How to Earn a College Degree Debt Free

Candice eetimesI earned a BS by examination in ’82, and was admitted to Stanford Graduate School that fall, debt free.

Some expansion is warranted here, as many are confused by my statement on “by examination”.  I had about one year of Jr. College, mostly general ed requirements, earned at four different Jr. Colleges over about five or six years, taking one or two evening classes at a time while working various jobs.  At this rate, I might get an AA degree in another five.  I had been working in Silicon Valley pink color jobs and was looking at a career ceiling unless I had at least a four-year degree that my employers would respect, which at my then present rate, I might earn in another 15 years, if ever?  A friend told me about a little known program called the Regents External Degree from the University of the State of New York (now spun out as Excelsior College).  They offered college credit by examination, specifically, (back then) if one could earn at least a minimum score on a Subject Graduate Record Exam (not the general), they would award about a year’s worth of university credits.  Looking at the minimum score needed, it appeared that you had to be at least within one standard deviation of the norm for that exam, typically at least in the 33%tile or so.  Remember, that meant that one is scored against students that had already earned a degree in that field and who wanted to go onto graduate school in that field… a high standard.  I’m fairly certain that the Regents never thought that someone would attempt it, but I figured that if I could earn decent scores on three subjects of the then available exams, I would have a BS.  It would save me 15 or more years!  With little to lose and much to gain, I jumped on it!

The exams are offered only several times a year and one could only take one at a time.  I decided I would try the Biology exam.  I borrowed every biology text I could lay hand to… studied every waking moment not at work.  I took practice exams to hone my test taking skills and to look for areas of weakness.  When I took the test, one of my friends was also taking it.  I left an hour early from the three-hour time allotted and saw my friend give me a quizzical look.  She told me later that she had thought I was giving up.  No, I had already finished an hour before that and had gone through it a second time, catching some dumb mistakes.  I earned a 99th%tile score, the highest available.

I next chose psychology, having taken a psych course at one of the JC’s.  I brushed up on the basics and took a few practice exams.  I got a 93rd%tile.  It wasn’t the perfect score because I hadn’t cared to study up on all of the silly pseudo-science that was still to be found in the exam: Freud, Jung, etc.  I only had a few weeks between the exam dates, so didn’t have much time to study in any case.

I still needed a third exam and was running out of easy {for me} options.  I would have to take one with heavy math… I was advised by my mentors that if I really wanted to have a decent career, given that this was Silicon Valley, of the exams available my only real choice was physics.  Chemistry might have been easier for me, but not as likely to be as impressive in Silicon Valley.  Ugh!  No easy peasy English Lit exam would do…   Please understand, I’m smart… but NOT good at math.  My highest math class was intro to calculus.  Earlier, I had had to repeat algebra in high school after failing it the first time.  Ugh!  No choice, I dug in.  I bought some physics books along with their problem set workbooks and sat down every waking hour not at work to plough through them.  Ugh!  I got math help from some of my mentors, like Dr. West at work.  I was not confident about doing well enough on the physics exam.  But I figured that if I didn’t get a good enough score, I could always try one of the others, the English Lit exam perhaps, just to get the BS and call it a day.  Well that test was worse than I could imagine.  No ducking out early.  I hadn’t finished.  I had answered all of the non-math problems first, but still… I walked for an hour on the lovely Stanford campus w/ a raging migraine before I could drive home.  I was very worried I hadn’t gotten a high enough score.  But… I did, at 45th%tile.  Not bad for someone who had never stepped foot in a college physics classroom!


