Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gamifying College

Gamification is certainly a hot topic these days.  Jesse Schell opened Pandora's Box with his Visions of the Gamepocalypse talk.  Sebastian Deterding discussed the promises and pitfalls of gamification.  Ian Bogost came right out and said that Gamification is Bullshit.  And yet, there are many who believe that gamifying education could be a very good thing.

Take Extra Credits (now hosted on Penny Arcade) and their view of how we might gamify education.  They envision rewards systems that count up from zero rather than down from a perfect grade.  Perhaps the most interesting example of gamifying education so far, though, has been the charter school Quest 2 Learn.  I was skeptical of how well the concept would be implemented at first, but the more I learn about it the more impressed and excited I am.

Enter the latest project I've encountered: Just Press Play.  I first learned about this initiative on the Microsoft Research Connections Blog (via Reddit, of all places), where Donald Brinkman posted an article called Unlocking Academic Success with Frame Games for Learning.  As he describes the project:
It began with a simple question: “Why can’t students earn digital rewards for being awesome?” A research group comprised of university faculty, staff, and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) decided to find out. The team delved into the everyday travails of college life—from academia to social activities—and developed a real-world game, Just Press Play, which helps students earn a digital reward for the ultimate achievement: collegiate success.

Get Microsoft Silverlight 

Again, at first glance, it's easy to worry that this is just another one of those gimmicky projects doomed to failure.  But to be honest, I don't think this is going to be the case.  Check out the slides for a presentation made at the 2011 Games in Education conference about the project (be sure to click on the Speaker Notes tab under the slides).  There are definitely hints in there that suggest a lot more thought has gone into this project than what a typical marketing team has probably done for their commercial gamification projects.  For instance, it's clear they recognize that intrinsic rewards are much more sustainable than extrinsic ones, and want to harness that.

This is something I'm definitely going to watch. I like the fact that it's for college students rather than the usual K-12 audience and am intrigued to see how much more the students engage with all aspects of college life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Event Idea: The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering

I recently came up with what I thought was interesting event idea.  Our Dean of Engineering had expressed some interest in CU-WISE coming up with an idea for a recruitment event that would attract the media and encourage high school girls to consider choosing Carleton in their upcoming university applications.  I haven't heard back from the Dean so I am not sure if this event will happen, but I thought I'd share the idea in case it helped any of you come up with your own.

The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering

The proposed premise is to be honest about what it’s like to be a woman in science or engineering. This begins as something that comes across as negative as we share the common challenges faced by students and others, but the idea is to show how a group like CU-WISE and all the other awesome things that Carleton does turns this all around. It is a risk to do anything negative at all (and it needs to be approached in just the right way), but there are two good reasons for this approach:
  1. It will build trust in the students we want to reach as well as their parents. All schools are trying to sell themselves as a product, but how many are willing to be honest about the situation? It’s the elephant in the room, and our audience should appreciate our ability to discuss it in the open.
  2. To attract the media, your approach has to be different. Sure, maybe you’d get a bit of air time for the usual outreach events, but they tend to be fairly similar to each other. Being willing to talk about these issues is not something that’s very common.
The proposed event would be a dessert reception held on the afternoon of a weekend. The reason for this is that a dinner would not only be more expensive, but require longer periods of sitting in one place (it will become clear why this isn’t desirable shortly). Choosing an afternoon on a weekend makes it easier for students and parents to attend since families need to get home from work and eat dinner before attending an event like this during the week. The great participation numbers at Go Eng Girl (held on a Saturday) proves that weekend events can be successful.

The dessert reception should include something to please both the parents (who are big influencers to their children’s choices) and the students. Offering beer and wine, if affordable, shows we are thinking of the former, and having cupcakes, cake pops, and milkshakes or smoothies for the girls should thrill the latter.

