Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thesis Writing: Week One

I started writing my thesis this week. The code I've been working on for ages is finally giving me some reasonable results. I think I will need to code a few more things in order to demonstrate certain results more clearly, but I'm feeling ok about everything.

My goal was to write 5 pages per day. While some suggest aiming for something more like 2 per day, I knew I was on a tight schedule for finishing things up and graduating in time to start a PhD in September (fortunately, at the same school). Considering that I lost about a day in total fiddling with my LaTeX templates and getting my preferred editor LyX up running on my Vista laptop, I managed to actually reach my goal by writing just over 20 pages (including appendices) in the four days I had remaining. Will things get harder later? It's hard to tell. I will have more results images and graphs for a couple of the chapters, but as mentioned, I may need to write some more code, too.

One technique that I have found useful is using a simple little kitchen timer to force myself to work for one hour, then force myself to take a break for ten or fifteen minutes. An hour seems to be just long enough to get something accomplished, so when the timer goes off, I don't just ignore it to finish some little thing. (I used to do this a lot when my timer was set to something shorter, and that some little thing often took enough time to cut into the next break.) During breaks I get food, go outside, tidy up the bedroom, read a leisure book... whatever. Anything that isn't thesis writing helps clear the mind.

When everything is completely finished, approved, defended, etc, I will post more about the actual results.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TA Mentor Program

I found out yesterday that I got an interesting new job for September! Instead of being a TA for specific courses, as I have done in the past, I will be what they call a TA Mentor:
The TA Mentorship Program, now in its second year, was designed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) to provide department specific information for incoming TAs. The program employs experienced TAs from eleven participating departments [...] who act as mentors passing on their knowledge, skills and sense of professionalism to new TAs.

This year, the program is expanding to include computer science, and that's where I come in. To give an idea of what I hope to do with this position, let me share a couple of the mini-essay responses I gave for my application.

As a mentor, what kinds of activities and support do you think might help TAs in your department? Be as specific as you can.

Many TA's in our department just hold office hours and grade assignments/tests. As a result, they may start to feel somewhat disconnected from the course. The most useful TA's I ever had were the ones who took the time to add somewhat detailed comments on tests and assignments. Some encouragement to do this, and some suggestions on how to mark quickly even with this extra work, would probably go a long way.

For the TA's that do lead tutorials, workshops with ideas for different activities and teaching styles would likely improve the variety of the course for students. TA's can be shown specific methods that appeal to various learning styles in terms of teaching computer science topics.

All TA's would benefit from workshops about getting feedback from students, communication skills (how to relate ideas that you know well to students who are lost and confused), and technology suggestions (course blogs, online office hours, etc). These are all topics covered more or less by EDC training for all TA's, but most computer science TA's assume these workshops aren't useful to them and don't attend.

Lastly, to touch upon the low number of women in computer science: I just finished reading the book "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing", which details how Carnegie Mellon University managed to raise its female enrolment from 7% to over 42% (as of the year 2000). One of the suggestions made was to hold specific workshops for TA's regarding gender equity. Most people don't even realize that they can be gender biased (for example, always calling on the guys in tutorials). Beyond that, though, there are ways of behaving and teaching that appeal to women and help them succeed (as well as certain types of male students). It may be tricky to promote this as a topic on its own, though, given that it might make some people uncomfortable. More research into this is needed.

Write about what you would hope to learn as TA Mentor.

I am very interested in computer science education, and have a career goal of becoming an instructor in the field. I believe that being a TA Mentor would provide me with the opportunity to research more deeply into this topic, including effective teaching techniques and methods that work well to reach the TA's themselves.


Suggestions? Concerns? Ideas? Please feel free to write them down in comments!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Long Term Mentoring Program Idea

The image of computer science is something I have been thinking about for some time now. Through observation and experience, I have come to believe that the main problem is the lack of enthusiasm that young women often experience when the focus of the computer is as a machine. We need to show the appealing things that can be accomplished with the tool, and not focus on the tool itself. In addition to this, the social side of the field should be showcased. With this in mind, I propose an initiative that would combine a focus on social impact with mentoring and long-term follow up.

Inspired by the late Randy Pausch, I think that showing young women what they can do with computers first, and then showing the connections to computer science afterward, might be just the kind of 'head fake' required. This is a technique I have used in the past while teaching a week long mini-course for grade eight girls. The course's main topic was video games, but in reality, my students learned about computer graphics, usability design, artificial intelligence, and what the field of computer science really is.

