Monday, January 31, 2011

WISE Steps to Success a Big Success

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, The Female Perspective of Computer Science.

Last Wednesday CU-WISE held a professional development event called WISE Steps to Success for a second year.  It's one of our flagship events, and was designed to give women in science and engineering the networking, negotiation, and confidence skills we aren't taught in class.

From the event description:
There's more to success than just passing your courses. There are a lot of skills to be learned outside of the classroom that greatly contribute to your future. And the earlier you start learning them, the earlier you can reach your goals.

Carleton's WISE, IEEE WIE, and Career Services have joined forces to give you the career building essentials and help you stand out. Whether you are actively looking for a job or not, this is an event you don't want to miss. This year we have also teamed up with local organization Dress for Success.

The event is free for Carleton's women in sciences and engineering, and will include a light dinner and dessert. You will hear from experts on networking, the importance of making a great first impression, dressing for success, confidence building, and negotiation skills. You will also have the opportunity to speak to mentors from academia and industry, to meet other students in your field, and to practice your skills.
This event was a huge success.  We had great attendance by both Carleton students and industry and academic mentors.  We saw a lot of networking happening during the breaks between talks, and the three speakers were amazing.

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Best of all, I didn't even have to organize the event - four amazing Executives and Officers did it all! I got to play event photographer instead. ;)  You can see more photos from the event on Flickr.

The Speakers

Moyra McDill, a professor in engineering at Carleton, spoke about her experiences being the first woman to graduate with a degree from Mechanical Engineering at Carleton.  She told us about the "life rocks" philosophy.  She started with an empty measuring cup and added large rocks representing the most important things in her life, like family.  She then added smaller rocks into the spaces, sand in the remaining spaces, and water after all of that.  The point was that it's amazing how much you can fit into your life; just start with the big rocks, because you can't put those in after the sand/water/small stuff is already in there.

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Next up was Andrew Moizer with an enthusiastic message about self-confidence and some tips on negotiation.  He encouraged everyone to step out of their comfort zone often.  I personally enjoyed his story very much, as he went from a big-wig in high tech to an entrepreneur with his own cattle farm. Talk about outside the comfort zone! What's really cool is his farm and cafe are in a small town my family and I visit frequently (it's on the other side of us from Ottawa).  I'm looking forward to visiting his and his wife's cafe soon.

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Finally, by chance, a friend of mine was our last speaker.  Louise Grace came on behalf of Dress for Success Ottawa, whose mission is "to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life."  She told us about what Dress for Success does and then gave us tips on making the best first impression possible.  Her fashion advice was practical and reasonable, which I always appreciate, being someone who isn't all that into clothes.  I will always remember to check my shoes for salt stains before an important meeting or interview now thanks to Louise. ;)

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fun classroom trick

I'm not sure I believe the title which claims this video to be the Best Math Prank Ever, but it is definitely a memorable lecture! You may not know it, but some of our profs here also pull some neat stunts. I fondly remember a magic show put on by a professor of... I think it was economics? If only I could remember who it was and convince him to put videos online too!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Canada + boiling water = instant fog

Now that we're getting down to -20C in Ottawa, it's time for a Wednesday fun science experiment! It had never occurred to me to try throwing boiling water outside in the middle of winter, but darned if it isn't a neat effect.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Math class doodles: binary trees

Despite the fact that I grew up to earn a degree in mathematics, I remember math classes in my elementary school as pretty much the dullest subject on earth. Which is probably one of the reasons I love Vi's doodles so much. Experiencing mathematics through doodling while bored seems way more fun than paying attention did. Here's a video of binary tree and fractal doodles to spice up your beginning of term review boredom:

Still bored? Check out the other neat stuff at

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

They Might be Giants: Science is Real

Today's Wednesday fun video is the cute music video for They Might Be Giants' song "Science is Real". Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Brunswick girl youngest to discover a supernova

Having been part of a field naturalist club when I was in public school, I really love stories of amateur scientists with big impacts:

Ten-year-old Kathryn Gray had lots of fun over the winter holidays. She especially liked going to Nova Scotia to visit with family.

Then, after returning home to New Brunswick, she discovered a supernova about 240 million light years away.

You can read more about her discovery in the Globe and Mail.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I'm doing science (and I'm still alive): Games and the scientific method

Cross-posted from my personal blog

It's the time of year where people evaluate their lives and look back over the previous year, and with that in mind, I'm going to bring you a not-about-new-years post about gaming and science to mess up your reflective blog feeds. If it helps, it's a reflective post about gaming and science.

But they were pretty good at figuring out how to defeat the bosses. One day she found out why. A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they'd develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked -- and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn't work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they'd collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. "They'd be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive," Steinkuehler recalls.

That's when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.

You can read the rest here: "How Videogames Blind Us With Science"

My gut reaction to this article (which is actually several years old, but new to me) is "well, duh." When we neighbourhood kids got interested in a new game, we might have skipped the spreadsheets, but we definitely would resort to exploring in a structured manner if we got stuck. We'd compare notes, share ways to beat challenges, and sometimes try to improve upon the techniques (only sometimes because many games weren't really flexible enough to have multiple solutions).

