Archive for the 'computer science' category

Land War in Asia (aka, CS undergraduate education)

Jun 20 2011 Published by under computer science, education

I really didn't want to get involved in the debate going on over at Matt Welsh's blog, but I would like to offer a slightly different perspective.

The debate on Matt's blog is a classic one in CS undergraduate education. That question is: how much should we teach "real world" skills? And usually the answer I've heard is, "This is Computer Science, not a vocational program.", or, "This is Computer Science, not Engineering." etc.

Having spent a long time in industry, I can tell you the single most important thing a industrial Computer Scientist needs to know is: What the hell is this and how do I fix it.

That's it.

Now, how do you get to that? How do you feel comfortable diving into deep hardware and software problems? Tinkering. Practice. Persistence. Being comfortable with failure. Knowing how to ask questions, read manuals, and type complex, arcane search queries into google.

You need to understand and appreciate not just how computers work, but how other computer scientists think. To do this you need to understand geek culture to some extent - why we always take shortcuts across the grass, why we hate Windows, why we sometimes describe programs as beautiful.

This all takes time, patience, and practice. And an incredible amount of stubbornness and persistence. The challenge to us as Computer Science educators is how to best cultivate this sense of duty toward solving problems.

Now some might argue the beauty of mathematics is enough to slog through Discrete Math. The burning desire to know the soul of a machine is enough to endure hours a night hunched over a soldering iron followed by eight hours of doing it again.

I think for some students this is true. But for many students this is not enough to stay the course, as it were.

We need to teach Computing that has purpose and meaning. Students need to understand why all this stuff matters. The "eat your Theory vegetables because it teaches you how to think" argument doesn't really hold here, but nor does a vocational PHP course.

Undergraduate CS Education needs a story - with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Students need to learn not just how to make and stack the building blocks, but to see how they fit into the context of the play room.

Give students that, and they will eat their theory vegetables gladly. Retention rates will soar. Instead of saying, "So what?", underrepresented minorities will say, "So that's what!"

3 responses so far

2010 ACM Awards - A Glance at Gender

Jun 06 2011 Published by under computer science, women

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), our main professional organization in Computer Science next to the IEEE, has announced their award winners for 2010. This includes the Turing Award, which is basically our version of the Nobel Prize.

I thought I'd do a quick check to see what the gender balance of awardees was for this year. Just curious.

Turing Award - M
ACM-Infosys Foundation Award - M
Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award - M
Software System Award (Group of 12) - All M
ACM/AAAI Allen Newell Award - M
Grace Murray Hopper Award - M
Karl V. Karlstom Outstanding Educator Award - 1 F, 1 M
Doctoral Dissertation Award - M
Distinguished Service Award - M
Outstanding Contribution to ACM Award - M

So by my quick tally looks one woman received an award - for being an educator - which she shared with a man.


For new 2010 ACM Fellows, things look a little bit better. Looks like 8 out of 41 were women, so about 20%.

I don't have time at the moment, but if anyone is feeling energized it would be interesting to look at the data for previous years, as well as from IEEE. It takes a bit of work - you often have to visit people's websites to figure out gender, since names are not always clear.

3 responses so far

What it feels like to be me

May 23 2011 Published by under computer science, women

Picture this:

You are wearing a green shirt.
You have eight people around you wearing purple shirts.
You are sharing a meal.

"blah blah blah blah... Computers.... Weather....blah blah blah"
"Yeah, weather, blah blah blah"

The conversation stops. Cutlery clanks on plates. Heads whip around to look at you, awaiting your reaction.

You think several thoughts at once, including noble ones like:

"Quiet green-shirt-wearers rarely make history"

"Be the change you want to see in the world"

Less noble ones, like:

"Not again. I was just sitting here, having lunch, thinking about clever things to say about the weather."

"Do we have to talk about my shirt color at Every. Single. Meal?"

Then nerve-wracking ones, like:

"Because I wear a green shirt, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, 'She doesn't have what it takes'; They will say, 'Green shirts don't have what it takes'"

Your response today, right now, matters, because they all do. Whether you want to or not, you must represent all green shirt wearers in a sea of purple. You're probably wearing the only green shirt they've ever seen, and at this rate, probably the last.