The initiative is similar to a club, where a meeting would be held once a month for a year. These meetings would bring the participating girls together to learn about a new area of computer science each time. Videos, interactive activities, workshops, and other such teaching techniques provide unique and fun ways to show projects and products brought to the us via computer science. For example, a look into Facebook might provide motivation for learning about web programming, networking, and media storage. The last part of the meeting should more formally describe the computer science behind the examples the girls saw earlier. (and similar) activities might be used to demonstrate the more difficult concepts.

Because it's been widely accepted that girls in particular require positive role models, I would also like to see computer science students, teachers, and professionals paired up with the girls as mentors. These women must be wiling to make a long-term commitment that has them check up on their mentees on a regular basis. They would spend time one-on-one with the girls during the monthly meetings, helping them with the activities. They could also be available via email to answer any questions the girls might have outside of the meetings. Fun social activities during the meetings would help the mentor/mentee pairs become more comfortable with their counterparts, forming a lasting bond.

This program should be targeted to girls in grades eight and nine, as they would be old enough to discover an interest in computer science, yet young enough to be able to take the appropriate courses during their high school careers. The tricky aspect of this age is that it leaves several years before college, during which time the girls can easily change their minds about the image of computer science. To help alleviate this, a yearly reunion would be held to gather the girls and their mentors to be reminded of their experience and potential love of the field. This would also help solve the problem of virtual-only mentoring fizzling out over time.

The outcome of this program would not necessarily have to be that each girl chooses a career in computer science, or even science in general. While increasing the numbers of women enrolling in post-secondary programs in the field is a good thing, even gaining a positive outlook could be very beneficial. Even if it's not for them, the girls will speak positively about computer science, showing their friends that it can be a good field for women. How much this perception of computer science changes can be tracked via carefully designed surveys answered by participants before and after the program, as well as during the yearly reunions.

This was one of my essay responses for this year's Google Anita Borg Scholarship competition, of which I am again a finalist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Accepted Talks at Grace Hopper 2009

I received very exciting news Sunday night: both of my submissions to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing have been accepted!

The first talk will be about my mini-course, and I will be sharing a one hour slot with another speaker (giving me half an hour). This is a good time frame, because it's much easier to avoid droning on if you have less time to talk. I also got some really great ideas from my reviewers, including giving suggestions on how to get funding to give such a course.

The other submission was for a group CU-WISE effort, where this year's execs would talk about how we built up our group from scratch. The plan was to expand on our very successful talk at NCWIE. We'd also like to get into some more in depth discussion, get more contributions to our Canadian WISE Groups wiki, and encourage non-Canadians to collaborate in similar ways (though we still want non-Canadian ideas shared on our wiki, the main idea is to connect WISE groups across this country).

Our CU-WISE talk was accepted for a Birds of a Feather session, and will be shared with another submission that wanted to ask the question of whether these kinds of peer groups are working. This is especially cool because, as it turns out, the other submitter knows or is good friends with some of the awesome west-coast women that I've met at various other gatherings, including last year's Anita Borg Scholar's Retreat and the CRA-W Grad Cohort! After chatting a bit over email, I think we'll get along really well and have one killer BoF.

If you are going to be at GHC this year, be sure to check us out!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mini-Course: 2009 Post Mortem

Last week, I was so busy with my mini-course 'Computer Science and Games: Just For Girls!' that I only had time to post this year's notes. But I do have a lot of interesting observations about this year's edition, so I'd like to take some time now to capture it all here.

Class Size

The first difference from last year was the class size. The girls-only registration requirement was actually followed this time around, so I ended up with a class of 17 grade eight girls, rather than the 10 girls in both grade eight and nine that I had last year. This was incredibly exciting to me - the more girls that get a taste of computer science, the better. Of course not all of them will continue on to take computer classes later in life, but even the impression that working with computers is actually cool will spread. The downside with the larger class was that the dynamic was completely different, and I'm not sure how well I adapted to that. Since I will likely have a similar number next year, I will need to work on that, relying less on class discussion and having more group work and hands on activities.