The Regents agreed to grant me a degree in psychology… but not biology or physics because they also required upper-division lab courses in those subjects.  Fortunately, after some negotiation, they agreed to grant a waiver for the lab requirement on the physics degree due to my extensive real world experience in high-tech clean room work, documented by Dr. Belt, Vice President of Fairchild Semiconductor.  I had a dual degree in psychology and physics, very strong minor in biology… and with Dr. Belt and Fairchild’s sponsorship, was admitted to Stanford Graduate School in the Materials Science Dept. as an Honors Coop part-time student, paid for by Fairchild.  Why materials science?  That was the department that taught classes and conducted research in semiconductor fabrication/processing.  It also had the highest number of women, w/ near gender parity, unlike the electrical engineering or computer science departments.  There was no hope that I would ever actually finish a degree, as I could only take maybe one class at a time while working full-time as a fab supervisor, which I did, but an Honors Coop has access to far more than just classes… as well as taking classes for credit, I audited several just for the knowledge.  The classes were available for viewing real-time via microwave video link at work.  (And now you know where I ate lunch… not always at “lunch time”.)

So, I went from having a smattering of general ed jr. college credits to a degree and onto graduate school at an elite university in about a year’s time!  With my official status as a graduate student Fairchild promoted me and sent me to in-house management classes.  I was soon supervising a small group of engineers, technicians, student interns, and clean room operators manufacturing microelectronic devices in a small prototyping fab.  {As proof that Silicon Valley was a small world back then, one of the technicians reporting to me was a young women just a few years older than I, who had grown up only two doors away.  We used to play records and practice dancing together growing up.}  Not bad for someone who only a few years before had been intermittently homeless and couch surfing.


Our Whispy Thin Air

Candice eetimesWe live on a planet with almost no atmosphere to speak of.  Oh, I know it is a lot more than the Moon or Mars.  But compared to Venus, we live on the edge of space.  But most of us take what we have and think it is really thick.  We think of “space” as being ‘way up there’.  But it isn’t.

Our atmosphere is held down near the Earth’s surface by gravity.  The air pressure we depend upon is caused by the weight of the air above us.  But how thick is the atmosphere?  How much is really above us?  Far less than most realize.

Because the density of the air is related to how much air is above, the density changes with altitude because there is less air above as we go higher.  That means that most of the air is compressed at the very bottom, at low altitude.  How low?  Well, if one climbs a mountain that is 2000m (6,000ft), one is already above 20% of the atmosphere.  Climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth at 8,500m (29,000ft) you can look down at 55% of the atmosphere, over half-way to space.

To get a feel for how thin this really is, visualize the Earth which is 6,371km radius on average.  Now visualize a radius only 20km larger, where 95% of the atmosphere lies below… if you drew a circle six inches in diameter with a compass the atmosphere is the thickness of the pencil line!

Let’s shift gears a moment and visualize the amount of atmosphere.  If one were to compress all of the air and convert it to a liquid it would be only a bit over 3m (16ft) deep.  That liquid would be about the same density as dirt or aluminum.  That’s it, 3m of radiation shielding between you and the vacuum of space.

Now, realizing how very little atmosphere there really is… one has a new appreciation for how little pollution it can absorb, including all of that O2 we are converted to CO2 greenhouse gas.  But that’s a topic for a future essay.

Cursive Writing and Flint Knapping

candicecoverWhen I was in elementary school, I got very high marks in nearly every subject except penmanship.  Except, we weren’t allowed to use a pen!  We used a Number 2 pencil on coarse paper.  But somehow we were expected to have a lovely flowing hand perfectly duplicating the Palmer script we were taught in 3rd Grade.  I just couldn’t do it… and it caused me deep shame when those poor marks brought on disappointed looks from my parents.  Never mind that their penmanship didn’t look anything like the Palmer script either!

Trying to write cursive with a ballpoint pen as I was allowed to do in Jr. High and High School was only marginally better.  I also developed my own script, idiosyncratically changing the letter forms to make it easier to write and far easier to read.  First that awkward capital “G” was replaced with a block lettered form, then the capital “D”.  Then the lower case “f” and “g” became two flowing loops without that silly “knot” in the middle.  But still my hand would ache.

I learned to type in Jr. High, taking the class twice to gain accuracy and speed.  I began using the typewriter for most of my writing.  It was neater, easier to read, and looked more mature than my childishly poor handwriting.

One of my classmates held his pen in an odd fashion.  I asked him about it and learned that he had been having so much trouble with his hand he had been refered by his doctor to a physical therapist who showed him a technique of holding the pen upright between his index and middle fingers while his thumb came behind the pen instead of to the top and side as it did in the conventional pen hold.  This configuration allows greater force with less strain in the fingers.

