One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Friday, October 5, 2012

Gaming and Mathematics: A Cross Curricular Event (Get Your Game On)

This is a post about Gaming and Mathematics: A Cross Curricular Event (Get Your Game On), a panel at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, October 2012 in Baltimore, MD.

Sharon Jones, teacher
Renada Poteat
Beth Frierson


  • Common core overview
  • What is BYOB? (The gaming software)
  • After school workshop showcase
  • How to build a BYOB guessing game
  • Relating common core back to the workshop
Beth: There has been a big push in K-12 education to include a common core type of activity in STEM fields, including computer science. In doing common core training, we had brainstorming sessions where we investigated combining concepts in one class to another, so students can better relate what we are trying to teach them. Because CS and Math are so closely related, we decided to bridge the gap between these two related fields. We produced a review game for math, so that the math students could review for their final exams with it.

The benefit of math ability to academic performance in college computer science programs was confirmed in this study (Fan 2002)

RenadaBuild Your Own Blocks (BYOB) is an advanced version of Scratch, but lets you build your own function and blocks in an object-oriented way. Students learn to solve problems

Sharon: We have been working on a CS curriculum called "The Beauty and Joy of Computing." A few different colleges have picked it up.  At UNCC we wanted to take the college-level curriculum and scale it down to high school students. We wanted students to take something away from the three-day after-school workshop that they could call theirs. Also we gave them snacks.
  • Day 1: Pre-survey; play math games; begin BYOB
  • Day 2: Learn BYOB; start creation of math games
  • Day 3: Complete math game; play games; take post-survey
The questions were actual questions that we got from the math teachers, came from the curriculum and helped them prepare for their final exam. Students were very excited about computer programming, even if they had never interacted with computers before.
"I don't know how to create a computer game, and I came into the workshop to learn how to make a computer game." (TJ, football player)
Of the 20 participants in the workshop, 100% of the students did not know how to use BYOB or what it was. Also 100% of the participants agreed with "I am sure I can learn programming." UNCC students taught the workshop.

"It's not half-bad. I'm actually enjoying the creation of this. It's also a lot simpler than VisualBasic." (Aaron)

Now, we're going to call Antonio via Skype. Antonio learned BYOB and taught it to the other students.

Antonio: BYOB is a really good software. It's not complex; it's essentially drag and drop. It's a software you can use inside or outside of class. The students really adapted to what they were given. The whole concept of BYOB is a good foundation.

Questions for Antonio

Q: What does Antonio plan on doing after graduation?

Antonio: Attend East Carolina or UNCG to major in computer science.

Q: Have you used BYOB for areas other than gaming?

Antonio: You can use it as a tool to model mathematics. You can use BYOB for things other than entertainment.

Sharon: The whole concept of BYOB is for gaming.

Q: Have you used BYOB since the workshop?

Antonio: Yes, I programmed an algebra game for the algebra team; the teacher wants to see if we can use it again this year and see if I can make a game for geometry.

Q: Has BYOB inspired you to learn other languages?

Antonio: I am open to all languages. I will make things happen with all languages.

Renada: One of our students used BYOB to make a flash card language learning program to teach Haiti to English. So that's another way to use BYOB without making a game.

[ End call ]

Sharon: Antonio has begun to see the full circle as we've taught him different levels of programming

Beth: Learning programming through BYOB fosters critical thinking skills. Antonio has grown from an introverted person to the chair of the homecoming committee and helping with the prom. The knowledge this gives them is more than just academic.

Sharon: Post survey questions were all positive! Everyone enjoyed the workshop and found it useful.

Renada: I wanted to run a quick demonstration and give you an idea of how BYOB works.

[ Demo of prompting user for name ]

Sharon: Sounds are also really cool.

[ Demo of adding "Got Inspiration" song ]

Sharon: The kids really liked this game. [ Game with Alonso following the mouse cursor and being eaten by fire-breathing dragon.]

