Thursday, March 26, 2009

Masters degree

Jane (of See Jane Compute) and ScienceWoman have both posted stories about pursuing masters degrees that kind of make my hair stand on end. Especially Jane's. I don't have a terrible advisor story, but I thought I'd post about my masters anyway.

My masters experience was just weird. I thought about getting a masters for a long time. After I got two bachelors, I started working for the university. Eventually I moved out of the $7/hour job and into one with benefits, including fee remission. I couldn't decide between nutrition or information science, and for a long time it didn't matter since I was busy planning a wedding.

The week after I got back from my honeymoon, I was at lunch with a group. Our best man announced, "my class starts tonight. I don't want to take it alone. Who will go with me?" I wasn't doing anything that night, so I signed up. It was kind of boring, but kind of fun. I learned about flowcharting the operations of a hamburger stand. It was relevant to my work. The next semester, I took another class with my friend. I couldn't get any more credit after that if I didn't apply to the information science program, so I did. I convinced my boss and a colleague to write me letters of recommendation. I kept taking a class at a time in addition to working full time. It was fun. I learned really interesting things, like how to plan a library building and that it is a warning sign someone is embezzling if they refuse to ever take time off from work. I learned how to program in Perl. I learned about the history of magazines in the US and speculated about how, B&, and would work out.

Eventually, I joined some kind of leadership group for my program and started making friends. I found out that other people had researched different programs and chosen mine. It had never occurred to me to think critically about grad school, it was just there. Oh, and did I mention that my program didn't require the GRE? That helped.

If you want gossip, I will let you know that I became friends with my husband's ex-girlfriend. THE ex-girlfriend. The one who practically ruined his life. I became friends with her before I knew who she was. I remember the day I figured it out. "Huh, that's the same name as the ex. And she's from the same place. And has other similar features. What a funny coincidence. Honey, what's the ex's last name?" I was shocked that she didn't have horns, she was really nice. He was all, "um yeah, that's why I loved her so much."

Because I was just taking a class or two at a time and wasn't on a Quest for Employability, I didn't really interact with my advisor. I took a class from him my last semester and it was great. I went to a party he was at and after I turned in my final paper, he took me (and others) out for a beer. But otherwise, I can't say we really interacted. I was much closer to another professor. My program also didn't require a thesis or research, just classes. I took what I wanted, when I wanted (or more accurately, when classes were offered in the evening and weekends.)

In the end I graduated about two years earlier than I'd hoped. We decided to move across the country for a Great Opportunity and so I stayed in town six months in order to go to school full time so I could get the degree. It was not optimal, especially since I was also working full time since I needed the salary and benefits. The very last month of school, I quit my job. It was GREAT. I would never work full time while I was in school again - the opportunity to think deeply, research more, collaborate with classmates, and just experience school was something I missed. But I couldn't have gotten my degree if I hadn't done it the way I did, so I don't regret my experience either.

I told a friend about this recently. She'd like a masters but isn't sure in what. I told her to just try it! Everyone she knows has a Big Plan for grad school and she doesn't. I'm the poster child for not having a plan doesn't mean you won't have a great experience.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My tech heroine

In honor of Ada Lovelace day, I want to celebrate my tech heroine, Mouse.

Mouse has amazing style. She wears terrific clothes, has a great haircut, and has an eye for design. I think it's because in addition to being an awesome techie, she's also an artist. I love her self-portraits. She is also crafty - she made Mandlebrot the fractal bear! (She's also made a quilt, jewelry, and embroidery.)

Mouse has a long history of technical excellence. She first discovered her love of computer science and engineering in middle school. She was lucky enough to go to a middle school that made both those subjects mandatory, but she discovered a passion for them of her own. When her high school did not offer sufficient (any) computer science classes, Mouse started attending the local community college to learn programming in addition to a full college prep program. She took many and varied courses through the community college, learning Java and other CS topics. Now she's a student at the University of Washington, double-majoring in CS and engineering.

As her senior service project, Mouse needed to design and enact a program for younger children. So she designed and taught a summer Java class at her middle school for then students. The students loved it so much that every year since they have asked whether she will come back and teach again. A high school teacher I know commented that he would never let one of his students do that - he wouldn't trust them to do a good job teaching middle schoolers. I would trust Mouse with any students, any time. I wish she lived closer to me so she could be my substitute. (Though I did find a wonderful new sub this year, so I won't steal her from college yet.)