I tried this pen hold and found it hard to write script with it… and then learned that my classmate had abandoned cursive for his own idiosyncratic block writing.  It was far more legible and easier on the hand.

Then I discovered the fountain pen.  What a miracle pen!  I could suddenly write in a lovely flowing cursive hand.  I retained my new letter forms of course.  But now I could write for hours with no hand cramping.  I used it for journaling and personal letters.

But I could not use a fountain pen in the clean room.  We use special polymer fiber “paper” that does not shed particles.  I had to use a ballpoint pen because the thinner fountain pen ink just smeared and wicked along the fibers.  I had to go back to block printing to make it legible to co-workers.

Then, I needed to carefully document my work in a patent notebook.  Thank goodness for gel rollerball pens!  I developed a new idiosyncratic block printing that allowed me to smoothly connect some letters.  It uses a combination of smaller “upper case” letter forms and traditional lower case forms we all learned in 1st Grade.  You can see a sample on an earlier blog essay here.

But, back to penmanship with old styles.  As an adult, I learned calligraphy.  I bought special pens with various tip angles and widths to allow one to write using various scripts.  I learned many modern and ancient scripts.  My favorite became half-uncial, a script that was popular in hand-copied manuscripts in the middle-ages.  From that, I developed my own script that mixed 9th Century half-uncial style with Futhorc letters to replace modern letter combinations, (e.g. “th” is replaced with “thorn” and “ng” is replaced with “nettle”).

From all of this work, I learned that scripts are based on the writing technology.  Everything involved feeds back to the script, the pen, the ink, the paper or animal skin, and the use model.  Many scripts were developed for goose quills and oak gall ink.  Block printing was developed for use with chalk on slate and pencil on paper.  Which brings us back to learning cursive in school… and why it should be abandoned as being no more useful to modern school children than learning to knap stone tools.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love calligraphy.  I just don’t see cursive as a useful script for school children as it was created for old style fountain pens most commonly available in the late 19th Century.  Today, school children will need to learn how to use a ballpoint or gel rollerball pen.  The best script for that pen is block printing… and we should probably do some time motion and ergonomic research into developing a new block printed script specifically designed for these modern pens.

If schools really want to teach cursive, they should combine it with teaching other equally or even more artistic and ancient calligraphic scripts using archaic pen technology in an elective art class.

Further External Reading:

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive by Josh Griesbrecht

Recognizing A Fellow Inventor:

Candice eetimesDaniel Darst… Well Done!

Yesterday I filled a new prescription for pills that I was supposed to take one half at a time.  The pills are tiny and did not have a cut line mark to allow it to be broken in half.  Thus, the pharmacist gave me a pill cutter.

The device is a marvel.  The more I examined it, each little component, the more I admired its design.  So many clever elements in an easy to use device.  Each and every feature of the device was both aesthetically pleasing and obeyed the dictum of good design that form should follow function.  It has a razor blade to cut the pill neatly in half and a sliding plastic safety guard to protect one’s fingers when the clamshell is opened.  On the bottom was a patent number molded into the clear plastic.  A quick google search turned up the patent:

Well done, Mr. Darst !

Actionable Means to Improve American Schools

Candice eetimesEight Evidence Based Reforms To Fix Our Schools

In recent decades we have seen many suggestions for school reform that have failed to deliver their promised results.  This ranged from “No Child Left Behind” which punished schools for having higher concentrations of struggling students to creating charter schools and vouchers for private schools which punish the less fortunate in other ways.  We have seen the poor results of “teaching to the test” and paradoxically lowering the standards of teachers when we increase the certification requirements.  There are things we can do to improve our schools based on real evidence.  However, most of them go against the grain of conventional wisdom and American culture and traditions.  Here’s the list and then the evidence:

School Hours

Increase the time at school for pre-adolescents.  Elementary school hours make no sense for most families.  School end earlier than most parents get off work.  It puts strains on working parents.  It also falsely encourages teachers to increase homework assignments with the rationalization that that time is available for parent supervised study.  Retaining young students at school until later also allows longer and more frequent recess and free time which has been shown to improve learning.

