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:

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Where Robotics and Chemistry Come Together For One Oregon Local

Some people love chemistry because it's the science of change. It's really beautiful to watch something turn into something else, right before your eyes.

R

ecently we managed to contact and interview an Oregon resident with a very unique story. It’s really amazing to see where science and engineering can get people, no matter their interests. Walter Hendricks* now works in the US Army doing an exciting job.

How It Started

Walter grew up in Philomath, Oregon and moved to Beaverton after high school. He considers the valley his home, and loves the environment and the people.

But what he really loves is chemistry and technology. He says his interests really started blossoming when, at a young age, he played with a Dr. Dreadful chemistry cooking set…

[It] started with a lot of interesting “sciency” stuff to me, but ended with a large amount of disgusting sugar blobs. It crushed what little desire I was developing for cooking at that time since I was making the realization that cooking is a form of chemistry (for a few years at least) and threw my hard chemistry lust into an overdrive. It’s scared me away from eating most things sugary to this day.

With candy-phobia and an interest in science, he started realizing he was a little different than some other kids: “I was the weird kid that would do math problems for fun. A+B=C always intrigued me.

The TALON is one tool the US Army uses to disarm bombs. EOD technicians use robotics skills, combined with knowledge of chemistry, to make shrewd decisions about how to dispose of dangerous explosives.

Chemistry, Robotics and High School

Actually, mathematics and chemistry are very closely related. Chemistry consists of a lot of math-like equations for chemical reactions, and Walter knew this. He said, “it reminded me of a simple machine, and then I took that thought to the next level when I was old enough to play with fireworks. A+B=boom.

Walter’s interest in explosive chemistry was an unsafe one, but luckily he found an outlet for his interests in high school. Philmoath HS was doing research and development in the biodiesel industry, where he focused his chemistry interests.

But like many people our age, he had a great interest in robotics, too. For that, he joined FIRST Robotics in 2003, being a part of PHS’s Team PHRED (called Team 847 when he joined) and working both as a competitor and mentor until 2008.

EDIT: Here's an image of Walter with his former team, at the 2013 regional tournament.

In The Army

While maybe not for everyone, Walter enjoys his unique and highly-skilled job.

Once he got out of high school, he had a realization: “Everyone has that dream job and place they want to work. Work towards it, and never give up,” he says. And Walter knew what he had to do.

Combining his passions for robotics and chemistry, he joined the US Army and is now working as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician. It’s an exciting and dangerous line of work, where he uses his expertise in explosive chemical engineering and his mastery of robotics to disable explosives all around the world, and protect important people from danger.

I wouldn’t say science and technology skills are sneaking into my life, but more of hitting me in my face. I’ve had to do pressure calculations off the top of my head just to make sure no one would get hurt. Not something I expected to use from high-school. . .  I know a few people who would of listened more in math if they knew it would of helped them with taxes, saving money, or disarming a bomb.

Walter, when he's on leave from the army, loves playing Diablo 3 and other computer games.

Walter’s unique and risky line of work might not suit everyone, but it definitely shows that no matter how different your interests are, the world of engineering has a job for you. He has a few words of advice for everyone: “Settling for what you have can be be great for now, but sitting in one area gets too comfortable, and it’s the complacency that ends dreams.

Don’t be complacent. Find what you love, like Walter did, and do everything you can to pursue it.

*Walter Hendricks is a pseudonym; as his work is often classified, he asked that we don’t use his real name.

Jonathan Carlson & How CS And Biology Can Beat HIV [Interview Pt1]

Every now and then we like to talk to someone who grew up in Oregon, to hear about their engineering or CS story. We do this to make it easier to see just how many people go into either field, and just how many paths there are which lead into it.

Jonathan Carlson’s path isn’t quite what you might expect. He didn’t even touch CS until he was in college. His roots were actually in Biology and, specifically, in health:

Biology was a passion for me because I loved understanding how we work at the minute level. In a sense, discovering how the most amazing machines ever contrived works. Viruses in particular are fascinating because of how they have evolved to evade our immune system and how our immune system has responded…and the immediate effect this cat and mouse game has on our health.

This is pretty common in engineers and computer scientists! Nine times out of ten you’ll find that they were attracted into the field by more than just the field itself, but their interests in something else. Jonathan’s passion is helping the world be healthier by understanding the human body and defeating nasty diseases—most engineers have passions separate from engineering and CS.

In fact, when we asked him about his earliest memories tied to engineering, Jonathan had a lot to say. But it’s worth reading:

Even if your interests and goals are in Biology, like Jonathan's, you could easily wind up learning CS and engineering as a part of it.

Well, I really decided to do science. And computer science, and statistical modeling/machine learning in particular turned out to be a great means to do so, and were also intensely interesting in their own right.  In a sense, it’s engineering with the specific purpose of advancing science—and in my case, global health. . . Computer science really hooked me because of its logic and it’s use of abstract yet orderly thinking.