[ Handout of the Algebra Guessing Game tutorial ]

Beth: A computer is like a man. You have to tell it what to do, and you have to be very precise. For Valentine's Day I teach a matchmaking game. We use CS Unplugged, having students write directions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We have class debate on current events related to technology. We use GEO boards, which are building blocks using shapes.  We storyboard the program that they're working on to draw up algorithms they need to implement. We ask the students to write an editorial article to their local newspaper or technology journal. And we have students blog on specific thematic content.

Sharon: For some sports (e.g., NASCAR) the fanbase is shrinking because they're not engaging students. We had students write letters.

Q: Can we access the algebra game online?

Q from Leanda: You guys are selling yourself short. There is an entire modeling strand in the common core. Science teachers could really apply the National Academy common core standards much better. For example, recursion is an Algebra I standard. Writing journals is nice but let's be specific. Let's focus on the math skills specifically. 

Sharon: This is pilot work. It was hard to get this far.

Beth: We have a STEM team at our school that teaches forensics. We are working on other concepts as well and working to get the curriculum up to date.

Q: You are working on getting a CS course. If you were to do that, would you use BYOB or other formal languages?

Sharon: We're using principles from a pilot project from five college called the Beauty and Joy of Computing. BYOB is one of the platforms. We're going to do GameMaker, App Developer, Alice, and web development. We did a little bit in Photoshop (even though it isn't a language). We will talk about artificial intelligence in conjunction with FIRST robotics.

Beth: We will also teach Visual Basic (.NET) and entrepreneurial courses so that students can make their websites e-commerce ready.

Q: What about visual arts as a mathematics theme? I also do a workshop with similar results, but my observation is that I am attracting mostly boys that are all excited by games and computer science already. How do you recruit people that aren't necessarily in that demographic?

Beth: We struggle with that. We tried to do a weekend workshop to try to get girls in. You have to do a song and dance and feed them and have t-shirts and try to tie in how technology affects them on a daily level..

Sharon: We want to do a workshop that is girl focused (girl power). I try to promote NCWIT in my classes in particular. That has worked really well. There's an article in Glamour magazine that ran in October of last year. I've given it to every girl and that seems to work. Glamour does blogs about fashion and they say, "Oh, I can do that."

Q from Miko: My question is related. There was a successful Kickstarter called Goldiblocks that found that narrative is really strong with young girls -- that's what they're interested in. Do you see girls making different things and what are they making?

Renada: The girls would use it more to make plays or sketch out a scene, change the backgrounds, and tell a story. The boys wanted to create war and warcraft.

Sharon: Mine loved the music. They would play songs. They liked the idea of changing the color. But I agree that it's about plays, there's lots of color and flowers. That's what I like too. But then you go next door and "BAM!" and then a red screen.

Miko: Your experience supports that.

Sharon: We took the Alice course. One of the things the instructor said is that Alice works well with girls because it's more about narrative (it's not so much about the killing and the warcraft). It's more like a play stage.

Audience member: We have a girls camp and boys camp for middle-schoolers. We used Alice. The boys did shoot-em-ups and the girls did stories.

Miko: You could do choose-your-own adventure. Like a book.

Q: As a parent, I think it's great that you teachers are doing this. I've come across a discrepancy between younger teachers who are really trying to do this stuff, and older teachers that are resistant to it. How should I get involved?

Sharon: That's my dissertation work. The majority of teachers is over 40. What I have found is that if you can show a teacher one element -- one thing -- that they incorporate in their curriculum then they will reach out to you asking if you have other ideas. I once had 25 e-mails from teachers: "Can you show me that again? Do you have any other tips?" SlideRocket. Prezzi. PuppetPals. The kids were ecstatic about it. It's gotta be free, though. The other problem is that we teachers can be blocked from downloading things, so it should be free and in the cloud.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

What I wish I Knew When Applying To Graduate School

This is a post about What I wish I Knew When Applying To Graduate School, a session at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, October 2012, in Baltimore, MD.

Judy Hoffman at University of California, Berkeley in Computer Vision. She went to the same school for undergraduate.

