Headlines for Thursday:

  1. Plywood boxes (335 words)
  2. Can't help but teach (515 words)



1. Plywood boxes: 20:46

By default, objects created in Second Life are plywood boxes. I'm not really interested in learning how to making these cubes look like anything in particular. I'm just interested in making them do cool things. Someone else can put time and effort into making a replica of a real-world object or a fantastic new device... I'm just here to play around with programs. =)

Stephen Perelgut wanted a structured interviewer that collected data in-world instead of requiring people to fill out a notecard or leave Second Life and fill out a web-based form. So today, I built an interview-bot which asks a series of questions and stores the answers. Avatars can click on the bot to start, and can resume this "conversation" at any time. Chatting on a separate channel means that answers are reasonably private. The data is stored in the object and can only be retrieved by the object's owner.

In order to build this, I learned a little bit about how to work around Second Life's data limitations. You see, the Linden Scripting Language doesn't have multidimensional arrays. Fortunately, LSLwiki.net has a library for accessing multidimensional arrays by packing and unpacking lists of lists, encoded as strings. The library is kludgey, but as long as my code looks relatively neat, everything's okay.

Future versions of this interview-bot will allow avatars to review, change, and submit their answers through the Web or through e-mail. I also hope to make it easy for owners to customize the list of questions. A notecard would do nicely for setup. I can also make it easy for owners to get a notecard of results.

It was fun programming the scripted object, and even more fun chatting with the other IBMers. I met a number of interesting people today thanks to awesome connectors like Andy Piper and Stephen Perelgut. I can't wait to build other interesting things in Second Life!

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2. Can't help but teach: 22:08

Learning about learning was how I found out that attitude can make such a difference. In particular, the research on women and math/science education showed me how much influence attitude and self-esteem had on girls' decisions whether they would take university courses involving math and science. Attitude and self-esteem, on the other hand, could be greatly influenced by teaching practices and reinforcement.

I saw this clearly when I was teaching computer science to first-year university students. Some students faced each challenge with excitement. Others were frustrated. The more frustrated they were, the further they fell behind. I could hear some of them slipping away. Yes, I tried my best to reach them. I'd walk around and come up with in-between exercises to help students gain confidence by mastering small parts of lessons. I looked for creative ways to make concepts concrete. My very first lesson wasn't about writing code - it was about cooking spaghetti! (We got a lot out of that!) I kept looking for opportunities for positive reinforcement and I helped people keep moving forward by focusing on what they can learn in order to do better.

It didn't always work, and when it didn't work, the self-doubt in their voices and on their faces almost physically hurt. It wasn't because I was disappointed that not all of them fell in love with computers. Even if some of them were probably better-suited to another field, I wanted to leave them with a good feeling about their problem-solving skills—and halfway-decent problem-solving skills as well, of course.

But yes, attitude. That feeling of "Yes, I can do this." Or even just, "Yes, I'll be able to figure it out." Or at the very least, "This might not be my thing, but I'm okay."

I guess that's why, when I hear frustration possibly turning into self-doubt, I feel an irresistable urge to teach, to try different approaches. A little frustration isn't a bad thing. I've learned a lot by wrestling with problems. But when it threatens to go from "I'm having a hard time solving this," to "I can't get the hang of this," to "I suck," I find myself up and out of my chair before I know it.

Is this a good thing? I don't know. This compulsion of mine regularly drove me to doubt my own skills when I was teaching. After class, I could often be found huddled under my desk munching on an emergency stash of chocolate. But I'm glad I cared, and I'm glad that I still do. I'm glad that this caring forces me to be creative, to get out there and learn how to do things well, to think on my feet.

And here, now, even if I'm "teaching" a class of one, even if I don't really have to teach... I can't help it. I'm addicted to that aha!. All teachers know what I'm talking about—that moment that makes everything worth it, that reason why you keep pushing yourself forward. =)

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