Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

Continue reading

Senior research project: campus map browser app

Last month I alluded to my research project for this semester: making a browser app to provide walking directions for my campus. While driving directions are readily available, our existing campus maps are a little hazy on the walking instructions between buildings. If I can finish the app and get it on the college’s website, not only will it keep prospies and freshmen from getting lost, but it will settle a lot of arguments about the quickest way between buildings.

So far it can find the shortest distance between two points on the quad. My data consists of lat/long coordinates pulled from Google that represent intersections of sidewalks. Javascript calls the Google Maps API to get the shortest distance between those two points and runs Dijkstra’s algorithm, short-circuiting when it finds the goal. Then it gives me an array of points from start to finish, which the API uses to draw a line on the map.

There’s still plenty to do. In the next couple weeks, I need to figure out how to pull the coordinate data for the rest of the campus. If I can’t find a way to automate that, I’ll have to do it by hand, which is daunting. Even then, I know I’ll have to manually collect the data on which graph nodes are connected, because while I can plot down points on a custom map, I can’t find a way to automate connecting them (for that to happen, Google would have to be able to see where the sidewalks are on the map).

My long term goal is to have a package I can give to other campuses so they can replicate my project, but first I have to get my version set up. More updates to come!

As an org president, I’ve got to delegate more

I have a problem with delegation. When I’m the leader of a group, I┬átend to think that getting something done myself is a lot easier than taking the time to hand it off to someone else and explain how to do it. Not only do I save time in explaining the task, but I also don’t have to follow up to make sure the job was done right.

This is wrong.

Last month my college’s nerd club (of which I am the president) put on an anime/gaming/comics/videogame/scifi convention called NonCon for fellow local nerds. While the convention went very well and attendance numbers were comparable to last year’s, I was a wreck during most of the planning. My to-do lists were too long to finish in addition to my normal homework, my blog and my senior research project fell behind, and I had a lot of anxiety about getting everything done it time. While it’s a huge relief that the convention is over, I’m still an org president and I still need a lot of improvement when it comes to delegation. Continue reading

Perspective for less stress: make cookies!

Very often lately I have felt stuck with lots to do and no way to do it. In three days, the convention I’ve been helping to plan will begin, and even though the rest of the convention chairs and I have done a lot to prepare, it never feels like enough. Despite the fact that I have the same workload as the other convention chairs, I feel much more stress than they do, and it’s affecting my day-to-day life. There is something about my way of thinking then, rather than the actual amount of work that I have to do, that is causing my stress.

I’ve been looking for a new mindset for a little while, but a breakthrough came the other day when my housemate Jackie came home. She put a couple boxes on the counter and talked about her professor bringing cookies to class. Continue reading

I know I belong in CS, but sometimes I wonder

Sometimes my Compilers professor will introduce a topic saying, “Who knows what lexical analysis is? No one? What, don’t you guys do this constantly in your spare time? All right, I’ll show you …” I know he’s just joking, but every time he does this, it reminds me of one of the barriers to women in computer science that I am particularly sensitive about: wondering whether or not I really belong in programming because I don’t program all the time.

If my CS experience were limited to my college, I wouldn’t be very worried – I go to a liberal arts college where no one has only one interest. In the first few weeks of my freshman year when we’d ask what other people wanted to major in, it was always, “Classics and chemistry” or “Neurobiology and art history” or another pair of an art and a science. In my social sphere, everyone has broad interests, so it shouldn’t worry me that I like cognitive science, philosophy, Japanese, and knitting in addition to programming.

However, in the past few years, I’ve met more students who study CS in engineering schools. When they talk about how they live to program and never leave the lab, I feel like I’ve been wasting time by having other hobbies when I should have been keeping up with my competition. I worry that my skills aren’t up to snuff because I’ve been knitting or reading Japanese books instead of programming and reading compiler books. Continue reading

Should colleges ban laptops in class?

A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture. Continue reading

Raise my hand and risk being “that girl”?

One aspect of a class that is sure to frustrate me if it’s even a little off is its speed. When the pace of classroom instruction is slow, I start wondering why I took the class in the first place. I go to a pretty selective school, so I expect classes to progress at a good clip, because we’re pretty smart students and can keep up. It is the habit of one or two of my professors, however, to teach too slowly for my taste.

To be fair to my professors, the only reason their class goes slowly is because half the time they are waiting for a response to a question posed to the students when none of the students want to raise their hand to answer. Continue reading

Giving an overview improves your presentation

My housemate Jackie writes the blog Agent Plus Environment about her life as a Cognitive Science student. She and I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing this October, and she recently posted some presentation tips based on her impressions at the conference. Full details can be found on her entry, but the highlights are:
Continue reading

The difference between college and professional projects

In my summer internship, one of my tasks was designing a customer survey form. My supervisor gave me about two dozen questions that needed to be answered in various ways. A few were fill-in-the-blank, but of the rest half needed to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, and the other half had to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. This would have been pretty simple if I were able to write the html myself, but I needed to use an existing form assembly tool so that we could import the responses directly into our database. The form tool was not very sophisticated: I had control over the CSS, but not the HTML, so any changes I made were applied to all questions. I tried to find styling that would look good on both scales, which was nearly impossible with the HTML I was stuck with.

So rather than pull back and say, “To design this form well, I need more consistency. All the ranking questions should be 1 to 5,” I kept editing the CSS, trying to find a way to make the two styles look the way I wanted. I was so stuck on how to make different ranking scales look nice that I couldn’t step back and see that using the same scale would be much simpler. It took a review from a coworker in marketing to point this out, and when he did, all I could think was, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Continue reading

Practical advice on shopping for freshman year

It’s really easy to overbuy for freshmen year. When I was a freshman, I made a lot of mistakes in my dorm shopping. There are obvious things you need, like clothes and laundry detergent, but I wish I’d known some of these subtleties before I went shopping.

Textbooks and chocolate are essential.

Obviously, before you start buying anything, consult with your roommate(s) and school website. Don’t bring anything that the school provides in the rooms already.

General tips:

  • I go to school on the opposite coast from where I live, so I had special concerns in terms of getting all my stuff there. Whenever I purchased something the summer before freshman year, I tried to buy it online and have it shipped directly to the school. I saved a lot on shipping costs that way.┬áConsider whether shipping an item you already own will cost more than buying it near campus. It was cheaper to buy my fan on campus than to buy one at home at ship it there, even though the fan I bought was more expensive than one I would have bought at home.
  • Continue reading