How things work in a former Communist nation
By Joe Cimino
The University of South Florida College of Engineering is known for its foreign professors some more infamous than others (remember Sami Al-Arian?). One constant throughout the program in my day was the faction of Russian math professors who would enthusiastically begin every semester with the hopes of teaching us American students advanced math, only to find that they needed to water down the curriculum after the first exam, or face the administrative consequences of failing an entire class. We always blamed it on how difficult it was to understand their accent or teaching style. The truth is that we just didn’t get it.
One afternoon during a grueling example problem, my Engineering Calculus II professor finally threw up his arms in disgust at our lack of comprehension. The problem required that we determine how fast it takes a man with a rope to pull a bucket of water up to the top of a roof given the height of the roof and how quickly he can pull the bucket. This sounds simple, until you consider the other part of the equation — that the bucket has a hole in the bottom that leaks water at a rate that decreases as the bucket empties, while the rate at which the man pulls the bucket increases as the water leaks out and the bucket become lighter.
Our professor insisted that back home in Russia students worked through similar problems in 7th grade with little difficulty, and that a Russian college class would have been through with the problem and on to five others by now. Then he paused in a moment of revelation. He told us that American students can’t do this problem, but that it doesn’t matter because we would simply rig an expensive, over-designed pump to get the job done. However, Russian students needed to understand this problem because “unfortunately, a man with a rope and an old bucket with a hole is the most common way to get water to the top of a roof in Russia.”
He seemed disheartened, but continued.
Joe Cimino is now a professional engineer specializing in hydro-engineering (seriously). On the job, He has never had to calculate how to hoist a leaking bucket of water up the roof of a building and further concludes using the building’s elevator (as opposed to rigging a pump) would be the simplest way to get a single bucket of water up a building and that the hole in the bucket should be plugged before doing so. Joe lives and works in Tampa, Florida with his wife and two children.