Thursday, May 29, 2008

Randy Pausch: Dare I Call Him a Hero?

I picked up Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture on a whim this past weekend. I started reading it last night and got halfway through. I would have read the whole thing if it weren't for the fact that my keratoconic eyes can only take so much. I want to call Randy my new hero, but he admits in his book that he has suffered from being too self-praising in the past, so dare I say it? :)

The idea behind this book is centered on the fact that Randy, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He had been asked to give a lecture at Carnegie Mellon's "Journeys" series, once named the "Last Lecture Series." He had accepted, being optimistic about his latest treatments, but when he learned that these had not worked, he had to consider very carefully his course of action. If he had only months to live, should he be spending every last second with his wife and three children? Or would giving this lecture leave just the sort of legacy he wanted for those kids?

Needless to say, he ended up giving the lecture, focusing it not on his dying, but on how he fulfilled all of his childhood dreams. You can learn all about this lecture, and even watch it, on Carnegie Mellon's web page about it.

I actually haven't watched the lecture yet. I am saving it for when I finish the book, and when I know I have a contiguous chunk of time to devote to watching it. The book isn't a transcription of the lecture, as I first assumed it would be. Instead, it's a collection of stories and advice from Randy, from what it was like to growing up to how he wooed the woman who eventually became his wife.

One of my favorite stories was about how much he admired Captain Kirk, and how he always dreamed of actually being Kirk. That didn't exactly come true, but something better happened. William Shatner visited Randy's virtual reality lab in the 90's when he (Shatner) was co-authoring a book about the now-realized technologies first imagined on Star Trek. Shatner was thrilled to find a virtual recreation of the bridge of the Enterprise, turbolift doors and all. Randy was so impressed that Shatner asked so many questions about it, completely willing to admit exactly what he didn't know, and not willing to leave until he understood it. I can only imagine how much it meant to Randy to receive a signed photo of Shatner as Kirk that read "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." Shatner had sent it when he learned of Randy's cancer.

There are so many stories like this that you have to wonder how one person could be so lucky (for fulfilling so many dreams and having such success, not for getting cancer!). But it's important to notice that luck had nothing to do with it. Randy always persisted, never giving up on those childhood dreams. Granted, his upbringing likely had something to do with it, but through these stories it's clear that we are all capable of doing the same. If you aren't inspired by Randy, then I hate to inform you, but you probably have no hope!

One of Randy's projects had touched and inspired me before I even knew he was responsible for it. I first found Alice while putting together my mini-course. I didn't end up using it because I didn't think one week was long enough (and of that week, less than half was used for lab time anyway). But I did tell my students about it, should they be interested in giving it a try. I showed them the promotional video on the web page. I know at least a few of them were pretty excited by the prospect of programming something in 3D and probably played with it a bit at home. The whole concept of Alice as a way to get underrepresented students succeeding in computer science is so exciting, falling exactly in line with one of my greatest passions.

I know I'm not the only one inspired by this funny and charming computer scientist, but if you haven't been yet, then what are you waiting for? Go buy The Last Lecture and get reading! You won't regret it. Just be careful about how much you praise him in case his ego gets too big. ;)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mini-Course: Content Available

I have decided to make the content from my mini-course available, with the hope that it may help others prepare for similar courses, or be inspired to do so. If you would like to use my materials, all I ask is that you contact me to ask for permission, and give credit where credit is due.

While my course was designed for young female students, there are ways to modify it for different gender and age mixes. I should caution as well that these slides don't capture the class discussions, all the activities, and so on, but they still give a good idea on the general outline of the content.

You can check out the mini-course page on my portfolio website to download the package I gave out on CD to my students (includes slides, links, and other info, but not the software installers or movies their version had). Be sure to run minibrowser.exe to get the full experience.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Portfolio Updates

I added a few things here and there on my portfolio website. Of particular interest is my term project for the medical computing class I took this past semester. I did an implementation for reconstructing polygonal slices taken from, say, an MRI scan. I also added slides from the presentations I did in that class, as well as some work for the applied computational geometry class I took (included there is a survey on Delaunay triangulations with some interesting applications).

Monday, May 26, 2008

Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

While at the Anita Borg Scholar's Retreat at Google New York, I learned about an exciting event that I knew I had to attend. It's called the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and is "a series of conferences designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront." That's right, a whole four days of conference designed specifically for women in computing! How could I miss out?

