Wednesday, September 30, 2009

GHC09: Sonora Desert Museum

Wow, have we ever been busy here in Tucson! It's late Tuesday night, and I'm only able to blog about Monday's activities. So there's definitely more to come. ;)

This year, I wasn't selected as a Hopper. Hoppers are conference volunteers who work for eight hours in exchange for free registration and a t-shirt. I didn't really need this since I won a scholarship, but was willing to volunteer anyway. I guess they wanted to make sure that everyone who needed the position got one, and so I did not. This is a bit of a guilty blessing in disguise, since I was able to do a little extra sight-seeing while some of our group did their Hopper work!

Barb and I used our rental car to check out the Sonora Desert Museum. On the way, we got a few nice shots at a lookout point:

Grace Hopper Celebration-13

Grace Hopper Celebration-14

When we first entered the museum, we found a friendly woman who taught us everything we needed to know about the iconic cactus called the saguaro.

Grace Hopper Celebration-21

Ever wondered what was inside a cactus? This. This is the skeleton of a dead saguaro cactus. I never knew they were woody inside, like trees:

Grace Hopper Celebration-20

The museum was also a zoo. We saw all kinds of wildlife that lives in the desert. There were some surprises, including a white-tailed deer. We didn't realize there was enough food in the desert for them. When we finally saw one, we realized the looked the same as at home, but were smaller. This cute mountain lion was slightly more expected:

Grace Hopper Celebration-26

This was the first day we were out in the hot sun, and we realized how HOT it has been here in Tucson lately. I think I got a bit of heat or sun stroke, because I felt pretty out of it the rest of the day. I also ate a bit later than usual, which probably didn't help.

All my Grace Hopper photos will be going in their own set on my Flickr account, so be sure to check back often to see much more than what I'm posting on my blog! And with that, I'll leave you with a few more cactus pictures. My next posts will be about our hike on Tuesday and the first day of the conference.

Grace Hopper Celebration-10 Grace Hopper Celebration-18 Grace Hopper Celebration-39

Grace Hopper Celebration-2 Grace Hopper Celebration-38

Monday, September 28, 2009

GHC09: Landed in Tucson

It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here - we're in Tucson for the 2009 edition of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing! Five of the seven Carleton CU-WISE girls came today, while the last two are heading in on Tuesday. Our luggage is also a bit behind us. We're hoping to get that by tomorrow. (It figures - the one time I finally decide to just go ahead and check my luggage, they 'lose' it.)

Grace Hopper Celebration
(Shafagh, Serena, and Barb wait to leave the Ottawa airport at the beginning of our journey.)

Our flight was three legs, going from Ottawa to Toronto to Las Angeles to Tucson. Most of the trip was with Air Canada, which I love because of the seat-back entertainment. I watched two movies, one of which was called The Soloist, about a journalist who befriends a homeless musical genious. It was very good, but somewhat heartbreaking!

Grace Hopper Celebration
(The gang snacking in the Toronto airport.)

While flying over Arizona, the thing that struck me the most was how brown it was; it truly looked like a desert. Little stubs poked out of the ground like stubble - these were cacti as far as I could tell. Random humps of mountains protruded here and there, and very obvious and very green patches of grass provided the only break from the otherwise sandy looking soil.

(Cacti in Tucson! Yay! Photo from Barb.)

Although our luggage is still missing, I am very happy to be settled into our wonderful suite here at the Double Tree. The staff here are AMAZING. For example, when my laptop hard drive unseated itself again from all the travelling, they were able to bring me a small screwdriver to open up the back of the computer pretty much right away! They also hooked us up with the necessities (toothbrush, etc) because, of course, all that's in our missing luggage. They even helped us figure out our transportation for the next couple of days. Thanks - you guys rock!

Stay tuned for much, much more about our experience in Tucson and at Grace Hopper!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Augmented Reality, Tangible UI, and Activity Theory

Yesterday in the Computers and Cognition psychology class I'm taking this semester, I lead the discussion on a paper called Physical and Virtual Tools: Activity Theory Applied to the Design of Groupware. It focuses on the design of a tangible, collaborative augmented reality project that allowed users to plan layouts of, say, building interiors. The main connection of the paper to Activity Theory was that virtual tools were typically viewed as an internalization of activity, but perhaps could be considered an externalization if people become more used to them.