Picture it.

This is what it feels like to be me.

Of course, being me, deeply lacking in verbal acumen, things usually go something like this:

13 responses so far

Hey, where did all the women go?

May 16 2011 Published by under academia, computer science, culture, sexism, women

New Scientist had an article several weeks ago, "Where are all the women scientists?" which ACM seems to have just picked up on in their thrice weekly Tech News. It caught my eye because the article begins by quoting fellow FCS and blogger Amy Dalal (her blog is called "This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like").

After feeling simultaneously disgusted and terrified reading that Amy received harassing phone calls due to being the first FCS faculty member in her department, I found the rest of the first part of the article a bit ho-hum. It was the typical work-life balance stuff.

But then I saw this:

None of the above

But maybe it's not the babies. A study of more than 3,700 female engineers carried out by Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee revealed that only a quarter left engineering because of family reasons ( The remaining three-quarters quit their jobs or left the field entirely because they did not like the workplace culture, or were unhappy with other aspects of the job.
While blatant gender discrimination in the workplace is rare, the subtle, everyday instances of bias that women experience create a snowball effect that, over time, can be overwhelmingly off-putting.
More than half of female scientists have experienced gender bias, according to a 2010 survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for L'Oréal. Examples include being ignored in meetings, students calling you Mrs. instead of Dr. or Professor, receiving unwanted comments on your appearance, and hearing that you were hired not on merit, but because you're a woman.

Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I've been saying this for years, and many, many times since I started blogging. Babies are rarely the reason women leave. It's culture. Culture, culture, culture.

Sadly after these three great paragraphs the article seems to have suffered from an overzealous editor, because it suddenly became, "But don't worry, look at this one positive example we have!" and talked about how at the US Geological Survey half of the top positions are held by women. I think that's great, but I would have rather seen the space used for talking about broader initiatives to attract and retain women across all the sciences and engineering, as well as across government, industry, and academia.

16 responses so far

Finding Your Way In (Computer) Science: Self-Esteem

Apr 25 2011 Published by under academia, computer science, women

A long time ago, someone I really dislike recommended a book to me called, "Finding Your Way in Science." For a long time I avoided reading it, because I decided if my arch-nemesis liked the book it couldn't possibly be good.

But it nagged at me, so I gave in and bought it. And actually, so far it's not bad. Good job, arch-nemesis!

The book does read like a self-help book for scientists, and it's definitely biased toward the life sciences, but to its credit it does have some outstanding nuggets.

There's one nugget in particular that I recently found myself dispensing to a young FCS who was struggling with issues relating to her self-worth as a researcher. Given the prevalence of self-esteem issues greatly affecting women in technology, it seemed like I should repost it here:

Never place your sense of self-worth in the hands of another person.

And the corollary is:

A wise person is unmoved by either scorn or praise.

These are both important bits of advice. If you place your self-worth in the hands of another, then every time you are rejected (which will happen frequently over the course of your career), it will feel like being punched in the gut. It's very tempting to be over-the-top excited when Dr. Famous lavishes praise on you, and Dr. Awesome invites you to serve on a program committee, and Dr. Woot cites your paper. These are all good things to be happy about, but on the other hand you don't want to be devastated when Dr. Famous rejects your paper, Dr. Awesome gives you a scathing review, and Dr. Woot rips you to shreds in front of 2000 of your closest colleagues.

Be like a tree and all of that. Roll with the good and the bad. If you take this view, the outcome of a single event matters much less.

I've found it helps to take a career-level view instead of an event-level view. John Regehr writes about this - don't get too attached to a single paper, proposal, or job. Don't tie up your entire self-worth in the outcome of a single event. Everyone gets rejected!

Image description: Book cover parody of "Everyone Poops"
by Taro Gomi. This text reads: "Everyone Gets Rejected
By Female Computer Scientist". It has pictures (by Gomi) of an angry
looking person, a horse's behind, a goose, and an apple.

11 responses so far