AP Biology my junior year of high school was really what got me interested in science in general and biology in particular. . . Computer Science really came out of the blue when I took intro to CS my freshman fall (despite, or perhaps because of, warnings in the prospectus against freshmen taking it fall term) for no real reason.  As it turns out, the two interests merged and now I use computer science to study viruses.”

Bioinformantics, the application of CS to biology, can be used for all sorts of research for anyone interested in biology.

And you’ll find this out too, when you talk to engineers or computer scientists in the field. They found out that the best way to pursue their passions is through either CS or engineering, and so they wind up learning those trades to get there.

 

 

Coincidentally, Jonathan wound up getting his Bachelors degree in “Biology with a Computer Science modification,” and went on to get a Masters and finally a Doctorate in Computer Science. And now, he’s doing something called Bioinformantics, which he described as “biology with computers instead of wet labs.” Which is good for him, because he’s a self-proclaimed disaster in wet labs.

And Jonathan is pretty pleased with where he’s wound up. His first job was at Microsoft Research, and that’s where he’s planning on staying put:

My work these past 3 years has been an extension of my PhD dissertation, which essentially boils down to studying how HIV evolves and how we might design a vaccine to which HIV cannot adapt.  As part of this work, I get to develop cutting edge statistical modeling techniques, while working with world class researchers on 5 different continents (still looking for collaborators in South America and Antarctica!), and diving head long into the theoretical part of the biology (and letting those collaborators do the wet experiments!).  It’s a real thrill to be working with so many great scientists to advance our understanding of the immune system and viruses in general and HIV in particular.

Jonathan, just like so many others, decided to pursue his passions through computer science. It’s the way to go; whether you’re into physics, robotics, biology, or even something like languages, you’ll find that there’s a CS-related degree and job waiting for you. Who designs buildings, airplanes and cars? Mechanical engineers who are great with physics. Who makes exoskeletons for the handicapped? Electrical engineers who like robots. Who works on curing HIV? Jonathan Carlson, a computer scientist who studies biology. And who do you think works on Google Translate? A computer scientist whose interests are in languages.


In part two, you’ll hear more about his college experience, his personal hobbies, and what he thinks you need to know about college.

Make some Noyce for the inventor of the microchip!

A young Robert Noyce sitting in front of some math and physics, which he majored in.

Today’s Google Doodle is a computer microchip, as you might have noticed. If you click it, you go to a page of search results for “Robert Noyce.” Who’s he? The Mayor of Silicon Valley, that’s who.

That’s an honorary title. Real mayors are cool, but we care more about electrical engineers and computer scientists who are cool enough to be called “mayor” just because. Okay, it’s not ‘just because.’ Along with a friend of his, Noyce invented the microchip, which is specifically what Silicon Valley is named for.

Noyce and his friend Kilby are what we at GetReal affectionately call OGs of electrical engineering.

There are a few interesting things to think about: Noyce became an electrical engineer; co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor, and then Intel later; and invented the microchip. When he was 12, he built a personal aircraft for himself, and ‘flew’ (probably glided) from the roof of a college.

But he never got a degree in engineering of any kind. He just did it. He did it because he loved it.

Does the first integrated circuit ever look like it was made with billion dollar research funding? It was made by some folks who were tinkerers. And they wanted to see what would happen.

What can you learn from Noyce? Don’t be too concerned with what degree you take. Find what you love and do it. Go to a local thrift store and buy old electronics to take apart, or play incessantly with LEGOs. Go with your folks to Home Depot and buy some PVC pipe; make bird house or a potato cannon or a ramp to jump your bike or skateboard off of.

Tinker with computers. Start a blog and mess with the coding to customize it, or make a mod for your favorite computer game. Figure out how to hack your Kinect. Make a game or program a robot.

And while you find what you love to tinker with, remember that once you get into college, you have a lot of opportunities. Engineering programs weren’t as common when Noyce was in school, but they’re everywhere now. Especially in Oregon. Because we want you to get out there and just do, without having to worry about any difficulties. And the best way to learn to do is by learning how to engineer.

You ought to Hopper on board with CS, Kay?

Today is Grace Hopper’s birthday, the OG of computer science. We talked a little about her on Monday, and want to celebrate her birthday (and the end of CSEDWeek) with some fun stories, and by showing you some cool, interactive ways to start learning computer science.

Alan Kay is an American computer scientist who  has made great advances in object-oriented programming and graphical user-interfaces. (If you look around, you might find a video of him talking about Dijkstra, whom he doesn’t seem to like.) He’s got a long list of awards under his belt, and cared a lot about putting computers into everyone’s hands (incidentally, he basically invented the idea of a laptop at the same time). Here, Kay describes computer science and how different minds approach it:

Alan Kay talking about learning computer science. It’s old, but his comparison
to digging to China is interesting.

