Changing academic direction (am I being foolish?)
July 10, 2008 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Trying to transfer to a four year college, and changing direction mid -stream. Am I being foolish to consider shifting from aiming for a landscape architecture degree to one in ecological engineering, especially when engineering colleges have completely different requirements than what I've been focusing on?

I've been going to community college on-off for many years now. A year ago last February, I decided to quit my job and go to school full time, with the intent of transferring to a four year college. At the time, I was designing and building gardens for a design-build landscape company, and had been taking numerous horticulture and drafting classes, plus the basic GE requirements. However, I'm kind of ... bored by basic landscape stuff. I want to design gardens that perform a function, like rooftop gardens that recycle HVAC water, or living machines. It seems to me like a degree in ecological engineering is the route to take, but it means basically starting over, with 2 years of calculus, plus physics, biology, chemistry (per UC Davis' website) The issues are:

I'm nearly able to transfer for Fall 09', but this change would definitely set me back. I'm impatient, and afraid of burning out.

I'm not good at math. I finished trig in high school with a D. That was 20 years ago, and I haven't taken math since. Surprisingly, I'm actually a little better at understanding it (I had no problems with the algebraic equations needed in my soil science and plant nutrition classes), but I've got to pass a math assessment to be placed in any math class, let alone get to where I can do OK in 2 years of calculus. Does it make sense to study for the assessment test, and try to get placed as high as possible, so I'm not going to school for 3 more years? I'm OK with any science or physics, but will I be killing myself trying to do all these more intense classes as quickly as I can? More realistically- is it even possible to cram for a math assessment course, and not wind up over my head in calculus?

My community college bureaucracy is understaffed, and no one in the transfer center will return my calls. I've been told to send emails to UC Davis and Berkeley, to talk to professors in the departments I'm interested in. I feel incredibly shy about writing to randomprof at dot edu.
Is this the right thing to do?

My other option is to stay the course and go for landscape architecture, with a minor or something in ecological engineering. My fear is that I won't get the toothy, nitty gritty science background I want to be able to build these types of ecological recycling systems, or that I'll be forced to mess around with a bunch of fluffy theory classes. But I'm also worried that it doesn't make sense to try to go for broke and start over on a course that may be extremely difficult, time consuming, and frustrating. If you've done this, please let me know how it turned out.
posted by oneirodynia to Education (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've read lots of your posts, and I think your direct grasp of what's happening in the material world of living systems is outstanding.

I would try to get hold of some workbooks in pre-calculus math and see where I stood, and I would try to have an option for tutoring set up before I took the classes I thought might give me the most trouble.

I say go for it.
posted by jamjam at 1:23 PM on July 10, 2008

What path would lead you to the least potential for regret later? Are there any other ways you could get to doing what you want to do besides a formal education (which seems like a poor choice)?

Since you're already considering doing full-time school, consider an alternative path, an apprenticeship. You're already in the landscaping industry, so you have the creds and the contacts to get a mentor. Plus they might be able to help you get around the math issue and point you to the relevant things to know.

It's much more rewarding, in my opinion, to teach yourself something with the help of an expert, then to be placed in an environment of rote regurgitation in the hopes that something will stick.

Finally, be sure that you're passionate about ecological engineering before pursuing the path.

Passion doesn't have to be love, a hatred of the media lead me to pursue a mass communication degree. And I am very happy with that choice.
posted by emptyinside at 1:30 PM on July 10, 2008

Twenty years from now, whether or not you spent an extra year or two on some extra college courses will be utterly irrelevant.

Whether or not you like what you're doing, though, will be very relevant.
posted by Flunkie at 1:34 PM on July 10, 2008

If your hesitant about contacting some professor, find someone who is actually out there, doing what you think you'd like to do. They can often answer more of your questions about the day-to-day stuff. Folks doing this work are passionate and if they are not too busy, will enjoy talking to you. And, if they are really busy, it's a great time to ask about internship options.
posted by mightshould at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2008

Generally transfer credits from community college should fill general education requirements only - in fact, it's puzzling that you're in a two year school and already have such a defined major unless you have to declare before transferring. So, you probably can go in whatever direction you like. I doubt you're seriously boxed in.

As for placement tests - I wouldn't even take it (if you can avoid it.) Placement tests are not firm assessments, they are there to give you a rough idea of how you should proceed. Your college will gladly let you pay for and take whatever class you want (generally) and then kick you out once you start dragging their numbers down.

The point is, you know already what your week spot is and you can work to address that. There are tutors out there who can help, and probably many other resources at your destination college.

In other words, don't let the math requirement dissuade you.
posted by wfrgms at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2008

While other people will have more specific advice, I just wanted to chime and say that you should go for it.

