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    By Nicole DiLello | October 2nd 2009 11:23 AM | Print | E-mail
    My first apartment in graduate school was a small place on the tenth floor of a large graduate dorm.  My bedroom measured 12 feet by 8 feet and the university-owned furniture only fit in one particular arrangement.  Being on the tenth floor of an old building meant that my bedroom was perpetually 80 degrees warm, whether the heat was on or not.  In the summer, it got unbearably hot, so I invested in an air conditioner.

    Since this was university housing and I lived on the tenth floor, my windows only opened 6 inches or so.  The administration didn't want frustrated grad students jumping.  Below the window, however, they had installed an air conditioner "sleeve" – a small tunnel in which to put an air conditioner.  It was placed such that the AC would be about a foot off of the ground and blow cold air directly underneath my bed.

    I thought it might be ok.  The room was small enough that eventually it would get cooler.  After the first night that I tried it, though, I woke up and my room was 85 degrees.  This wasn't going to work.

    I was going to give up, buy three more fans, and tough it out for the rest of the summer.  Then I got mad.  I had an engineering degree!  It was expensive!

    Therein was the problem.  I did indeed have a fancy engineering degree from an impressive school.  I could explain many complicated science and engineering concepts.  I could take a piece of chalk and derive quantum mechanical theorems from first principles.  But I couldn’t make my room cooler; I didn’t have practical knowledge.

    I thought back to my family growing up.  I watched as my grandfather built me a dollhouse.  I've seen my father fix a television with a paper clip.  My father and grandfather didn't have engineering degrees - my grandfather never even went to college.  Yet I found myself envying their real world skills.  There I was, in a Ph.D. program for engineering, having just recently passed my qualifying exams, feeling like I should have a quick solution to my problem, but unable to apply anything I had learned in the classroom.  "Ok," I thought, beginning a pep talk.  "You may not have learned anything practical for your undergraduate degree.  But you have good genes."

    Lacking any sort of workshop area in my overly warm apartment, I went to the next best thing – the kitchen.  I was looking for something that an engineer would use to solve problems.  The only tools I had in my apartment were a screwdriver and a hammer and I was pretty sure those wouldn't help.

    Then it occurred to me: duct tape.  Engineers are always talking about how duct tape fixes all problems.  My father, real world guy that he is, sent me off to school with a roll, so I grabbed it and kept thinking. I went poking through my drawers and pantry.  Pasta wasn't going to help me, nor was my spinach.  Plastic wrap?  Also probably not.  But there it was, next to the plastic wrap: aluminum foil. 

    I went back to my bedroom armed with duct tape and aluminum foil, still unsure what I was going to do.  I tried to look at the situation on a more fundamental level.  The basic problem was that my air conditioner was blowing cold air onto my floor.  Just as hot air rises, cold air sinks.  Ideally, air conditioning vents should be as high as possible so that as the cold air sinks to the floor, it cools off the room.  I couldn't move the air conditioner; it was stuck down where it was. But I still had to find a way to get the cool air up higher.

    I used some bed risers (sleeker than cinder blocks, but they serve the same purpose) to make my bed frame a little bit taller.  Then I ripped, cut, and duct taped aluminum foil to make a contrivance that guided the cool air from the AC vent up and over my bed, supported by the frame.  It wasn't as high as I would have liked it, but at least the cool air was coming up above my bed.  The final product looked like a strange metallic contraption that I was using to contact aliens.  It certainly wasn't the most elegant solution, but it worked.  That night, the same air conditioner cooled off my bedroom to a sleep-able 75 degrees.

    Since my triumph over the poorly placed air conditioner, I've reached some other, more recognizable milestones in the field of engineering.  I've presented at well-respected conferences; I earned my master's degree.  But nothing makes me feel like an engineer quite like rigging up a vent extension out of aluminum foil and duct tape so that I can sleep at night.

    I have yet to reprise this great demonstration of practical knowledge.  Even though I now have two expensive engineering degrees, I still don't have much faith in my ability to apply any of my theoretical classroom knowledge to the real world.  My new apartment has central air conditioning.