Katya Gonina at University of California, Berkeley in Parallel Computing. She originally applied as a MS student but switched to PhD.

Kristin Stephens at University of California, Berkeley in Computer Networking and Online Learning Education. Her undergraduate studies were focused in industry.

Aude Hofleitner at University of California, Berkeley in Machine Learning. She did her undergraduate education abroad in France, and last year served on the admission committee.

Elena Caraba at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in Scientific Computing. She was on the admission committee at UIUC for both PhD and MS, and she switched advisors in her 3rd year of PhD work.

Application Components

  1. Standardized tests (i.e., GRE, TOEFL)
  2. Recommendation letters
  3. Research statement
  4. Personal statement, for some schools
  5. Transcript and GPA from your undergraduate institution
What makes a good application? This list is geared towards a PhD application
  1. Research experience, or industry experience that can transcend to research life
  2. Good recommendation letters
  3. Transcript and GPA
  4. Solid research statement
  • By far, the most important thing to get involved in
  • Find out if you like doing research
  • Find opportunities early (in your sophomore or junior year); do internships
  • Try to get a publication, in any form, including a poster symposium in your school, a workshop paper, a poster in a conference, a conference publication, or a journal article
  • Reflect your research interests and experience in your research statements.
Recommendation letters
  • Typically professors at your university or managers from job/internship. 
  • Ask, "Can you write me a great letter?" You don't want a good letter. You want a great letter.
  • Find a person who knows you well
  • Ask professors who are in the area for which you are applying -- and include 
  • Ask early, and follow up (e.g., weekly: "By the way! Did you get to that letter for me? It's due XXX.")
  • Also very important
  • Take higher-level calasses in topics in which you are interested
  • Great way to explore grad school topics
  • Do well in the classes you choose
Research statement
  • Your chance to tell: a) Why you want to go to this particular graduate school, and b) What you want to study.
  • Discuss your research or work experience.
  • Why do you want to go to this particular school? Why should they want you to go there? Tell them why you are a good match for each other. Look up the professors you want to work with, and name-drop in your applications.
  • Get feedback from other students that have written research statements. Then get feedback from the people writing your letters of recommendation.
Other components of your application
  • Standardized test (GRE and TOEFL) -- don't look illiterate in the verbal
  • Personal statement -- women in computer science already stand out, so go ahead and ride that wave. If there is anything else unique about you, use it to your advantage
  • Funding -- If you have applied for funding (even if you do not know if you got it), committees look favorably on students that take the initiative to seek their own funding. NSF has funding for graduate students (e.g., NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program).
Rough application timeline
  • May -- August (end of Junior year)
    • Take GRE
    • Think about recommendation letter writers
    • Research schools and professors
    • Narrow down research focus
  • September -- October (beginning of Senior year)
    • Ask for recommendation letters
    • Write research statements
    • Fill out applications
    • Fill out NSF GRFP application
  • November -- December
    • Submit applications
    • Submit NSF GRFP
    • Follow up about recommendation letters
  • February -- March
    • Hear back from schools

Question and Answer

Q: For international students: When applying to graduate schools, how often is it that your application is rejected because of lack of funding (e.g., need-based funding)? Does applying for funding diminish your chances of getting in to graduate school?

Aude: It won't affect your chances of getting in. If you get accepted for a PhD you will get financial aid. At the MS level it's different: if you're good then they will accept you; if you're in the top 5% you may get financial assistance.

Q from Holly from University of Waterloo: What are some of the courses that you really really wish you had taken but didn't have the chance to, or didn't think to at the time?

Katya: It's never too late to pick up a topic that you feel you missed. I did not take computer science in undergraduate. If your interests change you can get back on it. It is good to get advice from graduate students in your school to find out what they feel the core classes are and who the good professors are.

Judy: If you really like something, don't be afraid to delve deeper and take a graduate course as an undergrad. It will give you a godo idea if you really like that topic, and will help you to look good on an application.