Mouse has a wonderful sense of humor and is prone to combining her many interests in unique ways. For example, she took math notes in Sierpinski triangles. I would call her a geek, but she's much too adorable.

Mouse was on a panel of students at the Grace Hopper conference in 2006. She is already awesome, but I think she will change the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You know what else would be cool?

I use the Nike+ system. It is so cool - I have a chip in my shoe and a chip in my ipod and it keeps track of my running. It tells me how far I've gone, how fast I'm going and even how many calories I burn. Sometimes, Lance Armstrong congratulates me on how great I am. ("This is Lance Armstrong. That was your fastest run yet!")

At the end of the year, the Nike+ website gave me a "rundown" that told me how far I'd gone and all kinds of things. It told me that my "best" running day is Saturday. (I disagree, but it's only a computer.)

I want a "postdown" for my blog. I want to know the most common day I post. (Currently: Wednesday, I think.) I want to know how many posts per year, graphed by month, number of words. Whatever the equivalencies to the Nike+ system are, but for blogging.

I'm sure there's a way to program it myself, but I think the effort of doing so is probably more than calculating it by hand. I don't want to think about what that means, other than 'I have other hobbies than programming.' Actually, I'd be more inclined to figure it out for the Nike+ because I really DO want to play with the raw data and make my own graphs about my running. The blogging is way less important to me.

The zen of experimentation

I own a lot of books. In my heart, I am a frustrated librarian, so they are organized carefully on my bookshelves. No matter how careful I am when I move, it is impossible to pack them in a way that makes it possible to unpack them directly onto the shelves the way they came out. I moved 10 times in 12 years, so I tried a lot of things. It ends up that I'm desperate to get rid of the stacks of boxes so I just throw the books on the shelves and organize them later.

Over time, I began to appreciate the zen of disorganization. It's impossible to find any particular book, since it could be almost anywhere (and often behind something else). Thus, when desiring to read, one must have an open mind. One must stand and look at the shelves until something interesting appears, as it always does. It usually goes something like, "oh, I'd forgotten about this one" with that sigh of having found an old friend. (All my books are old friends. There is a special shelf for the potential new friends that I'm still getting to know.) (I sound like a freak.)

This morning, I talked to another middle school computer science teacher, specifically about how he teaches Scratch. Mostly he lets the students experiment and play, while he walks around supporting and guiding them gently. The assignments are very open-ended

This has pros and cons. Frequently, students will shy away from what Steve Cooper calls "algorithmically interesting" problems and solutions. They're more interested in the story they're building than in implementing loops, conditionals, functions, whatever. But they are very engaged, open to new ideas, and ready for "just in time" learning.

This is different from a more traditional approach, where there's a particular outcome, using particular skills, with one right answer. The students still might experiment some, but mostly it is experimentation to see if they can get the right answer, not experimentation in the form of wandering around and seeing where they get. (There's an analogy to science here.)

Letting them wander around, play, and be zen is so engaging compared to wanting them to find the One Right Answer. It makes them use lots of parts of their brains. It makes them think in different, creative ways.

The trick - and what the other teacher and I agreed to think about - is how to combine both. We need to think about structuring assignments so that they are open-ended and encourage creativity and experimentation while also improving the likelihood that students will use algorithmically interesting solutions.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Netbooks and Disruptive technologies

And to prove how tired and distracted I am, I didn't even remember the whole reason I started the last post, which was to share this very interesting article about Netbooks. Happy reading!


Already seeing many friends, though so far I have not run into one of the two most important people I want to see. (I had dinner with one.) I think these two people would be surprised to find themselves in the top two. If this were my other blog, I would go on a tangent about friendship and whether or not you can replace people whom you miss.

I spent quite a bit of time talking about grammar today, which reinforces to me that I don't know when to use who and when to use whom.

There are at least three half-written, time-sensitive blog posts here. I don't know why last week I hypothesized that things would be quieter once I got here. I will nevertheless endeavor to at least twitter about the conference and possibly even post. But my greatest endeavor is really to finish the two things I'm supposed to have done for a meeting at 1:30 tomorrow. Then if I have time, I will finish any of those posts.

Finally, I'm reminded of a post by NonaKnits. She went to a conference and blogged about it. (It might have been Olema.) When she got back, one of her real-life friends found out she'd been there and said, "Nona was there too! Did you meet her?" I wonder if any people who read this don't know who I am. Of course, it's easier to realize that "Wicked Teacher" isn't my real name than to realize that "Nona" is a pseudonym.