Monday, February 8, 2016

All I need is a little help from... my TA!

When I came to Penn as a freshman in the fall of 2012, I was a professional at not studying for quizzes, tests, or exams. Coming from a small private school in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, school was never the thing that stumped me. Sure, I had my fair share of homework and stress, amongst college applications, sports practices, rehearsals for the band, and Model United Nations research. But the foundation of my stress was in the time management department, not the content of my academics. I was confident in my ability to succeed on an exam, as long as I had done the appropriate homework, listened in class, and glanced over the material as a refresher the night before.

Coming to Penn and majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, however, was a whole different story. My peers were just as smart, driven, and accomplished as me. And it took completely bombing the first Chem 101 midterm a few weeks into the semester, a class I actually felt strongly about, for me to have a real wake-up call. My no-study days were long gone. But what was I to do? I had never studied before, I had no strategic skills to fall back on, and no one to teach me the study habits I desperately needed.

After some frantic phone calls home, then a brief period of denial, I was at dinner one night with a group of friends whom I’d grown really close with during AWE Pre-Orientation. One of my friends suggested I go to the TA (Teaching Assistant) office hours with her that night. The concept baffled me; wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show my face in the “supplemental help” meeting, where the under-achieving students went when they were in trouble? But I ignored this train of thought and let my friend convince me to go, chalking it up to new experiences and getting out of my comfort zone. We walked down to the Engineering Quad together after dinner and both timidly knocked on the door of our TA’s office, totally unsure of what we were going to encounter.

The door swung open and, to my complete shock, nearly half our class sat in the tiny office. Most kids sat on the floor, legs and backpacks and notebooks and laptops sprawled all around, some kids even eating dinner while they were working. Everyone, from the kid with the highest grade on the midterm to the kid with the lowest grade, was working together on the most recent homework assignment. It turned out pretty much everyone was just as confused as I was, and we ended up tackling that week’s problems as a team. I went home that night and texted my mom in disbelief. I had figured out my first major problem on my own.

From that night forward, throughout my four years at Penn, I have had to constantly remind myself of the amazing resources available to undergrads when the going gets tough. Many of the TA’s for Engineering classes are phenomenal; they are always willing to meet with you either in office hours or by appointment if your schedule conflicts. Professors are equally receptive, answering emails (often in the middle of the night), and encouraging students to ask questions when they’re confused, instead of falling behind and then trying and failing to catch up later.

Penn is bursting at the seams with smart, driven, accomplished kids, but the faculty and grad students are even more driven, accomplished and smarter. We must always keep them in mind as the amazing resources they truly are. We must not be timid or afraid when it comes to asking for help. Learning how to ask for help is just as important as learning from the help that is received. If I could go back to freshman year and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to take even greater advantage of my professors and TA’s. Never again will you be surrounded by such brilliant people who are so willing to help you. Take advantage of these endless opportunities, ask for help, and learn a little bit about yourself in the process.

Rebecca Michelson CBE ‘16

        Then and Now

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

AWE in New York City

On Friday, October 16, nine SEAS undergraduate women, myself included, traveled to New York City for two site visits at LivePerson and XO Group. The trip was arranged by Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) and Penn Alumnae Kristy Sundjaja and Katherine Brady.

 To give a short background on the company, “LivePerson is a New York City-headquartered technology company that works with over 13,000 companies to enhance their online commerce transactions by providing a cloud-based platform that enables businesses to connect with their customers via messaging through websites, social media and mobile devices.”

During the site visit, we first heard from the CEO of LivePerson, Robert Locascio. He told us a story of learning to grow from failure based on his own experiences being laid off from his first job and with the failure of the first company he started. One thing he said which sums up his message was, “Where you fail is where you learn. You never quit when you fail.” Mr. Locascio said that for every silly idea, there’s a wealthy person making money from it. He said, “No one can help you make the journey of your life.”
After Mr. Locascio spoke with us, Kristy Sundjaja ENG00 W99 GEN00 (Systems, Finance, Master’s in Systems) told her story. She came to Penn from Indonesia without ever having visited the school. She started in Bioengineering but switched to Systems Science and Engineering and entered the M&T program. After graduation, she began working in consulting before working with the New York City government and eventually joining LivePerson.

She said that engineering teaches you how to work with different people, and if you know how to work with and manage people, you have the foundation for great leadership skills. Ms. Sundjaja arranged for a panel of four speakers from varied backgrounds and current roles in technology and product management at LivePerson to speak with us.

