Beth Simon Interview: Selected Quotes


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First computing course: Eventually you could win

I went to a small rural school in southern Indiana, very small town, but it was near Indiana University. But in this small town we actually had a computer science course in my high school. But I did not want to take it because I didn't like ... the teacher who gave it was not good at keeping control in the classroom. And all the boys just took it and they played video games and messed around with stuff. But my dad wanted me to study ... to try computing. So he bought ... we had a computer, one of the few families that had a computer. He bought a Turbo Pascal book, the Borland Turbo Pascal book. And I said, "I won't take the class and do it" (and they were doing BASIC or something), so I did an independent study. I sat in the typing lab, which had IBMs, and I put my Borland Pascal disk in and I probably worked through the first chapter or two, I don't know, in the semester. I would type in the programs and try to fix them. I did that because he made me, you know? He was like, "You're going to do this." And I said, "OK." [...] I really liked it. And what I liked about it was because you would type in a program and it may or may not work, but you didn't have to wait for, like, your math teacher to turn in your homework and tell you whether it worked or not. You just ran it and it would tell you if there was a problem. And the error messages were actually kind of meaningful back in Pascal. So then you'd, like, "Hmm, OK, I can fix something." And so you'd change one line and try it again and it was iterative and you got feedback. And eventually you could win. You would get it right and the computer would do what you wanted it to do which, albeit wasn't much, but it still felt like you won. And so I really enjoyed that part.

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The know-it-all guy doesn't make it through

One of the best things about my first computer science class was there was a know-it-all guy who had some previous experience -- I mean, I guess I had previous experience too, but I didn't ... certainly never said that, I don't think, to any of my colleagues or friends in the class. But this guy was one of these know-it-alls who tried to always show off. And the instructor would just [sound of clapping hands] snap down on him whenever he tried to show off in class and pretend to know things he didn't know. And I felt that that was really comforting to me because I was very quiet but then I was getting As on the exams, and here was this guy, and he didn't pass the class. He never made it through.

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An "honorary graduate student" with a CRA-W mentorship

[T]he CRA-W's the Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women. And their project they have is the Distributed Mentorship Project, which is undergraduate women can apply and be paired with a faculty member not in their own institution, someplace else, and go for the summer. I think of it being ... you get to be an honorary graduate student. And they really emphasize being placed in a laboratory where you work with graduate students. And I just had incredible mentoring in doing that, and met many graduate students. And it was not so much the technical experience that really made it great for me, but it was the social experience of knowing this is what graduate labs are like, this is what graduate students do. Talking everyday to graduate students. We would go out to coffee all the time. "How did you apply?" "What do you put?" "How do you choose where to go?" "How do you work with an advisor?" "What are the perils and pitfalls?" "How do you succeed?" And that was what gave me, certainly, the confidence that I could make this work.

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I just wanted to teach students computer science

And when I started out I really enjoyed the research that we did. We worked in compilers and, you know, and I was taking my classes. [... L]ike many graduate students I got to the point where I really wasn't very excited about my research, and I didn't find it very personally meaningful. [... Y]ou know, I hated what I did at some point, so you can imagine I probably didn't work a whole lot, get a whole lot accomplished, because I sort of felt like, you know, "Why am I doing this? Who is this going to help? If I produce another branch predictor for a particular computer architecture, no one's ever going to use it. Intel's already done other things that are better. And they can't tell me about them. And what am I going to ... how is this meaningful?" So I really ... when I went into graduate school, I knew I could do the research, but I thought I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to teach. I'd always been very good at mentoring other students and helping people with their homework. And so I thought, you know, "I'll try out this research stuff," and you have to do it, I knew you had to do it to get a Ph.D. And you need a Ph.D. to get a good job teaching. But I thought, "I'll probably teach some place like where I went to undergraduate." So certainly toward the end of my graduate career, I thought, "I just have to get out of here! I have to finish, so I can go teach." And I did interview for a job that happened to be available, a teaching position in San Diego, a year and a ... sort of a little bit before I was ready to defend, and then said, "I won't be available until December." But I was ready to be done, and I just wanted to teach students computer science.

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Continued interest in performance, but a change of contexts

So I enjoyed teaching there, and I pretty much stopped doing research. I saved a few things from my thesis, and I sort of saved those so that I could have publications that would count for tenure. But after, I didn't really want to do research anymore, so I just focused on teaching. But after a couple of years I realized, I used to study performance. I used to study the performance of programs on supercomputers, the performance of computer architecture. And I realized I actually did care about performance again. But I cared about the performance of my students. And it was very ... it was a similar question but it was a different question.

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Less than desired impact in the small class

And so that's what led me to leave the University of San Diego, because I found a renewed interest in research, and I wanted to do research on how students learn, and I wanted to have a real impact with my ... on growing understanding of how people learn and how we should make that change in the classroom. And I just didn't feel like I had the time, because I had a heavy teaching load with maybe five to six different classes a year, which is not that bad actually. But I also just didn't have the outreach to students. They had such small classes. And I felt, "I put all this time into really making this great classroom experience for something, and I only reach seven students." And, you know, even if it's seven great students, there's going to be multiple days in the term where none of them want to be there. And that was ... I felt like I put such effort into every class, and I just didn't have the impact I wanted.

