Explain It

In speaking of his father, Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman commented, “he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Trying to understand all of the new concepts all at once posed the biggest frustration in my first semester engineering courses. Many of my traditionally aged colleagues deftly accepted the name of the thing and regurgitated it back on exams. That is not to say some did not understand it, some did – I had smart colleagues. But the sheer volume of information required of us throughout the semester made thoroughly  understanding the thing next to impossible.

I asked, “yes, but why?” and then chased after a line of explanation rather than getting on with my homework. Curiosity is not a bad thing in any discipline. Curiosity leads to discovery and whether that discovery is personal or profound makes no difference. Something new came to light and this is the genuine pleasure of finding things out.

Since that first frustrating semester, I refined my curiosity approach just a bit. Now I get to ask “why” three times and then cut it off. At some point I need to draw the finish line and move on to the next project. Getting three why’s deep generally provides sufficient understanding to where I can trouble shoot, problem solve, or explain it to another enquiring mind.

For my practice, explaining a concept is the best proof of understanding. Yesterday I spent most of my time in the lab talking my way through the steady state permeameter. I started on the left, worked my way to the right, and explained to no one the purpose and specification of each component in the permeameter. My discourse included the types of valves, tubing, and cylinders, along with the maximum allowable pressure and media to be flowed during tests.

Writing also exposes gaps in my knowledge. After talking my way through the lab equipment, two pieces remained that I could not adequately explain in writing. Monday I will visit with Mentor and draw the finish line.

Below are examples of other methods I used to anchor my understanding. At present I am working on poroelastic behavior. Forgive me.

Compare and Contrast Comparing the Increment of Fluid Constant to the Specific Storage Coefficient fell under this category: how much can be added (or subtracted) to the rock matrix compared to how much can be contained in the pore space at a given reference point.

Relate Two Concepts to One Another Wrapping my head around the difference between Constitutive Laws and Governing Equations fits nicely here. Constitutive Laws relate quantities, such as Young’s Modulus relating stress and strain. Governing Equations are usually differential equations and describe the system generally, such as Conservation of Mass or Conservation of Momentum.

Setting the Idea in Context Poroelastic behavior probably does not mean much until I start listing examples: a water soaked sponge, oil trapped in shale, or water flowing through an aquifer. Yes, all three exhibit a fluid contained in a solid matrix, but the behavior of each example will be different given the material properties of the matrix (sponge, shale, aquifer) and external forces. Describing slightly different examples helps me understand subtle nuances of a difficult concept.

What methods do you use for deeper understanding?

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