Saturday, March 31, 2012

Checking in with the family

"... the standardized courses don't shed much light on future opportunities and they make it hard for students to identify what they're most interested in. The CS department, on the other hand, is great at demonstrating all the things that are going on in the modern comp sci world." -- Asa, one of our current CS students.

Asa's comment was in response to an event we held last Tuesday. We brought 100 current students up to FourSquare along with 100 of our CS alums for a mixer. Other than the fact that we aren't a department, I'm hoping he was spot on. 

Stuy CS from 1976 to the present

A couple of months ago, I started to try to organize the graduates I've had the privilege of teaching over the years. I put out some feelers and the response has been great. So far we have about 400 members. I like to refer to us as the Stuy CS family since I'd like to think there's a stronger bond than that typical between a teacher and his students.  I'd also like to think there's a common thread across the years that ties the older and younger graduates together.

To kick things off, I thought it would be a great idea to get the alums together with the current students. We've got people all over the tech map, from giant companies to startups. I started putting a list together here. I thought it would be great to expose our current students to the range of possibilities that await them.

Immediately, the family came through. Noah and Dave volunteered FourSquare as host for the event. They provided the food and the site. The alternative would have been to have the event at Stuy. This would have cost us and would have been somewhat mundane. Just being at a place like FourSquare seemed to really excite the current crop of Stuy students.

The evening of the event, I was a little nervous -- about 100 alums signed up, but would they show. I've been told that general alumni events can typically have a very high no-show rate, particularly when the event has no cost and registering is as easy as an email.

The kids and I arrived early -- school lets out at 3:30 and the event didn't start until 6:00. As 6:00 approached, the alums started to dribble in. By the time we started, we had a packed house!!! It was great seeing everybody again.

We had alums from every year. From 1995, my first set of graduates, to last years senior class. We also had a few older alums, including me and  my classmate and friend Steve from '84 and Gerry ('76) , who I met when he volunteered to help Stuy CS back in the 90's. He's become a good friend to both me and the program in the years since.

For my part, I was extremely touched that everyone showed. As a teacher, you'd like to think you've had enough of an impact that your students would give back, but we rarely get any evidence as to the effects we've had. I've been fortunate enough to be in contact with a number of my alums through the years and a number of them have been kind enough express gratitude (often times more than I deserve) but to see everyone show up en masse really meant a lot to me. The only down side was there was so much going on, I really didn't get to spend time with anyone -- it was like hosting a wedding or bar mitzvah -- everyone's there, but you don't get to see anyone. I hope we can remedy this with more events and smaller events in the future.

If any of the "family" is reading this, you've also got to give me some props -- even though I haven't seen many of the alums in years, I recognized almost everyone and remembered far more names than I probably deserved to.

We spent the evening mixing students and alums and the FourSquare crew threw in tours of the facilities. Afterwards, many of the alums stayed back to discuss how to move Stuy CS forward. How the alumni community can help Stuy CS and it's current students and how it can become a resource for fellow alums. I think there are a lot of things we can do as a community, and I'm excited about what's to come in the near future for us as a group.

For the students, feedback has been terrific. I've gotten comments like:

I was wavering between whether or not I would continue CS in college and as a career, but now I'm fairly certain.
I really enjoyed the compsci event, it was very helpful to talk to alumni because they reminded me that there is life after college. I also liked the community within a community feel of the event.

The students pretty much universally loved the event and  I really think they got a lot out of it. 

We had parent conferences last Thursday and Friday and parent after parent confirmed this. Just about every visitor I had mentioned how much their son or daughter got out of meeting the "family". People  who were in their shoes a few short years ago and are now doing great things in the tech community. 

From what I can tell, this was a unique event, at least to Stuy, no one's ever done anything like this before in any subject area. It looks like it was a slam dunk, at least with respect to value to the students. 

Now the "family" just has to decide where we can go from here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Field Trip!!!!!!!!

When kids are knee deep in nlog(n) algorithms and working on recursion, it's easy to lose track of the amazingly neat things that are right around the corner for them.

I've recently been working on organizing our Stuyvesant Computer Science alumni network and am putting together a page with some of the places our graduates work here.

It can be hard to see how one goes from sorting and searching in Java to working at places like Google, or FourSqurare or creating your own startup like DigitalOcean, Usable HealthTimeHop, or PropHop.

We try to show how close they are to doing really cool things, like the other day when we developed some solutions that lead to seam carving, but there's still a large enough gap between what they are learning and where they will be that it's hard for them to see how close they are.

With this in mind, yesterday, we took a field trip.

Being an NYU Alum myself  (BA '89, MS '95?), the CS people at Courant and I have periodically tried to form a partnership but there were internal problems at NYU that prevented us. Over the past few years, however, things have changed and we're well on our way.

Thanks to the efforts of the always amazing Evan Korth, Michael Overton, Rosemary D'Amico, Romeo Kumar, Shawn Abbot, and others, we were able to bring about 100 Stuyvesant juniors to NYU for a day of computer science.

We had four amazing presenters.

Ken Perlin batted leadoff talking to the kids about a variety of his interests. Basically a smorgasbord of places one can go to with CS. Ken touched on things ranging from expressing emotions from an animated  avatar composed of five polygons to paradigm shifts relating to ebooks.

Rob Fergus then gave a talk on image deblurring. Where Ken's talk provided a range of topics, Rob focussed in on one. The kids were really able to see how what they're doing now is just one step from solving some really neat problems.

JinYang Li was next. Her talk focused on systems touching on infrastructure issues and parallel processing. This provided an overview of one specific field in computer science.

Batting cleanup was Nathan Hull. Nathan talked about IOS developement. The most hands on topic of the day. Nathan really emphasized the fact that the kids could just download the tools to do either IOS or Android development and with online resources, they could teach it to themselves.

All this was followed by a great lunch.

It was a great range of talks and the kids left having a much better idea of what CS will be like in college and the range of things they'll be able to do.

Right now, I'm working on another event which will bring our students together with Stuy graduates working in the industry to give our kids more exposure to the step after college but more on that in a few weeks.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pair Programming Tag Team Shootout

So today we changed things up a bit.

Instead of having a typical lab type periods, we tried the Pair Programming Tag Team Shootout.

We aren't annualized so while the kids that have been with me since September have been working in pairs for a while, the other half of the class is just getting used to how we do it. I also wanted to get the kids to mix a little more.

Hence the shootout.

Everyone got a sheet with a bunch of problems on it:


I then paired them off randomly.

The idea is complete the first problem, find a new partner, repeat.

By the end of the period each student worked with between five and seven partners.

I'm having them send me their solutions and partners tonight.

The early response was good -- it's speeding up them getting to know each other and it was a nice change of pace. We had some problems coordinating switching problems, but we'll do better next time.

All in all a good day.