Q: When you ask a professor for letters of recommendation, do you have to tell them the list of schools they are writing the letter for? Do they have to write a separate letter for each school? What if I'm still in the narrowing-down process?

A: The professor can help you figure out which universities to apply to. You can have a conversation with your professor.

Q: How many schools should you have when you're applying?

A: I did it wrong. I applied to Top 3, and then Berkeley. Don't do just four. Remember when you were in high school they told you to apply to the really high ones, the middle ones, and the ones you know you'll get in to.

Judy: I applied to 9 schools. I think that was good. Because the schools are so specialized it's hard to know which one you'll fit in to, which one has nice professors, the school size -- you can't get a good sense of this stuff from just reading their website -- until you visit.

Katya: Apply for your dream school. You might as well. Dream school, middle schools, and safety schools.

Aude: You will likely live 5-6 years in the same location. So visit the school. If you can't stand the cold weather, don't go there, because you will be miserable.

Audience professor: Some schools will let you continue modifying your online application even after the deadline.

Q: How do you know what's a safety school, what's a top school?

Elena: I went to my professor and asked. You should apply to just one safety school. It should still be a good school but not highly ranked.

Q from Jesse from Rice University: When is a good time to go to grad school? Work experience in industry or right after undergraduate?

Elena: Some people have a hard time going back to graduate school after having been gone for a while. You go to grad school, the stipend is not that great compared to industry pay. Having to do homework. It is good, though, to go to industry to get perspective on what you want to do

Judy: Some companies will sponsor you to go to school. There are companies that will send you to school with the understanding that you will work for them for a few years afterwards. Some schools offer a 5th year option that grant you a Master's degree.

Elena: It's something you should get lots of opinions about, so that you can form your own opinion from those.

Q: Thank you for being here to give us precious tips on how to apply for graduate school. I am a graduate student, but also: Surprise! I'm here to tell us about my school. I'm from University of North Texas. We have a dozen funded PhD positions in different domains and areas.

A: A plug for going to graduate school. It's awesome and where I learned to ski.

Q: Another general question related to the admission process. Should I get a MS before a PhD?

A: Having a Master's will increase the expectation that people will have of you. If you have an outside interest, you should take 

Q: Is it good to put things that make you stand out, for example, screenwriting?

A: YES. That's something that will go in the personal statement.

Q: Should you get a Master's and a PhD in the same school or in different schools?

A: You apply to an MS/PhD program in many schools. It's possible to get a Master's in one school and go to another school in a PhD. But in many

Q: Is there anything of value in getting a Master's degree? Would you recommend it?

A: You want the escape pod. If you decide that you don't want to do the PhD, getting the Master's is a way to show that you spent time in graduate school.

Judy: If you get there and decide you don't like it, you can leave after you have your Master's. So you can apply for a PhD and know that there is an option.

[ Break out sessions ]


Letter to my younger self: Things I wish I knew when I first started working

This is a post about Letter to my younger self: Things I wish I knew when I first started working at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing conference, October 2012 in Baltimore, MD.

Moderator: Chiu-Ki Chan (Square Island LLC)
Panelists: Rupa Dachere (, Christina Schulman (Google)

The audience in the session was about 50% undergraduate students -- and Chiu-Ki said that most of the material is intended for undergraduate students.

Christina: Learn from your co-workers.

  • Read their code, participate in code reviews. Do not work in isolation if you can help it. A fancy title does not count as leadership experience; strive for something more.
  • Ask about company and group processes in interviews. Companies with bad processes give you bad habits that are hard to break. Code reviews are a good sign. A lack of automated processes is a bad sign.
  • Work on things you do not already know how to do. Grow your abilities. Do not get stale. 
  • Even if you are the perfect person for the job, it doesn't mean that it is the perfect job for you.

