Tag Archives: education

To be feminine or not to be (as an engineer)

This is an email I sent out to poll my friends, but as it also serves as a useful summary of my recent readings, I will post it here in all its messed-up footnotes glory:
How much should i emphasize that I am female in my life if the goal is to have the most impact on female representation in STEM I can as one person?

But actually i would really appreciate thoughts or research or statistics on this.

If we accept the premise that stereotypes play a role in all this, [6]
in my mind there are two approaches to being a female entrepreneur:
1) be a diva (combat “1337 male hacker” with “1337 female hacker”)
2) be an everyday person (“all types can be female programmer”)
For 1), I look up to people like ladyada (on the cover of WIRED) and debbie sterling (goldieblox). When I talked to ladayada / ptorrone they said they explicitly grew the company so that ladyada (a) gets to do as much technical work as possible and (b) remains as the publicly visible front of the company. And it’s sort of nice in an aggressive way to be in-your-face feminine and competent, to try to break the link between feminine and competency. Also people have told me that female role models are very important.

For 2), there’s a reactionary sentiment against over-sensationalizing that you’re female [3] and  instead emphasizing being a human being [7], but I don’t know if this is just “be humble” “be quiet and skinny and take up less space.”  [5] In this case, I’ll should just be my normal not particularly feminine self.
In particular, I would appreciate help finding science about either of these approaches instead of just gut instincts / blog posts. I can’t seem to word my question appropriately for google scholar though.

To some extent it doesn’t matter immediately since i know which approach i prefer (#2) and it’s better to act than philosophize all the time, but I am struggling to find research that isn’t just a bunch of academics being confused as to why progress is stalled [1] [2] (maybe it is a reflection of conditions 10 years ago?). But in media production for the course, I can easily play up being feminine (nail polish, makeup, clothing) or not. I wouldn’t mind this at all, and it sort of plays out haphazardly right now depending on how I feel.

[1] ” Moreover, as we will elaborate further, we have noticed a sense of alarm concerning trend in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in general, and engineering in particular. It was possible in the recent past to point to gradual increases in the numbers of women in engineering and to define those increases as positive indicators. Any confidence that it was just a matter of time before gender equality in engineering would be achieved has, instead, been undermined by the reality that those increases have either slowed or stopped altogether.”
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/swe/litreview2012/#/226 SWE 2012 compendium. I uploaded the relevant portion as a PDF here.

[2] “Women Gain in Some STEM Fields, but Not Computer Science”
“Computer science actually is more male-dominated today than it was two decades ago: Women received 29.6 percent of computer science B.A.’s in 1991, compared with 18.2 percent in 2010.” http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/women-gain-in-some-stem-fields-but-not-computer-science/

[3] ” I don’t see any solution other than time and perseverance.  Meanwhile I’m sick of writing about it; I’m bored silly with it.  So I’m going to cut to the chase, close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with. And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman.”

[4] http://miters.mit.edu/blog/2012/11/02/what-is-a-miters-2/ or for more commentary, skim through http://orangenarwhals.blogspot.com/2013/12/my-reply-to-charless-on-200gokart-us.html
In response to whether people were intimidated by MITERS’s reputation or not sent to all MIT undergraduate dorms via email:

[5] I also remember reading somewhere how this one programmer felt strongly that she was a “normal female” who left work at 5 and went out to shop for shoes and didn’t do hackathons during the weekends, and so she doesn’t really have role models she relates to. I also feel this way strongly due to my experience with MITERS where both M and F were “intimidated” by the hacker stereotype (although F more so statistically [4]).

[6] “But even when fields are defined more precisely, countries differ in some unexpected ways. A case in point is computer science in Malaysia and the U.S. While American computer scientists are depicted as male hackers and geeks, computer science in Malaysia is deemed well-suited for women because it’s seen as theoretical (not physical) and it takes place almost exclusively in offices (thought to be woman-friendly spaces). About half of Malaysian computer science degrees go to women.” http://contexts.org/articles/spring-2011/what-gender-is-science/

Look at all these countries with >50% of science degrees going to females! (it sounds like the post-graduation opportunities are still lacking though)

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finkbeiner_test

. To pass the test, an article about a female scientist must not mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job


My Reply to Charles’s “On 2.00Gokart”: History of U.S. Engineering Education, My Own Experiences (FRC/MITERS/SUTDkart), and NarwhalEdu

Engineering Education

This post is a compilation of my thoughts as I begin working my way through the following post by Charles, which is 17k words long:


My post is itself 7,700 words long and rather rambly and disorganized. You are forewarned!

This post is flat-out putting my research and thoughts down stream-of-consciousness style, complete with paragraphs of quotes from stuff I read. These quotes makes my style of writing unsuitable for any official media column, which wants the work of the Inpidual, but on my blog I view quotes as documentation and refuse to remove them. I tend to view summarizing them in my own words as needless duplicate work. In addition, this post is not very organized. I’ll revise this post some future date, but if I tried to make it actually organized I’d never post it.

In addition, in some sections a lot of MIT terminology (class numbers) is used.

