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…

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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.

Lessons Learned

I’m in the final four weeks of my internship, so a post about what I’ve learned this summer is probably long overdue. Last week was a rather turbulent week for me, so I figured it would be worth compiling a list of my key takeaways from the incident.

Here’s some context. My project is to implement a new feature for the Android app. Another intern has been working on the same feature for the iOS app; however, because the iOS team started implementing the feature long before the Android team started its own implementation, the iOS feature is much closer to completion than the Android counterpart.

It was always clear to me how far ahead the iOS team was with the feature, but I didn’t realize until last week that the way the Android team had originally intended to implement the new feature was completely unreasonable—it would have required rewriting large chunks of the app, which was definitely not happening anytime soon. As soon as my teammate and I came to this realization, we had a sync up meeting with the product manager and designers to redefine the scope of the project. We ultimately decided on reusing much more legacy code, which greatly reduced the scope of my project.

To be completely honest, when we first decided to re-scope my project, I was really disappointed. I was disappointed that some of my code would be completely scrapped. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be implementing some of the cooler designs according to the original plan. But most of all, I was disappointed in myself. As the intern assigned to complete this project, I blamed myself for not keeping my manager better up-to-date on the progress of the project. I blamed myself for not pointing out how behind schedule we were according to the roadmap. I blamed myself for not realizing sooner that the game plan I was given was doomed to fail.

When I told my manager how I felt during our 1:1 meeting, he told me not to blame myself. While I do understand that I am not completely to blame, I can’t help but think of what I wish I had done differently. Here’s the list:

  • Make milestones as fine-grained as needed. Sometimes that means making your own milestones, too. I was given three large milestones for my project, but what I didn’t realize I needed was smaller subtasks for each of those milestones. My strategy has always been to do as much work as I can each day. It’s worked great for me in the past, but unfortunately, for this particular project, that strategy failed me. It made me blind to the fact that I was way off track and prevented me from evaluating my progress accurately.
  • Make it a priority to know who is involved with your project and in what capacity. One of the biggest problems I faced was not knowing who to voice my concerns to. Early on, my gut was telling me that I wasn’t working as effectively as I could be, but I wasn’t sure who to go to for help. If only I had established a point-of-contact for big picture questions, maybe things would have gone down differently.
  • Write a design doc. Last summer, I wrote a design doc for my feature but didn’t really think much of it. I thought it was just something everyone had to do as part of the process. Now that I look back, however, writing that design doc was a crucial planning tool that probably saved me a lot of trouble down the line. Even though no one explicitly told me to write a design doc for my feature this summer, I would have benefited greatly from doing so, even if only informally. My teammates could have given me feedback on the game plan and perhaps even foreseen the roadblock earlier.
  • Don’t be afraid to question the game plan, and certainly don’t assume that what you are given is correct. My most harmful assumption was assuming that because it was an intern project, someone else must have done a thorough job scoping out the specifications and creating the game plan. Full-time employees are not always given perfectly scoped projects, so it doesn’t make sense to assume that my project would be perfectly scoped either. As an intern, I had the additional handicap of being unfamiliar with the codebase. There’s no penalty for questioning the feasibility of certain approaches, and I should, by all means, question the validity of decisions being made. In the end, we’re trying to build the best product possible, which requires thinking critically and being able to back up our decisions.

People usually think of software engineering internships as opportunities to learn new technologies and to discover what it means to write production-worthy code. That’s certainly what I expected to get out of this summer, and it’s true that I did gain some exposure to writing Android apps—though in a distinctly Square manner. However, it’s going to be a long time before I forget how disappointed and frustrated I felt when my project was re-scoped so late into the game. Moving forward into the future, I’ll be sure to keep the lessons above in mind so that I never find myself in the same situation again.

Connecting through language

MEET - January 2017

Many students in the US take at least one foreign language class during their high school careers. As with most things, some students hate their foreign language classes, some love them, and some could care less about them. I learned French in high school and actually really enjoyed it. The nerdy side of me enjoyed mastering various verb conjugations and learning new vocabulary words. And of course, watching French movies was quite entertaining. Since arriving in the Middle East, however, I have discovered what I think is an even more important outcome of learning a foreign language.

True Story #1:

After spending a long night at the open session for Nazareth students, Ted and I go for a walk near our hostel. Ted wants me to meet his “potato friend” whom he had met the previous week. We arrive at the door of a small baked potato shop and are welcomed in by a man…

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Something New

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I’ve been in Jerusalem for 18 days now. The newness of being in a different country has gradually worn off, which means that I’ve had more time to think about my surroundings. The other day, I found myself really upset, and I was having a hard time articulating why. Now, I realize that it was because I felt like an outsider—I don’t belong here.

All my life, I’ve lived in places where it was relatively easy for me to fit in. I was familiar with the culture and the customs, and I always managed to find food that was familiar to my taste buds. But here, no matter what I say or do, I’ll always look different from everyone else. And while the food here is great and an adventure in and of itself, I really do miss Asian food.

But then I reminded myself why I decided to relocate to Jerusalem in the first place. It is a city flooded with religious and historical significance, and I was eager to learn as much as I could about it all. The cuisine would be different from what I was used to, but I figured it was about time that I grow out of my picky-eater lifestyle. And probably most importantly, I wanted to meet the people who love and care about this region so much that they would fight to protect it.

Every single one of those reasons involved experiencing something new. Of course, it would be uncomfortable. Of course, I wouldn’t feel at home. That’s the whole point of new experiences.

Humans are social beings, and when it comes down to it, all we want is to be accepted. I fell into the trap of thinking that to be accepted, I needed to be like everyone else here. But quite frankly, that’s out of my control.

What I can do, however, is continue learning as much as I can about this region and the wonderful people who live here. My job is not to blend into society here, but rather to stretch my mind with these new experiences. When I leave Jerusalem in two weeks’ time, I’ll be taking with me a new strength: a new lens with which to view and appreciate the world around me.

The Upside of Irrationality for Learning

People are irrational creatures. As much as we might like to say that we always make rational decisions, this simply is not true. I’m in the middle of reading Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, and I thought I would share some of my insights regarding how understanding people’s irrational tendencies can make us better teachers and learners.

Ariely conducted an experiment to test what he calls the IKEA effect. His hypothesis was that when people put in the effort to create things (e.g. when they put together their own IKEA furniture), they attribute more value to their creation. Without going into the details of the actual experiment, I can tell you that the IKEA effect indeed exists. Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon by giving students more control over their learning, thus providing them with more ownership over the material.

In a separate study, Ariely also found that when people are required to spend more effort on a particular task, they attribute more value to the final product. However, if the task is tricky to a point that the person does not complete the product, then the attributed value drops to below that of an easier but finished product. This finding supports the idea that students learn best when in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). In other words, we should be aiming to provide students with tasks that are just outside the bounds of the students’ current abilities, but that can be completed with some guidance from the teacher. The amount of expected guidance from the teacher is important to consider, however, because as mentioned previously, students should still feel like they contributed significantly to the completion of the task.

These ideas about teaching are by no means revolutionary. However, I thought it was an interesting exercise to consider how people’s irrational behavior can explain why certain teaching techniques may be effective.