January Goals

This is the first January I’m spending on campus since freshman year, so I figured I might as well set some goals for the month.

  • Thesis: Fall semester was a bit hectic, so I wasn’t able to dedicate as much time as I would have liked to my thesis. I created an agile roadmap—complete with sprints and story point estimates—for myself, so I have some confidence that I can get myself back on track. As long as I keep up, I should actually be able to graduate, which is always good 🙂
  • Exercise: My friend’s lifting buddy is gone for the January term, so I volunteered to lift with her instead! Today was my first day lifting, and I’m proud to say that I haven’t injured myself yet. It should be a fun way to supplement my bi-weekly volleyball practices—who knows, I might even get a little stronger.
  • Clarinet: My goal is to practice at least 30 minutes of clarinet four times a week in addition to my clarinet lessons. So far, so good! It helps that I’ve discovered that the music practice room in my dorm is usually unoccupied.
  • Spend time with friends and family: I’ve already met up with some friends this past week, and I plan on continuing to do so throughout January since everyone is generally less stressed out these days. My brother also moved into his dorm across the river! He’s probably much busier than I am with his social and perhaps his academic life, but I’ll try to check up on him at least once in January.
  • Cooking: I should probably be more deliberate about feeding myself. Right now, I have a decent amount of food stocked up, so I should be able to cook at least a couple good meals for myself. Fingers crossed!

How has MIT shaped your perspective of the world?

I spent a decent amount of time in high school working with kids, and I really enjoyed doing so. At the same time, though, I thought it was a phase that I would eventually grow out of. To be honest, I felt judged sometimes for spending my time teaching children instead of working on some snazzy project with the robotics team like many of my classmates. My experiences at MIT, however, showed me that there most definitely is a role for people with technical backgrounds to create a meaningful impact through education.

  • Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET): I spent January 2017 in Jerusalem and Nazareth teaching for a bi-national program (founded by former MIT students) that brings together Palestinian and Israeli high school students and teaches them computer science and entrepreneurship skills. By the end of the 3-year program, the students will have created a startup that addresses a problem faced by both communities. Through that process, they will also have learned skills they need to create positive social and political change in the Middle East. Read more about my adventures here!
  • Yeomyung School: As part of the MIT Global Teaching Labsprogram, I spent January 2018 teaching a 2-week hands-on STEM workshop alongside three other MIT students at Yeomyung School, an alternative school for North Korean defectors in Seoul, Korea. This was probably one of the most challenging teaching experiences I’ve had because of the language barrier, but it was also one of the most meaningful because I was able to connect with my students even though we came from very different backgrounds. Read more about my adventures here!
  • CodeIt: During my four years at MIT, I was heavily involved with CodeIt, a program that teaches middle school girls how to code. As students, many things we do, like take classes, really only benefit ourselves directly, but with CodeIt, we had the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of young girls. This program is like my baby—I poured my heart and soul into improving the program each semester, and I’m so, so proud of how far CodeIt has come since it started my freshman year. An added bonus of being a part of CodeIt was meeting other individuals who also care deeply about education and technology 🙂
  • ScratchApp Inventor, and Khan Academy: I’m super lucky to have had the opportunity to contribute to all three of these educational technology platforms during my time as an MIT student. Scratch and App Inventor are block-based programming languages that empower people of all ages to build interactive games, animations, and mobile applications. Khan Academy is an online platform that makes a world-class education possible for anyone with an internet connection.
  • Prison Initiative: During my junior fall, I took a class titled “Non-Violence as a way of life” at MCI Norfolk, a medium-security prison. My classmates consisted of 15 MIT students and 15 inmates, and through our discussions on topics like forgiveness and restorative justice, I learned about the criminal justice system from a perspective that many people don’t often get to see. Taking this class sparked my interest in attending talks given by formerly incarcerated individuals and in volunteering with programs like Coders Beyond Bars.
  • Project Invent: I haven’t participated in Project Invent directly, but the founder of this non-profit, Connie Liu, is an MIT alum whom I really admire for starting a non-profit that empowers high school students to solve real-world problems. Personally, I think that’s one of the most important mindsets that we can teach students, and it makes me incredibly happy to know that there are people who are actually bringing that idea to life!