0. Intro

I’m working on an engineering education startup and am thus working in this field for a living. As you might expect I have a lot of thoughts, theories, and opinions based on my own years at MIT and before (I did four years of FIRST Robotics in high school).

1. Why Read Background Literature on Engineering Education

I start by acknowledging the fact that I’m not an expert in education or engineering education and proceed by reading background literature on what people have done and thought about already over the decades. Thanks to the internet, in particular google scholar, this knowledge is merely a few mouse-clicks away. Academic research will always be limited in scope and not always directly applicable to my situation and what I’m attempting to do, but I would be remiss in not reading up on the situation when it’s so easy to do so.

From this background reading, I’m able to gain the terminology to begin conversing directly with people who have studied this subject and some understanding of social and historical factors influencing the current state of affairs that would come more and more into play as I attempt to scale any changes I seek to make in society. This reading also represents an attempt to understand which conclusions I have drawn from my own life apply to other people (wherein I am part of a trend) and which conclusions I have drawn from experiences in which I am the outlier (most other people react differently or have different experiences in their life). I believe this is another step crucial in improving and iterating on engineering education at scale. This belief, that it’s impossible for me to determine in isolation which of my experiences commonly apply to others and which do not by myself without being subject to clear sampling bias, reinforces my decision to do some background reading.

Although I acknowledge the sampling bias inherent in only polling my friends, who fall in the same social / cultural strata I do, the ease of doing so and my own curiosity means that if you’re my friend you’ll have been polled by me on various topics. “In your experience, has it been true that…” I believe that this is still better than simply relying on my own experiences, and I hope the previous paragraph explains how I attempt to continuously improve my understanding of the world. (in order to better take it over, of course, mwahaha)

With all that said, I also think it’s really fantastically important to act and not just study or observe all the time, even if you think yourself a unskilled or there’s the chance that your effort is duplicate work or that “experts” might react negatively to what you’re attempting to do.

With that, let’s begin.

Charles talks about:

“I have seen it happen over and over again. A Certain Scientific Department becoming uneasy with how ‘theoretical’ it has become, and with news of other universities’ more ‘hands-on’ approach to engineering making a comeback, tries to add a lab or design component to a class that in recent history has been entirely on paper. The students have never been exposed to real parts and processes before; maybe a few of them have, from their own personal experience in years past. The groups form, there’s much struggle and frustration at how stuff just doesn’t work as well in real life as they do in Solidworks or Matlab, and in the end, maybe one or two projects “work” and everyone else leaves with a really dim view of project classes in general, and some start resenting the Department for ‘not teaching them anything useful’. Does this sound familiar to you?”

Here, I’d like to give some historical context and terminology for this push-and-pull that Charles describes and is familiar to any historian or anyone who has read about the history of math curricula in the United States.


“Broadly speaking, the education wars of the past century are best understood as a protracted struggle between content and pedagogy. At first glance, such a dichotomy seems unthinkable. There should no more be conflict between content and pedagogy than between one’s right foot and left foot. They should work in tandem toward the same end, and avoid tripping each other. Content is the answer to the question of what to teach, while pedagogy answers the question of how to teach.

The trouble comes with the first step. Do we lead with the right foot or the left? If content decisions come first, then the choices of pedagogy may be limited. A choice of concentrated content precludes too much student centered, discovery learning, because that particular pedagogy requires more time than stiff content requirements would allow. “

2. Historical Background of Engineering Education

Let’s talk more specifically about the history of engineering education at the college level. Chronologically,

http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11338&page=115 or in pdf format

http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11338 (requires free account)

“Yet, it is worth taking a moment to remember that until the end of the nineteenth century, the primary means by which a young man became an engineer was through a hands-on apprenticeship in a machine shop, at a drawing board, behind a transit, or on a construction site. […] it was not until after the Civil War, when the Morrill Act led to the establishment of land-grant schools, that the dominant pattern of engineering education shifted from shop floors to classrooms.”

(Patterns in the History of Engineering Education Reform: A Brief Essay. From the book Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century ( 2005 ). This essay details the social historical patterns that led to this shift a century ago and is a fascinating read. Among other things, in engineering and engineering education, we see time and time again the influence that government grants can have. Also, it’s funny to read about how an inferiority complex influenced engineers as a whole back in the day to shift away from shop classes and gives me a smile as I consider how my own inferiority complex has pressured me to try to learn more theory).


“Historically, engineering curricula have been based largely on an “engineering science” model over the last five decades, in which engineering is taught only after a solid basis in science and mathematics. […] The infusion of first-year design courses—later dubbed corner-stone (design) courses in the 1990s—was motivated by an awareness of the curricular disconnect with first-year students who often did not see any engineering faculty for most of their first two years of study.”

(Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching, and Learning. Jan 2005, Journal of Engineering Education).


“In effect, current reforms are responding to changes made in American engineering colleges in the years immediately after World War II (1939-1945), when engineering curricula first fully embraced an analytical mode of engineering science.”

(The Other Re-engineering of Engineering Education, 1900–1965. Jul 1999, Journal of Engineering Education).

According to Charles,

“My whole thesis, if it had to be boiled and distilled and refined down, is this: Give students the tools of practicality and channel their creativity first, and supplement them with the knowledge of theory and science later.

