Posts Tagged ‘Technical University of Munich’

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Max: Transportation Systems

January 5, 2012

Transportation is something most of us use every day, but notice only when it bothers us or stops working correctly. Every week I take the subway to campus and back and take a local train to visit nearby relatives, but I rarely stop to think about how this wouldn’t be possible at all in Minneapolis because of the lack of reliable rail service and infrastructure. On the occasions that I do stop to think about the transportation I use every day I realize how different the transportation systems in the US and Germany (and in Minneapolis and Munich) are. Even if I had a car and could use the road system I would be noticing some big differences:

The first thing most Americans will notice when first driving on German highways is the stretches where there is absolutely no speed limit. While it seems a little odd at first that this is the same country where you can get ticketed for passing a car on the right, or even driving in a left lane when the one to the right of you is free, it makes sense when you realize that it can be more dangerous to disrupt the normal flow of traffic than to drive very fast. Also, German drivers generally don’t drive faster than they feel is safe. 

The other major difference in road travel, besides the fact that German drivers seem to be, in general, much better (more attentive) drivers than the ones in Minnesota, is in the structure of road networks. Most large German cities, including Munich, existed long before cars or even horses and carriages were in common use. They grew slowly, starting with a wall around the inner city, then eventually broke out of that wall and absorbed smaller cities nearby. The roads developed slowly along with the city, eventually forming a radial pattern with the oldest part of the city in the center. This historic city center is often a pedestrian zone; car travel is limited in this area.

Large American cities, by contrast, usually have a pronounced grid pattern in their street layouts and the entire city is usually directly accessible by car. This is probably the result of deliberate planning due to the fast growth of these cities. Even outside of cities this pattern is apparent: Most of the farmland in the large, flat parts of the US is divided by roads into neatly tessellating squares and rectangles, giving the land the appearance of a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. This isn’t the case in Germany, where farms generally have a more irregular shape.

Where the American and German transportation systems differ the most, of course, is in passenger rail infrastructure. American regional and inter-city rail service is either slow, unreliable, or rarely available in most parts of the country. For the majority of Americans it isn’t an attractive option for any kind of travel. The only options these Americans have for inter-city travel are car or airplane travel, neither of which is particularly comfortable or enjoyable. 

Germany, on the other hand, has an extensive rail network that reaches every major city, just about every small city, and even some large villages across the entire country. Train travel is a viable option for those who do not own cars, along with car sharing or comparably-priced flights. The service is usually punctual and has a frequency of at least one train every one or two hours at most stations. The trains are usually fast and comfortable, with the extreme being the high-speed InterCity-Express service that can travel up to 300 km/h and is the most comfortable vehicle in which I have ever traveled (except the one time I flew on business class, but that was orders of magnitude more expensive than a typical ICE rail ticket). Compared to car travel, train travel is comparable in cost (depending on the level of train speed and comfort) and often is about as fast, occasionally even faster (also depending on the location of your start point and destination). 

Perhaps most Americans simply prefer the flexibility and independence offered by cars over the comfort, low cost, and safety offered by trains. Perhaps the US’s geographic size and relatively low population density make trains an impractical option compared to cars and airplanes. Whatever the reason, America’s passenger rail network has a long way to go to match the efficiency, popularity, and ubiquity of Germany’s network.

Until now I’ve covered road and rail networks on a regional and national scale. This leaves out an important component of transportation networks, namely public transportation within cities. It’s hard to make national generalizations in this area, mostly because each city seems to take a unique approach to public transportation. Since I have used the transportation systems of both Munich and Minneapolis/St. Paul extensively, I’ll profile them as examples. I should note that the city of Munich is considerably larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. Munich’s population is about one million, while Minneapolis/St. Paul have a combined population of close to one-half million, although many more people live in the sprawling suburbs that surround the cities proper.

