. In this case it was a torus (that’s a donut for you those of you inclined to baked goods). Second, you had to derive the calculus equations to describe said torus and apply these to… hell, I don’t know, I never even figured out the question, much less the solution.

Physics

Thankfully, the professor was also a lazy man. The final exam, worth a full 50% of the grade for the course, was a gruelling 6 hour long nightmare, which we all dreaded (except, maybe, the Asian kids). By chance I discovered that the U of M had a test preparation room hidden deep in the bowels of a building no one knew existed, guarded by attack dogs and killer librarians. Or was that killer dogs and attack librarians? Scary either way. I managed to get in simply by knocking on the door. I didn’t even need a super-secret handshake. Getting out would prove much more difficult. I don’t think the librarian had seen another living soul in months. After chatting til my throat was hoarse, she let me leave, but only if I promised to come back soon. She’s probably still sitting there waiting.

I got what I came for, though: three of my professor’s prior final exams. I now had some idea of what to expect. The week before the exam me and a couple friends from high school solved every single question on those exams. And then solved them again. And again. To be honest, I think my friends may have solved more of them than me. All of them, honestly. But I got the gist of it. It’s physics, right?

Train CrossingThe day of the final exam rolled in like a freight train, with yours truly bound to the tracks. I was barely prepared, just enough to fumble around with the knots and maybe roll off the tracks in the nick of time. A poor score would create a bloody, squishy mess for some railway worker to clean up. An average score, a career handing out Happy Meals. A good score, on the other hand, would invariably lead to pretty girls across campus pointing at my proud, striding form and whispering excitedly, “look, an aerospace engineer is coming!”

There are some moments in time you wish you could live over and over and over, or at least record on video. This was one of them, except cellphones didn’t have cameras yet and people didn’t have cellphones (probably because they didn’t have cameras). The smile on my face has never been as big as when I opened the exam book. Every single problem came straight from one of the professor’s three old exams. I knew every answer before I even read the question.

Needless to say, I aced the exam, with only one incorrect answer (to make it believable), but I didn’t deserve to. I reconciled my guilt by convincing myself I did deserve it because the professor basically forced me to suffer for five loooooooooong hours, pretending to solve physics problems so it wouldn’t look like I cheated. Technically I didn’t cheat. What was I supposed to do? Ask the professor to prepare a special test just for me because he was too lazy to prepare a unique one for an entire class. I couldn’t do that to him. It would have been wrong.

Enter the introductory aerospace engineering course, a required course for aspiring aerospace engineers. Basically, for an entire quarter they dragged one engineer after another into the classroom to talk about what they did for their job – sort of an engineer show and tell. I thought it would be the most worthless course I had ever taken, second only to Greek Mythology. Turns out, it was the most important.

Pitot Static Tube
Pitot static tubes (airspeed indicators)

One day, a nice gentleman came to class and spoke about how he designed the pitot static tube for every plane and missile that moved through his factory (you know, nudge, nudge, the airspeed indicator tube you see sticking out from airplanes. Next time you fly, look for it. Point it out to your friends, or the stranger sitting next to you. They will be SO impressed). When asked what else the engineer did during the day, he said simply, “that’s it.”

Every day? “Yep.”

I knew, then, I HAD to get out of this place and switch majors.

Aerospace? Hell no!
To Architecture I go.
The journey is long.

So, when my twin sister was recruited for the diving program at Arizona State University, I tagged along, but not before asking, “Are there any girls there?”

“Only tan ones,” she replied.

’nuff said.

 

End Detour

 

Stay tuned for Part II, Tim’s Revenge…

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Tim Bjella

Principal architect and interior designer for Arteriors / Bjella Architecture.

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