With our newfound historical perspective, Charles’s sentiment can be seen as part of a broader reactionary trend starting in the 1990s shifting toward design thinking and away from the analytical sciences.

3. My Thesis: Different Strokes for Different Folks

Given this historical context, my own thesis is “different strokes for different folks” or “different resonant frequencies for different students.” I find a hands-on approach more beneficial to myself, but acknowledge that there exist students (and professors) who do not like “applied” engineering at all and thrive with theoretical approaches. In this case, the parameter of engineering education we care about (tailoring) may be viewed along a spectrum from (a) continuously customized to each inpidual student’s learning strengths to (b) mass-fed to all students in the same way. By solely emphasizing either the theoretical or hands-on approach, we will neglect a subset of students. Furthermore, this whole emphasis on “theoretical” or “hands-on” is very obviously a simplified approach and not necessarily the best simplification either.

To be more explicit, consider this approach taken to an extreme. A model of learning that uses a binary pide between “analytical” and “applied” students can be used to chunk students into two categories. From the relative size of the two groups, we may target the larger group and write the smaller group off as a loss.

Analytical and applied may not even be the best binary pide of students, and more to the point is a binary pide the best we can do?

Let’s consider the background literature on this topic.

4. Existing Research on My Thesis


“To overcome these problems, professors should strive for a balance of instructional methods (as opposed to trying to teach each student exclusively according to his or her preferences.) If the balance is achieved, all students will be taught partly in a manner they prefer, which leads to an increased comfort level and willingness to learn, and partly in a less preferred manner, which provides practice and feedback in ways of thinking and solving problems which they may not initially be comfortable with but which they will have to use to be fully effective professionals.”

(Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education. Originally 1988; updated preface 2002. The author’s website, http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/, is also a treasure trove of “Resources in Science and Engineering Education” that I will need to peruse at a later date).

Hmm. So here we see that researchers have been considering this “learning-styles approach” for three decades already and that after extensive thought on the subject on engineer has, on the tailorization spectrum mentioned in part 3, picked somewhere in the middle! To be expected, yet surprising for me, since with “online learning” and computerized instruction picking up public fervor there’s been so much hype lately about how “teaching continuously customized for each inpidual” would be the best type of teaching possible. Yep, my own opinions are influenced by the culture I reside in.

A. Tangent about the Engineering Education Research Community

Turns out within this community there is a growing split between theoreticians and practitioners! Holy hexapods this is meta beyond what I expected. Incepptiionnn…


“While the rigorous research movement has made valuable contributions to engineering education, it has also given rise to a concern. The engineering education research community has begun to split into two pergent and sometimes antagonistic groups: the theoreticians, who seek to understand the learning process at a fundamental level, and the practitioners, who continue to focus their research on improving teaching structures and methods. Those descriptions represent extremes, with many researchers occupying intermediate positions, but the existence of the two different camps and the danger of a widening schism between them are real.”

(Educational Practice And Educational Research In Engineering: Partners, Antagonists, Or Ships Passing In The Night? J. Engr. Education, 2013)

Uhm yea I am not going further down this rabbit hole right now. *exits paper*

5. Learning Styles Models: Criticisms


“Principles and applications of four learning style models (Felder-Silverman, Kolb, and models based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument). The paper concludes that the choice of a model is almost irrelevant: teaching designed to address all dimensions on any of the models is likely to be effective, and all of the models lead to more or less the same instructional approach.”

“Matters of Style.” ASEE Prism, (December 1996).

Ah! This is a fascinating conclusion.

Below, I addresses my own lingering skepticisms about “learning-styles” models. This skepticism arose from when I learned that the popular “right-brain left-brain” and “visual/kinesthetic/auditory” learning-styles is considered by most modern education researchers to be a pile of horse dung. See:


“Many educational psychologists believe that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds.[34] According to Stahl,[35] there has been an “utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.””

Let’s dig deeper than wikipedia.


Oh noes! It’s actually titled the same as my thesis, haha. “Different Strokes for Different Folks? A Critique of Learning Styles.” (American Educator, Fall 1999). And it does indeed have the quote cited in wikipedia and copied above and concludes

 “Thoughtful educators have tried to make this work, and perhaps it is workable, but trying to meet all of the preferences of a group of children would seem to take energy that would be better spent on other things. This is especially true since no one has proven it works.”

Let’s go back from Stahl to Felder.


“Every two years or so, some academic psychologists conduct a literature review and conclude that no research supports the use of learning styles in teaching, and journal reviewer s and editors treat this conclusion as a new revelation that once and for all debunks learning styles. These pronouncements have never had the slightest effect on the world academic community’s extensive and continually growing use of learning styles models and assessment instrument s, but that has never deterred others from repeating the exercise two years later […]

Most learning styles debunkers base their arguments on the meshing hypothesis. They claim they have found no credible evidence that matching teaching to students’ learning style preferences leads to improved learning, so there is no reason to take learning styles into account when designing instruction. […]

Learning styles […] are neither infallible guides to student behavior nor made-up constructs that have no basis in reality, but simply useful descriptions of common behavior patterns. Although their validity is routinely challenged in the psychology literature, the most common learning styles models have been used frequently and successfully to help teachers design effective instruction; help students better understand their own learning processes; and help both teachers and students realize that not everyone is like them and the differences are often worth celebrating.”

(Are Learning Styles Invalid? (Hint: No!) On-Course Newsletter, September 27, 2010.)

Interesting. This is a more nuanced view than I have previously encountered and the one I will leave with at this point.

6. Return to Reading Charles’s Post, Part 1

Ah. I quote a lot when writing my posts (documentation!), but I’m at 2.5k words already and only just got to Part 1 of Charles’s post? Oh dear.

Hmm, interesting history about MITERS. Todo: write my own personal history of building things (analog to part 1) and MITERS (analog to part 2).

“where do you learn about how to design with and around the hardware or to use the tools available to you?”

This. This crucial skill is what we will be trying to teach in the second part of the NarwhalEdu Drawing, Robots, and Engineering course and what I spent a long time trying to explain to hackaday commenters.

Part 3 on Charles’s Post. Interesting history of the electric vehicle / go-kart section in 2.007.

Part 4.

One comment I’d like to make with regards to scope in design classes — from talking to a professor at the Tufts Center for Engineering Outreach, a crucial feature we’ll be incorporating into our own “build things contest” is a common theme. Turns out that if you leave the field wide-open people get lost and it’s less possible for students to learn from one another.

Part 6.

“for the most part I kept the selection hidden in an Instructors’ Only closet, but if someone “ordered” a part that was in the stock, it was available after 1 or 2 days of artificial delay to keep things fair; I had a queuing area for shipments as they come in, and the parts would magically appear in them.”

Huh! I… did not know that while I was TAing the class (the artificial delay).

“and shows again why this class might not be scalable unless you had multiple EV hacker gurus.”

Heh. I’ll give my own thoughts as a TA of the SUTD-gokart class with zero EV experience soon. (well, I guess hexarideablepod was electric, but it was definitely not a go-kart). EDIT: Didn’t make it into this blog post. Maybe next time.

Chicane? There’s a word for that funny turn? Haha.

In my view, what I had to contribute lay more along fabrication (”what’s a tap”) and debugging expertise (”halp this isn’t working” “okay let’s go download the manual online and read through it”). As in any class, there tend to be common questions that I was learning along with or just hours before. In fact, I’d say that by the end of the class everyone single student was 100% more proficient with designing and building electric vehicles than I was, since I’ve yet to build a working one (again not counting hexarideablepod). I approach explaining the design process differently than Charles does, and I think in part this is because of the “expert” paradox where it becomes impossible to remember just how overwhelming everything seems when you are starting out.

B. Tangent: Expert Teachers vs. Experienced Teachers

In other words, it’s possible to spend a long time teaching without become as good at it as you can be.

“Expertise is a process rather than a state. Experts continuously extend the outer edge of their competence.”


Part 7.

“Many engineering students would prefer not to ask questions and tough/puzzle it out, when it is far more productive to grab a hint and move on, and you should be on the lookout for people who are too stuck trying to optimize in the wrong direction.”

Hmm, would have been good to know this was the philosophy Charles followed while working as a TA. Whoops! 😀

Part 8.

“I’ve received feedback a few times that the class was really’ you teaching yourself’, both expressing that positively and negatively.”

This is where I struggled as a TA to try to figure out where my building style fit into the class. My style, as a relatively inexperienced builder, is still more copy-paste “I Saw it On the Internet” than Charles’s. Thus, he would answer questions like “How do I make my steering linkage?” with “I don’t know the answer, you figure it out!” whereas I would answer by saying, “I don’t know, but you know, look at all these blogs your previous classmates wrote” while feeling vaguely guilty of not being a more technically-oriented instructor.

Let’s explain my experience with

It comes down to being resourceful and discovering ways to help yourself (and your team) through the project, and reserving raising your hand and asking the teacher for very specific moments.”

I have the very opposite problem with strangers — I worried about bothering people so much that part of the reason my Fitbit supervisor refused to write a letter of recommendation for me for grad school applications was that I didn’t ask for help when I got stuck, instead struggling to solve questions on my own that were harder to solve because there’s a lot less MSP430 documentation than Atmega328 documentation online, which I was used to. So I was penalized pretty heavily for attempting to be too self-sufficient. I also discovered I’m not really a fan of writing firmware, but that’s another story.

I do like the point about how building a large go-kart reduces the fudge factor acceptable with smaller projects (on the scale of NarwhalEdu projects which can fit in your hand, and which I think are more appropriate for the freshman level of college).

Part 10.

“2.00gokart is not an attempt to start some sort of design revolution, nor is it meant to overturn the foundations of a modern engineering education. It is simply one other path, out of myriads, that motivated and spirited people have built in the interest of advancing the quality and accessibility of education for everyone.”


7. Overall Response

Alright, now that I have finished reading the post, I’d like to provide my response without reading through the ten or so engineering education papers I have queued up. I’ll maybe write another blog post tomorrow.

Charles starts out very strongly with his thesis that hands-on is the best thing since hobbyking and then sort of mellows out toward the end (“there are many paths”). In general, I found this post extremely useful as a snapshot of engineering education and the conclusions and theories about engineering education of one of my fellow MIT/MITERS engineers, as well as a catalyst for my own continued forays into the field of engineering education.

I am fortunately able to write a much shorter post as I have yet to have the experience in engineering / engineering education that Charles has had. I will note that due to my own sensibilities I have spent more brainpower on issues such as gender rather than solely on the value of hands-on education as opposed to theoretical classes. Perhaps I need to write my own post on gender and engineering education in order to catalyze my research paper reading into the area, but I’ll leave that for a future post. For a bit of reading into this subject, see http://miters.mit.edu/blog/2012/11/02/what-is-a-miters-2/.

Thus, I will split my response into the following portions, in analog to Charles’s post.




FOUR. MIT – 2.007


8. Detailed Response


My high school had FIRST robotics, which I did for four years and which ultimately convinced me that I wanted to be an engineer. I didn’t really understand what mechanical engineering meant, other than building robots. I didn’t decide I wanted to go to MIT until I visited in 10th grade.

hanna and I! we don’t seem to have changed much.

Yet despite participating in robotics for four years, I found it easy to get sucked into doing the non-technical work, a tension always within me: technical work made me compare myself to others and feel bad, but I was really conscious of the gender gap all the time and wanted to learn the technical side.

In fact after four years my bucket list was like so:

“1. Learn to chain
2. Learn to run wire, specifially learn about the & hone my soldering skills
3. Drive the robot for at least ten minutes
4. Go on the field
5. Make a decision”

Really? After four years I still didn’t know how to break and reassemble chain? It’s like a five-minute thing to learn how to do, and I spent far more time being too agonizingly shy to ask how to do it than it would have to just learn it. (Nowadays I would just look it up on youtube). I often wonder if in larger teams (our team had around 50 students) the pision of labor is gender-split such that it’s very easy, if you go with the flow and are female, to spend four years and a crapton of time being inspired but not gaining technical expertise. In contrast to Charles’s experiences in FIRST robotics, in four years I never learned to CAD or uploaded a Labview program I wrote to the robot or to wire 24V drivetrains. My dad would always laugh at me: “All you’ve learned is to turn screws.”

Why So Slow places a lot of emphasis on the idea that very very tiny advantages and disadvantages accumulate over time, and presents a ton (actually; it’s taken me a month to work through this book it’s that dry) of research supporting this theory. My hypothesis (has not been investigated) is that guys who put in as much time into FIRST as I did got far more out of it in technical expertise. If true, is that my personality fault or partly attributable to gender? Another thing that Why So Slow taught me is that gender differences start being measurable very early, within months after birth. So I’m willing to bet that by high school these vague impressions I got had some basis in reality. Let’s not even get into how my parents didn’t exactly encourage me to go to the extra team meetings on programming and such during the summer that were invariably held at a guy teammate’s house.

This is why I will never ever be happy for long playing second fiddle to a guy around my age — we can work on different projects, but if we work on the same project it better darn well be one in which we are equals. Sorry Charles, writing this post has actually clarified that I am not happy simply being the TA to your class and would prefer to spend my time elsewhere. Thank you for the awesome opportunity though.

It’s so true that the gender of a person shouldn’t affect whether I am willing to take advice and learn from them. Why is it then, that if Charles were a gal I’d be happy to learn from someone who has years more experience building things than I do, whereas since Charles is a guy I just feel like I’m constantly being reminded of the possibility of systematic pressures that kept me from gaining this experience at a commensurate rate? Not sure, too busy being bitter to care, hah.

Of course, I recognize that I’m pretty darn fortunate compared to my MIT friends from rural areas to have gone to a public high school in Georgia with a FIRST team and a ton of AP classes, and it’s pointless to wonder about how else my life would have gone. My life is pretty awesome and blessed right now.

Another thing that I had was northern team envy, I felt like there was a gap in available mentors and facilities between the north and south. Don’t know if that’s true or not either.

But I’d say most of my feelings toward robotics could be themed around: inadequacy, inferiority, incompetency. My analysis of the situation at the time was as follows:

“Who cares what the rookies think, the honest truth is that I don’t know any of this stuff. I’ll be in a completely different place next year, now is the chance to learn this stuff and embarrass myself and no one will know next year. This is logical. So why is it still so difficult to be confident and speak forth my opinions; why am I still so afraid that people will find them ridiculous, or completely missing the point.”

Anyway, I had some small science fair projects of my own at the time, which is how I first heard of Instructables (did you know that back in the day they advertised show-and-tells at MITERS?) and built a version of the pringles can vertical-axis wind turbine. I also learned of ladyada around this time when I made a solar-powered USB charger (I couldn’t keep series and parallel circuits straight, haha) and learned to solder courtesy of my dad. Even then I was exploiting the school system to build things -^-^-

inspired by http://www.ladyada.net/make/mintyboost/


Alright, high school’s over, I spend a summer at the CDC doing bio work and then head to MIT.

Hahaha heck if I know how to make a narrative or heads or tails out of my academics at MIT. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot, how my attitude affects how I portray my path through MIT and there’s no clear “truth.” I tend to default by saying that I never got academics at MIT and was rejected from grad school and decided to go work on a startup. Consider this with how Charles portrays his path through MIT:

That, combined with my attitude towards engineering as something fun and hilarious (instead of SRS BIDNESS) meant that I spent most of my undergrad career not paying attention to classes. I openly admit to and am proud to point out cherrypicking only what I found relevant to some project I had going on at the time and shutting out the rest”

My portrayal is objectively a very self-deprecating way of putting things. Who does this portrayal even benefit? This sort of modesty certainly hasn’t stopped internet haters from hating on me.

  • I could point out that I never took 6.003 and 2.004 or finished 6.302 and only limped through 2.737 by relying on Shane. Or I could say that I was so awesome that without ever formally taking a controls class I dared to take a grad mechatronics class and passed it.
  • I could say that I was rejected from grad school, or I could say that I only applied to one program (MIT) with a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. If they weren’t going to support my working on that, then I would go off and work on the idea anyway by co-founding my own startup, and I darn well successfully did exactly that (see: kickstarter).
  • I could say that I limped my way through MIT, or I could say that despite dealing with being hospitalized and paranoid and depressed and other crap I graduated in mechanical engineering from MIT in four years while being less stressed out than many people I know.
  • I could say that I’ve never had a really successful UROP or internship, or I could say that after trying out the possibilities, I went back to my childhood dream of being an entrepreneur, became one, and for now have found where I’m happy.
  • I could say that our kickstarter hasn’t gone viral like Heidi and Bayley and Daniel’s oneTesla, that I’ve never made a really pro-looking project. Or I could say that I had firm educational ideas and goals in mind (make a kit that makes people think “I could build that!” and is designed to be taken apart so people go on to build their own thing) despite strong cultural and economic incentives to not do so (everyone thinks Apple is the pinnacle of design and that quadcopters and 3d printers are the coolest ever). *

* As our goal is also to be able to impact a wide audience, the benefits of using something that’s hyped may outweigh the benefits of a more principled kit design that only reaches a smaller audience. We’ll probably try both and see.

Anyway, getting ahead of ourselves here. Back to MIT. In general, my feelings at MIT didn’t change terribly much from my feelings about robotics in high school: I felt incompetent, inferior, and inadequate. For the most part, MIT didn’t give me grand theories about how the existing academic system didn’t fit me and others like me.


The classes I did the worst in were the ones that I couldn’t connect to anything I was building. The drudgery.

I felt instead judged and found wanting at MIT. I didn’t fare well grade-wise even in project-based classes such as 6.131, 2.007, or 2.008 that my friends loved. All these classes did was make me compare myself to my peers at MITERS and feel sad.

Glossary: 6.131 Power Electronics, a very time-consuming and awesome lab class. Mostly EECS/MechE sophomores and juniors. 2.007 Design and Manufacturing I, sophomore MechE class (build a robot). 2.008, Design and Manufacturing II, junior MechE class (build a yoyo). MAS.863 How to Make Almost Anything, all majors/years.

MIT / hell ambigram


my 2.007 bot. read more here

6.131 in particular was a class I thought I would love, but instead destroyed my confidence so utterly that even after graduating sometimes the thought of opening Practical Electronics for Inventors, which should be a fun read, filled me with dread.

2 AM 6.131 parties…


uguu traumatic final project: 48 hour 24v h-bridge, never finished

Perhaps the class I like the best was MAS.863, How to Make Almost Anything, but for me it felt like the only classes I did well in were “soft” classes instead of science classes (and therefore I was inadequate, incompetent, inferior). I’m not sure if I pick this class ranking up from society or from my long-time impression that anything I was good at must have been easy. That class is awesome — learn a new tool every week and do a project with it. There was no fear of “where is the Morally Bad Copying line” — you were encouraged to learn from each other and document the frick out of everything and learn however you could (be resourceful). Your projects were encouraged to be entirely your own creation, so there was “design” and not just “machining” in it. As Charles points out, though, sometimes there’s a lot to be learned even in “copying” something. My one project that was an iteration of an existing design — a shelving unit made out of a single 8×4 piece of wood, which I rejiggered to cut out on the CNC shopbot — still taught me useful things about Solidworks. (Mostly I really wanted a usable shelf).

shelf -> solidworks. read more here


I became heavily involved with MITERS, MIT’s student-run hackerspace, founded in the 70s before hackerspaces were even a thing. I first heard of MITERS in relation to dumpster ping even before visiting for CPW, but that’s for another story. At CPW I got a bunch of LEDs from MITERS really awkwardly, and my next forays into MITERS weren’t really until second-semester sophomore year. I started taking over secretarial duties and building hexapods at MITERS and then next thing I knew I was president.

I summarized my goals as president in a previous post: http://miters.mit.edu/blog/2012/11/02/what-is-a-miters-2/

A year later, I wouldn’t say my efforts were really successful in terms of getting the administration to know about us in a positive light or to encourage more persity in MITERS by getting rid of the “we’re an intimidating elitist bunch of hackers and you are not welcome. N00b.” impression some people got. I can’t even say that my efforts brought new members to MITERS. That’s okay, that’s part of experimentation.

Were you ever intimidated by MITERS?
“whoa these people are so awesome, it’s so awkward when I ask n00b questions, etc.”

  • yes, but now I hang out at MITERS
  • yes, that’s why i don’t hang out at MITERS
  • no


But this was perhaps my first forays into engineering education. After taking MAS.863 How to Make Almost Anything I realized I’d learned a lot and could help people with different things. That was the inspiration for the seminar series “build all the things”. The idea is that if we gave people a starting point, they’d have a reason to come hang out around MITERS. The first seminar, a 555 seminar, had over 100 people queued up to take it.

EAGLE seminar

One unfortunate consequence of BAtT being super-popular at first (or at least more popular than the 5 extra people MITERS can support) was that it was held upstairs in a clean environment and very few people ventured into MITERS afterward. But all in all BAtT surprised me in how many people were willing to show up on a Friday night for something they didn’t get credit for just because they wanted to learn to build things. 555 LEDs are thoroughly documented online and the components readily available at MITERS, yet people found utility in a bit more hand-holding than before.

I think one good thing about MIT is that it has taught me that people come in with very different backgrounds and no one will judge you for not knowing things. Just ask. I’ve met people who ask questions I would never dream of asking before consulting the internet, yet the atmosphere at MITERS has been really great. Being very definitely not a top student academically in college as opposed to the situation in high school helps too.

In a future post I’ll touch on how my mood heavily impacts how much I’m able to benefit from an environment like MITERS.

At MITERS I built things. Lots of things. Crazy things. Terrible crazy things.

read more here

I loved staying up until dawn with MITERS folks talking about really terrible crazy awesome technical things. I hated not understanding what people were talking about. But I sure as heck started out copying things and Designing by Looking at the Internet.

look familiar? I copied my leg design straight from http://pacess.blogspot.com/2010/08/amigo-hexapod-leg-design-03.html

Actually, I felt really crappy about this for a long time. My hackaday mention was for a project I implemented off of a really detailed instructables. But you know what? Whatever. I did the wiring myself, figured out how to add a sweet adjustable racing chair I crufted from some basement, figured out how to mount the motors in a removable fashion (well, not actually). I learned things.

Work in progress

(I’m still sad I lost the camera that had my pictures for my entire summer’s worth of working on hexarideablepod on it).

So that’s my experience with MITERS. The main conclusion re: engineering education: a lot of people can benefit for a tiny bit more guidance, like a catalyst, rather than just being thrown into the waters of MITERS.

The way we used to do it was have people show up on build party nights and show them the giant stores of stuff we had accumulated and a few projects that people had built and then say, “have at it!” We noticed that in those cases people tended to come in for a few minutes, leave, and never return. So now we’re trying different things. I tried organized seminars that cast a wide net. The current president is trying semi-organized one-on-one mentoring.

Speaking of “here’s a ton of cruft,” I tend to also categorize builders into two categories, those that create awesomeness from stuff lying around, spending less money and more time, and those that tend to spend money to get the exact parts they want and execute according to a plan. People can definitely transition between these two states — I’ve veered sharply toward the latter as I’ve started to earn money, but I can see how you can learn things a lot more in-depth with the former approach, and I’ve always considered it the more “hardcore” or legitimate approach. You can see sharp contrasts from person to person as well. Apparently when going commercial it works the opposite way around though.

FOUR. MIT – 2.007

2.007 is Design and Manufacturing I, for sophomore mechanical engineers.

As mentioned before, I applied to grad school, most specifically to work on an EdX version of 2.007 (again, don’t apply the way I did — if you want grad school, tell them you want to do research). I had TA’d 2.007 as well, where I developed A Lot of Opinions on TA work.

(A) Give them a heads’ up on the material you’re about to cover. Most TA’s took the class a little while ago and will do great with a refresher.

(B) Give them a definite hierarchy if there’s more than five or so people.

(C) Some TA’s have never TA’d before! Best to let them talk to those that have TA’d extensively before.

(D) Communicate your expectations to your TA’s and how they can best help.

(E) Give them feedback, otherwise how they feel they’re doing may be entirely porced from how you feel they’re doing.

Anyway, things I learned from TA’ing the class: you don’t have to know everything and it’s fine to say you don’t. Just help them work through the problem, especially if they’re new to debugging, or point them to someone who likely has more knowledge on that particular subject than you do.

My observation was that the experience for 100+ students was overall a bit haphazard due to variations in what they got to do and a lacking in the above five components.

One issue that keeps cropping up is whether to compile a list of common mechanisms, their various implementations and failures over the years, and their pros/cons, and provide it to the students or not. Copying is Bad, or so all of academia would like you to think. But perhaps copying is okay with attribution. Why shouldn’t the students get a ramp in and the robots get more awesome every year? Why shouldn’t there be a communal database of attempted designs that gives immediate insight into the value of documentation and working with your peers? The structure of the class (variations on the same themes every year) would be great for this.