The bad news is that getting there could be pretty darned expensive. The flight to Denver from Ottawa alone could cost over $800, and then you have to consider the shuttle bus to the resort, the hotel room for four nights, and the event registration costs.

But don't worry, there are ways to get there that you, too, can take advantage of! Here at Carleton, there are several girls trying to get our school's chapter of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group up and running again. Attending this conference would be hugely beneficial to WISE, since we would have the opportunity to be meeting and networking with the best of the best, and those who've been there before us. Because the timing is just right, we are trying very hard to find all the sources of financial support we can.

The first place to look is the official scholarship the conference organizers put together. You can apply online here, but you have to hurry: the deadline is mid-June and you need reference letters and an essay. You can also volunteer some of your time to have the registration costs waived. Then, you can ask your supervisor for support (if you happen to be a grad student), and check with the administrators of your department. You can also see if your school has something similar to Carleton's Student Activity Fund. Finally, you can check with local companies or your past employers.

I don't know yet whether I will be able afford to get there, and I won't for a while yet. My fingers are crossed that it all works out!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Affirmative Action?

Last week, I bought, downloaded, and watched an interesting documentary called Indoctrinate U. The film was political, so I won't mention much about it here. But there was one topic that got me thinking: affirmative action. In the film's case, the discussion centered more around racial issues, but the same ideas apply to gender.

The big question for us is this: Do we want technology employers to attempt hiring more women to promote equality and/or diversity?

In my opinion, definitely not.

There is only one situation where hiring a woman because she's a woman makes sense to me, and that is when the range of candidates are narrowed down to a few that have no distinguishing skills, and differ only by sex. If there aren't very many females on the team already, and having some different viewpoints and ideas would benefit this team, then by all means go for the woman! (You can make the same argument for other groups of people as well, depending on the makeup you currently have and the diversity you are looking for.)

But to specifically look for women to hire simply because you don't have very many? There are plenty of women who can get in by their merit alone, so doing this not only undermines that fact, but increases the probability of not finding the best people for the job.

You might say that no employers actively seek minorities in this way. If that were true, would there be diversity competitions like this? Or assertions that a "union has to make a conscious effort to want to hire women and minorities" (source)?

But don't get me wrong. Trying to make your workplace friendly and welcoming to minorities like women is not a bad thing. Just let them come on their own if they are interested, and evaluate them on merit alone. Don't hire a woman so you can meet your diversity quota this year.

The same line of thinking can apply to university admissions. I'm not sure if the same thing happens in Canada, but it seems in the States (according to Indoctrinate U) that affirmative action can sometimes favor visible minorities to increase diversity on campus. Not good! I know that we have work to do in our School of Computer Science to make it more appealing for women to join us both as students and as faculty, but we certainly should not start bringing women in just for the numbers. Luckily, I have not seen any evidence that anyone here has tried this, or wants to.

You may have seen my previous post that mentioned the Women in Science and Engineering group I'm helping rebuild. You may be wondering why, as a member of this group, I am against seeking out women to join our school. Well, my goals with that group are not to increase our numbers in the way described above, but rather to show women who may have already been interested in the subject but were too afraid to give it a try just how rewarding it can be. I also want to make the atmosphere and support network better for the women already here, hoping to increase their chances of success. I do believe their is a difference, however subtle it may seem.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

About Me in Relation to WISE

Our Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE, group is working on a website to be released sometime this summer. I wrote up the following little "About Me" that will, more or less, be used on the website. Since I talk about why I chose grad school and similar topics, I thought it would be worth sharing.

Undergraduate Studies

My choice

As far back as I can remember, I have had a computer in my bedroom. True, they weren’t the latest model by any means (heck, I remember my black and yellow monitor that I used to play Reader Rabbit on!). But having any kind of access to the world of computing made me wonder early on: How does it all work? By the time I reached high school, the choice to study computer science was clear!

Graduate Studies

About Me

I spent five years at Carleton doing my undergraduate degree in computer science. The reason it took an extra year is that I also participated in co-op. I worked on CorelDRAW for a couple of work terms, and on embedded systems programming at Ross Video for another few. Now I’m back at it, working toward a Masters of Computer Science.