Munich has a dense, extensive, and robust public transportation system. Its high-capacity backbone consists of the U-Bahn, a subway system of six lines, and the S-Bahn, a collection of suburban trains consisting of twelve spokes that join in the city center to form a single trunk line. These trains are usually fast and punctual (the U-Bahn more so than the S-Bahn). The stations and trains are clean and safe. Although the system sees heavy use and trains can get crowded during peak hours and football games, overcrowding on a scale comparable to the Tokyo subways is very rare. With an extensive streetcar and bus network supplementing the U- and S-Bahn, almost any place in the city and most of the surrounding towns can be reached from the public transportation network. In addition, bicycle paths are available along most streets as another alternative to car travel.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have no real subway system. The transit system for this metropolitan area consists chiefly of a bus system which provides good coverage within the city limits and connects busy areas like the downtowns and the U of M campuses. The city had a streetcar network but this was dismantled in the 1950s because a bus system was thought to be more economical. Rail seems to be making a comeback, however, with the recent construction of a light rail line (a sort of compromise between streetcar and subway) with another line currently under construction and a third in planning. Bicycling is especially prominent in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Bike paths are common and all buses and trains are outfitted with bike racks. Biking is especially popular among university students, who (unlike in Munich) usually live within short biking distance of campus. In the suburbs, however, transit coverage is usually spotty and limited to commercial centers. Because of this and the sheer geographic sprawl of the suburbs, residents there are often left with car travel as the only practical option.

It’s been interesting to look at how two different countries, or two different cities, solved the fundamental problem of getting people from one place to another. It’s a sign of how far modern society has come with this task when I can step into a train in one place, step out fifteen minutes and ten kilometers later, repeat this daily with hundreds or thousands of other people and not even give it a second thought most of the time.

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Max: …and drink

December 10, 2011

First, I’d like to make a correction, or rather an addition, to last week’s post: I mentioned that in Germany three meals are generally eaten in a day. I forgot to mention that it’s often customary to have coffee and cake anywhere between three and five in the afternoon (like tea-time in the UK, except with coffee). It’s not a universal custom; this meal is understandably absent in the normal budget-conscious student’s day.

Now for the central subject matter, namely, the role of alcoholic beverages in German and American societies: The public consumption of alcoholic beverages in Germany is markedly more common than in the US. I’ll take restaurants as an example: It’s probably safe to say that a significant fraction of Americans don’t regularly drink alcohol at restaurants. In German restaurants, however, it’s rare to see someone who isn’t drinking beer or wine. This is most pronounced in Germany’s famous beer gardens, where everyone except children orders a beer with their food. In the higher-end restaurants it’s the same thing with wine in the place of beer. In fact, it’s rare to have anything but beer, wine, or water with a meal other than breakfast or coffee-and-cake.

In other public places the situation is similar. In many American cities it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets and other public spaces (I’m guessing restaurants don’t technically count as public spaces); this is the reason you may see people taking drinks out of suspicious-looking paper bags on city streets. In Munich, there either doesn’t seem to be a law against it or it’s never enforced, because people with half-liter beer bottles are a common sight on the streets and sometimes on the trains and subways (which is, unfortunately, where they like to sing loud, slurred, out-of-tune songs).

All these differences lead back to cultural traditions. It’s said that in Bavaria (the German state of which Munich is the capital) beer is not alcohol; it’s food. Drinking good beer is one of the main Bavarian traditions besides wearing a Lederhosen or a Dirndl, the dress you’d see most often at Oktoberfest. Speaking of Oktoberfest, how did I get this far in the post without mentioning it? It’s one of the most spectacular displays in the world of old traditions mixed with gaudy fairground rides and rampant alcoholism! It shows that drinking alcohol and even getting incredibly drunk don’t have nearly the social stigma that they do in the US.

I’m guessing this stigma exists in the US in the first place because the country was founded predominantly by Puritans, whose conservative social rules have survived in some form to the present day. This would also explain, for example, the relative intolerance of nudity in the US as compared to other European countries.

Excessive and Underage Drinking

Finally, I wanted to bring up the topic of the drinking age and the related topic of excessive drinking (here meaning drinking specifically for the purpose of getting drunk). This is a tough topic to cover neutrally, so I’ll do the best I can. If you notice a significant bias in this section that you’d like to point out, please do so in the comments without starting a flame war. First, the basic facts: In the US the general drinking age is 21 for any type of alcohol, with state-to-state exceptions for drinking in the company of responsible adults. In Germany it is allowed to drink beer or wine at 16 and all other alcoholic beverages at 18. Now, if I were to tell you that everyone, or even most people, follow the drinking-age laws in the US you would probably ask me how many pairs of rose-colored glasses I was wearing. Underage drinking happens commonly on American college campuses (including the U of M), occasionally with tragic consequences.

Before living as a student in Germany, I was of the opinion that this excessive drinking was happening because the drinking age was so high and students were drinking out of defiance. It’s possible, however, that the drinking happens just as much in German universities as in American ones. Every week I see a new party advertised in the student residences where the sole theme is to get as drunk as possible. One example of this is a party advertisement that used a poster for a drinking awareness campaign, retitling “Alcohol: Know your limit” to “Alcohol: Blow your limit.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that excessive drinking at the student age is a constant across many cultures. Because of this I don’t think lowering the drinking age in America will help the problem of underage drinking much. I view drinking as a freedom that’s nice and symbolic, but shouldn’t be abused and can be abstained from for a few years. Other Americans who view drinking in this way should be fine with keeping the drinking age the way it is, while those who really want to drink will always find a way to do so.

The most effective thing that really can be done against excessive drinking is to limit the damage that it does. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) laws are one example of this, although in my personal opinion most aren’t tough enough. Operating a fast-moving two-ton piece of machinery should never be done under the influence of significant amounts of alcohol, and if you have done this before that’s almost always enough evidence that you’re not qualified to drive a car at all.

For more information on DWI laws in various countries you can visit this informative website. More specific information on DWI laws in various US states is only one Web search away; here’s a summary of Minnesota’s laws on the subject as a representative example.

 

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Max: Food…

December 4, 2011

One aspect of culture that affects all of us each day is the topic of food and drink. For this reason, it’s possible to get many insights into the way a culture works just by looking at the way eating and drinking are treated. Here are some of my observations:

In Germany (and probably elsewhere in Europe, although I can’t confidently make that generalization) breakfast, lunch, and dinner exist just as in the US. The difference is in meal size: The largest meal of the day is traditionally supposed to be breakfast, followed by a reasonably large lunch, then a small dinner. In practice, however, lunch seems to be the largest meal, while dinner is still just a few slices of bread with cold cuts, cheese, or other toppings. The prevalence of the small evening meal is evident in the language itself, where the word for dinner, “Abendbrot,” literally translates to “Evening Bread.” There are, of course, exceptions: On special occasions or holidays the celebratory meal is held in the evening, much like in the United States. 

This is probably one of the reasons the university cafeterias only serve lunch, as opposed to the ones in the residence halls at the U of M, which serve all three meals.

Eating out here has a similar role as in the US, as long as you don’t count fast food as “eating out”. All I can say in the way of differences is that there seem to be a lot more outdoor restaurants in German cities than in American ones, although this is probably more because German cities have more pedestrian zones, being based around pedestrians instead of cars (more on that in a future article on transportation). 

Fast food is another matter. In America, it takes the form of cheap, often greasy and unhealthy, food-in-a-box that’s meant to stuff your stomach for a low price. While McDonald’s does exist in Germany, most “fast food” is more like real food that is packaged to be eaten on the go. Bratwurst on a roll, buttered pretzels, and gyros are all more readily available in Munich than greasy, suspect burgers.

Students are usually a segment of the population whose eating habits differ significantly from the rest. In America, I lived in a residence hall and did not cook for myself (a logical consequence of not having a kitchen), but I don’t think this is the case for most students living in off-campus apartments at the U of M. Their situation seems to be the same as for students here, where the students are on their own for morning and evening meals and most student residences have kitchens. The universities here just don’t provide full meal service of the type that exists in American college dorms. 

So what does all this say about our cultures? My interpretation of these differences is that food and eating maintains a more traditional role in Germany, whereas in America some of this tradition has been compromised by practicality (a trend which seems to exist in Germany to a lesser extent). I think this conclusion applies not only to food, but to each culture in general.

The only thing left now is to clear up why I put an ellipsis in the title. Since I have so much to say about food and drink, I decided to push the “drink” part to the next post, which you can expect sometime next week.

