Saturday Adventures

I’m back with the last blog of the month! Without further ado, let’s see what I did today…

This is probably the earliest I have ever woken up on a Saturday. My group of fellow hikers decided to meet at the base of Xiangshan (a small mountain) at 9 am, so I had to wake up around 8 am to get there on time. The mountain is quite small, but with two or three breaks along the way it took us a total of around 2 hours. We had a fun time relaxing and singing songs while enjoying the beautiful nature all around us.

After a quick lunch and resting for a bit, I joined a different group at the main entrance of campus. We took a bus to the National Palace Museum, and during this time I got the chance to meet local students as well as exchange students from Japan and Germany. Once we arrived, everyone finished storing their large items (they can’t be brought in to the museum) and then we went to meet our tour guide. The tour itself lasted around 2 hours and was really interesting, probably thanks to the humor that the guide added to his descriptions of the various artifacts.

One of the items that I remember well is a sphere shaped art piece that was actually a handcrafted combination of 15 or so concentric spheres, with each sphere having the ability to roll in any direction around and inside the other spheres. It took a total of 30 years to make! Talk about dedication and patience. The guide explained that many of the artifacts are worth crazy amounts of money, and they were mostly made for emperors and other important people. Another cool thing we saw was a “Carved olive pit in the form of a boat”. Basically, someone took a regular olive pit and spent a lot of time turning it into a tiny model boat with people and working doors!

After our legs were finally sore, we ended the tour and took a short break. Then we traveled to a nearby garden area that with a beautiful small pond. We saw two black swans that some other tourists were feeding. There was a fun little “lottery” to decide which participants would get a small gift. I was one of the winners! Yay!

Afterwards we traveled to the Shilin Night Market, where we split up into small groups to experience one of the best parts of Taiwanese culture. You guessed it: Food! Sometimes locals will travel to a random night market when they have free time. Everything is really cheap, but if you decide to indulge yourself in more than the usual 2-3 things, it can still be a good chunk of money.

Overall today was a great success. Not only was it a fun day full of activities, but I also got the chance to meet new friends as well as practice a little German with one of the German exchange students. It never hurts to try out my rusty command of the language (I haven’t really used it since middle school) before I end up fully immersed next semester in their culture! The semester is more than halfway over, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned and experience thoughout my time in Taiwan. I have a few more blogs left this semester, they will most likely be in the reflection type format. Until then, go ace those finals (if you’re in school) and enjoy the rest of fall semester!

How Learning Is Different Here

Something is becoming quite apparent at the halfway point of my semester here in Taiwan. This is something that anyone might expect, but for some reason it still caught me off guard. The teaching style and ways to learn the material are simply different here. When I began the semester, my approach was to try what had worked for me during freshman year. Let’s break down how studying and learning happens differently here.

At OU, I approached most of my classes by focusing on material presented in each lecture. Since engineering is essentially learning how to apply difficult concepts in physics and math, most professors spent the majority of the lecture working out representative problems. The goal of time spent in class was to learn tricks that are useful for tackling the homework sets. Textbooks seemed to be nothing more than a reference, even if they were “required” for most courses. I would only one of my books if I was curious about a specific topic or not sure how to do a certain problem.

Let’s travel back to the engineering department at NTU. I walk into one of my engineering classes and everyone has their textbooks out ready to participate in the lecture. Very few students plan to rely on blank sheets of notebook paper like me to get them through the presentation. The professor starts the lecture and whizzes through the PowerPoint slides as I frantically try my best to write everything down. Only a complete chance of strategy will allow me to succeed. After talking to students and professors, I learn the core of how learning happens here: Textbooks are secondary, but they can by no means be neglected if you want to do remotely well. This might be due to the fact that little to no homework is assigned. We’re essentially given the job of choosing problems to practice in order to master the material.

It’s been a pretty busy semester so far to say the least. After all, the main task during study abroad is to study. This doesn’t mean that I can’t do other things, so I’m still involved in different activities outside of classes. I also really enjoy the occasional chance to spend time with new and old friends each week. It’s like a never ending supply of new cultural experiences! I’ve been talking a lot about my time in the classroom, so I’ll have a blog coming soon that focuses less on academics. Check back soon!

On Midterms & Next Semester

It’s been around a month since I blogged last time. As mentioned previously, this post will be about how tests have been and what I’m doing to prepare for next semester.

I came into the semester ready to take all of my midterms in one week. This is because the university has an official “midterm week”. But it turns out that’s only really true for freshmen. For the rest of us, midterms are scheduled by each professor just like at OU. My exams worked out to be spread evenly throughout this month. Overall, it’s a big relief since I’m not having to review for multiple tests at the same time. Last year at one point I had three midterms back to back in a single day. Talk about pushing time management to the limit!

Next semester I will be studying at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany. Now is the point when I’m really glad that I spent a good chunk of time figuring out study abroad logistics (housing, planned courses, etc.) for the entire year while still at OU. Managing two semesters at the same time might not be an ideal situation when you get tests on top of everything. All that is required of me at this point is to submit an official application to the university along with an extra housing application. I’m still trying to figure what I need to do in terms of entrance requirements. Apparently as a US student, I’m supposed to complete my residence visa application after I arrive. I didn’t know this is the process for international students studying in Germany, so I guess each country really does have their own way of doing things!

My current plan for classes is to take two engineering courses and one German language course. From what I’ve heard up to this point, German courses tend to be quite rigorous in terms of independent study time and thorough application of concepts on tests, but more on that in another blog. Also, it would be great to complete an additional internship to complement my coursework if the opportunity arises. We’ll just have to see how everything works out!

Less than two months are left in this semester, and I’m still surprised at how fast the time has gone by. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the culture around me. Students are learning, teachers are lecturing, and others are outside playing a game of pick-up basketball. It’s helpful to remind myself that I get to spend most of my waking hours participating in the day-to-day lives of individuals in a place halfway around the world. Whether I’m working hard or playing hard, I remember that I’m also making connections to a people and society along with memories to last for a lifetime.

Typhoons, Classes, and Volunteering

It’s been over a month since the start of the semester and I’m already knee-deep in the content of my courses. Midterms are fast approaching and homework remains a steady stream, but here are some of the fun highlights of this term at NTU so far:

  1. Typhoons – These beasts of mother nature carry a lot of destructive power and are also known in the Atlantic and East Pacific as hurricanes. Over the course of merely 2-3 weeks we had three Typhoons hit Taiwan! Two of them were relatively harmless, while the 3rd (Typhoon Megi) was bad enough that school and work were cancelled for two days. Everyone essentially got an unexpected two-day vacation in the middle of the week.

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That tree is noticeably not perpendicular to the ground

  1. Classes – I’m taking seven classes, most of which are engineering-related. A huge relief is that powerpoints, quizzes, and exams are mostly in English, so I don’t think that aspect of the courses will give me trouble. The content is quite interesting and challenging, so I’ve spent more than a few hours hunkered over my textbooks. By the way, textbooks here are so cheap! Everyone here gets the international editions, which are basically the same except they are all softcover. I can get an engineering textbook that normally costs 150-250 dollars (ouch…) here for no more than NT$1000 (about 30 US dollars)! Here is a picture of the content that I’ll (hopefully) have gained a grasp of by the end of the semester:

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Lots of interesting material to study!

  1. Life Outside of Classes – Everyone here is always making sure that they are staying up to date with their academics, but that definitely doesn’t mean that they don’t have fun once in a while (or maybe quite a bit more often). I attended the student clubs fair at the beginning of the semester and found a group that I’m still actively involved with throughout the week. The group is called the NTU Navigators, and it is a fellowship of Christians who are dedicated to living according to the Bible and making spreading the Gospel a priority. I think it’s really great getting to know fellow students at a deeper level half-way around the world and to seeing how they approach life in an entirely different context. The main activities are bible studies, morning group prayers, and weekly sports events (like soccer and Frisbee).

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A typical scene at the Student Activity Center dining area

  1. Group Projects & Workshop Experience – Some of my classes are not the “traditional” type, but are instead more focused on team exercises or hands-on work. I’m in a class called Machine Design Theory (機械設計原理) and the entire focus is on a project. The goal is to design a device or machine that will climb a pole and grab small spheres attached to strings by magnets at different radii around the pole. Our group is really diverse internationally, and it’s cool to see the creative forces of Taiwanese, Singaporean, Nicaraguan, Chinese and American students working on a project together. The other class I’m enjoying is not really a class but instead three hours each week in the university’s workshop learning how to use tools and machinery. It’s called Workshop Practice (工場實習) and includes learning the basics of how to use the lathe, mill, and other devices. We just finished learning how tap screw threads and use the drill press, and next week we’ll start working on a mill. It’s exciting to learn all of the technical terminology in Chinese that I can store in my memory bank along with the English equivalents.

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The final result of two workshop sessions

  1. International Companions for Learning (ICL) – I’m currently a volunteer with this program that connects international students like me with a local Elementary or Middle school in Taiwan. We teach the kids about our cultures in English each week. It’s lots of fun, and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to teach my class about American culture and the English language. It’s great to see that NTU makes an effort to include foreign students and allow them to use their full potential to make an impact across the island.

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A beautiful courtyard inside the NTU College of Medicine

  1. Life at OU – I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have any thoughts about life back at my home university. Freshman year was an amazing experience and was a huge transition for me personally and socially. I got plugged into different groups, and it seems strange at times not seeing those people since last Spring. It really helps to stay in contact with friends and family, and I think this challenge will grow me tremendously to say the least. I already know that once these two semesters are over, I’ll be thinking back about my time spent at these universities!

After midterms are over, my next big goal is to get everything sorted out for my semester in Germany. In the next blog I’ll talk about how midterms went and further details for my application to the Ruhr University of Bochum. Hopefully you are having a great time with your own semester at OU or elsewhere. Until next time!

Traveling to Taiwan!

My journey begins at the Wills Roger World Airport in Oklahoma City. If you decide you want to study abroad while at OU, this will most likely also be the beginning point for your adventure. It’s a morning flight which means I have to wake up pretty early, but I’m used to this since I’ve been on earlier flights before. Besides, leaving my house at 5 am isn’t going to stop me from getting excited about something like study abroad. A quick bite for breakfast and I’m off to the gate for my departure!

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After the (relatively) quick hop over to California, the next step is the long plane ride all the way to Taiwan. For some reason, flight time is longer going there than coming back. I’m pretty sure it has to do with wind directions and other physical phenomena. Maybe there’s a reason I decided to study engineering rather than meteorology like my Freshman roommate? It’s a 13-hour flight, so I make sure to enjoy the luxury of having unlimited legroom while in the San Francisco airport.

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The thing that always gets me are the waves of heat (and humidity) that hit you when you arrive in Taiwan. Sure, the plane’s been designed with your comfort in mind, so you won’t feel anything until you actually step off the plane. That’s the first wave, and it’s followed by a good amount of walking and waiting in line for immigration. Something really cool that I forgot to take a picture of is a board right past the baggage claim area that has the word “Welcome” on it in at least 20 different languages. In case you’re wondering,  the second wave hits you at the double doors of the main terminal.

There are so many things I could talk about in regards to how Taiwan is different from the US. I’ll most likely go into more detail on differences in future blogs. One thing that would definitely stand out to anyone arriving here for the first time: Scooters. They are everywhere, and if you walk to any major road the entire side is lined with parking for these small vehicles. In the photo below, you can see how popular this method of transportation is. It really makes sense since driving an actual car in a crowded city like Taipei can be a real hassle. If you look closely, there is an approximately equal abundance of scooters and signs, but I think the number of scooters might have still won this time.

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I’ve settled into my dorm room and have gotten most of my paperwork and registration done for the upcoming semester here at NTU (National Taiwan University). Classes start on Monday so things will get really busy pretty soon. However, it turns out that we get next Thursday and Friday off because of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which means it’s going to be a relatively easy first week. Everybody here was working today on a Saturday since they are making up for missing two days next week. Good to know that a full work day over the week-end is not a regular occurrence!

Anyways, that’s it for my first blog. The next one will most likely have an update on how my first few weeks of classes went. See you guys then!

My Freshman Year as a GEF and Advice to Incoming GEFs

After a great first year as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, I remain excited as I look forward to the summer and upcoming years of my time in college. Among the many organizations I have been a part of, the Global Engagement Fellowship has no doubt been one of the unique ones. I find that being a member of this fellowship has allowed me to connect with others who are in similar majors as mine but who also hold a common interest in appreciating various cultures. We often tend to think that students who major in technical areas have no need to study abroad or gain exposure to different cultures. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the new class of incoming GEFs, I have a few recommendations from my own experience. Make sure you reach out to others in the fellowship, as there are often valuable connections who can get you contacts in many other organizations in which you might be interested. For example, when I was trying to decide on which international group to join, I simply asked Jaci (the program director) if she knew any GEFs in those organizations. It turned out that over half of the programs had at least one GEF member in them, and I was able to obtain relevant information for each group. This goes to show that many of us tend to be involved in other groups, and it never hurts to try to ask around!

Another piece of advice is to not be in a rush to complete the requirements for attending international events. Last semester, I finished all of my international blog posts earlier on in semester. While the talks I did attend were quite interesting, I wish I would have spent more time deciding which ones to attend. This semester, I carefully planned out what I would listen to and was able to spread them more evenly throughout the semester. In fact, I would recommend not to see these as requirements but opportunities to learn valuable information from knowledgeable professors and experts.

As we all begin to realize that finals are approaching, I think that it is important that we keep in mind why we are here as college students. Of course, it is always important to do well academically, but there really is so much more to the college experience. Many things that you will learn in college happen outside of the classroom, and to spend your entire time studying simply isn’t worth it. Joining groups like the Global Engagement Fellowship has allowed me to redefine my goals as a college student while giving me the support to spend a significant amount of time abroad. I hope that I will be able to bring much insight back to OU after my year abroad. I also wish the best to all of the new GEFs who will be joining the OU community this coming fall!

“An Independent Diplomat” TED Talk by Carne Ross 4/25/16

I recently watched the TED talk called “An Independent Diplomat” by Carne Ross. As a whole, the presentation was well delivered with Ross offering his personal background as well as the major decisions he has made thus far in his life. He gives a genuine view of what it is like to be constrained to a certain job, and then he gives an account of how he sought to breaks the boundaries that his former job forced upon him. Throughout the entire video, it is clear that Ross is just like any other employee in a regular job. The ambition and passion he exhibits are ultimately what allow him to define his own career after years of letting others control his higher pursuits.

To summarize his childhood and life prior to becoming a diplomat, Ross describes himself at an early age thoroughly enjoying many aspects of international affairs. As he grew up during interesting political situations like the Cold War between the US and Russia, he was able appreciate world wide negotiations as pivotal events throughout history. This eventually led him to apply to be a diplomat for the UK. He describes the process as being extremely competitive, as only a select few are chosen from thousands of applicants.

As an official representative of the United Kingdom, Ross says that he enjoyed every moment while he worked for his country. An added bonus was the ability to be at the forefront of negotiations between representatives of influential countries in the world. He was even able to live in many different countries, including New York towards the end of his career with the UK diplomatic services. This was, however, also the point where he decided to not return to his job in London even though he had so much going well for him. He decided to become an independent diplomat for unrecognized states so that they could have an actual voice in international proceedings.

The speaker’s story highlighted something that I believe everyone struggles with from time to time. We often have our own passions and pursuits yet continually find ourselves either not using our skills to our full potential or simply seeking more out of our day to day jobs. Lucky for us in this day and age, there is so much potential for freedom in deciding how you want to use your abilities to better the world. With all of the new technology that we see emerge daily, there are so many opportunities for us to define our own unique careers as countries all across the world grow closer economically and culturally.

Spring 2016 Honors Reading Group, “The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East” by Eugene Rogan

This semester I joined the honors reading group that discussed the book “The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East” by Eugene Rogan. The group met together every Wednesday for nine weeks and discussed many interesting aspects of the chapters we had read. It was a great privilege to have Dean Ray from the Honors College moderate the sessions. Students from various majors were joined by a common interest in analyzing history and its impacts on modern societies. The book served as excellent material allowing us to learn and remember key points critical to the time period in which the events are set.

The book primarily focused on the time period from the late 19th century up to the end of World War I when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist. One of the most appealing aspects of the book to me personally was the genuine Ottoman view of the events that were unfolding. Whereas we usually think of World War I as nothing compared to the international scale of the one to follow, we often forget about the significance of the confrontations in Africa, the Middle East, and Anatolia. In fact, what we do mention about the Great war is largely influenced by the American and Western viewpoint. I think Eugene Rogan did a great job of maintaining a neutral position in describing what happened. He also made sure to connect military records from both sides of the battle to a greater political and cultural context whenever possible. This alone added great value to what otherwise might be a simple recounting of military history.

As a Mechanical Engineering major, I often have to try hard to balance my classes with other activities in which I am interested. However, I believe that studying history is a great way for me to take a break from analyzing moments and forces on physical objects. While in high school, I had many great teachers who gave me an interest in history. Alongside the many scientific principles I learned before college, I was able to also gain a genuine appreciation of history as a benefit to modern society. Reading about our past is appealing in that it allows us to draw our own conclusions about a particular event or series of related events.

With the semester drawing to a close, I hope to continue to seek out opportunities like this group where ideas flow freely and everyone is eager to learn. The passion of history I was able to build upon has made my diverse path in my education possible as I seek to not focus solely on my engineering classes. I find that with limited time, it is all the more important to build a solid foundation for my education which consists of knowledge from various disciplines. I see the time that I dedicate to other activities as equal if not more important than the academics related to my major. When I come back to OU after a year abroad, I will be sure to find another reading group to join!

“U.S.-Russia Relations: Where Do We Go From Here?” Jeffrey Mankoff 3/3/2016

Towards the beginning of this month, I attended a talk given by Dr. Jeffery Mankoff, an OU alum who is now an expert in U.S. political relations. This specific lecture focused on the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia. One appeal for me to attend this presentation was that I was able to take one year of Russian language classes during my senior year in high school. I personally find the Russian culture and language to be a fascinating subject to study. I appreciated the insight I was able to gain from someone who has been actively involved in international discussions. Although I was a bit late for the talk, I found that the speaker was very organized and clear in expressing his arguments. Therefore, I was able to jump right in what was being discussed.

When I was settled and ready to take notes, the topic at hand was U.S. efforts to work with the Russian government to promote democracy in their country. One major frustration for the Russians, however, was that they felt the U.S. failed to provide the same attention they gave to the western European countries at the end of World War II. Various efforts were implemented there as aid to the recovering nations, but no such equivalent was seen for Russia. The focus then shifted to the various presidential administration of the U.S. and began with the belief that the Bush administration lacked the knowledge of Russia in general in order to promote rapprochement between the two nations.

Vladimir Putin was the first head of a nation to express condolences after the tragic events of 9/11 and openly offered any support necessary, a fact that is perhaps not widely known. The U.S. government did take advantage of this offer and received Russian intelligence concerning sensitive knowledge pertaining to Afghanistan and its surroundings. As a result of this unprecedented exchange of information, Putin initially appeared to have a pro-western attitude in his policies, yet it became quickly apparent that this would not last. In fact, Putin soon exhibited signs of attempts to consolidate control over the entire Russian political system. A major aspect of this shift in policy were major crackdowns that begun during this time with takeovers of big Russian businesses.

Even with the turmoil that began to ensue from the restriction of free trade, the U.S. continued to attempt to strengthen deeper economic ties with Russia. Around this time in history, popular protests began throughout various former Soviet Union constituent nations. Georgia began with the Rose revolution, Ukraine has its own Orange revolution, and all of the movements were collectively knows as the color revolutions. Russia’s first instinct was to identify the U.S. as the main supporter of these efforts to undermine Russian influence in its bordering regions.

Many of the newly reformed countries from the color revolutions had a great interest in membership in NATO, the primary bulwark in preventing Russian expansion at the time. The fragile situation in Georgia did not help the intensifying situation either. The new Obama administration thus began with attempts to improve relations, promote nuclear nonproliferation, and dealing with the growing Iranian nuclear program. A further area of interest was to strengthen societal links between Russian and U.S. citizens, but already worsening relations were quickly joined by a lack of interest of individual to actually carry out these efforts. A bilateral presidential commission was the main proposed solution that was attempted.

