Hot Young Engineers!

The Rice University Student Whose Life Changed At An Engineering Competition

Written by Imran Yusuf | Hot Young Engineers! | Thursday 13th June 2013 13:13:00 GMT

Zhifan Li, EngineeringBecause Campus Manager at Rice University, made the bold move from liberal arts to computer science in her first semester!

For Zhifan Li, being an engineer means analysing a situation and designing optimised solutions.

For Zhifan Li, being an engineer means analysing a situation and designing optimised solutions.

Zhifan Li has been a journalist and treasurer on campus already, but perhaps her biggest achievement is switching from humanities to engineering!
Tell us about the engineering event which changed the course of your life. 
At the beginning of my first semester at Rice, I went to an event called Engineering Liftoff. I went along because Rice has such a strong engineering culture, and I was intrigued. I found myself among the participants, and we were divided into groups of four and asked to complete a task together.
Our task at that time was to control the time a ping-pong ball takes to drop to a table from the air. We were given some materials, and the primary aim was to keep the ball in the air for 60 seconds before it drops. First we brainstormed several ideas, flexing our creative and scientific muscles, and eventually managed to use balloons to try to keep the ball up. It was a doable idea, but we eventually failed because we didn't run enough tests!
But the end result for me personally was the enjoyment from this one simple (and fun!) task. I loved going through designs and testing things out.  I think the part of me that wants to design and create things awakened at that moment.
So after that you signed up for Computer Science?
Yes. I chose a computer science introductory course about computational thinking.
So how come your creativity wasn't awakened before this moment? 
I think I always stayed in my comfort zone of the humanities before I entered college. It would have been better if I'd learnt about computer science and engineering earlier. I never thought it was possible until college - when I was suddenly able to chose the major I wanted.
How did that happen? There's an impression that in the country you grew up in, China, it's the opposite: that students are encouraged to pursue science subjects rather than humanities.
In China, it is very hard to change your area of study. In high school, once I went with liberal arts, I couldn't take upper level science courses. So after spending such a long time studying humanities and being good at it, I think it's a bold move for me to move to science. However, I have also been a journalist and treasurer for an arts organisation in my first year at Rice.
Is it intimidating being in those science classes?
It was definitely difficult for me in my first semester here. Because I didn't have a coding background, it usually took me much longer than my peers to complete homework. It was very frustrating but one thing I did right at that moment was to put my GPA aside and just keep trying, instead of dropping the class. I realised that if I did not try it, I would probably never know if i could be a computer engineer.
So do you see yourself as an engineer or computer scientist?
I definitely see myself as an engineer. Being an engineer brings me different insights and confidence. I have begun to trust my ability to analyse a situation and design optimised solutions - this, I think, is the essence of being an engineer, whether with computers, automobiles, building bridges, and so on. 
What's it like to study engineering at Rice?
The strong engineering culture here at Rice makes it hard for me to stay away! Young engineers have done so many impressive designs and the engineering environment here is contagious. We feed off each other, and some students have already accomplished so much. The excellent professors and amazing peers make my learning experience exciting, intense and effective.
What kind of amazing developments do you think will happen in human computer interaction in the near future?
I think human computer interaction will engage in a bigger part of human life. Not only will the design get to be improved based on user experience, human beings will benefit from and influenced by the development of the study in human computer interaction. The experience of using electronic devices, commuting, reading or almost everything will be more interactive. And there will be a tendency for human beings to be quantified due to those interactions.
What are you plans for the future?
My plan for college is to keep studying computer science and focus on artificial intelligence and human computer interaction, because they are the areas that interest me.


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Wednesday 19th March 2014, 17.20 (UTC)

Yinqi Chen


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