The main format of the event would be to have a short talk at the beginning to discuss the challenges faced by women in science and engineering and how CU-WISE and other Carleton initiatives help. This would be followed by a structured networking opportunity where parents and students would speak with current students, alumni, and faculty. Finally, hands-on demo and other info booths would be available during the last segment, when casual networking would take place. Dessert could be served in both of the last two segments or just at the end.

Possible Agenda

20 minutesTalk: The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering
(One or two guest speakers, depending on whether it will be joint between Engineering and Science)
As explained earlier, this is an opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room and build trust with both the parents and the students.  It is also an opportunity to showcase how CU-WISE helps by providing a support network and other great initiatives to Carleton students so they know they can expect to be able to overcome the challenges at Carleton.
40 minutesStructured Networking:
  • We will have a set of current female students, alumni, and faculty available to participate.
  • There will be at least one person from each of these groups at each numbered table.  They will see three different groups of parents and students and will be asked to talk about their experiences at Carleton, including challenges they faced and how they overcame them.
  • Each student/parent pair will draw three table numbers from separate bins, set up so that they get one table assigned to a current student, another to an alumnus, and another to a faculty member.
  • In each of the ten minutes, the student/parent pair will sit at their assigned table and have a discussion with the student/alumnus/faculty assigned to that table.
  • This will repeat twice so each pair talks to each type of person assigned to the tables.
  • Ten minutes in the schedule is allotted for time taken switching tables, etc.
Students appreciate the opportunity to see what life is like for current students, what kinds of jobs they can expect if they get through the program, and who will be teaching them.  This makes coming to university much less intimidating, and if they find themselves connecting with any of these people, they are more likely to remember Carleton favourably as a place they could see themselves studying at.

If possible, we may even be able to ask participants to tell us what programs they are applying for, and pre-match the tables they visit so they are able to speak to at least some people from that program or, at least, faculty.
60 minutesDemo and Info Booths
  • Demo booths should provide an opportunity to touch and try things as well as listen to someone from Carleton talk about the demo itself and how it relates to the kinds of things you study at Carleton.
    • Potential demos might include robotics, satellites, brain dissection, interesting interfaces from HCI students, water filtration, etc.
  • Info booths - such as one from Athletics - are important to emphasize the kind of balance you can have when you are a student at Carleton, and can show what other services are there to support students.
Besides the usual reasons for having hands-on demos (engagement, etc), they implicitly show the success of women at Carleton.  This continues to follow the theme on the Truth of Women in Science and Engineering in that we see what awesome things women here are really doing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

She Topped All the Men in Math and Kept Her Life in Balance

In an age where to be female was to be weak, there was one woman who would finally show the world that the fairer sex could beat the very best men academically, even in something so male dominated as mathematics. And she did it while still maintaining a rather balanced lifestyle.

Philippa Fawcett did the unimaginable: she beat every other man and woman who competed in the prestigious mathematical examinations held at Cambridge University.  This was in 1890, a time long before men and women were even allowed to study for degrees side by side.  Even the science of the time suggested that this probably couldn't happen:
Central to the 19th-century concept of human development was the idea that the adolescent body was a closed system; there was only so much energy available, and so a body in which resources were diverted to mental development was one in which physical development necessarily suffered. This was thought to be a particular problem for women, because their reproductive system was far more complicated than men’s and so consumed a greater proportion of the body’s resources. A young woman who studied hard during puberty was believed to be taking special risks since “the brain and ovary could not develop at the same time,” as historian Judith Walzer Leavitt points out.
The story of her triumph was detailed over at the Smithsonian blog and is worth the read on its own.  However, I happened to notice one very interesting aspect of the tale that has been rather relevant to me in the last couple of days: the fact that, unlike many of the previous male champions, Phillipa maintained a very good life balance while studying for the exams.