This answer ended up being much longer than I intended, but just to summarize, going to MIT helped me realize that it’s not just possible for someone with a technical background to contribute to the field of education, but rather, there are many, many ways in which technical people can make the world a better place through education.

Reproduced from my Quora answer

End of semester reflection

I just finished my first semester as an MEng student! It’s been a whirlwind of a semester, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect on everything that has happened these past couple of months.

  • Thesis progress: The new and improved App Inventor gallery is alive and well. The bare bones web app is mostly there, though there is much work to be done to make it production ready. Also, there are still several features from my original design that I still need/want to implement. Let’s hope that I can be super productive this January and crank out the remaining code prior to user testing.
  • TA for 6.00: My biggest time commitment/highest priority this semester has been doing work as a TA for the introductory programming class. I love being a TA for this course. My responsibilities included holding office hours, drafting problem sets, and answering student questions on the Piazza Q+A forum. I’m very proud of my nearly 3000 contributions to the Piazza forum. Not to brag or anything, but I received a decent number of shoutouts on the MIT Confessions page, too 🙂 It feels super rewarding to contribute to the learning of more than 500 students in the class.
  • Club volleyball: Joining the women’s club volleyball team was probably one of the best decisions I made this semester. I’ve met some super cool women on the court, and in general, playing a team sport is great motivation for me to exercise on a regular basis. I didn’t compete at any tournaments this semester, but I’m planning on competing next semester 🙂
  • Clarinet: Unfortunately, clarinet playing fell to the sidelines this semester. I continued taking lessons from Tom every couple of weeks, but to be honest, I didn’t practice all that much between lessons. My excuse is that traveling between San Francisco and Boston nearly every week does not leave much time or energy to practice. At the very least, winter break and IAP will be a good chance for me to resume my clarinet practice habits.
  • Cooking: I am sorry to say that my cooking skills have not improved. In fact, I might go as far as to say that they have gotten worse since the summer after freshman year. It’s pretty hard to motivate myself to cook quality meals for myself, so my goal over IAP is to cook with my roommates more often. Fingers crossed that this helps me at least maintain my current weight 😅
  • Job search: Studying for software engineering interviews actually paid off! I ended up landing offers from way more companies than I thought I would, so I had the opportunity to choose from some fantastic options. Without going into too much detail, I will note that the job selection process ending up being much more hectic, stressful, and emotionally draining than I expected. Fortunately, all the drama is finally over, and now I can just look forward to starting my first full-time job in August!

If I were to compare my undergraduate experience with the first semester of my master’s studies, I would say that while being an undergrad was extremely stressful due to academic and extracurricular demands, grad life has been more emotionally draining. In any case, I am more or less proud of what I’ve accomplished this past semester, though there are definitely things I’d like to continue working on next semester. Until then, I’m going to chill at home and hopefully catch up on all the books I wanted to read this past semester but never got to 😂

Objectifs pour le semestre

We’re already three weeks into the semester, but I figured it’s still worthwhile to go through and outline my goals for the semester.

  • Write a thesis proposal I’m proud of and get everything up and running in time for evaluation in January. My thesis proposal draft is almost done! I’ll be working on redesigning and implementing a new standalone gallery for App Inventor that promotes project sharing and increases discoverability of shared projects. I’m super excited to be tackling this project—I just hope I can finish everything in time.
  • Be an effective TA and help my students gain confidence in their ability to program. As a TA for the introductory computer programming class this semester, my number one goal is to help my students grow as programmers, whether they major in computer science or some other field that benefits from computing knowledge. It’s already been an exhilarating journey working with the course staff on designing psets and answering student questions on Piazza.
  • Exercise regularly with the volleyball team. It’s been a while since I played on my high school team, but I finally decided to return to the volleyball court! I figured it would be a neat way to meet more people and also to ensure that I get some exercise on a regular basis.
  • Learn a clarinet piece that I’m excited about. I won’t go into too much detail, but I ended up not being able to play chamber music this semester, which means that I also won’t be doing the Emerson program. I contemplated taking an early retirement from clarinet, but part of me didn’t want to quit quite yet. So I decided to keep taking lessons with Tom, and for once, I chose a piece to work on! Rhapsody in Blue, here we go.
  • Practice problem solving and keep learning outside of classes. I’m only taking one class this semester, so my stress levels are probably at an all-time low compared to the rest of my time here at MIT. At the same time, I’d like to treat this as an opportunity to learn outside the formal classroom. I’m trying real hard to get better at software engineering interviews, so spending time on HackerRank is definitely one of my priorities until I land a job offer. Also, I think there’s a lot I can learn about personal finance so that I can “adult” properly, especially post-graduation. Plus, my reading list on Goodreads has a ton of books that I should probably read.
  • Become a better cook. I’m no longer on the meal plan, which means that I have to fend for myself when it comes to food. It’s been a while since I cooked every meal with my friends the summer after freshman year, but I’m slowly getting back into the groove of things. Buying groceries is more annoying now that Star Market on Sidney Street is closed, but at least one of my roommates keeps me company during our weekly grocery shopping runs.
  • Be patient with life. I got a crown for tooth #30 in January, but somehow, the nerve in that tooth ended up dying. As a result, I had to get a root canal yesterday, and to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about it. Fortunately, the root canal itself was actually a pretty painless process, and I had a great dentist and dental assistant to thank for that. Unexpected situations like teeth emergencies get me riled up sometimes, but I just need to remember that these things happen, and that I need to be patient. Things will be okay.

I think I’ll leave things off with a Twitter post I found on my feed.

I’m about to embark on the oftentimes soul-crushing process of job searching, so I could really use a dose of positivity 🙂 Fingers crossed…

Anyone Can Learn Anything

This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to work at Khan Academy as a software engineering intern. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Khan Academy, it is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. The people at Khan Academy believe that you can learn anything, so I figured I would take this time to reflect on things I learned this summer.

Learning to work with remote coworkers

Khan Academy has a very remote-friendly work culture. This was my first time working at a company where only about 50% of the employees worked on-site. Thanks to Slack and Google Hangouts, communication about work went pretty smoothly; however, things like the time difference and missing out on “water cooler” talks made getting to know my remote coworkers a bit more challenging. One thing that I wish I had done as an intern was attend the remote tea-times. These bi-weekly meetings were designed for remote employees and on-site employees to gather and just chat about things that are not necessarily work-related. If I ever do find myself back at Khan Academy, one of the first things I would want to do is attend one of the remote tea-times 🙂

Learning about accessibility compliance

One of my projects this summer was to help the Learning Platform team rewrite the discussions feature. The old discussions feature had a lot of room for improvement with regards to accessibility. For instance, learners who navigate through the site exclusively with a screenreader might have had trouble interacting with different parts of the discussion tools. Working on the discussions rewrite definitely made me more conscious of how the tiniest details can make a huge difference in how easy or difficult it is for a user to engage with the interface. Simply adding a few ARIA attributes and updating the focus element already saves the user from having to tab through the entire document to see what changed after the click of a button. Although this probably was not the most technically challenging project I’ve ever tackled, I truly had a blast tag-teaming with my co-workers on a project that helps Khan Academy truly be a platform where anyone can learn anything.

Learning what to look for in a job

One of my favorite parts about working at Khan Academy this summer was being surrounded by people who are incredibly passionate about the mission of the company. The engineers at Khan Academy are incredibly bright, and I’m sure many of them could easily have chosen to work somewhere that pays them more than a non-profit organization. However, they choose to work at Khan Academy because they know their skills are being used for a really good cause. The office walls are filled with testimonials from students, teachers, and parents saying how Khan Academy has changed their lives for the better. Some of my favorites are from students who couldn’t afford fancy test prep courses or books, but because of Khan Academy’s free SAT prep, they scored high enough on the standardized tests to earn college scholarships. It’s quite remarkable if you think about it.

Everyone has different priorities when it comes to job searching, and I think this past summer has helped me narrow down my top priorities. First and foremost, I want a job where I genuinely enjoy working with my coworkers and where we all feel like we’re contributing to a worthy cause. As long as I’m in an environment where I feel comfortable asking other people for help and working with them to solve problems, I think I’ll learn a lot during my first few years in the workforce.

