Fourth Year Room Woes

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

Funny how the smallest of actions can carry great consequences. On the first Thursday of the term, someone in 4B Elec or Comp left a window up in the Fourth Year Study Room. No big deal, right? Some money is lost in heating expenses, and the room is cold for whoever gets in first the next morning, right? The University will just take back whatever was lost in tuition, so who cares?

Well, the A.V. department on the first floor certainly cared when they arrived in the morning to 10cm of liquid under their desks. Overnight, the pipes in the heat exchanger under the window burst, leaking coolant for about the next six hours until it was discovered. In that time, coolant found its way into the furniture in the study room, down one floor to Roger Sanderson’s office, an ECE lab technologist, then down one more floor to the A.V. department. Some people were even telling me about a small stream of the stuff running down the hall to the elevator shaft 10m away. On its way the coolant destroyed papers, books, furniture, and a good day’s work for many people.

Ordinarily, I would grumble something about the university knowing better than to leave students with a window they shouldn’t open, except that there’s something more important here. The ECE Department had made a rare show of trust. The combination to the room had been changed the day before, so only fourth year students would be allowed in the room, and we’d been told before not to leave the windows open. The department had trusted us as the most senior of their students to keep a small portion of potential lab space for our own use. All of that was dashed in a moment of carelessness that resulted in many thousands of dollars of damage.

The reaction from Bill Ott, the ECE lab director, was simple, swift, and unsurprising. The door to E2-3352 is locked to this day, and a notice has been posted stating very plainly that the room can be put to better use if undergrads don’t particularly want it.

The following discussions on the class email list were fierce, complete with name calling and swearing, as any discussion of importance on that list tends to contain. I think it’s here that we’ll find the ultimate consequence of that initial action: the discovery of the true spirit of ECE Class of 2003. Some people felt as I did that something had to be done to regain the trust we had previously. We can throw blame in any direction we like, but it’s not going to get the room back.

What surprised me more than anything else was the number of people vocal in their disagreement. I’d expected that I would get a reply from the few people who cared, and as usual the majority of the class would be silent in their apathy for anything not directly related to exams. I had also expected a discussion of who’s fault it really is, but what eventually came out totally floored me. Not only did some people actively voice how much they didn’t care about the room and didn’t feel it was worth any effort whatsoever, some actually sent an email to Bill Ott stating that they felt he should turn it into something more productive.

This all begs the question: What’s the point of a study room for fourth year students anyway? Well, if my bias isn’t obvious by now, I think the fourth year room is about the only element outside of lectures that actually brought the class together. You want proof? Let’s have a look at last spring as the elec class went from 3B to 4A. I had asked for access to another room to work on the Fourth Year Design Project, and found out that we also had this Fourth Year Study Room. I thought, “Hey cool, something new to explore”, and checked it out. What I found was more than a few couches, a fridge, some PCs, and a foosball table. Within weeks, I found myself hanging out there, talking with new friends, and yes playing the odd game of foosball.

That’s what I feel the fourth year room is all about: giving the class a common point for connecting. There are plenty of places on campus to “study”, but this was the only place for our class to get together. It was a place where we could have group meetings, check email, and de-stress after long hours of work. We even had a class party to inaugurate the room and sign our class mural – something that’s never happened in the four previous years we’d been together as a class. This was OUR space.

So what happened to destroy this spirit of co-operation? It certainly isn’t one-sided. Trust has disappeared on both sides to the point that neither admin nor students is willing to do anything to support the other beyond the minimum to get to graduation. It’s a circular problem that can be stated both ways: Admin doesn’t trust the student body because the students don’t care, and the students don’t care because admin doesn’t trust them with anything.

The task now is to rebuild that trust. I’ve come up with a number of ideas but they all require full participation to be successful. I’d thought the biggest obstacle would be apathy, but I’ve discovered a much deeper problem. Many people will actively protest anything that involves co-operating with admin. What’s worse, it’s contagious. This downtrodden attitude discourages others from taking part, and pulls numbers from the apathetically silent to active dissent.

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and as such I don’t wish these views hadn’t come out – on the contrary I’m glad they did, I just wish that they’d been voiced earlier. Maybe something could have been worked out a little earlier. I can only hope future classes will fare better than we have, but I fear that our legacy to them will be one of selfish destruction.

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