Letter from the Editor: Why you should start your college CS learning at a community college.

Hello reader, please enjoy another of our series, “A letter from our editor.” Nick Giampietro has been writing for the GetReal blog since it started, and has recently started studying computer science. Here, he shares his experience at PCC, so you can make a more informed decision when you start your college journey.

Dear HS Students,

Don’t go straight to a university, if you want to study computer science. Start at a community college. Besides the obvious monetary benefits (it’s much cheaper), you’ll find that the instructors at community colleges are often much more active and passionate about helping you succeed.

Shot of TCB at PCC Sylvania

This is TCB, the Technology Classroom Building, at PCC Sylvania

University professors are almost always very qualified people, but they don’t necessarily care about you. They have a Ph.D in whatever they’re teaching, usually professional experience, and actively do research. But something has happened to many science departments: professors get so caught up in their research that they forget that universities are about students. And as a result, many freshmen and sophomores get turned off by class sizes over 100, and no face-to-face contact with their professor.

And guess what? Community college instructors are also very qualified. Take Michael Trigoboff of Portland Community College, for example. He also has a Ph.D in computer science, and he’s been a professional programmer for over 30 years. Does that sound qualified to you?

Portrait shot of Michael Trigoboff

Dr. Trigoboff meets his students with a smile and a subtle sense of humor, every class we have.

Right now I just started taking a class with Dr. Trigoboff called “Programming Systems,” (using Java and C++) and have been very happy with the experience. In a classroom of less than 30, everyone gets plenty of time to speak with him and ask questions whenever they want. He programs right before your eyes, helps teach you often difficult things like how to use a professional-level IDE (which is not really a part of computer science, but is definitely a big part of any programming job).

In a nutshell, he works hard to help each of his students succeed. If you also want to succeed, best you find people who want to help you along.

Plus, community colleges often work closely with nearby universities, so transferring is easy. That way, you can get your first two years of university schooling done for a much lower cost, with people who are much more interested in helping you, and then you can transfer to a university—where, then taking upper-division classes since you started at a CC, you’ll also get much closer contact with your professors.

What’s more, you might even be able to start going to community college in high school. Ask your school counselor about early college programs, and see if you can get started NOW.

Read on:

Why Oregon Needs Secure Networking Engineers

Yesterday, the Oregon University System recently disclosed a news release about a security breach (PDF here) in three of its universities. This security breach means many Oregonians may have had their credit card information stolen, and shows just how necessary it is for Oregon to rely on Oregonian network engineers to keep data safe.

These three universities contracted a box office management service (for things like theatrical events) to a company called Vendini. While it’s easy to blame a whole company for the security breach, we have to ask: who’s really responsible?

Vendini is a company based in San Francisco, where network engineers are hired in the ten thousands and demand is incredibly high. Great, it’s the land of opportunity—but with that many people getting hired, you’re more likely to have a few bad eggs.

What we need are good network engineers living in Oregon, so we can keep services like this local and premium.

But more to the point, what is a network engineer?

Nobody uses laptops with both hands, in pictures. Here's a network engineer.

Computer networking engineers come in two flavors—architects and administrators—and their job is to design/implement or maintain computer networks for many kinds of companies or organizations.

Often, someone is hired to be a network architect, and once the job is done they will become the administrator—that’s why we just call the job “network engineering,” since the job winds up looking like the engineering design process. It also means they often work full-time for the same company, rather than working for a centralized firm and selling their services.

One of the most critical jobs of a networking engineer is to make sure their network is safe and secure. Obviously, the networks for Vendini were not. Does that mean they’re a bad company? Of course not.

But it does mean that their networking engineers have their work cut out for them—because they store credit card information and addresses, they need to keep their data safe from hackers by whatever means possible.

Oh, and as it turns out: Oregon has the highest mean annual wage for network architects, at about $115,520.

Read on:

Digital Design Lab: High-School Inventor’s Paradise

Dustin Diep and Ahmed Gedi from Franklin HS, holding their F.A.F.

