Sunday, June 11, 2017

If we could improve the volunteer experience with the Engineer-in-Residence program --a personal recount

A successful program that has been running for years, Engineer In Residence, EIR, program was established to help "bridge the gap" that often exists between "real world and classroom theory".
The program places P.Eng and EITs in elementary and high schools across the province of Ontario. The volunteer EIR "brings real-life dimension to the curriculum, using hands on projects. presentations and other activities."

As a licensed engineer, when I received the "Call for Volunteers" email from PEO in April of 2016, the email text was similar to what I quoted, above, from the "About" page of Engineer-in-Residence program web site, I clicked on the embedded link and applied.

Although there's a lot of positive that goes with volunteering in general, and this volunteer program specifically (based on past participant anecdotes published on the web), I started with a low expectation.  I anticipated slow response to emails, lack of well defined process, and to summarize a program that relies on volunteers to be self-starters with limited, or no assistance.  Even with this assumption, I found myself at times confused, at best, and frustrated, at worst, with the way this program was run and issues were handled.  Below, I state three events that made me feel this way.  Since I want to be as objective as I can in my recount, in each scenario I state my expectation first and then describe my experience.

Notification of change:
My expectation:
A coordinator plays a key role, someone whose job's definition is to ensure an effective interface between the program participants and the program.  One would expect this role to be always filled, and in the event of a change, it would be broadcast to those who are sitting patiently on the other end of the communication waiting for the transition out of the old, and transition in of the new to complete.
My Experience:
After a month of working with a program coordinator, and close to a month of no communication, a broadcast email arrived from a new email.   The email didn't  say anything whether there has been a permanent change over, or whether this new person is stepping in for a bit.  I had a conversation thread going with the then coordinator, trying to set up a date to get the Police Check process started.  After a month long wait, the broadcast email from the new person, and its call-to-action was all that I received. It was confusing, but not something that breaks the camel's back.

Appointments and last minute change of plans:
My Expectation:
When one sets a meeting date a month in advance, the most probable outcome one expects is the meeting happens as planned.  But, there's a chance that something happens that inhibits one party to keep her/his promise.  So, the logical course of action is to reach out to the other person, and ensure the appointment is canceled and/or rescheduled.
My Experience:
I arrived in the office, after an hour long commute, only to find out the person I am meeting with is not there.  I checked the email to see if I had the day and/or time right, there I found a fresh email from the person I was meeting, at 10:30 am the same day saying, " something has come up and I am no longer available today."  I felt very frustrated. The email ended with "Sorry for the late notice,"  This didn't make me feel any better.  However, I thought, these are administrative mishaps, and qualify as minor impediments to a year long,  great experience of interacting with young, curious minds who are ready to be interested and engaged in engineering experiments.

Provide support when things are not going as planned:
My expectation:
When things are not going the way they are supposed to, I expect the experts to guide and/or course correct, the very least touch base with both the teacher and the volunteer.  Especially, if they are kept in the loop, by way of being cc'd on the email, and asked directly.
My Experience:
There was a day long training, in which participation for EIRs and Teachers were voluntary.  During this full day session however,  the participants were given an introduction to the program and tutorial on the format of it.  I learned at this session that Teachers and EIRs meet in the start of the school year, and collaborate on putting together the content to be presented to the class, they'd also come up with a mutual convenient schedule for the EIR to meet with the class.  When the feedback request email arrived end of November, I still had not had a face to face with the Teacher and not been to a classroom.  I had a series of missed call appointments, and infrequent email replies from the teacher to show for, with no concrete plan for future.  I could relate to the teacher having a busy start of the year.  But, I think by November we should have had the very least one face to face.  I wrote the EIR support team, consulted them on how I should proceed.  I received reply from one of the EIR Support Team members saying, keep emailing until you get through.  And that's the level of support I received in my first experience with the EIR program.  I was honestly thinking of giving up half way through.  But, then I thought where would that leave the kids.  In the spirit of making a difference, I kept at it.

Conclusion:
We are counting down to the end of 2016-2017 school year.  I have not met the kids at the school I was assigned to even once.  But, I have met with the two teachers working together on this, twice, and have exchanged many emails with them.  These teachers are running numerous science projects for their kids, something I commend.  I don't know if much thought was given on how does running an EIR program for a full academic year fits the existing schedule. I think it was perceived as doable to accommodate alongside other running projects.  In any case, although I was not able to launch the EIR program as explained in the one day training, I was able to offer my services as a practicing Software Developer to one of the science projects these two teachers were running for their kids.  I developed for them four Salmon Ecosystem software projects/games to complement, and reinforce the learning of the science project the teachers are running for the kids this year.  The games simulate good, and bad ecosystems and follow their impact on salmons' survival. Although the games are written and ready to be deployed, the teachers have not had a chance to run through them with the kids.  There has been a lot of gaps and delays in our email communication. These delays has hindered the project progress.

This is my personal experience with the way Engineer-in-Residence program was run this year.   I am not returning to the program next year.  I think the program markets itself very well, but it lacks the characteristic of a well-run, organized program.
I am sharing this in an open forum, because I hope coordinators and participants of Engineer-in-Residence program and other similar programs can share their experience here when they come across it. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Zipcar's cancellation policy --occasional driving membership plan

I have been a Zipcar member since December of 2010.  Given I needed access to car, on average, once a month; I opted for Occasional Driving Membership plan.  In this schema, I paid a one time admin fee, and an annual fee.  Under this plan, I had the flexibility to rent as needed.

It worked well.

Life circumstances change, however. For us buying a hybrid car has made the convenience of being a member of car sharing program redundant.