I guess I'm missing some of that collaborative effort nowadays in that I can always just look up game faqs if I got stuck... but because I like people and because my brother and I grew up with a community of friends to ask for help rather than a community of internet FAQs and wikis, sometimes I ask people instead of the internet because it's more fun. And goodness knows, my sister and I have been comparing Super Scribblenauts solutions all week. ("You solved that with a mosquito? Why didn't I think of that? I made an undead blood-sucking harpy!")

I grew up in a household with two scientist parents, so not only was experimentation a daily fact of life, but the word "hypothesis" came into our lexicons fairly early on. I've grown up looking through life through a very scientific lens as a result (also a very biology-oriented filter, which accounts for my very ecologically-oriented view of computer security, but that's another story). My parents were constantly frustrated with my early science education, and I'll bet they'll find this next paragraph pretty familiar:

One of the reasons kids get bored by science is that too many teachers present it as a fusty collection of facts for memorization. This is precisely wrong. Science isn't about facts. It's about the quest for facts -- the scientific method, the process by which we hash through confusing thickets of ignorance. It's dynamic, argumentative, collaborative, competitive, filled with flashes of crazy excitement and hours of drudgework, and driven by ego: Our desire to be the one who figures it out, at least for now. It's dramatic and nutty and fun.

I actually didn't go into proper experimental science because I'm terrible at drudgework... easily bored, and not very good at the rigour required, and used to be prone to spending more time avoiding a boring task than doing it (at least until I learned perl and other automation tools). (My sister became the scientist, since as she likes to put it "I excel at boring tasks" -- but it's really that she's organized, precise, and takes a lot of joy in implementing a consistent system. I went into security because I like breaking things; she does regulatory work because she likes making things consistent. Sometimes, we have noticeable overlap in our skills and jobs, other times not so much.) I went into non-experimental computer science, though, because I love the collaboration and the competition and the ideas and the learning. But I hadn't really thought about my unsuitability for experimental science as being related to the reason I don't go into massively multiplayer online games hoping to be the first on the server to down some big raid boss.

But I do science with every new game I play, as do my friends. When we picked up Dominion (a card game which includes a variety of types of cards, and you chose some subset of them to use for any given ame), we'd play a few rounds and argue strategies and then try to implement them in different ways to see how they played against each other, or changed the groupings of cards to see how it changed the strategy. I guess maybe some people play these things closer to their chests and won't share with their friends, but we toss in a few new cards and suggest to play off each other because that's part of what makes it fun for us.

So now I'm thinking... what to games do to make sure they stay in that fun exploratory part of science and avoid the drudgework? And the answer of course is that they don't really avoid the drudgework. Earlier games had you wandering around "grinding" to get your character high enough level to take on the big boss... Let me tell you, playing final fantasy III on my DS was at times significantly less fun than "grinding" courses for my PhD has been. But they've done a lot to provide fun while you do that. One relatively modern invention has been letting players level their guild (I first saw this in Dungeons and Dragons online, but I expect the idea's been around longer... it's only recently gone into World of Warcraft) and we were shocked to discover that doing the same darned quest for the 4th time wasn't nearly as bad when there was a chance that we'd get to guild level 2 that night. Achievements, leaderboards, crafting, even ridiculous pets... there's a lot of stuff tangential to the end game that makes getting there more fun.

How do we put that joy back into science education? I'm not talking about gamification in the modern sense; I'm talking about those great teachers we managed to get. My chemistry teacher (and many others) did it through fun demo science: he'd do experiments we weren't ready to do on our own and had us all on the edge of our seats waiting for the final explosion... or sometimes the final terrible pun. Even his "you have to be careful in the science lab" talk at the beginning of the year included opening a book that promptly burst into flame. Each lecture was filled with discovery, even when it was tangential to the point. (The lecture on molar concentrations involved terrible puns involving moles and mole-asses.) And of course there's actually *doing* the hands-on experiments ourselves, which can be incredibly fun when they're well-chosen and interesting.

I guess in hindsight, we put the joy into science by enhancing the opportunities to learn and discover and accomplish... very similarly to the way we put the joy back into gaming.

Perhaps it's not really that surprising that there are a large number of scientist-types who also enjoy gaming, and that gamers will employ some science to tackle the challenges within a game.

And finally, I'll leave you with the last lines of the article, which made me smile:

At one point, Steinkuehler met up with one of the kids who'd built the Excel model to crack the boss. "Do you realize that what you're doing is the essence of science?" she asked.

He smiled at her. "Dude, I'm not doing science," he replied. "I'm just cheating the game!"

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Women need to be at the table

As we start the New Year I would like to share this video with all the young women out there who are embarking on their careers.

It's a well known fact that there are too few women in leadership roles, tech or otherwise. While there are various programs in place to try to solve this problem it just does not seem to go away.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO from Facebook, has some really great insights and advice for women.

She breaks it down to 3 main points and advice for women to have their foot on the gas pedal, so to speak, before they make a decision to stay or leave once they have children.

As an entrepreneur, student, wife and mom I can relate to what she says and there is no right choice, it's up to to the individual.

I encourage you all to watch the video. What do you think about what she says?