Pre-Course Survey

The first thing I did on Monday morning was pass around a simple survey to the girls. The idea was that I could determine their ideas and attitudes about computer science before and after the course. The survey was a series of statements with five levels of agreement, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Here are some of the results:

"I am confident that I understand what the field of computer science is."
  • One strongly agreed
  • Two agreed
  • Twelve were neutral or didn't know
  • Two disagreed
"I would consider computer science as a good career for women in general."
  • Four strongly agreed
  • Eleven agreed
  • Two were neutral or didn't know
"I would consider computer science as a good career for me."
  • Four agreed
  • Nine were neutral or didn't know
  • Four disagreed
Isn't it interesting that computer science is seen as a good career, but generally more so for other women?

The remaining questions addressed reasons for taking the course. Many students expressed their interest in video games, but some ranked learning about computer science topics higher!

Lab Time

I chose a lab this year that I wouldn't have to share. This gave me more flexibility in choosing lab times, so I just chose the afternoon every day, plus the morning on Friday. Some of my lessons were done last year in the afternoon, which is an hour shorter, and when I tried to do them this year, I finished early - even with a bit of new material. It might be a good idea to either switch back to having some labs in the morning, or just having some lab-oriented activities to finish up mornings that are short. When my graphics lecture ended early, I gave the girls a chance to play with Alice for a while.

Another change was inviting others to help out during lab time. I barely got through it on my own last year, and there's no way I could have done it this year without my awesome volunteers. I recruited via the CU-WISE mailing list and asked the volunteers to play around with Game Maker - the software students used to create their games - before the assigned lab days. These women were all real computer scientists and engineers, and were great role models to the students.

Pathmakers Tour and Lunch

We're lucky enough to have Rosalyn, the head of the Pathmakers program, as a CU-WISE Officer as well. She not only spent some time with us in the lab, but also organized a Pathmakers tour and lunch for my students and around 80 additional girls taking other mini-courses. We got to see four mini-talks from female engineers, and then gathered in a large lecture room for free pizza and a presentation from a panel of computer science and engineering students. I received very positive feedback about this event, and hope it can happen again next year!

Post-Course Survey

Here are some results from the survey I gave on the last day, as the girls were finishing up their video games. Note that not everybody was present to fill in the survey, and several surveys were incomplete (mostly because the girls were too distracted by their games).

"What made you decide to take this course?" [selected responses shown]
  • "I wanted to learn more about computers. The game MAKING aspect sounded really interesting."
  • "I liked working with computers and using Photoshop and things like that. Also I wanted to learn what comp. science is."
  • "I thought it would be cool to make a computer game and I wanted to meet other people who are interested in computer science."
  • "I really wanted to learn about computer science."
"Would you have signed up for this course if it wasn't just for girls?"
  • Six said yes
  • Five said no
  • One said maybe (which was not originally an option)
"Are you glad it was just for girls?"
  • Of the six that said they would have signed up even if it wasn't just for girls, three said they were glad it was just for girls, and three said they were happy as long as they knew they weren't the only girl (none answered they weren't glad)
  • All five that said they wouldn't have signed up said yes, they were glad it was just for girls
  • The one student who said maybe commented that "it doesn't really matter but still good with more girls"
The following were some of the agree/disagree statements from this survey:

"I enjoyed learning what computer science was really all about."
  • Seven strongly agreed
  • Six agreed
  • One was neutral or didn't know
"My opinion of computer science as a good career for me and/or other women has increased."
  • Two strongly agreed
  • Eight agreed
  • Four were neutral or didn't know
"I am more likely to try computer science in high school after taking this course."
  • Five strongly agreed
  • Two agreed
  • Four were neutral or didn't know
"I liked having a variety of real female computer scientists and engineers help out in the lab."
  • Six strongly agreed
  • Four agreed
  • One was neutral or didn't know
The last two questions asked for one positive and one negative thing about the course, and the only thing that came through for improvement was to add in a little more in terms of hands on, and have a little less lecture. As I mentioned under 'class size', discussion was more difficult this time around, so I will definitely need to address this. I think there are many opportunities to add a few small activities in, and maybe even some larger ones (like more CS Unplugged). Since the notes are already made, I should have time to prepare for this before next year's course.


Overall, I am very happy with the course this year. The students were all very bright and enthusiastic. I was so thrilled to see a much more positive attitude about computers and computer science than I expected. Now that they've seen so many others who are also into computers, I hope some of them will become computer scientists (or engineers) in the future. After all, this is the whole point - if even one of them starts a CS degree in five years, I will have done my job.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I have toyed with the idea of running ads on the web version of this blog, if for no other reason than to just "see what happens." I never did it though, because it somehow felt wrong. But then I was contacted by BlogHer Ads. I had heard of BlogHer at Grace Hopper last year, and was pretty impressed. In addition, the BlogHerAds code features other blogs by women in technology - I thought that sounded great! So if you check out my blog, I now have an ad on the right hand side. I hope you don't find it too obtrusive, and possibly even relevant!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mini-Course: 2009 Course Notes

It's mini-course time again! Last year I called it Computer Science and Games: Not Just For Boys!, but this year I modified the title just a little bit, as per a suggestion I received in my comments a while back. The new title loses the negative, becoming Computer Science and Games: Just For Girls!

I'm four days in, which means there's only one day left. We'll be spending tomorrow in the lab, finishing up the students' games. We will also be going on a tour of Carleton's engineering building with some other female mini-course participants, and having a free pizza lunch with volunteer scientists and engineers.

I have many observations about this year's mini-course, but for now, I am happy to announce that my course material is now available in a more accessible format. Instead of a zip file you have to download, I have put it all online as its own series of web pages. There are links to all the videos we used in class (since the slides are published as PDF's in this online version), as well as links to the open source software I mentioned in class, the CS Unplugged activities I used, and other books and web sites of interest.

Check it out, and please feel free to use my materials for your own purposes - just give credit where credit is due. I would also love to hear what you are up to, so comment here or email me about it! (gail.banaszkiewicz, gmail).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Inkscape 0.47 About Screen Contest

I wanted to pass along some Inkscape love, especially because I haven't been able to be very involved lately (thanks to the mad dash to the Masters finish line). Check out this contest for designing the next version's About screen!
For those who have not heard of it, Inkscape is an open source (free) vector graphics program along the lines of Illustrator, Freehand, Xara, etc. The Inkscape developers will soon be releasing the long awaited version 0.47 of Inkscape with many new features and enhancements. This contest is a call to all vector artists (and first timers) to show us what you can do with Inkscape.

The contest is being held via the ~Inkscapers deviantART page and the details can be found in their Journal (link below). To learn more about Inkscape please visit our website. Deadline for submissions is May 25, 2009. The prize is getting your art included with the new version of inkscape and a credit for your contribution. Good luck to all who enter!

:bulletred:Inkscape Homepage
:bulletblue:Details & Submissions
:bulletgreen:Some favorites of the Inkscape Developers (art by the DA community)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

TA Workshops for Computer Scientists

I recently wrote this article for Carleton University's TA Talk newsletter as part of the requirements for a Certificate in Teaching Skills. I wanted to give some ideas for computer science TA's on how they might take advantage of the workshops offered at Carleton, since many of them figure the workshops are not designed for our discipline. There might be similar training opportunities at your school, so have a look and take advantage!

Useful Workshops for Computer Science TA's

On more than one occasion, I've heard computer science teaching assistants mention that there weren't any TA workshops geared toward them. Many were most useful for business and arts programs, they said, since we don't have discussion groups or mark essays. Even the lab speed grading workshop didn't really apply to us, since marking scientific lab reports are very different from marking computer programs.

After completing 14 hours of workshop training for the Certificate in Teaching Skills, I can honestly say that I found something useful in each and every workshop I took. I'd like to share some ideas of how you might be able to apply the concepts you learn at these training sessions.

In Soliciting Useful Feedback From Students, you can think about how you might start a feedback loop between you and your students. This is probably most useful if you are leading tutorials and want to get an idea of how effective your teaching style is, but you can even get feedback on your office hours and marking abilities.

Teaching Millennial Students is a bit of an eye-opener, especially when you see some of yourself in the description of 'kids these days'. It really helps prepare you for the kinds of things students might expect of you, and where you can draw the line. For instance, did you know that some students' parents actually contact TA's directly? It's rare, but it's good to be prepared for such a situation!

Any workshop that talks about technology will have concepts that work very well with computer science students. Having a course blog or online office hours, for example, might be the perfect way to engage the many students who never come to visit your office hours in person.

Finally, even though discussion groups are rare in computer science, the techniques used in them can be very applicable to how you run tutorials or office hours. You can learn about various activities that allow you to avoid speaking up at the chalkboard each and every tutorial. For example, I've used some of the techniques for a first year game development class, giving students a break from the usual exercises at the computer.

These are just some brief ideas on how to make the best of your training as a computer science TA. Give it a try, and with the right perspective going in, you'll be sure to find some of your own.