Why grad school

I wasn’t originally planning to go to grad school. After all, I had some great experiences with my co-op jobs, and both companies I worked for were interested in hiring me. What’s more, I had just bought a house and was planning to get married in the summer after I graduated. I wasn’t so sure grad school was really in the budget. Luckily, Jit Bose, who is now my supervisor, convinced me otherwise. “There are many scholarships available, and since they are tax free, you won’t be making that much less than most entry level jobs,” he said. So I applied for some scholarships just to see what would happen, and now here I am!

Life after my Masters degree

The decision of whether to continue to a PhD depends largely on how much I enjoy the research aspects of my Masters. There are many other factors to consider, as well: for example, when should I start a family? Do I want to make more money to support said family? Do I want the stressed involved with academia? Because I have recently realized how much I love to teach and help students gain a love of computer science, I suspect I will probably be in the school setting for some time to come, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Long-term goals

I have a passion for instilling the love of computer science in others. No matter what I do, I think I will always have some part of my life that helps me continue with that. My goals may include teaching in university, or having some kind of leadership role in an exciting technology company.

Women in Science and Engineering

My feelings about being a woman in computer science

I hate to admit it, but being one of the few can sometimes be fun. Everyone knows you because you’re different, and there are many opportunities for those in the minority (like scholarships). But even then, there really are still too few. I don’t really expect to ever see half the class be female, but certainly more than one in ten would be nice.

Why I joined WISE

I think that computer science is an incredibly rewarding career for us, so I would feel good knowing that women didn’t avoid giving it a try just because of the barriers related to being one of the only females. Besides, a woman always seems to bring a different perspective to the table than a man does. I see WISE as a way to help break down the barriers, making the academic experience for current students that much better, and making the subjects more appealing to those considering taking them on.

Why I recommend joining WISE

Meeting other women with similar interests from your program, getting advice on surviving as the minority, encouraging younger girls to give science and engineering a shot, learning about new opportunities in the industry and graduate school…how could you NOT want to join WISE?

Other Interests

My coolest non-academic accomplishment to date is getting my black belt in ITF Taekwon Do. I also love yoga, snowboarding, and even ride a motorcycle. I’m married, don’t have kids (yet!), and am looking forward to a bright future here in my little hick town.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Google NYC Visit

It's been almost two weeks since I left for New York City to pay Google a visit, but with the hectic schedule surrounding the mini-course, I haven't been able to write about it yet. Now that things have calmed down and I have some time to tell you all about it, I hope I can remember the fun little details!

For those that don't know, the reason I went to Google was for the Anita Borg Scholars' retreat. I was a finalist for the inaugural Canadian edition of the scholarship. There were 17 amazing Canadian women in total, four of whom were winners and 13 who were finalists. Google flew us to New York City to visit the Google offices and meet each other.

I was lucky enough to actually know another finalist from Carleton, Terri, so we flew together from the Ottawa airport early (like, 5am early) Thursday morning. When we got to La Guardia in New York, our driver was nowhere to be found. It turns out that he picked up another Carmichael on our plane that happened to get to him first (since she was also waiting for a driver, she just assumed he was the one). But eventually he came back for us and brought us to our super awesome Hotel Gansevoort.

Unfortunately, there weren't any rooms available for us yet (despite the promise to the retreat organizer, Jordan, that there would be). So Terri and I decided to walk around and see if we could figure out where Google was. When I found a building I saw in the street view for the Google address, we decided to explore inside.

We didn't see any signs for Google, so we figured this probably wasn't the right building (Google is actually housed in the Port Authority building across the street). No matter -- this building was very cool architecturally!

It was the old National Biscuit Company building (keeping mind that we were in the middle of the meat packing district of Manhattan), and the designers worked very hard to make it industrial and chic. The photo above shows water falling from a large pipe and highlighted with a glowing blue. There were benches made out of stone, large chunks of metal here and there, and many cool little food related shops. That last part may have had something to do with the fact that the Food Network also lived there.

Anyway, we eventually made it back to the hotel to find Jordan waiting for us in the lobby. We finally got our rooms, just in time to throw our stuff inside before brunch. This hotel was swank. When you walked into your room, they had this cool jazzy/house CD playing and the lights set up nicely. Even better, we each got our own room!

