Rubber ducks and research

I am starting my second semester as a PhD student at Georgia Tech, working on computing education research with advisor Mark Guzdial. Atlanta has extremely variable weather, and so fog is not nearly as common as in Monterey County. With that in mind, I needed to change the theme of the blog… but to what?

Rubber ducks and rubber duck de-bugging were a theme I integrated into my TA training programs, to emphasize the value of student self-explanation (as opposed to TA-led explanation). I gave out little rubber ducks during TA orientation each semester, and always made sure a duck was present in the student computing lab at Cal State Monterey Bay.

Rubber ducking it

I think that the rubber duck also connects nicely to my current research interests. At the moment, I am investigating student “sketching” or “doodling” techniques and what they might reflect about students’ understanding of the notional machine. Creating a sketch of code execution presents an opportunity to refine understanding of the notional machine, and also feels very similar to explaining code to that handy rubber duck.

Here’s to a great new semester and to some great new research!

What do I do at work?

I am heading to graduate school this fall, and so the CSin3 team at CSUMB and Hartnell are searching for a new Computer Science Education Coordinator. This post is meant to clarify the work in the position and possibly encourage you to apply for the position!

It took me a while to figure out how to succinctly describe my job. Here’s my best shot:

Short version: I run academic support programs for computer science students.

Long version: I help students from underrepresented backgrounds get computer science Bachelor’s degrees by supporting students in an accelerated cohort program with tracking, enrichment activities, and mentorship. I also manage and develop curriculum for multiple computer science TA programs.

To my knowledge, I don’t know of anyone who has a job like mine in the CS Ed space.

One reason is the startup feel. For the last few years, my team at CSU Monterey Bay and Hartnell College has been building unusual computer science education programs from the ground up, with a big impact on students in the primarily agricultural Salinas Valley. In this environment, I’ve been able to propose new programs and run them, while also improving and sustaining my role academically supporting the accelerated degree students. Our North Star is improved student academic and job outcomes, and I do whatever I can to help students be successful.

Another reason is that the position is in-between many typical staff/faculty/student boundaries. I was an undergrad myself recently enough to remember the college experience (in good times and bad), what it’s like to learn programming, and how it feels to look in on the tech industry with some skepticism about belonging, so in some ways I’m like a student. I run course-like enrichment sessions and develop material used by teaching assistants for programming courses—things more typically done by faculty.

What is a typical week for me?

Academically track the ~90 students in CSin3, and do interventions for students falling behind.

Example: Student X has a low grade in class Y. I set up a meeting with X to discuss what’s going on. After some conversation and listening, it becomes clear that X has taken on too many extracurricular activities and doesn’t have time to complete projects or visit tutors. I assure X that X won’t be letting anyone down by quitting the activities, and help X craft emails to send to extracurricular leaders. We talk about the upcoming project and identify times X will visit the TAs for course Y, and then set a follow-up check-in time.

Things I use to make this happen:

  • working relationship with faculty, or helping students understand how to calculate their own grades
  • working relationships with students, and a level of trust, understanding, and belief that I care about the students’ future
  • an understanding of typical reasons why students do poorly in courses, and remedies for those problems when possible (not enough time on task, poor prior knowledge, stress, fear of seeming stupid)

Lead enrichment session for first-year CSin3 students

Example first semester session: Ask students how they’re doing and how their courses are going. Take a few minutes to check out interesting tech-related things posted on the CSin3_links twitter account. Review recent intro programming concepts with Peer Instruction questions targeting misconceptions. Have students review course syllabi and map out all their assignments across the entire semester, to pre-identify “hard” weeks. Remind students of tutor hours and share any other announcements.

Example second semester session: Review recent object-oriented programming concepts with Peer Instruction questions targeting misconceptions. Have students research different non-traditional CS careers and face off rap-battle style to see which career is the best. Answer student questions about LinkedIn.

Things I use to make this happen:

  • an understanding of typical areas students need more help in (study skills, time management, programming skills, teamwork, knowledge of tutoring resources)
  • an understanding of what freshmen need to succeed in computer science careers specifically (resume creation, understanding of career possibilities, programming skills)
  • some jokes to wake students up in the morning

Train computer science TAs and Peer-Led Team Learning Leaders at CSU Monterey Bay and Hartnell College

Example: Guide TA program coordinators to develop a good activity about tutoring skills for that week’s training. Make sure the weekly problem set for TA-led review sessions is up to standards by adding a new question about arrays. Check on the lab where TAs hold their office hours to make sure it’s a welcoming environment.

Things I use to make this happen:

  • an idea of what makes a good tutor (professionalism, content knowledge, and understanding of how students learn)
  • ability to direct and lead tutors through worthwhile training
  • ability to diffuse problems between tutors and faculty or tutors and students
  • ability to create intro programming materials (CS1, CS2)
  • understanding of student tutor payroll system

More stuff I do:

  • Random meetings with students about resumes, life concerns, or anything else

  • Attend computer science academic and staff meetings to stay integrated into what’s going on in the department.

  • Attend meetings with my team, which is working on various grants to increase the number of computer science students who graduate from CSUMB, especially underrepresented students.

  • Occasional grant-writing, trips to Silicon Valley, and more paperwork

I don’t think that the person who goes into my role necessarily has to do everything I’ve done. I kept coming up with new things for myself to do, which maybe wasn’t the best work-life-balance-wise :). The most important thing is that the person in this role is motivated to see students succeed, and believes in the potential of each and every student.

I’ve learned so much over the last few years, gotten better at all of the things I mentioned above, and formed so many amazing relationships. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do such impactful work and change lives.

If you find this interesting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me (@katieirenec)! I would love to talk to you about this :)

New website!

Welcome to my new website! Moving off Blogspot to a custom website powered by a static site generator has been a goal of mine for a while, and now it’s done! I hope you enjoy my site as much as I enjoyed learning Jekyll and using the beautiful Hyde layout.

I plan to use this site as a hub for links to all the work I do, and also to blog occasionally about computer science education topics.

Why “Fog”? Well, there’s a whole lot of fog here in Monterey! But not all the time.

Some tide pools in Pacific Grove A blimp taking off outside Hartnell College Fields south of Salinas