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Max: Accents

November 28, 2011

In a conversation with two German students today, the topic of regional accents came up. Like many German students, they spoke enough English to hold a conversation. However, they don’t notice much of a difference between an American English and a British English accent, even though, as an American, I can tell the difference between the two in a second. 

I found this strange at first, but then realized I’m not really that good at telling some regional German accents (with the exception of Bavarian and Swabian, which are more like dialects than accents) apart which are distinct to most German speakers. I have even more trouble with French, a language of which I know a small amount. I’ve been told that French spoken in the Provence has a strong accent compared to, say, French spoken in Paris, but I can’t hear a difference. My hypothesis is that a person has to learn to tell accents apart by hearing people speak in other accents than their own; this ability doesn’t come naturally. However, this still doesn’t exactly explain why I’m readily able to tell a native speaker apart from someone who learned the language another way, in both English and German.

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Max: Education Systems

November 19, 2011

The most prominent differences between the USA and Germany, and the ones I encounter each day, are the differences in the styles of higher education. These are some of the more general differences I’ve noticed.

Many aspects of university study at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and, I think, in Germany in general are less formal or regulated than they are in the USA. For example, regular lecture and discussion attendance is not required for a course. Even registration in a course is not required to get credit for it; the only thing that matters is that the student passes the single exam at the end of the semester.

I realize that class attendance is not strictly mandatory in most universities in the US, but the homework and midterm exams given in discussions and lectures often counts for a significant portion of a student’s final course grade along with the final exam grade (at least at the U of M). This is not the case at TUM; the final exam grade is the final course grade. Professors do assign homework for classes, but since this is not factored into the course grade it’s also technically optional. The tutors who run the discussion sections only give mild admonishments to students who don’t turn in their homework (which is often most of the class).

As is the case with many good things, I didn’t realize how helpful a midterm exam or regular graded homework was to my academic performance until I didn’t have either anymore. Homework and midterms served as a useful academic barometer for my current level of understanding of the course material. With the homework I’m getting at TUM I’m never sure whether the problems are really the type I’ll see on the exam (Physics students who have had to contend with WebAssign might know what I mean). They also provided a good incentive to keep up with the course material. I find regular assignments and exams a much better motivator to study than the distant, vague threat of an exam on the horizon.

Academic issues aside, I’ve also seen differences in campus organization that reflect a more independent attitude in student life. The standard US college campus with its clusters of academic buildings close to student housing and, in the case of city campuses, local restaurants and businesses is nowhere to be found in Munich. The main student housing is fifteen minutes away by train from either of the TUM main campuses and one of the campuses lacks any independent local restaurants or businesses in the immediate vincinity. The phenomenon of US college sports, including the ubiquitous campus mascot and a feeling of campus identity, also seems to be absent here.

I’m sure many readers who have been to, or are currently attending, a college or university in the US remember the feeling of increased independence and self-reliance that comes with moving out of your parents’ home, taking classes you like, and being encouraged to independently investigate and study the course material instead of just memorizing facts. Many of the above differences can be summarized as an extension of this independence, whether for better or worse.