After Putin reclaimed his position as president of Russian in 2012, a newly forming middle class began to demand greater political power and government without Putin in the bigger picture. Continued U.S. support in the Middle East also helped to make Russian nervous about its authority in the region. Additional situations arose with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood. Russia allowed the U.S. to protect civilians in Libya, but was not content when the U.S. expressed their goal of removing Gaddafi from power.

In summary, the speaker felt that whatever new administration is chosen by the American people will not use a “reset button” in terms of relations with Russia. His opinion is that any of the possible candidates will not believe that Russia will be willing to contribute to U.S. efforts and they lack a will to restore relations on the other side as well. He described relations with Russia as a mixed bag from now on as far as he could tell.

Although I really enjoyed the talk, the opinions that were expressed seemed to dominate the entire discussion. I thought that the speaker could have given a bit more of the Russian side of the thought process, but I certainly appreciated his neutrality when it came to proposing his ideas concerning the matter at hand. I always enjoy listening to individual arguing for one side of a discussion, and I have found myself more willing to evaluate the opinions that I hear the more I attend these interested lectures. I definitely look forward to attending more talks to help broaden my perspective on all sorts of topics!

“Science and Civilization in Islam” Dr. Peter Barker, University of Oklahoma 1/26/2016

Towards the end of January, I attended a lecture by Peter Barker, a History of Science professor at OU. I went into this particular Presidential Dream course presentation with an open mind, willing to learn new things and remaining steadfast in my curiousness for the origins of modern science. My belief is that I can always gain further insight into topics that interest me, and there is no harm in listening to an expert express their passion for their research. This particular talk seemed, however, unique to me in its cultural and international components. The lecturer gave sound arguments while allowing us to decide for ourselves how earlier science began based on the evidence he presented.

Dr. Barker began with an explicit statement of the significance of his findings relevant to the development of science as we know it. His arguments revolve around the idea that Islamic scientists had a much more profound impact in countless scientific topics than we learn. Although he never stated this directly, the impression was that he believed that Islam was the main source of the scientific revolution, with Western countries borrowing from what those in the Middle East had accomplished before them. He also stated his goals in presenting this topic to the community. His wish is to replace the various Islamic stereotypes that have remained embedded in Oklahoma with more fact-based statements.

The first thesis Dr. Barker refuted is known as the “bookshelf” thesis. This belief essentially claims that Islamic intellectuals translated and preserved earlier science, but did not add anything to ancient science. Many modern subjects that are well developed today can immediately be brought up as counterevidence to this argument. The first subject is Algebra which was conceptualized by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Yet another subject that is foundational to so many other disciplines, namely Chemistry, was heavily influenced by the work of Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. Furthermore, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina systemized and added considerably to the study of medicine, including his significant identification of the smallpox disease.

Another argument for the insignificance of Islamic science is the Rise and Decline Thesis. The origins of this were supposedly begun by criticism of Greek tradition and religious criticism of science. Although science has remained a complex phenomenon throughout history, it is hard to deny two basic mistakes. The first is that scientific tradition between the West and Islam cannot and should not be considered separately. In fact, Lady Montagu, an English aristocrat, led inoculations all the way from Istanbul to Europe. The second glaring error in this argument is the absence of a verifiable decline in Islamic scientific progress. One could even say that western science is actually a continuation of Islamic science.

It is often hard to deny that figures we have thought to be heroes in history may have borrowed extensively from the work of others. We have the false impression that these figures were able to achieve amazing things during their lifetimes through their own faculties. Dr. Barker gave us a prime example of this problem. We were given a drawing that Copernicus used to develop scientific principles in the realm of astronomy. Then, we were shown a very similar drawing developed by an Islamic astronomer considerably earlier than when Copernicus published his work.

At the end of his talk, Dr. Barker opened up the podium for questions. I must say that I learned a great deal more from the great questions that were asked. The lecture as a whole gave me a fresh insight into the history of a topic I am greatly interested. Although I had my own idea about what the lecture would entail beforehand, I was still fascinated by how much I learned in a short amount of time. My belief is that adding perspectives to my current knowledge is one of the best things that I can do while exploring different opportunities in college. I am really thankful to OU for providing these great lectures that can give me a fun break from long hours of studying!