Visiting XO Group in New York City

We headed to the XO Group on the MTA. XO is the premier consumer Internet and media company dedicated to providing information, products and services to those planning their wedding, pregnancy and everything in between. We met with Katherine Brady, ENG01 W01 (M&T, BAS and Economics) and got a quick tour of the office before lunch.  After lunch, a panel of XO female professionals in Technology, Product, and Marketing joined us in the cafĂ©. They gave us their perspective on how they came to work at the XO Group. We heard from Ms. Brady as well as Michael Steib, the CEO ( Penn alumnus). 

We discussed what skills are important for engineers, the experience of being a woman in tech, and about how their respective backgrounds led them to XO Group.  To one question, “What drives your career?” Ms. Krechmer, VP of Engineering, said, “saying yes to opportunity, even when you’re scared.”Another piece of advice was to be able to learn and adapt, ask good questions, and go out of your comfort zone. The tech world moves quickly, and you must be able to learn to keep up. 

The thing that struck me most on this trip was how much the mindsets of the professionals I met differed from own. While many of my friends and I, as seniors, stress over what we will do after graduation, the people I met on these visits to LivePerson and XO Group showed me that your path will take turns that you never expected, and opportunities will arise that you never could have predicted.  This visit showed me that you have to be true to yourself in your goals. At Penn, it’s easy to get swept up in the wave of people who seem to have their whole career trajectories planned out. But unless you’re being honest with yourself with regards to who you are, what you enjoy doing, and what difference you want to make, you won’t be content, even with a paycheck. 

Erin Beacham BE 16

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stress Relief Paint Night

As engineering graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, we spend our days working with hard numbers, algorithms, scientific equipment, and biological cultures, looking for answers to tough questions.  Sometimes, a break from research can be very valuable, and so we helped AWE host a Stress Relief Paint Night, where graduate students could come and exercise their creative, artistic sides, and do some work that doesn't have an answer at all, much less a right one.

 We provided canvases, paint, and lots of paintbrushes. For those who needed a little artistic inspiration, we projected a short video walk-through of how to create a simple acrylic painting for people to follow along. Some attendees surprised us with their advanced painting skills! There were lots of unique paintings in all sorts of styles: realism, impressionism, even some (perhaps unintentional) abstract expressionism. Everyone seemed to bond over their painting successes and "happy accidents." The paint night was a great way to relieve stress, relax, and socialize with grad students from departments other than our own.

We also got lots of positive feedback from attendees!
One told us "I really appreciate such a wonderful night! I posted my photos on social networks and received a lot of compliments!"
Another shared: "It was tremendous fun!"  And: "It's a great event!!!!!  Love it!!!"

This was an incredibly popular event, and we had over 100 women express interest in attending!  We plan to host another grad paint night in the Spring semester, in addition to the many other events AWE puts on.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

CIS 120 Teaching Assistant, Bethany Davis

Here's a blog post from Bethany Davis:

It has been said that the best way to learn is to teach.  That is why I was so excited when I found out I was chosen to be a CIS 120 Teaching Assistant at the beginning of this semester.

My name is Bethany Davis and I’m a sophomore at SEAS studying Computer Science.  CIS 120, or Programming Languages and Techniques I, was the first computer science course I took at Penn.  During the first half of the semester, I learned my first functional programming language, OCaml, through a series of increasingly challenging weekly assignments that build off of previous concepts and syntax structures. The OCaml portion of the course culminates in a GUI project similar to Microsoft Paint.  The second half of the course transitions from OCaml to Java, and culminates in a largely self-directed project in which each student designs a Java game.  When I took the course, I built a version of the Snake game from scratch.  I found the course to be rewarding because I learned a new programming language, constantly challenged my programming abilities, and produced tangible projects that I could demo for my friends.

The spring semester of my freshman year, two of my hall-mates enrolled in the course.  I found myself staying up late to help them with the assignments.  I found it very rewarding to share my own CIS 120 experiences with my friends, and it was also very fulfilling to see the influence I had on my peers:  one of my hall-mates ended up declaring a minor in CS, while another hall-mate went so far as to consider a second major in CS.  I realized that I had a passion for spreading my love of programming to others, and I wanted to find a way to give back to the CS community at Penn, so I decided to apply to become a CIS 120 teaching assistant.  After an application and an interview, I was hired as a CIS 120 TA for the Fall 2014 semester!