In the context of this work, activity may be thought of as a subject's interaction with his or her surroundings. Human thought and behaviour in this interaction is mediated by artefacts. When the interaction is internalized, it turns into a mental activity. But when it is externalized, thoughts and memory are represented in or by the physical environment.

When laying out the design requirements for the project, it was observed that the way physical and virtual tools were used seemed to follow the three-step development of tool usage laid out by Victor Kaptelinin, as follows:
  1. Inexperience makes using the system as efficient with tools as it is without.
  2. When physical tools are introduced, the ability to complete tasks improves as the process is externalized.
  3. The introduction of virtual tools can occasionally replace the use of physical tools as the process is internalized again.
This motivated the authors to justify experimenting with physical and virtual tools.

The end result was a system called BUILD-IT. (Video demo available.) It uses tangible bricks to manipulate an overhead plan view of the layout being worked on, while a 3D view is projected on the wall beside it. The thinking was that by using physical objects to interact with the system, there would be a closer connection between the action and the mental reflection. This kind of system could support a wider range of human expression than a standard mouse-based program could.

In terms of activity theory, the authors hoped that their work would stimulate its theoretical development. In particular, they thought the theory could expand on the idea of objectification, arguing that the degree of externalization really depends on the user's familiarity with virtual tools. Can virtual tools ever truly be an externalization, or are they destined to remain a part of a disconnected outer world, making it more difficult for users to understand the interface at hand?

During and after the class discussion, I had a couple of questions pop into my mind.

First, I find it interesting that virtual tools are considered an internalization in the first place. While I am by no means an expert on Activity Theory, we had a chance to talk more about what externalizations and internalizations were in relation to an earlier theoretical paper. My understanding is that it is an operational kind of thing: an externalization is simply the ability to take a physical tool and use it to help with the activity in question. No longer using the tool essentially brings interactions within yourself again as a mental activity. This is the internalization. You can go back and forth between the two, as was suggested in the three steps mentioned earlier.

In the case of virtual tools, you are no longer using something physical, though it is often some kind of representation of a real thing. However, whether it exists in the real world or not, I fail to see how it was ever not an externalization. It's still something that exists outside your head (even if it's just pixels on a screen) and that you use to help you with a task. Is this simply a sign that I am in fact used to virtual tools enough that they have become an externalization? Would most people feel the same way in this digital age?

A second question came up that was rather interesting: what exactly makes a tangible user interface (or augmented reality) different from traditional mouse-based systems?

The answer that I was trying to give, but couldn't quite say right at the time, was that it reduces the number of indirections in the way of getting to what you want to do. When using a mouse, you have to think about how the way you move your hand is going to affect what appears on the screen. But when you get to gesture on top of a display that changes as you move, you remove that level of indirection. Tangible UI's don't always do this (think of the separate 3D view in BUILD-IT, for example), nor do augmented reality systems. But when they do, I figure the smaller amount of congnitive processing required makes them that much easier to use.

The other answer that caught my attention was that humans apparently have very good musculoskeletal memory. That means that when they move, say, their entire neck, they will remember the motion required for completing a task better than they would if they only had to move their hand/finger. I always assumed that these kinds of user interfaces just made more sense since they had natural mappings from motions people make to the results in the software, but this memory thing really makes a lot of sense to me as well. Perhaps it's a combination of the two.

I found this paper really useful in thinking about what makes augmented reality and tangible UI's so useful. I keep talking about wanting to make an educational AR game for my PhD research, but I almost always imagine having a tangible component as well. I think an interesting component of the research could be determining how well children can work with virtual tools, and whether it's an automatic externalization for them, since they are growing up with this sort of technology.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Student Support Groups: How to Build Them and Do They Work?

This post is also on the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing blog; check it out!

I'm part of a group of amazing women who are presenting a Birds of a Feather (BoF) session at 4:30 on Thursday October 1. It's called Support Groups for Women in STEM: International Perspectives:
Retaining women in STEM fields has been a challenge globally. Studies suggest that peer support, mentoring, and female role models help. This session brings together student leaders from around the world to discuss the strategies and challenges of building and sustaining support groups. Are these groups working? Surprising results from our research will be presented in this interactive discussion with group leaders.
I'm really excited about this talk. The five executives of Carleton University's Women in Science and Engineering (aka CU-WISE) - Barbora, Natalia, Serena, Lindsay, and me - will be showing you how we rebuilt our group. We started only a couple of years ago from nothing, but you wouldn't know it if you saw us today! We believe everyone can be successful in creating a similar support group, whether it be for students or industry professionals.

The second part of the talk is also going to be very interesting. Students from the Women in Computer Science group at Simon Fraser University and from MenTe (Mujeres en Tecnologia) in Mexico will tell us about their research on how well these student support groups are actually working.

Whether you can attend our talk or not, you can participate in the conversation! We have set up a website called Support Groups for Women in STEM, where we have posted all kinds of useful links and resources for you. We hope you will leave comments on the pages and come with all kinds of great ideas and questions in Tuscon!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Masters Thesis Defended - On to PhD!

That's right, you read that title right - I finally defended my thesis! I'm totally, completely, absolutely done my Masters of Computer Science! And dang, it feels good.

Here's the way the defence works at Carleton (which may or may not line up with your own school's procedures):
  • Your committee watches you give a twenty minute presentation summarizing what you did. The idea here is not to teach newcomers about your methods and results, since there's no way you could cram 100+ pages into twenty minutes; rather, you are just reminding the committee what they have already read.
  • Each committee member gets an opportunity to ask you questions one on one. Nobody else is allowed to interrupt at this point.
  • Then everyone is allowed to ask questions in a more random manner.
  • When there are no more questions, anyone who is not part of the committee (i.e. you and your friends watching) leave the room while the committee decides your fate.
  • ...
  • Success! (hopefully)
The committee usually requests at least some minor revisions. That's where I'm at now. I have finished my changes and am waiting for my supervisors to approve them. Once they do (and I don't foresee any problems), I can print the final copy and officially graduate. Woohoo!

This might sound weird, but my defence experience was actually pretty pleasant. To ensure I didn't get so nervous that all the important information I needed didn't fly out of my head, I simply didn't think about it. I attended the Ottawa Girl Geek Dinner the night before, and kept my mind off it during the big day. Then, while waiting for the last committee member, I chatted with the ones already there, since I knew them all. This small talk gave a bit of a casual atmosphere, which relaxed me before everyone had to get serious.

I also appreciated the comments given to me by the committee. The first person who had the floor for questions started out by complimenting my writing, saying it was a pleasure to read. I got a lot of good feedback about areas that I never realized weren't clear, so my revisions (hopefully) really improved the quality of the final product. It is so worth getting it right so you can be proud of your work years from now!

If you're interested in taking a look at the final document, you can download the PDF.

I'm really looking forward to having everything finalized so I can finally officially register for my PhD courses! I'm taking some good ones, so watch for future blog posts about computers and cognition and maybe some interesting advanced data structures...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The First Official Girl Geek Dinner in Ottawa

Despite the fact that my thesis defence was going to be the next day, and the fact that I had to sign up last minute because of my motorcycle road test (which was cancelled because of their strike), I managed to get in on the first official Ottawa Girl Geek Dinner. And I'm so glad I did!

Thanks to the wonderful sponsor Thornley Fallis, a number of students were able to attend the event at the Black Tomato with free admission and a free dinner! When I finally figured out I could go, all those student spots had been filled. But, luckily, I remembered the advice from Grace Hopper last year (ask, ask, and ask again), and emailed the organizers anyway! Turns out one of the spots was taken by someone who couldn't actually come, and I got in.

The networking opportunities here were beyond amazing. I went with Natalia and Serena from CU-WISE, but we were a bit late, and couldn't sit together. This was a blessing. The best thing you can do at any event is sit with people you've never met, and talk away!

To all those I met: You are all amazing and would make great speakers for CU-WISE. Definitely contact me (info on right bar of blog), and let's set something up! Or just drop me a line to see how we can help each other. Would love to connect in any way!

On to the speaker of the night, Tara Hunt. I must admit that I hadn't heard of her before the dinner. Then again, I only joined Twitter a couple of months ago; you might say I haven't been keeping up with the social media scene as much as others. But there seemed to be a lot of people really excited to see her, so I was definitely curious to see what she was all about! She didn't disappoint.

Her story:
  • A quick poll reveals that most attendees were in marketing and business development; only a small number were 'coders.'
  • Admits that she was ready to be a coder... until her first class on Fortran. Switches to women's studies with a minor in communication.
  • Inspired by Cluetrain Manifesto. Wants to start own company.
  • Starting own company turns out to be scary. Single mom, mortgage... and a cat. But "gotta do it."
  • Best thing she ever did. Even though she fell flat on her face. (Thanks SARS in Toronto for that.)
  • Gets a regular job, but doesn't lose entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Starts blogging about dreams.
  • Joins a start-up in Silicon Valley. Gains confidence.
  • Starts business number two.
  • ...
  • Book deal for Whuffie Factor.
Advice for starting a business:
  • You WILL tear your hair out, but "it's the most rewarding thing you could do for yourself."
  • There is money available, especially for Canadian women in the tech space.
  • If you have ideas, now is the time.
  • DO IT!
On balancing work and life:
  • "My son turned out ok... he's just really independent now!" ;)
  • Made the difficult decision to send son to grandparents for a year and a half.
  • Suggests finding an understanding partner (I believe she was referring to business partners, but life partners count, too!).
  • Greater success comes when you aren't spending all your time on your business.
  • You don't have to be Wonder Woman. Sleep is good.
Between the good food, Tara's talk, the Q&A after, and the incredible energy in the room that night, I came home full of adrenaline and feeling good!


Here are some links to others talking about the dinner:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

That Time I Felt Like an Impostor

There's been a lot of discussion about the Impostor Syndrome ever since the CU-WISE execs went to Grace Hopper last year. There was a panel during the conference where high-profile women admitted that they, too, felt like they didn't deserve the success they'd achieved. There are a few posts about the topic on the CU-WISE blog, with more likely to come.

School has been pretty smooth sailing for me. I got through my entire undergrad and grad courses without more than one single all-nighter, and that was for a group project (so I didn't have much choice). I got stuff done fast, probably because I am organized, have a good memory, and can write well. I can also learn concepts put before me somewhat easily.

A couple of months ago, while working on my thesis, I ran into a tough spot. My profs weren't sure I would make the deadline for draft submission. Missing this deadline would mean a LOT of things would go wrong, from my funding for PhD to the TA Mentor job I had accepted a few weeks earlier.

What a failure I felt like right then and there. It was as though I'd made it to the thesis portion of my Masters with almost all A+'s, and somehow didn't deserve it. It was as though all the scholarships I'd managed to get throughout my academic career weren't really meant to go to someone like me. I was no researcher - I was an impostor!

I kid you not, I cried that night. I never cry.

Luckily, the next morning, I felt 200% better. I told myself I would do whatever I could to get things done. It turned out that the deadline wasn't as strict as we thought, and a meeting with my two co-supervisors quickly outlined what I needed to accomplish before submission. It wasn't like I couldn't have done these things, but I needed that little extra time. The world worked in my favour once again.

My message to you is this: When you feel like an impostor, take a break for the rest of the day. Cry a little. Have a bath. Do whatever it takes to let it out. Then, the next morning, wake up with the idea that you are going to try your best to do something about your situation, even if it seems impossible. A good attitude really can go a long way.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Opening of Scientific Education to Young Women

Special thanks to my friend Christian, who took the following photo while visiting the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence (how I'd love to visit such a place!).

The caption reads:
Student from the Collegio del Ploggio Imperiale in visit to the Observatory at Arcetri (1933), signifying the opening of scientific education to young women.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

CU-WISE @ Frosh Week

School starts next week at Carleton University, and our Women in Science and Engineering team is ready to go! We're participating in the engineering-specific frosh events, the School of Computer Science Academic Orientation, and the Student Activities Fair with a booth.

The coolest part is that we designed some new promo items to replace our older brochures. There are three designs for the front (for now at least - we plan to expand!), and one for the back:

The cards will be 5" by 7", so much larger than they seem here. I did the actual designs with lots of feedback from the other execs.

We also have some funky purple pens with a modified version of our logo to hand out, and flyers with the major events planned until January. This is going to be a great year!