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New Website:

Posted by kevinwolz on January 7, 2013

I’ve moved!

Please check out my new website, with the same blog and even more content at

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Current & Prospective Class Reflection: Fall 2011

Posted by kevinwolz on December 12, 2011

As I’ve said at the end of the last few semesters, “My favorite time of the semester (registering for classes–really, what is more empowering than choosing and taking action on your own education!?) has already come and gone. I want to continue what I’ve done in the past with a review/reflection on this semester’s classes and some prospective thoughts on the line up for spring. This really isn’t for anyone else’s benefit but mine. It’s an opportunity for me to reflect on past classes, redirect my academic interests, and scope out the next semester. A successful college education will only come if I continue to reevaluate where I’m at and make sure that I’m passionate about where I’m going. Here are the classes that I’m finishing up now:”

Systems Engineering & Economics: Okay, I get it. Linear programming is important. Can I be done now? That’s how I felt all semester. After optimizing and re-optimizing every possible engineering scenario you could encounter, I became quite jaded with the whole idea of optimizing something from such a reductionist point of view. I think I can best sum this up by the following quote of Wes Jackson that I heard the other day: “When you break a problem down to a point where there’s no ambiguity, that’s where it becomes irrelevant.”

Intro to Computing  (Computer Science 101): Well, whadaya know,  programming isn’t so bad after all. I know it’s a 101 class, but for someone who has never really thought in the programming mindset before, coding can be a whole new world. Overall, I learned the basics, and they should come quite in handy as I begin modeling-based research next spring.

Ecology and Evolution: Finally!…a biology course focused on ecology, my scale of interest. Overall, this course was great. While the evolution half of the course was a bit dry and unorganized, the material still furthered my interest and understanding of evolution, in all its statistical glory. Not to mention, we took some pretty epic field trips that gave me a whole new respect for Illinois.

Introductory Biochemistry: I’ll be brief, and I’ll be blunt. This was undoubtedly the worst class that I’ve ever taken at U of I. Here’s what we were told (or could infer) on the first day of class: 1) Don’t buy the book because no material outside of the lectures slides will ever be discussed. 2) Lecture slides will be recited verbatim during class and then posted online. 3) Homework is not mandatory, but the posted problems are the same problems that will be on the tests. 4) The teacher is not a professor and has no teaching experience whatsoever. 5) We don’t have the “manpower” to make this course any better. WOW, sign me up! Suffice it to say that the only time I ever showed up to that class again was for our three exams, each of which I simply crammed for the night before by reading trough the lectures and doing the posted (test) problems.

Math in Music and Art: As can be expected from any class with as crazy of a name as this, MMA was my honors class for the semester (and my last required honors class at UofI!). A late add, MMA did not show up in last May’s preview, but it proved to be one of the better spontaneous decision I’ve made. Ever since I started playing in band, I’ve been curious to understand the math behind it all. I know…I’m such an engineer. Anyway, this class did just that! On the very first day, we mathematically proved why there are 12 notes to an octave  and 7 notes in a scale in Western music. It’s not just an arbitrary choice…It’s a centuries-long controversy rooted in fractions and irrational numbers! This class has added a whole new level of understanding to my musical background, and it has even prompted my to whip out my sax again. On top of all that, one of the most excited things I did all semester was the final project for this class. That’s a story for another post though.


As opposed to the relatively general classes I took last semester, I’ll be diving deep into some focused topics this spring. The best part is that since I will be starting my extended commitment to research next semester (more on this soon), I’m only taking four classes! Furthermore, my daily schedule couldn’t have worked out any better…it’s the most regular and predictable schedule I’ve ever had.

Statistical Modeling: This one came out of nowhere. Since Statistical Modeling is actually a graduate level course, it never really even came up on my radar while planning my degrees out. However, the recent revelation that this course covers almost exactly what I will need to know in order to complete successful research next semester has convinced me that I simply cannot pass it up…for the sake of my career. It will certainly be hard, but I’m sure just as fascinating as well.

GIS for Planners: GIS stands for Geographic Information System. Basically, GIS is the intersection of maps, data, and statistics. Four good reasons went into my decision to take this course: 1) I love maps. 2) The job description for my dream job said that proficiency in GIS  was a requirement. 3) Urban planning is a discipline I would like to explore and understand, and this is the only course I’ll be able to take in that department. 4) My good friend Declan is taking the class with me.

Introductory Dynamics: Arranging class schedules that appease both of my majors as well as my interests has been quite challenging. To make everything fit, I had to start planning things before I even showed up on campus! Retiring professors, cancelled classes, changing requirements  and bad teachers have only added to this difficulty. Nevertheless, I’ve always been able to make everything work…except for this class. Dynamics has been the single hardest class to schedule. The class is typically taken by first semester sophomores, but I have had to push it back again and again due to conflicts. So, here I am, scheduling the second semester of my junior year and realizing that if I don’t make Dynamics fit now I won’t graduate on time. It’s a prerequisite for almost every civil engineering class that I have left to take! Okay, so no big deal right? Wrong. The time conflicts with the lab of Statistical Modeling. Of course. After freaking out a bit, I decided that, since I would probably end up ditching the Dynamic lecture half the time anyway, the conflict wasn’t terribly unreasonable. So, I pulled a few strings, sweet talked some secretaries, and got the override I needed. Take that Hermione. No time-turner needed.

Sustainable & Resilient Infrastructure Systems: To be quite honest, one of the main reasons I registered for this course was because the title had the word “resilient” in it…quite possibly my favorite word of all time. This is one of the classes that was randomly added to the civil engineering department last year as part of the push to make the curriculum better reflect sustainability issues in engineering. I really don’t know what spurred the development of this course…all I’ll say is that when I wrote up my engineering custom degree plan almost two years ago now, I used a quite similar phrase to describe my approach to civil engineering. So, while I’m excited for this unexpected opportunity, I’m actually quite skeptical about the material they will cover. Things may change once I see the syllabus…

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Where In The World Am I Today?

Posted by kevinwolz on November 24, 2011

Once 2011 comes to a close, I will be able to say that in the last year I have stepped foot in 6 U.S. states (not including drive-throughs), 7 countries, and 4 continents (as long as you consider Panama south of the canal to be South America). Whoa. How did that happen!? I honestly don’t view myself as a world traveler…many of those trips were quite under planned and/or unexpected. In the lat two years, my life has grown more decentralized…I currently have strong roots in southern Wisconsin, the Chicago suburbs, and the U of I. I can barely figure out where my clothes are, let alone my home turf. Add to that a slew of world travel, and you have quite the whirlwind. I’ve probably slept as many nights this year in a bed (or lack thereof) that wasn’t mine that in my own bed(s)! Often times this year, I have woken up in the morning quite confused…without the slightest idea of where I was. Intense. I’ve already posted about my European travels last winter and my summer in the tropics, so here I’m just going to give a quick run down on the whirlwind that has been my fall semester. The following five locations are the last 6 weeks/weekends of my life. Crazy.

Phoenix, AZ

By this point, Phoenix seems so long ago, but was actually the first domino that fell this fall (pun half-intended). I traveled to Phoenix through the always-awesome Campus Honors Program here at U of I in order to attend the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) Annual Conference. At the conference, I presented the Prairie Garden Project that I led last spring (the funding for the project came from an NCHC grant that I secured last fall). While my presentation was a very small component of the conference, attending the rest of the conference (centered around innovation in collegiate education) provided some really neat sessions and programs. The best program I attended was a day-long trip out to Montezuma’s Well National Monument for a behind-the-scenes experience on how the National Park Service operates and what it takes to maintain a park, both ecologically and economically.

Montezuma's Well National Monument

Overall, Phoenix was just so beautiful. It’s one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been in, and the weather was incredible. Above all, the best part of this trip was the fact that I have family in Phoenix who I haven’t seen in a long time. So, reconnecting with them and spending some quality time together was a really great experience.

Columbia, MO & Charlotte, NC

These two weekends came about as a result of the Illinois Cross Country Club (IXC), the first being the site of our Regionals race, and the second of our Nationals Race. I’m proud to say that the IXC won both the men’s and women’s team titles this year! We are the Champions!! While I did not race competitively this cross season (since I did not train all summer), I did attend both of these meets as a coach and raced the open races. Surprisingly, those open races went far better than I had ever expected after taking an entire some off. More importantly, however, was that, as the IXC Travel Coordinator, I coordinated both of these trips. Consequently, these two trips were personally by far the most stressful of any this fall. For Nationals, I had to get 75 people to travel 750 miles in five 15-passenger vans in a comfortable and relaxed manner that allowed them to compete at their highest potential, and then bring them back…for as cheap as possible and in only 3 days. Stressful. However, the trips ran smoothly and we had a great time. All that’s left to do is wish Declan good luck. He has to do this job in the spring…

Maysville, MO

This was the Open Source Ecology weekend, which I have already posted about extensively. It was only one day, but what a long day it was…

Los Angeles, CA

Most recently,  as I enjoy my week-long fall break from school, I have headed to Los Angeles to visit my two best friends from high school, neither of whom I have seen for a significant period of time since we all left for college. We’ve had a lot of catching up to do. Aside from just spending lots of time running and catching up on life plans, we explored downtown LA, hiked the nearby Malibu Creek State Park, and are now cooking our very own Thanksgiving Dinner.

And just when you (and I) thought that the year was winding down and relaxation was on its way, I go and do something crazy: sign up for a Winter Abroad course through U of I that travels to China and India for a week each over winter break. What the heck is wrong with me!? We’ve already been told that we shouldn’t expect to sleep very much on the trip. Despite the lack of relaxation, I think that these two weeks are extremely important for me. They will include lots of traveling and intense cultural/social interactions…essential to understanding the global nature of the issues I am interested in.

This year of traveling has certainly taught me more about the Real World and opened my mind more than any other year of my life. The opportunity to head out on all these endeavors is something that I am extremely fortunate to have and for which I am truly thankful. I can definitively say that I have not taken these opportunities for granted and have made the most out of every moment I have the privilege of experiences. That said, traveling is exhausting…in more ways than one…and next year I plan on scaling my travels back quite a bit, at least the far-reaching ones. For many different reasons, 2012 is going to be the Year of Focus for me. More on this to come…

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I Love Perennials

Posted by kevinwolz on May 15, 2011

So I just spent the weekend at our cottage relaxing (and sleeping) before I head south. While I was there, I planted a bunch of seeds in the small garden we still have there and tidied it up for my parents. I was expecting to show up to very little plant life after the winter, but I was quite happy to be proven wrong…the perennials were back in full force…twice as big and vigorous as last year!

Now, I already knew perennials were awesome, but I guess the full effect never dawned on me until my OWN perennials came back a second year without me doing a bit of work on them. My respect for perennials now has a personal touch to it.

Check out pictures of all my perennials here. Last year (the first year of growth for all of them) was rough for all of these plants since they are used to having a big energy store below ground to get them going in the spring. This year, they had that, and WOW did it show.

Who doesn’t love a plant that comes back every year without any work on our part!?

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A Statistical Masterpiece

Posted by kevinwolz on November 23, 2010

Wow, it’s been a while. This semester just flew by and quickly overburdened me as it went. But now, it’s fall break, and I’m doing my best to relax and catch up on sleep. I just returned from a day up in WI where I harvested the last few things out of the garden: butternut squash, acorn squash, and Brussels sprouts. The squash look great, with only one slightly frost damaged, and the sprouts should be extra sweet after a good hard frost last night. This final harvest ends the 2010 growing season for me, and I’ve wasted no time crunching the numbers. Here are the final stats for this season:

Garden Harvest Summary 2010

The left column is pretty basic. I’d say the biggest disappointments were the tomatoes (hail) and corn (Japanese beetles). Otherwise, I’m pretty happy with everything, especially the squash.

Now I know exactly how Pavlov's dogs felt.

The Potato Bucket yields were surprisingly good, and they were so fun to harvest! The “seed weight” is the weight of the small “seed” potato that was placed in the bottom of each bucket back in spring, and the harvest weight is…well, just what it says. The final column is the ratio of harvest to seed weights, which is how the potato industry typically measures efficiency. Conventional commercial potato farms usually hit somewhere between an 8:1 and 10:1 ratio. So I guess 6.7:1 isn’t to shabby for my first spud endeavor…in buckets. Don’t think I’m swimming potatoes though…5 pounds was enough for one (very tasty) dish that I brought to a potluck.

The number to really pay attention to is the 0.39 in the bottom right hand corner. This is the productivity of my garden in pounds of food per square foot. Now, 0.39 is pretty darn low. One Straw Rob can hit close to 1.0! But what can I say…hail, experimentation, wind,Sand, obviously, inexperience.

I have two different productivity sections because of the extra crops I had planted randomly outside of the “main” garden. If you just look at the pole beans I had climbing on the tree house, they were only occupying 6 square feet, but produced almost 21 pounds of beans: 3.4 lbs/sq ft! So, the beans, along with my semi-vertical cucumbers outside of the “main” garden contribute to the difference in productivities between the “main” and “whole” garden sections. Going vertical is one of the best ways to increase productivity!

Now, most of these numbers don’t really mean much after only one year of production, but, given time, they can paint a statistical masterpiece. Some may not agree, but I think graphs can truly be a work of art. They help us visualize the intangible, and I, for one, am quite the aficionado.

The graph that I aspire to produce several years from now will show how this spatial productivity changes over the years. Will it be linear? Exponential? Flatten out at a maximum value? Who knows?! I just hope the slope is positive…

I now know a ton more about growing food than I did back in spring, so my new knowledge, along with improved techniques, should continue to boost my productivity whenever and wherever I grow food in the future.

Happy Graphing and Happy Thanksgiving!

From the BIG harvest


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