Peter Weber '18: Know How You Learn and Run With It

Peter Weber '18: Know How You Learn and Run With It
Amy Barnard

Peter Weber didn't sign up to be a volunteer firefighter because he thought it would augment his engineering studies at Cornell College. That came later.

"My friend signed up to be a firefighter, and I'm like, 'Wait, that's a thing we can actually do?'...So I signed up for it," says Weber. He joined the Mount Vernon Fire Department in 2019 while just a sophomore at Cornell.

At first, he says, it sounded like an opportunity to try something new and serve the local community.

So he jumped in: He attended weekly trainings, observed veterans responding to emergencies, took Firefighter 1 (the national certification program), and found ways to be useful around the firehouse.

Like many rural fire departments, the Mount Vernon Fire Department relies completely on volunteers to serve the community. Farmers, teachers, small business owners...these are the types of people who leave work at a moment's notice to respond to a variety of emergencies. And that year, two college students joined their ranks.

The First Fire

Weber's first time to enter an actual fire came in the dead of winter, during the middle of the night when temperatures hovered around -10.

"I was in the basement. There was tons of water going into this house, and it all went down to the basement," says Weber, laughing. "I got soaked and then I had to go back outside...and it all froze! Everything was just covered in ice and I couldn't grip anything; my fingers couldn't bend because my gloves were soaked and frozen."

I was in the basement. There was tons of water going into this house, and it all went down to the basement. I got soaked and then I had to go back outside...and it all froze!

While fires have been few and far between (car accidents and in-home medical emergencies are more common for this team), one emergency brought an extra level of pressure: The responders arrived to put out a fire in a building where an active shooter was exchanging bullets with the local police department.

"After [each fire], we'll go over things like how did we do well? How do we not do well?...There were things that went wrong [at the fire with the active shooter], so we had to spend a lot of time going over what happened."

As you might imagine, emergencies rarely wait for weekends or other convenient times.

"It is a bit weird going back to normal life after big calls...Sometimes we have late night calls that are long but we still have to be ready to get up early the next morning to go back to school or work."

a firefighter's helmet sits at the top of a bank of metal racks for equipment. A sign with P. Webber is attached to the rack.

Weber's advice for those walking into an emergency situation? Rather than engaging with the immediate emotional reaction, step back and ask: What are the facts of what is happening right now? Is there something concrete I can do about this? "It's probably not that different from something you've experienced before. It's kind of another evolution of the same type of thing. So how have you experienced those things? How can you apply that to what you have now? Also, what are you going to learn from it?"

Tying Worlds Together

For Weber, "normal life" has been all of the things any college student might need to focus on: engineering classes, labs, practice for cross country, and homework. Early on, Weber started to see connections between his school work and his work as a firefighter.

"For example, when seeing how pressure changes might change the amount of flow through a hose I can actually see that happen. I know the equation for that and I can connect to that equation."

As he explored the equipment at the fire station, Weber couldn't help but get a little excited.

"A lot of the stuff is kind of crazy, like, huge pumps and hoses, and four and a half thousand psi air tanks...doing engineering stuff while learning fire department things, there's been a lot of connections with, for example, my fluid mechanics and thermodynamics classes."

Soon he found opportunities to turn theoretical concepts from class into practical projects.

In his Engineering Materials class, he completed a Finite Element Analysis (FEA) on a fire hose nozzle. An FEA is essentially a method of using calculations, models, and simulations to predict how a given object (in this case a fire hose) might perform during a variety of environmental conditions. 

For his Geological Information Systems (GIS) course, he researched ways to improve the efficiency of how decisions were made regarding which firefighters and ambulances responded to calls based on their location.

Drawing on learning from multiple classes, Weber also designed a system that could record all county fire department and EMS radio calls.

"So when we go on a call, I can listen back on it later. I can share that with our officers and chief here, and that can be useful for going over calls."

An 11th Grade Revelation

Weber's drive to connect his studies with practical, real-world applications stems from a revelation he had about himself while a junior at Minnehaha Academy.

"I learned a lot about how I learn in AP Economics," he says. Between Mr. Hoffner's lessons and conversations Weber had with his father about those lessons, Weber started to realize that he needed to put less focus in school on memorizing equations, graphs, and definitions. Instead, he shifted his energy to understanding how those concepts play out in real world situations. Once he understood their interaction on a practical level, he was able to back track and successfully apply that knowledge to understanding equations or graphs.

I learned a lot about how I learn in AP Economics.

"For example, instead of memorizing which line goes where in a series of graphs related to supply and demand, one could explore how an increased demand for toilet paper (to use a more recent example!) might lead to a lack of supply, which might lead to certain stores selling what was once an $11 bag of toilet paper for $19. 

"If I understand what the equation means I don't have to memorize it. I can think about what it means and build it," he says. "If I understand how the idea of momentum connects to speed, or position, I might forget what momentum is. But because I know how it connects to those things, I can fill in the holes...I can reconstruct the idea in my head. That's true learning and knowledge; instead of [just] information and remembering."

Weber brought this revelation to his engineering studies at Cornell when he started as a first year student in 2018, ready to hit the ground running.

A group of young men are racing on a green track. Peter Webber is seen at the front.

Once a Redhawk cross country and track runner, Weber also ran the steeplechase in track and 8K in cross country for Cornell. His biggest takeaways from running with MA? Both the power of running for and being part of a team and the mental toughness he was able to cultivate as he learned to push himself in something that was truly difficult.

Bringing Things Full Circle

This past Spring, Weber graduated with a BS in engineering. At that time, Cornell invited him to return as an instructor for physics and engineering labs.

"I'm really excited about teaching people things that I'm interested in."

Although just few weeks into his first semester as an instructor, Weber is already looking for ways to help current students make real-world connections with their studies.  

"A welding project might be something like: Make a vise. Well, that might be kind of interesting for someone," he says. But he isn't satisfied with that, and he wants to know: "How can we make these projects ones that students will actually want to do? [Projects where] the ideas stick with them?"

This is the new puzzle before him: Weber has figured out how to connect learning with his own real world interests. Now, how will he help other learners with different interests make those same connections?

"You can sit in your class and learn all this stuff, but it doesn't really matter all that much unless you can actually use that knowledge...when you do that, you're going to improve your understanding. You're [also] going to find those places where the understanding isn't all the way there and you can identify what you're missing."

You can sit in your class and learn all this stuff, but it doesn't really matter all that much unless you can actually use that knowledge...when you do that, you're going to improve your understanding.

While he's still puzzling over this question in relation to his own students, he's already found a new personal project to sharpen his skills: designing a science-based method to take on the local pumpkin drop contest. 

Circuit building, coding, differential equations...these are just a few of the skills he is calling on as he works with a colleague from the fire department to determine the best moment to drop a pumpkin from a small plane to hit a specific target.

Because, as he says: "If you don't use [your knowledge], it slips away."

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