Here's Dustin (left) and Ahmed (right), holding their F.A.F.


regon MESA’s program called Digital Design Lab (D2L) allows young inventors to design and create their own projects, from start to finish, over the course of six weekend sessions. We had a chance to speak with two of those inventors, Dustin Diep and Ahmed Gedi from Franklin High School, and take a look at what they call the “Friggin’ Awesome Fedora.” The F.A.F. plays mp3 music and is controlled by buttons placed on the brim.

When they demonstrated it to GetReal, they played My Generation, by The Who. We recommend clicking that link and listening, while you read the rest of our exclusive story.

The F.A.F. uses the LilyPad, a special Arduino board specialized for crafts with fabric, and a couple other parts to allow the wearer to play music out of speakers, which they embedded into the crown of the fedora. They managed to get this up and running in just five weekend sessions at D2L, with only minimal independent work between sessions. See the pictures for yourself:

The FAF speakers and control buttons

The F.A.F. uses these four buttons to play music out of its green speakers. Good sound

The LilyPad Arduino exposed.

The LilyPad Arduino board, usually hidden behind the striped band, controls the F.A.F. music-playing systems.

View of the inside of the FAF; you can see the mp3-controller board, and some wires.

The built-in mp3-controller board, hidden inside the hat, sends audio signals to the speakers.

Image of the tiny battery used to power the FAF

Here's the tiny battery, which powers the F.A.F. To compare, notice the edge of the LilyPad board, at the bottom of the image.

Image of Dustin wearing the FAF

Dustin, who wore another fedora while he worked on the Friggin' Awesome Fedora, donated this one to the project. Here, he wears it for old time's sake.

Dustin and Ahmed, both proud to be Portlanders, got the idea when they first thought to make a glove-phone—a glove with speaker and microphone, which would answer when you made the “call me” hand gesture and held it to your head.

After some research, where they discovered how complex it would be to do—working with bluetooth and analog signals with Arduino gets pretty messy—Dustin and Ahmed decided to refine their idea to something that could fit into the remaining five sessions.

Image of Ahmed wearing the FAF

Ahmed, a classy young gent, demonstrates how one can tip the brim politely, while simultaneously activating the F.A.F.

Dustin and Ahmed have both worked on some interesting projects in the past. Dustin contributed to the FHS App project, an open-source web app which lets Franklin HS students follow relevant notifications.

The code is going to be used for a Franklin/Wilson community safety app, so residents can follow police notifications and the like (open-source is great!).

And Ahmed has been featured on D2L YouTube videos in the past, with a Simon Says game for Arduino. Both are hardworking and bright high-school students.

These two high school sophomores are already well on their way to building great portfolios of work they’ve done—just because they decided to turn one of their ideas into a reality.

See, every time you have an idea for an invention, you’ve got the potential to be an engineer. Some people might forget about those ideas, some might play with them, and some might even write them down in a notebook somewhere. But what do you do with those ideas?

If you’d like to take that idea, and turn it into a creation, you’re an engineer.

Have you ever wanted to make one of those invention ideas? Because through programs like Digital Design Lab, you can. Express your interest in having more D2L sessions by writing a short email to MESA.

Here’s a video of other D2L projects from a previous session.

Another letter from the editor: Why you should study CS right out of high school.

A while back, we posted a letter from our primary contributor and editor, Nick Giampietro, telling his story in the world of computer science, and what it’s come to mean to him. We highly recommend it—he didn’t write your typical “study CS because the world needs you!” or “because you can get rich!” story, that’s for sure.

Here, Nick keeps you updated about his progress towards a CS degree, and tells you more about his story.

Dear HS Students,

It’s been a while since I last wrote you. Since then a lot has happened, and I’ve come to realize a number of things about my choices in school. I hope you can learn from my experiences, so you don’t have to go through the same trials that I’ve had to.

Here’s the thing: Like many of you will have to do, I’m taking out student loans for college. Somewhere in the ballpark of $20,000 or more, depending on how you do it (I’d rather not give you an exact number for mine—it’s not pretty). Once I graduate I have to start making payments on those loans. My plan was to pay those back with my salary from the JET Program, a prestigious English-teaching opportunity in Japan which is a great experience and pays well.

And I’ve been volunteering at The International School, teaching elementary school in Japanese, in order to get experience prior to entering the JET program. Like I said before, I decided to get a degree in Japanese—because I love studying it. But only when I got rejected by the JET Program did I realize how few options a degree in Japanese leaves me.

What else can I do with a Japanese degree? I could translate (competitive and not well paying) or be an interpreter (same story), or I could teach in a university (same story again). It’s what I love—but if I wound up doing some work like this, barely making enough to pay back my loans and feed myself, working way too hard so I don’t get replaced, and feeling unappreciated, do you think I’d still enjoy it then?

That’s where I stand right now: facing slim employment options with my current major and, because of that, probably no good way to start studying CS. After all, if I’m overworked and underpaid, paying off loans, where would I find the time or money to pay for more school?

That’s why I’m delaying my graduation one more year. It’s not something I’m totally happy about, but here’s how I decided to do it: I met with PSU’s academic advisers to look at how soon I could graduate with just a Japanese degree, versus how long it would take to get a minor in computer science as well. The reason I decided to do a minor first is because I can get it sooner, possibly get employed with that, and it also counts towards either bachelor’s or a master’s degree in computer science.

After I got that settled, I spoke with a career counselor to talk about job prospects for someone with my background. I went in and met with a career counselor who specializes in computer science and engineering. I showed him my resumé: degree in Japanese, math tutor, chapter president of an English honor society, and a writing internship (the result of which is this blog).

At first he was skeptical: “To a typical engineering firm, this resumé will look distracted,” he agreed.

That’s because, generally speaking, most companies tend to hire people who graduate from high school, get a regular four-year degree, and find work in their field. Engineering and computer science companies are no different. And even though it’s possible to get work without a degree, it usually means lower pay—and my point is to get out of having lower pay. After talking with me more, and getting to know me a little bit, he found someplace that would like my particular background. This particular company makes education software, is based in Portland, and has a number of Japanese clients. Sounds like a perfect match, right?

It might sound lucky, or too good to be true, but in reality there is almost always going to be an engineering or computer science company that’s perfect for you—regardless of your interests or background. You just have to look.

So here’s what I’m not so happy about: yet another year of school to get that minor, and another year’s worth of student loans. But this is what I am happy about: some credentials (read: a minor) in computer science, a good segue into getting a full degree in CS, a possible internship with a great company, and broadening job opportunities because of all that.

But what if I had just gotten the major in computer science—where would I be? I’d already be graduating this year, still with plenty of student loans but also with broad options for work; I’d be in a job market that pays well enough that I wouldn’t have to worry much about my student loans, and I might even have had enough left over to study Japanese in more depth. What’s more, I could have spent all my free time practicing Japanese.

What’s even more, the JET Program might not have rejected me in the first place, if I’d studied CS. After all, someone who can speak Japanese and also has a degree in something completely different looks a lot better than someone who has a degree which says they can speak Japanese, and can speak Japanese.

So here’s what I want you to get from reading all this: things are going to work out well for me, but I want things to work out great for you. If you have a subject you just love, studying CS is probably a better idea than studying that because then you don’t risk ruining that subject you love by turning it into miserable work. Anyways, the computer science industry is very diverse—if you develop the skills you can probably find a company that’s a good fit for you, just like I did.

And even if you don’t know what interests you yet, or don’t think you’ll ever be that interested in a particular subject, studying CS right from the get-go will still help you. It will put you in a place where you have both time and money, so you can either do what you love, find what you love—or, if you’re not that type of person (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then you can use your time and money to just have fun and be happy.


