September 14, 2005

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Discovering my inner nerd

People who’ve known me since childhood know that I’ve never been an
academic geek. Who, me? Grades didn’t really matter. In fact, one of
my teachers once tsktsked and said he’d never seen such an
underachiever in his life. (Ds. In English. Sheesh. My department
chair scolded me about that.)

All of the exciting stuff in my life was extracurricular. Programming
competitions didn’t require straight As. Open source advocacy didn’t
require cum laudes. As long as I didn’t get kicked out of school, I
was fine.

I don’t know when I started to take school more seriously, but one day
I must’ve decided to see if I could do it. Just for kicks. And I did.
I decided to enjoy my Philosophy course, and that was just wonderful.
People were copying my philosophy notes. That was probably
because I was typing near-transcripts of his stuff in realtime,
although in retrospect, none of that turned out to be useful for
anything other than recognizing his classic rants. People weren’t just
downloading my notes, though. They came up to me before class and
asked me to explain passages. That was fun. =)

Hmm. Explaining stuff. That could be another factor, too. I moved into
the dorm halfway through college. Being around other people taking the
same course certainly made a difference. I loved joining group study
sessions because I could test my knowledge and help people learn
something new. Yeah, that was a key thing. Group study. I should write
about that for the On Campus magazine; that’s another key thing I want
to tell students about.

I’d like to find out if I’ve got an inner nerd. Might not be a good
idea to do that because I might end up kicking myself over the stuff I
missed before! <grin> But what’s done is done, and I haven’t
done too badly either. Graduate school’s a second chance to see if
I’ve actually got it in me to slog through textbooks and keep
everything organized. Now that I’ve got a personal opinion of myself
to live up to (and scholarships I’d like to apply for or retain!),
having fun studying certainly makes more sense.

I was really worried about statistics. See, the last time I did an
ANOVA test was in high school, and I wasn’t really paying attention
then. I’d never used Minitab (or even other statistical packages), but
after experimenting, Googling, and asking classmates for help, I
figured out how to import data and produce a couple of graphs. I
explored the features of the software and found a couple of useful
functions. I also asked my lab partner and the teaching assistant to
teach me how to interpret two-way ANOVA results. Crash course in
statistics! =) I feel confident about that part now. Next: learn about
human factors and read some of the suggested references so that I can
use their insights in the report.

You know, this studying thing can be kinda fun… =)

Teaching assistantship

The teaching assistant for the next class promised to pass by at 1:00
to pick up the projector, but he didn’t show up until 2:00. I couldn’t
leave the projector alone and the office was closed, so I ended up
waiting in the lab for an hour. I used the time to read through
lecture notes. Interesting handouts! I particularly liked the articles
from business magazines on decision support systems and change

I also reviewed Excel features in preparation for my labs. It’s such a
pity that the book I was reading was published in 1994. Yes, it’s
_that_ old. Egads. I really need to find a newer book on Microsoft
Excel. Yes, guys, my job as a teaching assistant involves preaching
the goodness of Excel. It’s not a bad tool, really. I like Solver and
I think PivotTables are really powerful in the right hands.
Microsoft Excel is abused far less often than Microsoft Word. (Hear
that, all you people sending DOCs when web pages or text files would
do?) It’s also less insidious than Microsoft Powerpoint, which stunts
most people’s presentation skills. Microsoft Excel is not a bad thing.


I need to figure out a good way to do the labs. The room is a classic
computer lab with big monitors on rows and rows of desks. At 5’1/4″, I
can barely be seen from the back row—and that’s already with my
attention-getting red-and-orange outfit!

Demonstrations would also be hard to follow from the back. There are
far too many distractions: the hum of the airconditioner, the
clickety-clack of other keyboards, the glow of almost forty other
monitors… And it’s 12 – 1 PM, too! Heck, _I_ felt kinda sleepy.

On the plus side, one student said she liked me because my voice was
loud enough to be heard. Hooray for drama in education, and hooray for


How can I best help them learn?

What am I there to help them learn?

My job is to help them learn how to apply ideas from their decision
support systems lectures by using software such as Microsoft Excel,
Jess, and Weka.

I _could_ stand up there and demo everything, but I don’t think
they’ll walk away with important lessons. I want them to try out at
least one new feature: to know that it’s there, why it’s there, and
how to learn more about it. I want them to have time to work on their
project, too, but that’s really something they’re going to end up
working on outside class. I need to talk to Peter Shepard about how
much time they should budget for that project.

Self-paced lab exercises helped my first-year Java students back in
Ateneo de Manila University, and something like that just might work
here as well. I’ll need to prepare interesting, engaging exercises
that will expose the students to various features of Excel. I can
spend 5 – 7 minutes (hah! A Toastmasters talk!) at the beginning of
the class to establish the importance of the topic and perhaps take
any questions, let them loose on the topics, and then wrap up at the
end. I’ll need better feedback than waiting for questions. Maybe
comments on a blog or on the (very slow) course website? Little slips
of paper? Index cards? I don’t know yet. I need to figure that out
before next week.

It’s fun teaching again…