After brunch, we finally got to check out the Google offices. The day felt like it should be over by then, having been up at 4am, yet it was only noon! Being in the Google offices was, as you can imagine, pretty special. We spent a lot of our time in the Tech Talk room, which had a nice, informal feel to it. That, and random loud clanking noises from the huge elevator on the other side of the wall. Apparently the floor used to be a bus repair center, so that elevator could carry cars and buses. But I digress.

We had several talks from some really interesting Google folks (mostly women, but some men, too). I think it would be best to save info about those for future posts, or else this one will be too long for anyone to want to read!

On Thursday night, we were treated to a dinner at the Spice Market, a cool little restaurant almost right beside our hotel. Instead of us ordering what we wanted, they just kept bringing all the food on the "menu" to the table for everyone to share. It wasn't totally my style of food, but I found enough to eat, and the atmosphere was pretty cool.

We had about four or five hours of free time on Saturday afternoon to do the tourist thing. Not much time to cram in so much sight-seeing! A few of us cabbed up to Ground Zero to see the progress there. I hadn't ever seen the area with the towers there, so technically I didn't know the difference. However, it was painfully obvious that there was something missing, based on the entire block of blankness among rows and rows of very tall buildings. Very strange.

Then, after getting lost in some train system that wasn't the subway like we thought, we eventually found the real subway and made it to Central Park. It's an odd feeling walking into such a vast area of greenery after being bombarded with concrete for a couple of days. Even more odd when you consider that, back home, a little green space is certainly not rare!

We didn't have much time to walk around, so we just took a quick look and then walked through the monstrosity that is Times Square. I wish we had more time to look into the giant Toys R Us with the ferris wheel inside, or maybe Madame Tussuad's. Alas, if we were going to make it back in time for the boat cruise, we would only be able to rush along the main drag. I guess you could say we were scouting what to see the next time we found ourselves in New York ;)

The last big event of the retreat was the boat cruise that went... well, I'm not really sure where it went exactly, but I do know we circled the Statue of Liberty! That thing is a whole lot smaller than you would expect, that's all I can say.

To conclude, I just want to reiterate how awesome this retreat was, and how amazingly amazing the group of scholars and Google organizers really were. I think that this will be just a beginning for us. If we were able to do such great things on our own, imagine what we can do now that we have each other as advisers, mentors, and friends!

(P.S. I forgot my bathing suit in my hotel room, where it was drying. So if you happen to stay in room 702....)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Don't Underestimate the Importance of Role Models

I recently came across a timely article called "Young Girls Not Interested in IT Careers Due to Lack of Female Role Models, RIM Study Finds." Apparently, only 28% of girls in Britain are expressing any possible interest in technology careers, compared to 53% of the boys. But this isn't all that surprising. What I found interesting were the reasons cited for this difference.

The article's survey was conducted by Research In Motion and found that there just aren't enough smart female role models amongst the Britney Spears and Paris Hiltons of the world. From the article:
"Never underestimate the power of role models. If young women can see a career path which has been enjoyable and rewarding for another, they are more likely to follow it themselves," said Maggie Philbin, former host of popular British science and technology TV show, Tomorrow's World.
Funny. This is one of the major points brought up last week during my mini-course for girls about computer science and games. We had been discussing why girls don't get into the field, and they figured it was like a vicious circle. There aren't many girls in the field, so the younger students don't think of it as something they'd want to get into, so the numbers never grow.

But this isn't the only finding that matched up with my students' suggestions. Other reasons given for not wanting to pursue a technology career included the belief that it would not be exciting, the jobs are seen as too geeky, they don't realize the pay is good, and there isn't enough help in school for exploring opportunities. Again, all things that my class suggested.

So it's our job, as some of the "few" female computer scientists, to try and turn around these perceptions, and more importantly, to be the role models younger girls are looking for. How are you (or your classmates and coworkers) doing your part? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mini-Course: Finished

I guess you could say there's a reason I didn't post anything about my mini-course for days two through four. That reason is quite simple: I was too tired and had too little time to write whilst preparing my slides for the next day! I guess this is what happens when you prepare a course for the first time - I'm sure next year will be easier... right? Right?? :)

In all seriousness, though, I am so happy with how the week went that I can hardly put it into words. So I'll begin with a summary of what we did after day one, and end with an attempt to capture my feelings as they are just two hours after it all ended.