I searched the Zipcar web site for membership cancellation information.  This is not mentioned under the "help".  But, type "cancellation" in the "Ask a question box", and you get

We're sorry to see you go!  To cancel your membership, please give us a call below.
Call 1-866-4ZIPCAR


I called today, and here is the scoop.  Two things should be in place for a full membership refund to occur:
  a.  No reservation should have been made, and used in the current membership year
  b.  Cancellation should occur less than 30 days after the membership renewal  date

So, I still enjoy carrying my Zipcar membership around, at least for a few more months!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: A Spooll of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

The story is about a big family. We start reading about the Whitshanks in the present time, and then reading their parents', and finally their grand parents' stories. Yet with all the background information, which I should say the author has done a pretty good job of keeping concise, by the end of the book, the reason for the characters' behaviors and actions is somewhat left to personal interpretation.
Of all the characters in the book, I found Denny's, the son of Red Whitshanks, the most interesting. The book starts and ends with him, so I thought of him as the book's protagonist. His rebellious streak, despite all the attention he received from almost every member of his family, especially his mother, perplexed me. And it looked like he was the most angry with his mother. I kept thinking why? None of the events, not even, his mother lying to him to get him see a counselor justified his anger towards her. We see youth that turn out bad, despite their parents hard work to provide, educate, and guide. So, I guess I wanted to see the author's point of view of why Denny turned out to be so angry in spite of all he had going for him.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Make it an Easy-clean bathroom

I have often appreciated the bare minimum condo developers provide in each room of the condo, leaving them to owners to customize.  It has become a tradition, and almost a hobby to get busy with a small size renovation project around this time each year.

This year, inspired by this houzz article, I decided to make some changes to the bathroom.

I was spending time scrubbing the grout, and trying to get the green spots that appeared recently on bathtub tiles.  I didn't think I could get the green off the tiles completely.  It made sense to remove and replace the tub surround tiles.  The green spots may have been due to the fact that the fan was not working properly, so I added cleaning the fan to the list.

The existing porcelain floor tiles, 12x12, gray, covered roughly 31sq/feet area, which meant a large area to clean grout. I decided to go with a larger tile, and darker color, but stick with porcelain, because they are less porous, harder, and less prone to stain.

For the longest time, I had searched online or popped in home decor and furnishing stores looking for a practical way to organize the toiletries, however nothing appealed. The most common, the shower caddies, all took up extra space, and if not cleaned regularly would best case look dirty, and worst case rust.  I was replacing the bathtub tile surround, so I could ask for a niche that is deep and wide enough to hold all items now sitting in the four corners of the bathtub.  Each week, cleaning under each item was time consuming. With the niche, I only had to swipe clean one surface.

The tub and vanity are in good shape, and easy to clean, so I left those out of the project plan.  But, I decide to get a new, chrome finish shower set.  I had brushed nickle spout, and control which despite scrubbing them clean with lemon juice the looked darkened, and old.

My wish-list was complete, so all I needed now was a good contractor to execute the project on time and within my budget.

I had had good working experience with Home Depot installers.  I used them for two previous flooring projects.  They had a project expert at the store.  He was so helpful, and knowledgeable.  I only had to tell him what I have in mind, and he would recommend the material.

I had second thoughts on going with Home Depot when I found out Home Depot has replaced the residence expert with a project center.   But being able to use Home Depot credit services and pay the cost of the project over 12 months period, interest free, lured me back in.

Not having the residence expert, I took to the internet, read through client feedback posted on each item on Home Depot web site, to make my selection.  Not having anyone to verify if the choices I've made fit their necessary purpose, I completed and paid for the order.  The total cost of material and labor came to $3700, a bit higher than I expected, but I was quite excited about my choices, and anxious to see the end result that I forgave myself for going over the budget.

I chose
  white mosaic mesh for the bathtub surround,
  porcelain glazed, matt finish 24x24 in beige for the floor
  and two piece delta control and hand shower in chrome finish, and a separate spout in chrome finish
   
The work started on the Monday and finished on Thursday, on time, as promised four days.  However, unlike past projects, this one faced a couple of bumps along the way.

Day 1: the demo took half a day, when the work was done, there was a layer of dust every where and there was a rather large chip on the engineered hardwood floor.  The demo guys didn't have floor and furniture protection sheets, and although I had called ahead of the project start day to inquire what I need to prepare the home, I was not made aware to get my own.

Day 2: building the niche, installing the waterproof drywall, and tiles, however when it was time to install the tiles I was made aware of the possibility of some of the meshes, especially in the corners, not being completely aligned with one another.  Bottom line, what I picked was not meant for large surface, such as tub surround.  There was no choice but to take the tiles back to the store and get new ones, subway tiles as recommended by the installer, this perceived inconvenience shed $500 off the project cost :)

Day 3: install the faucet, control and head shower, install the floor tiles except for the rough-in of a hand shower and control won't work if there is a spout.  So, the only way to make progress in project is to use my old shower head and control, but apparently the demo guys have got rid of the old set.  So, the installers promise to buy a set.  What seemed as a set back, saved another $300 off the project cost :)

Day 4: grout, baseboards, towel bar, shower curtain bar, a full contractor came to finish up
I went with the gray non-sanded grout.  This color, and type grout worked well with both the floor and the bathroom tiles.  I used the floor tile for baseboard.  The guys also helped with installing a towel bar, and shower curtain rod.

The end result:

Lessons learned: Talk to an expert when picking material, ensure and don't leave it to the installer to bring the proper protection for your floor and furniture.