I arrived for my first week at university following an eight-hour car drive with several school-mates. I recall my luggage and bicycle had been dispatched from the Cambridge railway station to Palmerston North several weeks earlier.
The second day of lectures was long. The day commenced with an applied microbiology lab at 8 a.m. and a biochemistry lab that concluded at 6 p.m. An engineering laboratory concluded the week which required a further five to six hours of Saturday to write up. Fortunately, there were just a dozen of these reports to complete through the year.
I recall having around 35 - 40 hours of contact per week: Eight courses with two hours of lectures and two or three hours of laboratories per week. Some courses, such as statistics and calculus had exercise tutorials. We technology students felt a little hard done in comparison with the arts students who had contact loads of about 20 hours per week. Their large reading and essay writing loads that meant little to us white-booted ‘techies’.
The computing course required us to submit our programmes on punch cards. Computing resources were strictly rationed with a focus on ‘getting in right first time’. There was a limit on the number of CPU seconds, line-flow, and program submissions. One campus computer. No Visual Display Unit (VDU) terminals for undergraduates. No personal computers. An electronic calculator in some laboratories. We used our engineering slide rule for conducting calculations for which we received several hours instruction. I purchased my first calculator for my fourth year of studies. By that stage, I had also been granted privileged access to a precursor to the personal computer: a Digital PDP-8 computer. “8” standing for 8 Kbyte of memory. I used this machine to assist with the calculations for my laboratories - and to program the matchstick game ‘Nim’.
The eight courses extended throughout the full year, broken into three terms. My academic mentor checked my progress towards the end of the first term. I suspect I reported I was on top of matters but felt it a bit unfair to have tests immediately after the two week study break. I now tell my own students the answer I received: that a ‘study break’ is a break FOR study.
At times the workload did seem daunting. However, I recall being reassured when I looked up at the ivy-encrusted Old Main Building in which we conducted our microbiology experiments. I thought of those students who had survived their studies, and I thought also of my inspiration, radioactivity scientist Marie Curie.
I recall some textbooks were useful in supporting our studies: chemistry, biochemistry, and statistics in particular. An added extra resource was available for statistics and calculus: the extra-mural study guides. Only in later years in my social science courses such as psychology and economics did I need to read the texts for exam purposes. For the engineering courses, all tests and exams were drawn from material presented in the course lectures. And lectures were not explicitly related to specific sections of the textbooks. Most of my texts were resold prior to the next year’s studies. I still possess my two engineering textbooks, a statistics text, and a quality control text. I do recall finding the university libary an uninteresting source of light reading: mostly Jane Eyre genre. Not like the massive science fiction library on the shelves of Massachusetts Institute of Technology that later impressed me during my post-doc in 1983.
Was my first year a typical university first year? Like many first year students at Massey I stayed in the on-campus hostels (City Court), meeting new out-of-town students, and discovering new genre of music. I pumped out my new discoveries of Mahler and Shostakovitch symphonies on my home-made single valve 1 Watt ECL-86 amplifier. We engaged in the usual antics: re-arranging a student’s bedroom into the courtyard and inter-hostel water fights.
I had little need to visit town as the campus was self-sufficient in food and a weekly movie. Usually $10 would need to last me the last two weeks of the term. For reference, a Chinese take-way meal was $2.00. I usually ate a huge breakfast and dinner, and scavenged leftover breakfast toast and jam for lunch. I sang in the Palmerston North Choral Society, and in a unique stage production - Te Papaoia - that recounted - apparently controversially - the history of the city and its surrounding districts. With a new-found musically-inclined friend, I joined his flat after the first term of my second year.
My first year was different in several respects from most students. Having gained a university scholarship, I requested and was granted direct entry to second year classes. Consequently, I joined classes of 20 - 50 students, rather than the larger first year classes comprising several hundred students. Most of my classmates were two or three years older than I was, but I soon became known as the swot of the class, gaining high marks especially in engineering, chemistry, computing classes.
Before I commenced my second year, I undertook a 12-week placement in a factory in Upper Hutt: Tasman Vaccine Laboratories (TVL). The plant manager loaned me the writings of management guru Peter Drucker and Douglas McGreggor. Those readings and various discussions with the senior scientist lead me to switch my major from biotechnology to industrial management.
The persistent pace and workload of my first year of tertiary study lead me to refine my already well-disciplined approach to study. I balanced time with recreational singing, social activities and personal music listening. I maintained fitness with an exercise programme similar to 5BX and squash, but did not engage in a sports team. It would have been quite impossible to hold a part time job, but I did take employment during the ‘study breaks’ and summer break. I worked in a timber yard pulling orders one year.
See also: How can students be prepared for Practice-Based Learning? A reflection http://pogus.tumblr.com/post/989695576/pbl
Peter J Mellalieu matriculated for a Bachelor of Technology at Massey University, Palmerston North in 1973 commencing a biotechnology major. In 1976 he graduated with first class honours in industrial management and engineering.