Friday, January 20, 2012

5 Things I Learned My First Semester

My first semester at Mac was quite a busy one: getting used to a new routine, taking classes in new subjects, making new friends and participating in extracurricular activities added up to a lot. Throughout the semester, I've learned new things, both inside and outside the classroom. The following five are just a sample of some of the more memorable lessons of the semester, from those that have come in handy while playing Trivial Pursuit to real life skills.

1. There’s more to Isaac Newton than his three laws of motion

My FYC this semester, "Newton’s Principia and the Scientific Revolution," was a study of the history and philosophy of science and the Principia, which Newton wrote to illustrate the movement of celestial bodies and everyday objects. Studying the Principia, which are a foundation for a lot of the calculus and physics we have today, was not exactly a piece of cake. However, in the process, I learned random but fascinating facts about this famed scientist. For example, in addition to studying mathematics and physics, he had a deep interest in religion; he even alludes to the importance of god in the principia, and he spent most of the latter part of his life studying theology. Even more interestingly, Newton was so weary of criticism of his writing that he had to constantly be pushed to publish. So much so, that as the I. Bernhard Cohen addition of the principia and commentary that we read put it, "Halley deserves much praise for his services as midwife to Newton's brainchild." Go figure.

2. How, when, and why Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day) is celebrated

On one of the colder days this semester, my friend asked me to come with her to the German house, where they were celebrating Nikolaustag. While she celebrates the holiday every year with her family, I was completely unfamiliar with it. Although I was at first reluctant to trek to the other side of campus, it was totally worth it. Not only did I get to find out a lot more about her family’s traditions and culture (her family is Swedish and she lived abroad in Sweden for a year, so she had a lot of cool stories), but I got to celebrate something new and experience firsthand some of the diversity we have at Mac.

3. There’s a reason why phone numbers have seven digits

Fun facts like this are my favorite part of classes, since you can apply them to your everyday life and they help you remember concepts you might forget otherwise. I never really thought about the reason behind seven digit phone numbers before, but when you do think about it, why not have 10 or 4 or 12 digits? I learned in Introduction to Psychology this semester that the number seven is not as arbitrary as it seems. 7 digits (give or take 2) is what most people can hold in their working memory, which is what we use for immediate processing and to temporarily organize information. For example, it’s what we use to glance out a white board and copy down a full sentence without looking up again, or to do mental math. As originally pointed out by George Miller, countless psych studies show that for some reason, the capacity of our working memory to hold numbers hovers somewhere around 7. Who knew?

4. Classes have the power to inspire you to read more, rather than less

I’ve always considered myself a reader, but before college, whenever I picked up a book that wasn’t for school, I made sure that it was as far from the subject of my classes as possible. School reading was school reading, and non-school reading was non-school reading. Now that I’m taking the classes that I really want to take, however, that has completely changed. I’ve learned to love reading materials that supplement my classes. I read a book over break recommended by my psych teacher that has become one of my favorite books and even went as far as to recommend it to some of my friends outside of Macalester (who, by the way, are also enjoying it). I’ve started to actually seek out books that relate to the subjects of my classes, and in fact, I’m currently reading something from a friend that relates to a class I’ll be taking this semester.

5. It’s okay to be (a little) antisocial

The first few weeks of school, I found it hard to justify spending time by myself. Though I was longing to skype with my home friends and watch an episode or two of trashy television, I felt guilty sitting in my room when it seemed like everyone else was socializing all the time. What I quickly found out, however, after discussing this with a couple of people, was that nearly everyone in the freshman class was feeling the same way. I discovered that balancing the two was a lot easier than I thought. Contrary to what I seemed to have convinced myself to believe, two hours of skyping was not going to put my social life in jeopardy. Plus, as an added bonus, I actually found other people who had been secretly watching the same trashy television shows I had. Double win.

First semester has been an exciting adventure learning about mad scientists, culture, and community. I’m excited to see what second semester has in store.

- Heather Renetzky '15