The infrastructure of the entry-level CIS courses at Penn is very well established.  Every week, I attend a CIS 120 staff meeting to debrief on the previous week’s lecture concepts and assignments, review plans for the upcoming week, and discuss the overall trajectory of the course.  As a new TA, I also attend weekly TA training sessions with first-time teaching assistants and Head TA’s from the other entry-level courses.  During training sessions, we discuss a variety of topics ranging from how to best conduct a recitation to how to increase diversity within computer science.  Training sessions definitely help me think critically about my teaching and my role as a TA.

While it may seem that being a teaching assistant primarily entails helping others, I have found that my role as a TA has also been beneficial for my own sake.  As a TA, I am responsible for teaching a weekly recitation, holding weekly office hours, and grading students’ weekly assignments for style, testing, and efficiency.  Once of the most challenging (yet rewarding) parts of being a TA is helping individual students during office hours.  It is difficult to strike a balance between guiding a student towards the right answer while still allowing the student to solve the problem independently.  The most fulfilling part of being a TA is when I am helping a student in office hours and the student suddenly reaches that “AHA!” or “eureka!” moment of understanding.  Whenever I help a student reach this moment while solving a difficult problem, I am reminded why computer science is such an incredible field to be a part of, and why computer science sparked my interest in the first place.  Furthermore, although grading assignments can be tedious and time-consuming, I have found it to be very beneficial to my own journey as a computer science student.  Reading other students’ code allows me to visualize many different solutions and approaches to the same problem.  Additionally, when I am forced to be critical of other students’ code, it teaches me to be more critical of the code I write myself, and I have found that through grading poorly written code, I am inspired to write more readable, well-written code for my own assignments.  Finally, being a TA has helped me prepare for technical interviews.  It can be very challenging and uncomfortable to discuss algorithms and code segments with an interviewer, but because I get practice explaining algorithms and code during recitations every week, I have felt much more at ease whenever I approach questions in a technical interview.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be a teaching assistant even though I am only an undergraduate student in computer science.  While my role as a TA is primarily to teach others, I am also grateful for everything that being a TA has taught me!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Grace Hopper Conference 2014

Below is a blog post by Kate Miller and Bethany Davis on their experience at the Grace Hopper Conference in Phoenix:

Bethany Davis and I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Phoenix early October. For three days, thousands of women across the country gathered to talk about the state of the software industry, the rich history of women like Naval Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (who developed the first compiler) and where were going as individuals and colleagues.

Grace Hopper Celebration 2014

There were too many incredible sessions for us to attend them all, but we both gained a lot from it. I attended the international release of the documentary, “The Big Dream,” which follows several young women from different backgrounds including the Comp Sci sisters in Iowa, the homeless computer animator in San Francisco, and a military-minded freshman who had just lost her mother to cancer (her mother was also an engineer). 
I also did technical interview practice questions with fellow nervous interviewees and learned about the effect of body language on negotiations. 

We heard many positive remarks at this confernce -- a social change award recipient, Ruthe Farmer, encouraged HR reps at software companies to start increasing their payroll budgets, “because there are a lot of young women headed your way who are going to negotiate their salaries!” However, not everyone was so positive -- CEO Satya Nadella encourage women not to negotiate, but rather to “trust the system” (an inflammatory statement as Microsoft has only 17% female employees). He apologized for remarks shortly after, but the firestorm is still burning on tech blogs. 

Controversy aside, some exciting developments came out of it: I had several interviews during the conference and even received an internship offer on the first day! We even ran into an old friend: we went out to dinner with Michele at Culinary Dropout. I am happy to report that she is as fabulously successful as ever, and is enjoying her new pool. (Its not too late to come back to Penn, though!)  
Kate, Michele and Bethany

A note on swag: I think if more young women knew about the corporate giveaways at technology conferences, the talent pipeline would overflow. The networking and knowledge gained are of course the most valuable piece of the conference, but my suitcase was filled to the brim with portable chargers, headphones, t-shirts, flip books, nail polish, and much more (most of which I passed along to my little sister, a high school freshman. Im essentially bribing her to become an engineer). 
A slightly more serious note: Though I believe that Penn does an excellent job in its efforts to recruit and retain women in engineering, the fact remains that only about 10% of Computer Science majors are women, and that can feel isolating. The fact that a community like the one that came together at Grace Hopper exists is inspirational, and Im excited to continue to build that network of support at Penn through AWE.
Our lovely Kate and Bethany