Learning computer science requires a pretty good handle on problem-solving thinking. And, coincidentally, so do a lot of strategy games. That’s why we think games can be a useful tool for learning CS. Like Kay says, problem solving has more than one dimension. So a game like LightBot, which requires you to creatively solve puzzles, is a great way to learn. And unlike a lot of educational ‘games,’ this one is pretty fun and is actually a legit puzzle game. (And we like legit things.) Also try Manufactoria, a complex and very difficult puzzle game.

You can also watch an interesting TED talk about how to “Dance your PhD,” and how bad powerpoint presentations actually threaten the global economy (awesome). It’s about making complex ideas simple to explain–which might not sound like CS, but is an important thing to be able to do when you’re neck-deep in code and are working with others who are also neck-deep.

The fact of the matter is simple: no matter what you love, computers are going to be a part of your life. (Unless you decide to be the next Grizzly Man, though we don’t recommend that.)

At least knowing how they work is important, because then you can solve your own problems rather than hiring a techie to solve them for you. Consider the flipside of the coin: if CS jobs are some of the highest-paying out there, then they’re also some of the highest-costing for those who need someone else to do it.

Computer science is all about doing it yourself and learning by doing. We recommend looking at some of these links to get you started:

Read on:

  • Check out the Computing: The Human Experience website. If you feel like helping make it happen, check out the Kickstarter page! (Bonus: the Kickstarter page has a cool video about what the project involves.)
  • Khan Academy’s introduction to computer science, using Python.
  • The CS career questions board from a popular community forum called Reddit. And an interesting discussion from the general CS board.
  • If you’ve played the Game of Life, you know it’s pretty fun and has a lot of CS roots. Check out how someone made a Turing Machine in it.
  • NINJA-IDE is a great tool, complete with an automatic debugger, to use while trying to learn Python (which is a great first language to learn).

CSEDWeek.org, in honor of Grace Hopper, is the perfect excuse to start learning computer science.

GetReal is passionate about getting CS out there for everyone, because we believe it’s vital for future generations to know. Just about all the jobs you can imagine use computers, and all of the most innovative and world-benefiting (as well as best-paying) jobs center around them and computer science.

This week is something called Computer Science Education Week which, big surprise, is all about getting CS out there for everyone because it’s vital for future generations to know.

CSEDWeek is every year, during the week of Grace Hopper’s birthday—she’s widely regarded as the OG of the computer science world.

Grace Hopper is pretty much only pictured as an old lady, but remember that she was a girl with aspirations in computing once. She made her dreams happen.

Grace Hopper was one of the first computer programmers, came up with the idea of having programming languages on a higher level than machine code, actually developed one of the first programming languages, developed one of the first compilers, and made the term ‘debugging’ popular. Oh, and she was an admiral in the Navy. (That’s right, one of the first and coolest computer scientists was female. Not a male-dominated field!)

 

The CSEDWeek website is a great resource for learning about the history of CS and how to learn it, as well as finding CS-related events near you.

What you can do for CSEDWeek:

Engineering is legit. And a Westview student who’s all about being legit.

One tricky thing about becoming an engineer is getting it off of that pedestal it’s often put on. A lot of people elevate it so much it seems like it’s impossible to get do.

But think about this: engineering is a verb. You can’t english a story, or science a test. You probably can’t math an equation (though it sounds cute to say it). But you can engineer a solution. That’s because engineering is about doing. So get it off its pedestal and do engineering.

Engineering experience can come from anywhere, too. Sometimes not from what you’d expect. Where one person might participate in a robotics team all through high school, and that’s their passion, another might not be so passionate about robots.

Meet Adarsh Patra. He’s a junior at Westview High School who’s already working to be as legit as possible. He’s involved in Model UN, the National Honors Society, and is the VP of his school’s Pre-Medical Association. To boot, he’s taking a full load of AP classes and is on the varsity tennis team. What a mouthful!

Out in the field, getting things done—that's at the heart of engineering.

Over the summer, he worked with the National Weather Service (NWS), through Saturday Academy’s ASE program. In it, he did a lot of field work as a hydrologist, collecting data to help predict water table movements, which helps the NWS give out flood warnings to keep the people safe. He also worked with a program called Kineros, the results of which you can see as a map of river forecasts.

Some people are all about being ‘legit.’ It’s a slang word that gets thrown around a lot (shortened from ‘legitimate’) that basically means “real.” And that doesn’t mean that people who do things like robotics competitions aren’t getting real experience. But it does mean that robotics competitions are organized and in a controlled environment. Which in a lot of ways is pretty cool.

But for some people, controlled environments aren’t for them. These people become the kinds of engineers who are interested in world politics, using engineering to help the needy, keep everyone safe, and bring peace. For these people, that’s their passion.

ASE agrees: if you want to be an engineer, get your hands dirty by getting out there.