Chiu-Ki: What is the difference between school and work? In school, you take courses and you do exams. You have a clear path and you know when you are done: there is an end goal: graduation. At work you may not have that end goal. It may be clear. Another difference is at school, you have an advisor and professors helping you; at work, nobody is making sure you are growing and taking charge of your career. At school, you get grades so you know if you need to work a bit harder -- for example, if you get a B. At work, you have to figure out how you are evaluated. Your work does not speak for itself. If you are working hard, make sure that other people know what you are doing. Tell people what you are doing. An e-mail, for example, saying "Just a quick update on X" or "Took me a while to figure out how to do X but I figured it out and here is the solution." Answer e-mails right away. Even if you are not 100% sure of the answer, and even if you should probably verify -- just outline the steps that you would take. As your name appears more and more in a team setting, people come to associate you as someone that knows the answers. Learn to say no. In school, you cannot say, "This week I will not do this project." But at work, you have a say in the work that you take on. Question your projects and make sure they align with your goals. Defend your position and you will earn respect with your team.

Rupa: I will tell you the lessons I have learned on how to grow yourself.

  • When I started programming, I thought that writing beautiful, modular, efficient code was the key to doing well. But writing code is not enough to get a project done end to end, but getting a project done end to end is incredibly important. You need to grow yourself from a sous chef to a head chef. Be the person that glues the project together by appeasing people on both sides of the project. 
  • Next, figure out your manager. Is s/he a morning person? What is her/his personality type? How will you help your manager help you? Learn to manage your boss.
  • Your review. This is the most difficult and stress-inducing things in our industry. 
  • First, set concrete goals for every quarter. For me, my manager and I meet every quarter and discuss my goals. You never know what might change (the market, the economy, technology, ...). If your goals are not aligned with your manager's, you need to align them. Next, find out how your project and your team is viewed by your peers, your manager, and others. Mangage the perception of your accomplishments.
  • Know your review universe. Think of a Venn diagram and draw your review circles inside it. Is it your manager? The guy in the next cubicle that knows your personality? Do folks you worked with in the past have a say in your review? Network very well and understand the pieces that come together to affect your review.
  • Be genuine and be helpful.

Christina: Networking.

  • You have to build your network before you need it. I am not saying that you have to go out and hold a big party every other month -- that is exhausting. But I am saying that the power of knowing a friend of a friend of a friend is powerful. Then you will never be looking for a job -- your next job will be looking for you.
  • Networking is about helping other people. Plan to put more into it than you get out of it. Most of the time you will be helping to connect people across your network. It's little benefit to you, but will be hugely beneficial to someone in your network. Don't be the person that is always asking for a favor -- call to say hello, or thank you, or invite to lunch. Your network should be broad and lacking in holes.
  • Carry a business card, dammit.
Rupa: Negotiate your job offer
  • Figure out what is most important to you. Is it base salary, benefits, vacation time, commuter passes, free food, maternity leave, location, etc.?  Rank these.  Then, gather as much information as you can about things like base salary for the position based on your location and experience.
  • Keep calm. Be confident. And be really polite.


Act 1
A software engineering position to Rupa at Foosoft.  Rupa wholeheartedly accepts.

[ Audience boos ]

Act 2
Rupa negotiates: Can you do something about base salary, bonus, vacation, stock options, a pony... Christine says no to everything and they settle on the original offer.

[ Audience cheers ]

(You asked, and you didn't get it -- but you still got the original offer)

Act 3
Rupa negotiates again, with a higher competing offer. The details of the offer are confidential.
[ Time passes ]
Christine comes back with a better offer and more stock but not as high as Rupa wants. Rupa now negotiates some more. Asks for a month of paid vacation.
[ Time passes ]
Christine offers a signing bonus. Rupa wholeheartedly accepts.

[ Audience cheers ]

More information is online at

Question and Answer

Q from Emily from Portland State: How do you go about handling competing offers coming at vastly different times?

Rupa: Rate the places you interviewed from most interesting to least interesting, and wait until you have an offer from the most interesting place.

Christine: Larger companies are aware that you will not graduate until June, so even with, say, a February offer you will not be expected to start until June.