There’s a relevant current event I wanted to write about before it becomes old news: The Bildungsstreik (Educational Strike), which took place last Thursday, was a large, organized student protest on a whole variety of educational topics. The whole list of demands is here. Since the website behind the link is in German, I’ll summarize: It reads at first like a typical list of idealistic demands, asking for reduced tuition, better equality in education, more of a voice for students in educational politics, more money for education instead of military and banks, and… wait. Sorry, that first one should be no tuition. Also, free (as in “free beer”) transportation and food for all students.
Most American students would be pretty surprised by such demands. We’re used to paying ten to fifty thousand dollars per year for tuition, not including room and board. Even state-financed public institutions still rely heavily on tuition from students. However, things are a bit different in Europe. In many ways, the political systems here are much more heavily socialized than in the USA. Many countries have universal free health insurance (excluding Germany, which does have a “public option”), and, until recently, completely free education. Of course, anyone who has taken basic economics knows that there’s really no such thing as a free lunch; the money has to come from somewhere. In Europe, it comes from taxes much higher than what we’re used to in the USA. As an example, the average sales tax in the USA is somewhere around six percent. In Germany, it’s 19%.
This difference is really a choice enforced by custom. In Germany, students get to study for very little money; in exchange, they pay more taxes when they start earning income. In the USA students are faced with the full cost of their education, or a significant portion thereof, and may be forced to take up jobs, take out loans, or apply for scholarships to offset the short-term cost. When they graduate, however, they should have a larger portion of their incomes available to pay off whatever debts they may still have. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, the recent Eurozone crisis has illustrated the risks of such a large, complex, interconnected system. On the other hand, many American students are simply unable to pay for college, leaving them with crushing five-figure debts or an unfinished education. What I’m trying to illustrate is that no one system is inherently better than another; they just work differently.
On a side note, in case you’re wondering how much exactly this tuition is that Munich’s students marched against: It’s 542 euros per semester. For an American student, that’s peanuts. That’s why, despite all my best attempts to understand the European system, I still can’t support a movement that wants to free students from paying this sum, barely more than two months’ rent in Munich’s cheapest apartments, when there are American colleges demanding fifty times this amount per semester from their students.
For all the idealistic demands made by the Bildungsstreik movement, there are some realistic concerns about trends in the educational system I’ve noticed myself. There are other important ways in which the German system is more strictly regulated, infringing on the student’s independence in some pretty concerning (in my opinion) ways. At TUM, students have very little choice when it comes to their selection of courses in the first few years of their study. Physics students, for example, are given a schedule which describes the courses they will take for the first two years of their study. The only degree of freedom in this schedule is the selection of two electives to fulfill a type of “liberal education requirement” (e.g. a course on technology and society) to ensure students aren’t just taking physics courses. Relatedly, it seems very hard — if not impossible — to double major at TUM, a relatively common practice at the U of M. Switching majors seems just as difficult at TUM; at the U of M, students don’t formally decide on a major until their second or third year.
The reason I called these characteristics concerning is that they seem to be aimed at the standardization of higher education at the expense of student independence. To be clear, I’m not against standardization of certain aspects of higher education, such as the credit system to ease the process of transferring between schools. There are, however, ways in which standardization can do more harm than good, at least from the perspective of an American student.
Students at the U of M, at least in the majors I’ve looked at, are given significant freedoms in choosing courses to fulfill the requirements of their individual majors. Students can choose courses because they’re interested in them, not just because the courses are required. Because of this, an education can be an extremely intellectually stimulating experience where students are allowed to explore their interests in a field and, if they don’t like it, switch to another one. Of course, some majors, most notably engineering fields, have a reduced degree of freedom, but several of the course decisions are still left up to the student, and double majoring is (in theory) still possible. With the rigid, standardized German model, in which students are expected to complete their bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four, much of this freedom gets lost, turning education into more of a long chore instead of the experience of a lifetime.
For further information on this standardization process, which is being implemented throughout Europe, I would suggest you research the Bologna Process. The Wikipedia article is informative but, as always, I would be wary of uncited “facts.”
I think this will be my last treatise comparing the educational systems in the USA and Germany but I may have a few interesting anecdotes to share now and then. Besides that, I’ll write about food in the two countries next week, because there are few other things that say more about a country’s culture in general than its attitudes towards food and eating.
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Max: About me and this blog

November 15, 2011

I’m a student from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities studying at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) through a one-year international exchange program.

I have a strong connection to Germany because I was born in here, lived here until I was six years old, and frequently visit the half of my family that lives here. When I was six I moved to the USA and went through the American school system. I eventually decided that, after spending a year in an American university, I would spend a year as an exchange student in Germany to gain a more complete perspective on life and study in the two countries, as well as improve my german language skills.

My study program here started in October 2011 and I’ve been collecting observations about the similarities and differences between life in the USA and in Germany ever since. I hope I will be able to offer a unique perspective on these similarities and differences and that someone, whether they’re a student planning an exchange program, a person with interests in German life and culture, or an American interested in what other countries’ perceptions of the USA say about our culture, will find these interesting and helpful.

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