I took six years to get my undergraduate degree. Why? I started in English and finished with Physics and Math. I had to start at one class above the most remedial math they offered, and bring my math up to a level comparable with my peers who were just starting college. It's hard, and frustrating, but very possible to do.

Good luck!
posted by Loto at 2:37 PM on July 10, 2008

Don't be intimidated by contacting They get emails from random people all the time -- that's part and parcel of being in academia. The worst thing that will happen is that you won't get a response.

In your case, I would think that talking to the right prof could be very informative and helpful to you. Older students often enter higher education with a stronger focus than your average 19-year-old, and often professors (particularly those passionate about the same areas you are) can relate to that focus, and be excited by it. Not only may you get advice on your immediate problem (which course of study will allow me to do what I want to do?), but they might be able to help you refine your ideas of what you want to do with your degree a bit, which in turn will help you fine-tune your approach.
posted by harkin banks at 2:41 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: to address some points:

emptyinside, I'm already in school full time. I tried the "work my way up" approach, and after having only limited success, decided I wanted to pursue a degree.

wfgms: I have to declare a major as a transfer student. I also have to take the math placement test (and prove to be somewhat proficient in algebra) as a prerequisite for taking physics, chemistry, and biology. Which is really frustrating. I've also reviewed the requirements for transfer students for the engineering college at UCDavis, and they recommend skipping the traditional GE track entirely, because you need 2 years of calculus (and the other things I mentioned) to even be considered for transfer.

Thanks for all the input so far everyone, and the encouragement.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:47 PM on July 10, 2008

If cold-calling a prof is really intimidating to you, you might call the department office and ask if they have grad students who would be willing to talk to you about the program first. My gf did this when shopping around for grad schools, and every school she talked to put her in contact with an enrolled student.

Best of luck. You know a lot about this stuff already (which is clear from the knowledge you share here), and I'm betting that will give you a huge step up -- despite the math requirements!
posted by mudpuppie at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2008

I'm guessing you are in your late thirties or around forty... I'm just wondering if the degree will pay for itself after graduation. Is this a field you really want to be in?

I went back to school at 26 to get an education degree, which I received at age 27. By 32 I realized I didn't want to be a teacher any more, and did a total career change (I like teaching; I just dislike the bureaucratic aspects of climbing up the seniority ladder).

My advice for cold-calling is to create a script, and even practice with friends beforehand.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:04 PM on July 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, every response had something helpful or a thought I hadn't considered. It seems like I should be a bit more patient about extra schooling, and not stress about cold-calling or emailing. You've all given me lots to think about it. I definitely appreciate it. :)
posted by oneirodynia at 7:02 PM on July 10, 2008

My other option is to stay the course and go for landscape architecture, with a minor or something in ecological engineering.

I'd do this.

My fear is that I won't get the toothy, nitty gritty science background I want to be able to build these types of ecological recycling systems,

I think you could get that in a landscape architecture program, or by taking one or two classes in another department. In a landscape architecture class I took, we got enough basic engineering to do size and slope calculations for stormwater systems.

To me the key question is whether your interest is more about the big picture -- making sure these get built, and figuring out how they relate to the building and to the users of the space? Or would you rather work at a place where other people handled that external world and just came to your office with system after system to spec out? (I'm not an engineer, so I might be wrong on how that works.)

Since you want to design "gardens that perform a function," and since you talk about where those gardens would be, I'm assuming you still want to be thinking about how people experience and use the space, and how it fits into its context. That, combined with your past dislike of math, makes me think that you'd be better off learning the basics of the engineering, and then eventually serving as the designer on a team, and working with some math-loving engineers who can double-check what pipe sizes you'll need.

or that I'll be forced to mess around with a bunch of fluffy theory classes.

Possibly. Are you going to Berkeley? Mefi-mail me if you want to talk about the programs there. (I liked their landscape theory classes, but I'm not sure which ones you'd be taking.)

But I'm also worried that it doesn't make sense to try to go for broke and start over on a course that may be extremely difficult, time consuming, and frustrating.

Exactly. Why do that? If you're willing to add a year or two to your schooling, don't use that time just getting the perfect undergrad major -- stay in the undergrad Landscape Architecture degree program and then use that time to get a masters in engineering. If you're already worried about burning out, this is doubly true. Just get this degree done, work in the field a bit, and if you need more credentials, you'll know.

Best of luck! Sounds totally awesome. You and Delfena should hang out. Also, check out my answer in that thread talking about some of the work coming out of the Berkeley graduate department in Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning.
posted by salvia at 8:34 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: salvia, thanks. You've raised some very good points as well. I was considering Berkeley, so I'll send you a MeMail. :)
posted by oneirodynia at 1:00 PM on July 11, 2008

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