All in all, I very much enjoyed my internship at Khan Academy, and I hope that I’m just as happy wherever I end up full-time *fingers crossed* 🙂

Personalized Learning Tools

My opinion of the education technology scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years. Whenever people hear that I’m interested in both computer science and education, their default response tends to be something along the lines of, “You should work for edX or Khan Academy!” When I was a freshman in college, I was totally on board with that idea. However, after realizing that my favorite part of teaching was getting to know my students on a deeper level and pushing them to achieve more, I became less interested in the idea of building technology that put curriculum online because I thought it seemed impersonal.

I was also somewhat influenced by Dan Meyer’s blog post “Problems with Personalized Learning” from March 2017. In the blog post, Dan highlights some of his concerns about an article written about personalized learning.

Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.

I’ll be honest—reading this blog post made me question the effectiveness of all the personalized learning tools I had heard about. However, after reading Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, I realized that there was nothing wrong per se about the tools themselves. The problem was assuming that the simple act of incorporating “personalized learning” tools in the classroom would automatically make students learn better. The tool itself is not the solution. Rather the tool makes it possible for teachers and students to have more meaningful interactions in the classroom.

Sal explains that by having students watch lecture videos on their own time, teachers can invest classroom time in working one-on-one with students and personalize the explanations they give them. Student performance tracking on platforms like Khan Academy help teachers identify which students are struggling and on which concepts, which in turn allows teachers to address specific pain points for students.

Another way in which tools like Khan Academy pave the way for personalized learning is by making mastery learning possible. Students should not move onto more advanced topics until they have demonstrated mastery of the foundational concepts. Mastery learning is generally not feasible with the traditional school system because the entire class moves together from unit to unit regardless of whether or not the student has actually mastered the previous unit’s material. However, by letting students move at their own pace, Khan Academy opens the doors to mastery learning, which I would argue is a key to truly personalized learning.

Just having the right tools doesn’t mean that the problem will be solved. It’s equally important, if not more important, to use the tools properly. Funnily enough, this lesson helped me realize that tools that might seem impersonal on the surface can, in fact, open the doors to more personal interactions.

The final countdown

There’s a little more than a month left of school, which means nostalgia is beginning to set in. As I look back at my college years, I’m somewhat overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned and grown since I first stepped onto campus my freshman year.

I think I’ll wait until I’ve actually graduated before doing my whole “look back on college life” post, so in the meantime, I’m just going to reflect on a few things that have happened this past semester.

To drop or not to drop

I dropped a class around four or five weeks into the semester, which is the latest I have ever dropped a class. My team was having some team dynamic issues, which really stressed me out. Every time we had an assignment due, all I would ever talk about with my friends was how frustrated I was with how my team was working.

At some point, I decided we needed to have a team meeting to discuss how things were going. I voiced my concerns and asked for ways in which we could alleviate the situation. I actually left that meeting feeling quite optimistic about the rest of the semester. Long story short, things didn’t get much better, so I decided it wasn’t worth the continual stress to remain in that class.

Dropping that class was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make because I didn’t want to abandon my team, and I didn’t want to feel like I was just giving up when the going got tough. However, I realized that sometimes I have to choose my battles. I don’t have to fight the hardest battles every time just because they are the hardest. If what I’m fighting for is not worth the struggle, then it is okay not to go up for that fight.

Turns out that decision was probably one of the best decisions I have made this semester. I quickly went from being miserable all the time to feeling the happiest and least stressed I have felt during my four years in college. (Also, it just so happens that the class structure changed, and the teams were disbanded soon after I dropped the class. Fortunately, my team did not suffer the consequences of being short one member.)

Showing up

Back when I was a freshman, a professor once told my class that opportunities are everywhere, and all you have to do is show up to learn about them. Someone in my lab emailed out about a Science of Learning Journal Club meeting, and I decided to go. Even though I had to shift around some other commitments and skip lunch to read the journal paper, I’m really glad I did so because I had a blast at the journal discussion.

I’m proud of myself for going even though I didn’t know a single person who attended that discussion. I was the only student among a bunch of Open Learning staff members, so I definitely felt out of place at first. Fortunately, they were actually super excited to have a student’s voice join their discussion. I’ve never felt so special just to be a student.

During the span of one hour, I met some incredible people who all care deeply about education and participated in some thought-provoking discussions about learning science concepts. I can’t wait to see everyone again next month because even though we represent very different demographics, I still felt like I had found my people.