Q from Jo at LinkedIn: I have a problem where I'm incredibly transparent about my enthusiasm. I have no poker-face. I can't negotiate. I'm just happy to do this job, and they can see it all over my face. How do I negotiate if it's so clear that I want it?

Rupa: What is your next step -- what are you trying to achieve? Change fields slightly? Set your goal and 

Christine: I didn't negotiate my offer from Google because I got an offer from Google. Just ask, even if you're crying tears of happiness.

Chiu-Ki  You don't have to be unhappy with an offer. You're just saying, "Can you do better?" Tell yourself to just do it. Ask. If that doesn't work it's a learning lesson. It's a back and forth.

Jo: This is very helpful for someone that is not a student and has gone through

Q from Jana at Columbia: What are disparities in pay between women and men like in tech, and how do you battle it?

Rupa: Go to those sites that I mentioned and find out the expected salary in your region. When you look up those numbers, put in a male name. That is one way to know what the going salary expectation is. These sites have a lot of information on the numbers and also the benefits.

Christine: Part of the reason that this disparity exists is because women don't negotiate. There is a good book called Women Don't Ask

Q from ??: It is hard for me to think about making a mistake, translated into being overly cautious. I don't want to come across as silly or unaware.

Chiu-Ki  That's the whole reason we had Act 1 and Act 2 for you. Nobody is going to say, "Oh, my gosh, she is so aggressive" for the rest of your career.

Rupa: I'd recommend that it's how you ask. Be polite. Use terminology that is not overly aggressive, but ask.

Christine: Research the heck out of it. Ask your fellow students what kind of offers they're getting and compare. Get them drunk first if you have to.

Chiu-Ki  I practiced technical questions and presenting myself as a professional by going to interviews for jobs that I didn't care for. Then I had competing offers on the table so I had some data about what companies offer. If you don't care about the job, you'll be more comfortable asking questions and making mistakes.

Rupa: You should picture yourself as male. Fight for it like a man would do.

Chiu-Ki: I tried to push the boundary and realized that the boundary was not there.

Rupa: With a recruiter it's okay to be aggressive. They expect it.

Q from Lauren from University of Richmond: Is there a limit in the appropriateness of negotiations depending on the position that you're applying for?

Rupa: If you are, say, in a state that you are being expected to work full time but will be unable to fulfill the obligations, don't lie.

Christine: Are you asking if there's a number that is perceived as obnoxious? I'm an engineer; everything is less terrifying when you have data. It is perfectly reasonable to ask what is the range for this position, when you apply.

Rupa: Go to and read reviews on what companies are like to work for. Look up the atmosphere for the group as well.

Q from Liz from ?? College: What would you tell someone that's entering the job market for the first time, that doesn't know what to get into?

Christine: It is hard to give a blanket statement. Work with people that know more than you do. The good thing about a start-up is that you have to do everything. In one place, I had to build my own desk; in some places, there are people that keep your computer running.

Rupa: My personal recommendation is, unless you are super entrepreneurial right off the bat, I would recommend a slightly mid-sized company so that you can learn the ropes. Once you learn the ropes, you can switch into a start-up where you have to know the ropes day one.

Chiu-Ki: My take on this? Internships. That's what they're for. Do one at a big company and do one at a start-up; then you have data.

Q from June from Indiana University of Wilmington: ???

Christine: Ask the company how many shares they have standing and what their valuation is. Do not believe them when they say their stock will split many times when they go public.

Q from ??: How do you balance being aggressive with being diplomatic?

Christine: Own your inner bitch.

[ Applause ]

Chiu-Ki: Most of us are leaning toward the non-aggressive side. It will be a long time before you become a bitch. You don't wake up in the morning and go, "Am I bitchy today?" Unless you have been told that, it is not a valid concern.

Q from ??: What is a polite way to reject an offer?

Rupa: I had 45 interviews in 3 months. I would talk to the recruiter and say, "I am very sorry, I have a competing offer that I just cannot refuse. You understand; the market is really hot. I would like you to keep me in mind and I hope we can talk again at a later point."

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