Just look at what the boys went through to become the top scorers, known as Wranglers:
The most serious candidates invariably hired tutors and worked more or less round the clock for months. The historian Alex Craik notes that C.T. Simpson, who ranked as Second Wrangler in 1841, topped off his efforts by studying for 20 hours a day in the week before the exams and “almost broke down from over-exertion… [he] found himself actually obliged to carry a supply of ether and other stimulants into the examinations in case of accidents.” James Wilson, who topped the rankings in 1859, had a nervous breakdown immediately after his exams; on his recovery he discovered he had forgotten all the math he ever knew except elementary algebra. And James Savage worked himself so hard that he was found dead of apoplexy in a ditch three months after being named Senior Wrangler of 1855.
In contrast, Phillipa "led 'a disciplined and orderly life,' rising at 8 a.m. and rarely going to bed later than 11 p.m. She studied six hours a day, but refused to yield to the then-popular practice among aspirant Wranglers of working through the night with a wet towel wrapped around her head."

Just yesterday I finally read a time management article that had been making the rounds.  Phillipa's routine reminded me of the advice in that article.  As someone who also strives for a regular working day (and sometimes feeling guilty about it!), I am glad to see how others are able to achieve success with similar working hours.  Definitely check out the article:

Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm

Do you have any time management secrets or have you read any other great articles on the subject?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Enjoying Grace Hopper 2011 From Afar

I've attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) every year since 2008, gradually increasing my participation from blogging to being on a conference committee.  This year I had to miss out because I am past my flight cut-off for my pregnancy.  For a long time I was so busy trying to get stuff done for school before I start my leave in January that I didn't even think about it, but once the conference got started this week I felt very sad to be missing out.

Fortunately, the very thing that I have worked so hard to make awesome when attending GHC in the past is allowing me to enjoy this year's edition from afar: the online communities.

I have a whole new appreciation for the many awesome posts on attendees' blogs and Twitter accounts.  While seeing conversations between all the people I am missing out on meeting up with makes me feel sad, I also find myself vibrating with excitement with all the amazing things happening in Portland.  From the wonderful keynote speakers to the fantastic panels to the neat e-textile workshop, this conference must be the best one yet.

If you'd like to enjoy GHC from afar as well, be sure to check out the relevant posts on these blogs (many of which are also aggregated on the conference website):
To follow posts on Twitter, search for the #ghc11 hash tag.

To read notes taken during specific conference sessions (and find links to associated blog posts), have a look at the official GHC wiki.

And, finally, be sure to watch the keynote video of Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), already available online! (The other keynotes will find their way online eventually as well, so stay tuned to the Grace Hopper and ABI news feeds.)

Hopefully I'll see you all at GHC 2012 in Baltimore next October with baby — and with any luck, husband — along for the ride!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Code Blocked

I love coding.  Once I get started, I get lost in the groove very easily.  I love thinking about the best way to organize objects and design my UI.  It feels good to find elegant ways to solve problems.  So the fact that I haven't done a lot of programming lately really frustrates me.


If I was working in industry right now, I'd be coding every day.  The nature of my current projects in grad school require a lot of preliminary non-coding work (especially reading).  But it would be wrong to blame grad school for my lack of coding.

In fact, there seem to be two larger problems at play here.  First, I have a hard time wanting to do much of anything work related in the evenings.  This is partly because my husband and I value balance in our lives, like to cook real food for dinner and keep the house in good working order (easier said than done when you own a 130+ year old place in the country).  My poor eyesight and need to wear hard contacts may also play a factor, making my eyes too tired to focus on a screen all evening.

But perhaps more frustrating is the second problem.  The amount of momentum I need to break the code block barrier has grown to be fairly immense.  I don't know why this is.  Once I get started I can't stop, but it seems really, really hard to make the first move.  To open Xcode or or Eclipse or Visual Studio and just start coding.  It may be related to my dislike of doing something for only a short period of time before having to put it away again (probably the same reason I still haven't finished playing the first Portal).  I'm not sure.

