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:

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.

Sincerely,
Nick

You can help design open-source tractors.

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

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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:

When quadrotors and Kinects combine…

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e haven’t talked about quadrotors, Kinect, and the cool engineering projects you can work on when you go to one of Oregon’s awesome engineering universities, in a while. But let it be known: the possibilities are endless, when you’re an engineer. And using a pre-invented idea like a quadrotor, or a pre-invented tool like the Kinect, is what engineering is all about: finding a creative new use for an existing tool.

Here’s the coolest part: in Oregon, quadrotor and Kinect projects are still fairly uncommon, so you can be one of the pioneers in the field, for our state.

Check out what MIT and and UW have done recently:

This project awesomely combines both quadrotors, and the Kinect.
Imagine doing something like this (or whatever you can think of)

Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Read some of the previous things we’ve talked about regarding quadrotors, and Kinect.

What skills will you need to work on a project like this, when you’re in college? It depends on what you want to do:

You could be the person who builds the quadrotor, which would make you a mechanical engineer; you’d need knowledge of physics, and an interest in building (did you ever enjoy LEGOs or something similar, or do you ever find yourself sketching designs for inventions or buildings?)

If you think you might like programming, think about the awesome things you could do one day by programming a Kinect.

You could also be the person who figures out how to connect the Kinect, power the propellers, wire this to the processor, and trasmit the data, which would make you an electrical engineer; you’d need a knowledge of some math and physics, and an interest in making things work (did you ever tinker with remotes or electronics, to figure out how they worked?)

Or, you could be the person who programs the built contraption, telling it how to balance itself in flight, map the room, navigate, or communicate the data, which would make you a computer scientist; you’d need a knowledge of math, and an interest in solving puzzles and problems (did you ever program your calculator to make math class easier, like solving riddles, or enjoy problem-solving brain games?)

Texting Turns Twenty—Time To Move On?

The first SMS message was sent exactly 20 years ago, in 1992, in the United Kingdom. And since then, it’s become the most used mobile data service ever. It’s used more than the phone part of your cell phone; over 190,000 texts are sent every second. And they’re all 160 characters or less. Check out this awesome infographic (warning—get your scrolling finger ready):

Since its creation, SMS has really done a lot to shape the world we live in.

The success of SMS comes from its smart design. At the time, signalling formats required a maximum of 128 bytes of data to be sent at a time. This was eventually improved to 140 bytes, also known as 160 characters.

But that’s from a design over 20 years old. Our data infrastructure today is so efficient you can get a 1080p HD video on your computer in a matter of seconds, and SMS was designed when you couldn’t even send an audio file that quickly.

And it’s one of the most overpriced things, too. Read about how one company literally charged 10,000,000% more than what seems fair.

In this world of fast data, why is a 140-byte text so expensive? Because there’s not a good replacement that people want. If there were, it would already be out there and we’d be using it.

Coming up with a good way to package and send data is something computer scientists do for a living. Doesn’t sound cool at first glance? Consider that texts are used to save lives during natural disasters, and have helped people overthrow despotic governments, and help keep friends in touch during their time of need. What’s cooler than that?

Does Adversity Inspire Success?

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t’s not uncommon to hear about geniuses coming from places with low wealth. A lot of people think the fact that life is harder for people in that area is actually what helps make these geniuses so smart. But we don’t think that’s the case.

First, check out this awesome, inspirational video about Kelvin Doe (AKA DJ Focus) who is from Sierra Leone in Africa, and raids trash bins for electronic parts to build radio transmitters, generators and batteries.

He loves MIT for its electronic parts, but he doesn’t like American food!

We’re not at all doubting how awesome Kelvin is, nor that his unique story is part of what motivates him to learn. But we don’t think he’s a hard worker because he’s poorer than some people in America—that’s just not a fair way to think.

Kelvin is smart because he works hard and is interested. Maybe the ways he’s learned (by raiding garbage cans and taking things apart) is a result of his environment, but not his drive.

Every person has a unique story, which can motivate them in a different way.  Kelvin wants to help his family and community. What do you want to do?

If you want to be as driven as someone like Kelvin, it’s not a matter of living in Sierra Leone and raiding garbage bins. It’s a matter of knowing what you want to do and striving for it. That’s why he’s so good at what he does.

Whether it’s building your own radio transmitter, programming an awesome videogame, developing greener fuels, designing an efficient building, or just getting an A on that next project, success is a result of hard work. And hard work can be pretty fun when it gets you what you want.

Worried about unemployment? Get a degree.

This post contains some raw data and not a lot of flashy pictures. But we think this is good data to know, and that it speaks for itself.


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hose of you who have been following the presidential election have probably heard one or both major candidates talk about education, and the future of our country. And if you haven’t, now you know that it’s a huge issue for this election.

One of the big issues about education is that “college graduates aren’t finding a job in this economy.” While it’s true that the world economy is not that great right now (unemployment has climbed almost everywhere in the world), there are some things you can do to protect yourself from unemployment.

The very first thing on that list of things? Get a college degree. We mean it. Hey, don’t take our word for it. Check out this unbiased report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—go to page 121 and look at the table. Or, just check out the raw data they used.

Let’s be clear for a second, because you probably see a lot of statistics thrown your way, when colleges and parents and teachers try to push you into college. This is unbiased, international data. This data just shows it like it is. We’re not going to hold your hand and walk you through it, because that’s wasting your time. Just check the numbers:

2010 Unemployment rate based on highest education

  • Lower than 11th or 12th grade: 16.820%
  • 11th or 12th grade: 11.229%
  • College degree: 5.334%

Most people say that a “fully-employed economy” has a 4% unemployment rate, which means that even in this injured world economy, those with college degrees are almost fully employed.

Of course, there are other things you can do to protect yourself from unemployment, such as working on writing a good résumé, learning interviewing skills, and (of course) applying to work at lots of places.

One of our favorites is learning to network, which is basically making professional friends wherever you can (having “connections”) and talking to them about your professional plans. If you say you’re trying to become a programmer, they just might say they know someone in the business whose company is hiring. Bam: connection made! And all you have to do in return is do the same thing right back. Networking is an essential tool for finding great jobs.

These skills are all great, but always remember #1 on this list: get a college degree. Get a college degree. Get a college degree. Say it with me now. Get a college degree.

Read on: