Posted by: Undeclared Scientist | August 21, 2009

Now This is a Story All About How My Life Got Flipped Turned Upside Down

Inspired by Professor Science, I will begin my indentured tale from the beginning…1998, end of sophomore year of high school.

It was a turbulent time in my life as 90’s rock was dying (Butt Rock: The Rise of No Talent Ass Clowns Like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit), I was fast realizing that neither professional nor college basketball was in my future and I was about to embark on a 3 week trip to the UK as student ambassador (read: obnoxious American tourist). During the past year, I had taken Programming in Basic I and II and enjoyed the logic-ality (yes, its a word because I said so) of it but ignored my latent logico-erotic feelings until my course advising meeting that May. Mr. Espinola was my advisor and, based solely on the fact that his daughter was a lackey for Raytheon, he said I should enroll in AP Computer Science (taught in C++ at the time) and make a ton of money after college (who would have thought the “dot” would add a “n” and become the “don’t”?)

Now, lets backtrack for a second here. I’m a 16 year-old kid that likes sports, music, sitting around watching TV and doing nothing with friends. A year long course (we were doing the radically new block-scheduling…pioneers!) not involving those things wasn’t super appealing. However, it was better than taking honors English and, frankly, I was pretty bored in school (remember that, it’s kind of a theme with me). So I took the course, got a 5 on the AP exam and said, “You know what 17 year-old self? Let’s be a computer scientist!” Seriously, that’s the most thought I put into choosing my career.

During senior year of high school I took a Fourtran at UMASS Dartmouth (they wouldn’t let me take Java because they felt I “wasn’t quite ready”) and quickly learned that once you know one language, you know them all. The courseĀ  highlight being a lecture on sorting where I produced the selection sort and the PTL’s reaction was, “does that really work?” That marked the last time she saw me before the final exam.

I started my CIS BS (bazing!) degree in Fall 2000 during a time when the 6 billion Y2K survivors were struggling to cope with this new ” mm/dd/yyyy” world. During the first two year I completed almost all of my Math and Computer Science requirements and was able to secure a research assistantship that I held all through college as a developer for a math education research project…I’m bored! To alleviate the boredom I embarked on what was basically 2 unofficial minors: music and drinking. By the time senior year rolled around 50% of my course load was in the music department and 50% in the CIS department. However, I was only attending 40% of said classes. Since high school the only further thought I had put into my goal of becoming a computer scientist was my decision to not work for the DoD (Dept. of Defense). I was gonna be a computer scientist who did, umm let’s see, doesn’t matter…computers! science! money!

Unlike Professor Science I had an opposite experience where a majority of my professors were encouraging me to go for a doctorate. Hell, even the rich, old people that let me park their cars said I should go to grad school (yep, I was a valet for 5 years). I declined though and continued to work as a consultant at the math ed research project. Funding for me ran out 6 months later…woopsie!

For the next 6 months I was a substitute teacher at a middle school and, well, that’s about it…I’m bored! Getting my Master’s degree seemed like a safe bet so I began the application process and, for the first time, I started to really think about what I wanted to do with my sciencey-ness. Education had always been a passion of mine (dad was a teacher, mentor/boss was a math educator) and I really like designing software so it was a natural progression for me to think about getting into design of educational software.

Needless to say, my first 1.5 years of grad school I focused on machine learning…wait, what? I worked on a few projects dealing predominantly with neural networks and my master’s project was about combining them with a clustering algorithm. Now, usually your thesis comes about from your master’s project but…I’m bored! My interest had swayed to formal methods and computational theory, so I switched advisors and began work on my thesis in January 2007. The work involved developing an algorithm to convert a dynamic model of a computer system into a Petri net in order to validate the system’s reliability. By June I had to design, implement, test, conclude and write my thesis…fuck.

Luckily I was able to get a slight extension and completed my thesis in August after I went out to sea for 2 weeks asĀ  an oceanographic research assistant (what can I say? I like professional change). In the fall I began a full-time position as a research associate at the math ed project (by this point we’ve grown into a center), a part-time gig as a PTL in the CIS dept and a part-time gig as a research assistant for a web service composition project. It was the semester from hell and by spring time I had cut out the web service composition stuff (maybe one day I will share my opinions on the inherently failed nature of web service composition…web developers are lazy! SCIPTZ 4 L1FE!!!!1!one!!!).

By the summer of 2008 things settled down and I was just teaching and working. Ah, that’s such a nice pa…I’m bored! Time to start 2 bands, get a curriculum development research grant, take on teaching two courses and keep my full-time job. After a semester of that I realized…I’m still bored! Thus began Ph.D. applications where I narrowed my choices to RIT (Computer Science) and UMASS (Math Education). My letter of intent for each application were essentially the same: combining my extensive knowledge of computing with my passion for education. RIT was not of fan of this “education” thing I spoke of and, well, I still haven’t applied for UMASS.

And here I stand. It’s August of 2009, over a decade has passed since I made the fateful, uninformed decision to become a computer scientist and I’ve succeeded. In addition, I’ve added another degree, become a research associate at a world-renown research center and become a constant fixture as a CIS PTL…I’m bored!

Thus begins my current journey, which you get to follow! You’ve been given the prologue today and now you’ll get to follow your brave and fearless protagonist as he decides how to alleviate his intellectual boredom and slay the evils of the academic world. Maybe he’ll enter the math ed Ph.D. program. Maybe he’ll become a full-time faculty member. Maybe he’ll bolt the math ed center for a Ph.D. in CIS. Maybe he’ll move to NH and start a beer store!

I do like beer.

Posted by: James P Burke | August 18, 2009

Do Teachers Need Education Degrees

It seems like my first post to this blog should be something introductory, but I believe the idea is more to actually get conversation and posting going rather than dwell on what the heck this blog is about. Because (and correct me if I’m wrong) the blog is primarily about a discussion of intellectual topics centered on grad school, math, science, and education.

I’ll kick my participation off with a contribution of this NYT debate over education degrees. We all know that teachers are encouraged to further their education and are granted higher pay for their efforts. But are the returns of such efforts significant?

Do teachers need more knowledge of teaching, or more content knowledge? Check out the comments of the NYT experts and then weigh in yourself.

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