PSU’s Dr Perkowski strikes again: “LEGOs for adults.”

Dr. Perkowski love robots. And he wants you to love them, too. Photo by Jinyi Qi of the PSU Vanguard.


arek Perkowski is a professor at Portland State University, and has gotten our attention before for his impressive show of dedication in teaching “Quantum Robotics Sunday School” to high school students.

This time, he’s gotten our attention because of another catchy name he’s come up with: LEGOs for adults. He said that you can find all the parts you need to build a real robot at a local hardware store.

To be a better robot performer, this one wears a Korean theater mask. Photo by Jinyi Qi of the PSU Vanguard.

A PSU journalist spoke with the professor, who explained his idea. He was doing a presentation on what he calls “Portland Cyber Theatre,” which in his own words is an “initiative to build the first complete interactive theatre of humanoid robots.”

Sound awesome? It is: check out this video of Japanese cyber theater (English supertitles behind the stage). The pace is kind of slow (some types of Japanese theater are just like that.) But remember that these robots perform all choreography and lines on their own—they’re responding fluidly to the live actors onstage.

What Professor Perkowski has been doing is a little different. Rather than just making a robot that can respond correctly with pre-determined choreography and lines, he wants to make a robot which can actually interact dramatically on its own. You don’t program them, you teach them,” he said.

He believes that robots are “great adventures.” As such, they’re a good gateway into the world of logic and programming, because you can actually see your work embodied. And that’s awesome.

Here’s what we mean:

Construction of the Korean-mask robot.

Read on:

You can help design open-source tractors.

The GVCS is an open-source design kit for 40 industrial and agricultural machines.


arcin Jakubowski, Ph.D, believes in open source. But not the software kind: the tractor kind.

Marcin has been working for some time to create inexpensive, open-source designs for agricultural tools like tractors. Designed to be cheaper than the commercial ones most big-scale farmers use—which would be affordable to people in lower-wealth areas—these designs are available right now and could increase productive of small-scale farmers.

That means tough-to-farm areas could produce more food, and support more people, which would allow for historically poorer areas to flourish and grow.

Check out this inspirational video:

Marcin sure knows how to wear a welding mask. And check out the awesome
home-made tank treads.

Oh, and because everything is open-source, it’s totally free of cost and can be improved by anyone who wants to help. You could even download it all, make whatever changes you want, and release your own version, based on the original.

We talked about this before, almost two years ago. Check out our post about Marcin’s TED talk, which is still interesting and relevant today.

Read on:

OUS Snags Cash For New Engineering Building (+Blog status update)

Dear reader,

We apologize for the inactivity. Our GetReal staff is hard at work creating special K–12 lesson plans for teachers in Oregon to use. These special lesson plans integrate engineering into regular science lessons, giving young students a chance to learn more about engineering from a younger age. It’s a very exciting project, and we’re giving it our all—as a result, we’ve put the blog on the back burner for a bit. Keep checking for updates!

Enrollment at OSU has risen by over 30% in the last few years, and the College of Engineering is running out of space. In order to address this issue, they plan on constructing a new engineering building that will cost $40,000,000. Forty million bucks.

That’s a lot, even for a university. To help with it, several folks have donated some pretty hefty lumps of cash to help pay for it—and many chose to remain anonymous:

  • $10 million from one anonymous donor.
  • $7 million from OSU engineering graduate Peter Johnson, who now owns a huge company called Tekmax, Inc.
  • $3 million from other anonymous donors.

Oh, and the kicker: the state of Oregon may be matching these donations. If they do, OSU will already have enough money to cover the new building.

The College of Engineering hasn’t named the building yet, but plans on using it to host inter-disciplinary students studying chemical, biological and environmental engineering. The students will work together with faculty to tackle global issues that affect human health, energy, and the environment.

If you’re looking to study engineering—especially if you care about the environment, energy, or human health—this new building means OSU will be even better-prepared to give you a great engineering education.

Read on: