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Monday, October 27, 2008

Engineers’ Roundup: Thousands of Scientists Descend Upon Cow Palace for Grueling Exam

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 6:30 AM


Notions of engineering a brawl quelled by CHP officers along with test proctors.

By Joe Eskenazi

Any engineer can tell you that pressure is a function of temperature and mass. That’s how it is in the laboratory, at least. In the outside world, try cramming thousands of engineers into a run-down exhibition hall for a crucial exam and, just in case they didn’t understand the first 12 warnings about what happens if one cheats or speaks out of turn, the CHP officers staring over your shoulder will be happy to remind you. That’s pressure.

Roughly 4,000 engineers from throughout the Bay Area descended upon Daly City at the crack of dawn on Saturday, Oct. 25 to take a series of all-day licensing exams. The Cow Palace has hosted basketball and hockey games, dog shows, tractor pulls, gun shows, Metallica and the Grateful Dead, the 1956 and ‘64 Republican National Conventions and, of course, its eponymous livestock fairs. Yet the notion of thousands of engineers sweating out a 10-hour exam within its homely walls may be the stadium’s oddest use yet.

In a world where the term “American efficiency” is now commonly viewed as an oxymoron, the ruthless effectiveness exhibited by the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors harked to the days when Americans outfitted in short-sleeved white shirts, black ties and Coke-bottle glasses put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

“I showed up at 7 a.m. and there was a mile-long line. And we began the exam at 8. If this was France, we would have started at 12,” said Normandy-born engineer Jean Toilliez. “The whole day was organized, like a symphony. From a foreigner’s point of view, that was impressive.”

Another American trademark soon reared its head – heavy handed paranoia. Test-takers were confronted with a six-page list of rules and regulations, and were subject to search upon entering the building. To prevent chatting in the bathrooms, male engineers were relegated to relieving themselves – after asking permission – in outhouses. Female test-takers were permitted to use the restrooms, yet a test proctor was stationed in the john. If the engineers of tomorrow are as eager to break rules and cut corners as the test overseers make them out to be, future trips across bridges, through tunnels and to the tops of tall buildings may be unwelcome adventures.

At least one test-taker was disqualified after supposedly being caught writing notes on an unauthorized piece of scratch paper. “I don’t even think he was cheating, honestly,” said Toilliez. “He was just writing on another sheet of paper and he got screwed for nothing.” If the so-called cheater had any ideas of making a scene, the California Highway Patrol officers on-hand nipped that notion in the bud.

(Incidentally, in Toilliez’s native France, any test-taker caught cheating on a nationally administered exam may be barred from taking any tests for up to five years – including a drivers’ license examination).

During the engineering test’s one-hour respite, test-takers were given a crash course in another field: Economics. Bottles of Coca-Cola were priced at $4 and hot dogs ran $5. Just because you’re bright enough to calculate the efficiency of a Carnot engine doesn’t mean you remembered to pack a lunch!

As the sun began to dip into the Pacific, the engineers finished up the 120-question exam (one test-taker was observed to hurriedly fill in the last 40 answers randomly and mutter “Next time I will review more.”). As they shuffled, blinking, into the Daly City evening more than a few engineers probably smiled through their pain and exhaustion at the event calendar posted on the stadium’s walls: Following the engineering licensing exams, the Cow Palace would be hosting monster truck and gun shows.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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