More Recess, a lot more.  Kids need breaks from instruction.  They need to move and relax.  They also need more time to socialize and learn social skills without adult supervision.

Shift school start times later for adolescents.  Teenagers have a time shifted natural sleep cycle compared to children and adults.  They need just as much sleep but fall asleep and arise later.  But our middle and high schools expect them to get up early, in many school districts, even earlier than elementary schools to allow them to be bussed first and then participate in after school sports.  This requirement causes sleep deprivation that impairs learning, increases risky behavior, causes more traffic accidents, and causes health problems.

Year Round Schooling.  Summer vacations rob students of study time, cause summer backsliding, etc.

Athletics and Physical Education

Eliminate After School Sports.  Schools should focus on academics instead of being sports clubs that pretend to be schools.  Sports are expensive.  Supporting sports reduces resources that could be applied to academic subjects.  Eliminating after school sports will free up resources while at the same time changing the school culture to value academic over athletic achievement.

Eliminate investments in physcial education.  High schools and middle school do not need to provide expensive gymnasiums, showers, or swimming pools.  With no after school sports, expensive bleachers, tracks, sports-fields, etc. are not needed.  Running and jumping jacks do not require special equipment.  Our emphasis on P.E. is from our military who wanted to transfer the cost and time to get infantry ready for war to our schools.

How to Save American Schools

Teaching Credentials

Eliminate educational credentialing for high school teachers.  When schools are free to hire teachers based on their knowledge and teaching skill rather than being limited to the pool of people who took specialized “education” degrees and credentialling programs, the quality and quantity of available teachers will increase by many fold.  If one is looking for someone to teach autoshop, who would be a better candidate, a retired auto mechanic or someone with a liberal arts undergraduate degree and a masters in “education”?  Who would be a better Electronics teacher, a middle-aged electronics engineer or an English major with the required credential in “education”?  A physics teacher?  A biology instructor?  A math teacher?  Who would be a better culinary arts teacher?  Even looking at more conventional academic classes… which would be better, a professional writer, journalist, editor, or a recent English major with an “education” credential?


Ban Homework.  Except for reading textbooks and novels, homework does NOT improve learning.  This is especially true for elementary school age students.  Homework actually hurts learning.  It turns something from a joy into a chore.  It is frustrating for slow learners and is boring for fast learners.  It actively hinders gifted students by robbing them of time that they could be spending learning things they are interested in at their faster pace.  It robs families of family time and pits students against parents.

Color and Culture

Candice eetimesYesterday, my husband and I were driving down the highway while discussing color.  Color is my career.  I spend decades designing and improving color flat panel displays.  But yesterday the conversation wasn’t about displays but about paint.

We passed by a recently finished suburban housing development, rows of townhouses.  They all came in two colors, dirt brown and dull sand.  There was literally no other color to be found.  It was depressing.

It reminded me of the old house that I had bought and restored in Portland in the early ’90’s.  It was painted battleship grey.  It stood in a neighborhood of houses of all painted various shades of dull grey.  I painted the house vibrant colors of pink, purple, turquoise, and cyan.  It was lovely and cheerful.  I planted flowers the matched the house.  But when I sold it several years later, the new owners repainted it… grey.

As we drove down the highway I pointed out to my husband how the vast majority of cars had the same limited color palette.  It reminded me of that famous statement attributed to Henry Ford, “You can have any color you want as long as it is black.”

The color choices seemed to come in three hues, black, white, and dull.  Seriously, there were no bright colors.  There was dull… is that grey or dull blue?… or is that dull green?  Is that car red? No, it’s just dull brownish orangish… dull.

Imagine a cop asking witnesses to describe a car involved in an accident; “Well… the first car was a dull… it was dull… something or other.”

As we drove further we played a game of “find a real color”.  We saw a lime green van, a commercial vehicle with a custom paint.  Then we saw a yellow car… oh… it’s a taxi.  Finally we saw a true blue car.  It was lovely.  It was a tiny Fiat.

It struck me that there is something wrong with our culture.  We can’t stand to use color.  Our houses are dull.  Our cars are dull.  Our buildings are dull.  Perhaps our minds are dull?

Oh wait!  There’s an RV there with a custom paint scheme!  It was a riot of tesselated triangles of every imaginable color.  As we drove by, I saw it was ‘signed’ in one of the triangles, “ArtQuake”.  There, my faith in humanity restored.  At least someone else in the world values color.

Seriously Sad State of Science Education

Candice eetimesA recent article in New Scientist argued that the public’s understanding of science isn’t as bad as some commentators allege.  “Wow!” I thought… so much for falsely flattering their readership.  It reminded me of an article in National Geographic that slathered on the same a few years back,

“The public’s lack of scientific literacy is a familiar lament voiced by scientists. But a new Pew Research Center Report finds that while Americans’ knowledge of the sciences is complicated, it’s not as bad as perhaps some have feared.”

Really?  Let’s look at the data.  They refered to the 2015 Pew survey which asked only twelve softball science questions.  OK, I wouldn’t expect that the average high school graduate could calculate the Fermi Energy level of a two dimensional (thin film) metal at absolute zero temperature (which was the first problem of the very first problem set I encountered my first week of graduate school in the Materials Science Dept. at Stanford).  But really, the questions ranged from those that could and should be correctly answered by a fifth grader to just one question that was at the basic high school level.  The percentage that answered the questions correctly ranged from 86% for the easiest to only 34% for the “hardest”.

But let’s look at that hardest question which asked if water boils at a higher, lower, or the same temperature at higher altitudes.  There were only three possible answers, thus purely by guessing one had a 33.3% chance of getting it right.  With only 34% of the survey respondents getting it right, this means that the American public had no clue and was only guessing.

This question is basic!  It should be one of the easy questions for any high school graduate.  I once demonstrated this effect as a teenager in our chem lab by boiling water at room temperature by lowering the air pressure in flask of tepid water.  Every high school graduate should know that air pressure drops with increasing altitude… and should also know that fluids boil when their vapor pressure exceeds the air pressure… and that vapor pressure increases with temperature.  Put together three very basic items of knowledge and we get the final answer.  But the American public is unable to do this.

But the problem of science illiteracy and ignorance is even built into the survey itself.  One of the questions is,

“Which of these terms is defined as the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behavior?”

So, the “correct” answer is “astrology”… but this question, in its very phrasing and positioning in this survey tacitly suggests that astrology is a branch of scientific study.  Research suggests that as many as half of Americans believe in astrology.

I’m dismayed but not surprised… Not when one knows that 25% of Americans also believe Homeopathy nostrums work.  For the record, homeopathic “medicine” is pure water or sugar pills.  It is no more effective than obicalp (hint: read it backwards).

This level of science illiteracy and ignorance is dangerous in a modern society and especially in a democracy.  We have people voting and even lobbying on issues of which they have no clue.  We have people claiming climate science results are a conspiracy.  That airplanes are releasing nefarious “chemtrails” above our heads.  We have people taking and giving their children expensive and useless nostrums while avoiding known medical treatments that can save their lives.  We have people blaming vaccines for conditions that are completely unrelated.  We have people that honestly believe that cellphone “radiation” is killing honeybee colonies and others calling safe and useful food crops “frankenfood”.

In the doctor’s office, we routinely see patients demanding antibiotics when they have colds and influenza, not understanding that they can’t treat viral illnesses… meanwhile, the overuse of anti-biotics is leading to resistant bacterial illnesses.  (This may be one instance where prescribing obicalp may be ethical?)

People are literally getting sick and even dying because of science illiteracy and ignorance.

This is a call to action.  We need to improve science education in America.  We need to shift resources from sports and P.E. to Science, Technology, Engineeing, and Mathematics (STEM) courses in our high schools.

Further Reading:

Essay on How To Save American Education