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Lecturer with Security of Employment

So at most large research institutions there's three parts to your job: there's research, teaching, and service. But research is by far the most important of those three, and mostly how you're evaluated. A Lecturer with Security of Employment series, the focus is on teaching, professional standing, and service. And professional standing has a very broad definition. You can do some research or you can do curricular development, or just be known in your area in education. But it's education-focused.

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With 150 students, somebody's going to be happy

And so I was very drawn to it because here I would be the expert in the department on education, and I would get the chance to teach lots of CS1, the first computing class, which I was very interested in. And I could reach lots of students, I have classes of 150, you know? And I really, really enjoy that. Because every day you go into class somebody's happy from the effort that you put in. If there's 150 of them, somebody's going to be happy. And the students are very excited, I like having them in the first term, and they really appreciate the effort that I put into my classes. And I found that I could still run very interactive classes where I really felt like I got to know a lot of the students, even with 150.

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Embracing active learning full-on

My teaching philosophy is very much the guide on the side and not the sage on the stage. I have over the course of -- I've been teaching, say four to five years in the classroom -- and I have moved more and more from an interactive lecture style, where I would present some material and then try to solve problems with students and get them to do that, to this last year I finally embraced full-on. I do only active learning. I do almost no lecture in the classroom. I designed ... I looked at ... the way I transferred to this is that I looked at my lecture slides about the content that we wanted to get people to understand, especially in beginning programming.

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Better to see incorrect code in class

And then I bring them all back together and we go over examples again that people send in electronically, anonymously, and I can quickly show them. And we show the errors, the common errors, and we show that everybody makes these common errors. And the way we approach it is, "Well, just don't do this on your homework, OK? I'm showing you ... it's much better to show you the stuff that doesn't work so that you don't make these mistakes, than to show you correct code." Because they're never going to write correct code the first time. So what good does it do to show them that? You've got to show them incorrect code and how to analyze it and look at it critically so that you can get from incorrect code to correct code.

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Why aren't we all doing pair programming?

[L]ast year at ITiCSE in Bologna, I was at a talk where a person was reporting on pair programming in a first computing class. And there was this discussion at the end, a very famous guy in our field, Ray Lister, raised his hand at the end and said, "Great, we have another paper telling us about the benefits of pair programming in a beginning computer course." And he said, "I just need to ask the audience. So we've reported on a number of things that pair programming's good in CS1. Has anybody reported anything that it doesn't work well or there's problems?" And people said, "Well, no, not really, everything seems to be good." And he said, "OK, for any of you people out there who have done this research, are you hiding anything? Is there anything you haven't told us?" There were a few little caveats, "Well, there's this little thing and that little thing." And he said, "So why aren't we all doing it in our classrooms? How many more research papers will it take before we all do pair programming?" And I thought, "Well, he's right! Why am I not doing this?" And it was that experience through that professional organization, coming to the conference, I put that pair programming in CS1 last year, and I think it was incredibly valuable. And I chose to evaluate it, and report back to my colleagues in a different method than I'd seen anybody else do, which everyone else I've seen has done very quantitative measures of improved student scores, and I've just completed a study where we interviewed twelve students to ask them to compare pair and solo programming experiences.

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The support of my professional community

And that's where the professional organization is so meaningful to me, because there aren't that many people at my institution who really think as deeply and carefully about learning and computer science education. And when I come to the conferences and the workshops that are supported by my professional community, it's just like coming to a group of friends. And we just talk and everybody's so open. You don't have to know anybody, but you all have this shared experience that you're doing this very hard thing. And that is just invaluable. And that's been what's been the big draw for me.

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A conscious decision to be career focused

Currently I'm in a stage where, very consciously, I've chosen to be career-focused right now. When I moved to the University of California, San Diego two years ago, I knew I was moving to a community that had a lot of resources, and there would be people I could work with, people in education, people in sociology, people in the Sixth College. And so I said, "For a while I'm going to open up a little bit, I'm going to say ‘yes' to things that come along." And I knew that at some point I'd need to start saying "no," because I would have too many things going on. And I think I'm getting to the point, certainly if I was staying ... if I was going to be at the University of California, San Diego this year, I'd need to be careful, and worry about that balance. Because it got a little out of hand this year. I've got a little too much research going on, a little too much travel. And I just ... you know, I want to have a more balanced life.

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Making change in our culture and our communities

The most important thing that I would say to people is that you want to try things when you're thinking about what your career is. You want to try things and not do things because your parents told you to, even though that worked out really well for me. But you want to try things and consider options. And just realize it's okay to change your mind. And to think about the fact that computing has power for every discipline. That, you know, some of the best advances being made in biology, I think, are being made as a result of computing. And that advances in chemistry, everything is ... we have this computing focus. So if you can think of how to apply something that you're interested in and computing, or if you ... there is real potential there. And you can be a person who really makes a change in our culture and our communities for good, by applying this resource that exists, that honestly is still incredibly under-utilized.