On Tuesday, we kicked things off with some material on game design. I wanted to squeeze a bit of that in before we started working on our own games in the lab, but also wanted to give as much lab time as possible, so I only did an hour's worth of lecturing before moving on. In the afternoon we were back in the classroom, and covered topics of usability, using principles from Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things. I used CS Unplugged's Chocolate Factory activity to get the girls thinking about issues of design.

I spent some time on Wednesday morning talking about computer graphics. This was a tricky one, since the theory behind it is pretty complicated. I wanted it to be mostly understandable, yet deep enough to make the class feel like they actually learned something. So I didn't spend much time on it, but gave a flavour of what vector and raster graphics were, as well as what some of the topics of 3D graphics would be. I even showed that first movie made in Blender, Elephant's Dream. I capped off the morning with the rest of my game design material, and we spent the afternoon in the lab again.

For both Thursday and Friday mornings, we worked in the lab finishing up our games. I covered some basic artificial intelligence on Thursday afternoon, talking mainly about finite state machines and the Turing test (again using two activities from CS Unplugged). I particularly enjoyed the discussion we had about AI, since the class had an unusually good insight into how computers worked and what they were capable of. They understood inherently that computers essentially stored information and could maybe deduce new things from it, but that they couldn't do anything we didn't tell it to do (I did tell them a bit about neural nets, which seem to be more like learning, but not so much in the sense we humans do).

Finally, we grouped a couple of the games classes together Friday afternoon and tried out each others' creations. I think the boys were definitely impressed with what we were able to do.

I kind of already mentioned one of the reasons that I am so happy about this course, and that is the awesome discussions we were able to have. These girls are so smart! What's more is that they looked genuinely interested, not just while in the lab, but in the classroom as well. When I asked if anyone was interested in trying computer science out in high school, they pretty much all said yes! Wow! I thought if I had made even one or two interested, then I would have succeeded in my mission. I really hope they can find joy in the subject as they get older, because I can tell you right now, they have HUGE potential.

So that about sums up my very first experience teaching a real class. I hope this is just the beginning! Watch this space for some more info about my course notes. I may post them for all to see, and if so, I'll link to them here.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mini-Course: Day One Complete


Yesterday was the official orientation session, where we showed students and their parents around to the classroom and game lab, and today was the first actual day of classes. I think both went well!

At orientation, the parents seemed quite enthusiastic. The girls were quieter, but eventually asked lots of questions, which I thought was a good sign. They wanted to know how much time we were going to spend in the lab, how we were going to make the games, and what I meant by "you don't need to code."

The first student arrived to class shortly after I did (20 minutes early!). After I set up my laptop with the projector, I played a movie from the Good Game show, just for something to do before everyone arrived. I found that the projector played movies ok on the default settings, but that my slides looked pretty bad. I actually went into my video card's colour settings and brought down the brightness so my slides looked good, but then videos got worse. Can't win them all.

Once everyone had arrived, I dove right into my introduction slides. I talked about who I was, and asked them to interview each other to see where they were from and why they signed up for the course (they either said it was because it looked "cool" or because they wanted to know how video games or computers worked).

We talked about what computer science in general was, including the many other areas of interest it could be combined with (like psychology, biology, mathematics, and so on). There was a brief definition / introduction to games, and then a quick idea of how (in my opinion at least) the two were well related.

The next major section was to talk about women in computing. I particularly enjoyed this topic because they girls were really tuned in on the issues. They brought up ideas and suggestions on why few females get into the field, and how to fix it, that showed a lot of insight, and even agreed with the literature. When I had them read pieces of articles, then discuss their pieces with the rest of the readers of the same article, they seemed to have interested looks on their faces. They did an awesome job relaying the main points of the content they read to the rest of the class. Definitely a smart bunch!

Finally, in the afternoon, we went to the game development lab and went through some tutorials on GameMaker. Everyone just worked at their own pace, and when they were done the tutorial, they played around with their own ideas. From what I could tell, we should be getting some really good games out of them by the end of the week!

So that was my first day's experience of my very first time teaching a real class. I think the only thing I really need to improve is my knowledge of GameMaker for tomorrow's lab time. Speaking of which, gotta go finish up that tutorial I started a moment ago...