I have more than one project that I've very nearly finished.  I could easily be tinkering away on these projects when I need a break from reading or during a quiet evening at home.  I want to break this code block and be consistently programming throughout each semester.  How?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Two Months Before Mommyhood

It's hard to believe that our baby's due date is less than 8 weeks away.  It's even harder to believe I've written so little about it here! What with trying to get as much done as I can before going on leave after Christmas, I haven't really thought that much about the whole baby thing.

«I love you, mom!»

Nonetheless, there are still some things I've been looking forward to and others that I have been worried about.  Thought I'd share a few here.

Things I'm Worried About
  • Will I finish everything I want to get done before I go on leave?!
  • My eyes have problems that require me to wear hard contacts (can't see any other way, even with glasses).  I worry about not being to see when I have to get up in the night for baby.  It's also potentially unfortunate that I wouldn't be able to mess around on my phone or read a magazine when I have to get up for longer periods of time (or will I be too tired to do that anyway?).
  • How long will it be before I am able to get back to doing useful things? I'd like to at least continue with reading books and papers related to my thesis after the first couple of months.  If I'm really lucky, I'd like to ramp things up a little bit in my second four months of leave (fingers crossed for a "good" baby!).
  • Once I'm back from leave, what is life going to be like? Am I going to be able to graduate in a reasonable amount of time, and for a reasonable amount of money as scholarships and funding start to run out?
Things I'm Looking Forward To 
  • Having a cute little baby to love and cuddle, obviously. ;)
  • I'm really excited to eventually make use of the really cool educational technology that's starting to come out these days.  It'll be a while, but I'm looking forward to introducing my kid to things like Project Columbia, which melds Kinect and Sesame Street together.  I hope I can eventually make some of my own apps that my kid can enjoy, too.
  • I'm also already wondering at what age I can teach my kid to program with Scratch.
  • We already try to lead a pretty balanced life (sometimes I feel bad about not being as hard-core as I used to be in undergrad).  I'm looking forward to having a quality family life at home, enjoying everything from Christmas to everyday life that much more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Course Blogs vs Wikis

If you're a professor or TA for a course and want to use online technology for the betterment of your students, which is superior: a course wiki or a course blog? I've been using the latter for the course I'm TA'ing this term, but think the real answer depends on exactly what you hope to get out of it.


The blog I've been running this term is for the third year graphics course offered to the game development stream students.  One of the reasons I started it is that the only other ways to communicate with students would be to ask the professor to post things to his course website (which would limit me in what I could actually say), or to hope that students actually checked WebCT once in a while (computer science students don't much like WebCT).

Some of the things I post about include:
  • Updates on my progress grading various assignments and tests.
  • General summarized feedback on assignments.
  • Numbered comments for tests that I can refer to when marking so I don't have to write the same explanations over and over again on paper.
  • Detailed explanations of topics students seem to be struggling with.
  • Links to applets on fundamental topics I've made in the past that might help students.
  • Links to other resources that might be helpful.
So far the blog has been very much a one-way form of communication, even though students could be posting questions or comments on the posts if they wanted to.  It's not totally clear how many students look at the blog, but I do know that those who come see me for help use it.

A course wiki would look a lot different from the blog.  For instance, instead of a stream of posts that capture what happened during a particular term chronologically, a wiki would likely end up being a more structured documentation of the course that could evolve over time.  It is more of a living document that students, TA's, and professors could contribute to.  It might even be able to combine the ideas of the traditional course webpage with some of what I put on my blog (some of the resources on my blog might be better suited to a wiki).  A wiki might be more difficult to use as a form of feedback to students in a particular term since it's not as obvious when new content is posted.

So, if choosing between a wiki or a blog, I would consider whether I want to develop a resource that will evolve each time the course is taught (wiki), or if communication and feedback to students is my priority (blog).  I don't think one is superior to the other, and the ambitious might even be able to effectively offer both.

Have you used either for your own course? What type of content did you include, and how successful was your approach?