Exchange – Week 2

First week of classes, second week on exchange – this blog recounts the highlights from August 29 to September 4!

First Week of Classes

This week marked my first week studying classes at UPenn, and adjusting to a different educational system. At the time of writing this blog post, I’m actually two weeks into classes, so I feel I am well primed to give my initial thoughts on how education differs here when compared to university in Australia.

In Australia, university learning is predominantly split into lectures and tutorials (which are sometimes named labs). A typical science course will feature a couple hours of lectures, which are typically in a large lecture hall, where an academic delivers course material to the entire cohort of students. Then, later in the week, students typically engage in tutorials, which contain a smaller group of students. In these tutorials, students actively engage in applying lecture material, and there is a tutor (teaching assistant) whom helps students when they are stuck.

This is quite different to UPenn (USA), where for the majority of courses, course content is delivered in lectures (similar to Australia), but there are no time scheduled tutorial classes. Now, this might seem a bit odd, but it actually works out ok!

The first thing I’ve noticed is that the classes here typically have much fewer students than at my home institution at The University of Sydney. For example, my data mining class has around fifty students in it, meaning that although we are in a lecture, it still presents as a hybrid lecture, where there is still room for student engagement and active learning.

Secondly, office hours are a much bigger thing here. There are heaps of teaching assistants (TA) for each unit, and they have office hours where you can go and get any help that you need. I’ve been finding this more useful that tutorials, as I can bring tailored questions to the TA’s, and I don’t have to wait as long to get help.

One serious negative of not having scheduled tutorials is that I feel it takes away a great opportunity to gather with people taking the same classes as you, and it removes many opportunties to talk over concepts with your peers. I believe some of the best learning happens when you engage in friendly discussions or debate with peers. Also, discussing concepts with peers can help you consider concepts from different perspectives that you aren’t used to, or hadn’t previously considered.

One exception to this is my multivariate calculus math course, which does have a timetabled recitation, which is equivalent to a tutorial at The University of Sydney.

Do I have a preference of how The University of Pennsylvania arranges their courses, compared to how The University of Sydney arranges theirs? The simple answer is, I’m not sure yet! There is merit to both systems, and likely a combination of both would be the most effective for students, but I understand resource constraints (i.e. money) make it difficult to offer this.

The grading is also quite different here than when compared to Australia, but that is a discussion for another day!

Trip to Philadelphia Zoo

One of the most important things to me on exchange, is that I continue to develop my Christian faith. Recently at the University of Sydney, the Evangelical Union – which is a Christian club on campus – has been instrumental in helping me develop this goal, and so it was really important to me that I found a similar club here at UPenn. Hence, I was so glad to connect with the Christian Union! I have loved this club so far, and everyone is super friendly and easy to talk to. As part of their start of semester actives, they invited me on an outing to the Philadelphia Zoo on Saturday.

This was one of my favourite highlights from the week! The Philadelphia Zoo was the first zoo in America, and the exhibits were great. However, by far my highlight was meeting fellow members of the Christian Union. These were some of the first good US friends I made, and I was also very appreciative of them answering the many questions I had about the US!

Below are some pics I took from the outing:

After the outing, we walked back to the campus, and some of us grabbed dinner together in the dining hall.

National Cinema Day

One of my new mates from the Christian Union asked if I was interested in heading to the movies with some of the group to watch Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’. It was National Cinema Day on September 3, meaning that including tax, movie tickets were around $5 USD each!

To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. I told my friend back in Australia, “Nope, you shouldn’t watch it”. But take my review as a grain of salt. Many of the others thought the movie was ok, and it seemed to have rated decently online. Regardless though, I just enjoyed spending time with some new friends, and also going to see a movie in a US cinema!

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