Something like this should definitely exist for drivetrains, at the very least, or perhaps they should be covered in actual 2.007.

I’ve actually wanted to have something like this for FIRST for a long time, because the veteran teams and teams that have a lot of returning mentors benefit tremendously from their knowledge of archimedes spirals, hoppers, ball eaters, and other common design motifs.

I agree with Charles on this point though — I’m not certain whether it would be better or worse for the MIT class overall. Because on the other hand, it’s hard to come up with creative or novel designs when you have in front of you designs that “work” and there’s a time pressure, so instead everyone would just iterate or poorly copy the existing designs without understanding why they work or missing important details.

I tend to believe that over time change toward constraints on information flow disappearing is inevitable, so we may as well facilitate it and control how this develops.

On a separate note, a lot of students would benefit from exposure to all the components available to them, which they often discovered too late to incorporate into their designs. Todo for some future TA or professor.

I’ve never had access to class evaluations so I guess I am missing that crucial bit of feedback.

In conclusion: Communication is key in working with TAs, it’s unclear whether more or less design documentation is better for student learning and enthusiasm in robot contests, and documentation of components is a must.

There’s this constant push-and-pull between iterating on the class as much as possible and having to update all the documentation, though. This is friction that technology should solve.


Right. So I applied to grad school (specifically, a Masters in MechE at MIT) and failed to get in. After taking a nap my reaction was actually one of great relief, and now I’m really happy where I’m at, so likely it’s all for the best. In my application, I didn’t try to model myself into a Model Grad Student and instead clearly expressed my desires, so not getting in is probably a good sign I would be happier elsewhere.

I can’t help but be bitter that life circumstances prevented me from double-majoring in 2 and 6 in exchange for the terrible grades and lack of grad school I got, but that’s okay. And it sort of sucks to be one of the mystery Statistical Women who didn’t continue on to graduate school, but whatever.* I’m happy and healthy and that’s… actually amazing.

*Or if I was being self-deprecating I could say “I am too dumb or lazy to get good grades.” Truth is impossible to discern. If I have the energy, may as well pick the most useful interpretation that provides me with solace or the willingness to keep trying (instead just rolling around in self-deprecation).

Instead, I set to work on an idea Josh first voiced after a talk by Sal Khan at MIT — combining online education with hands-on projects. How did I learn to build hexapod? The shop resources and my friends were definitely infinitely useful, but a lot of it came from random internet scrapings. So I definitely believe it’s possible to learn engineering online.

I also loved the idea of building things bringing together people from cultures all around the world. See: visiting makerspaces in China, the list of hackerspaces all around the world, the Chinese diy markets on taobao and letsmakerobots.cn.


ballcopter in beijing, china. compare to:
charles’s diy ballcopter. cambridge, MA, USA


So that’s what I’m working on now with the awesome Hanna and Cappie: NarwhalEdu 101, Robots, Drawing, and Engineering: An Online Introduction to Engineering Course. Hanna and I are interested in female outreach and Cappie is interested in rural outreach, thanks to our respective backgrounds. W00t onwards to an awesome future!

7. NarwhalEdu

So after all these engineering education experiences, let’s talk about how I’m applying all of these themes and thoughts to NarwhalEdu.

First, some lessons we learned from actually running classes in person with K-12 students and talking to teachers and professors on engineering outreach:

(A) The hook needs to be in the very first class. We originally designed to start with blinking LEDs and ramp up to the drawing robot arm, but re-organized to have students build the robot arm in the first class.

(B) Having concrete chunks that can be accomplished in 30 minutes to an hour. In general, design like martial arts belt tests.

(C) Don’t spend lots of engineering effort when something easier will work just as fine. We were focused on drawing faces and spent a long time on this when having a “copycat” arm turned out to be just as fascinating to students.

(D) Requiring trigonometry will cut out a lot of high school students.

Our near-final curricula may be found here.

Additionally, something unique we are trying (since I really do want students from all around the world to talk to and learn from each other) is having the second part of the course be taking apart the kit and building their own robot with it as part of a contest. In educational circles this is called formative assessment, and I have high hopes for this.

In addition, in designing for classrooms a very different mindset is needed than when designing for the extracurricular inpidual learner as we did.

(A) Teachers are really really busy. Make it as easy for the teacher to adopt as possible.

(B) Kits need to be designed to be built and taken apart and put away very rapidly or else must be completable in 45 minutes or less.

(C) Kits need to be durable and low-cost and usable by multiple students at once so that schools can reuse them and amortize them over lots of students. And students are VERY good at destroying things.

(D) Alternatively another model is to design for a reasonable “class materials” cost, for instance around $50 a class. This naturally limits your reach to well-off students and school areas.

In contrast, our kit is designed to look so simple everyone, even “non-mathsci-people,” go “I could build that!” We also, as mentioned before, designed it such that people wouldn’t be satisfied with its base state (a risky move!) and would want to either improve it or take it apart and use its components to build something of their own.

The conclusion? I’ll let you know in around April when we finish running our course, or when I hear back from Stanford’s hapkits class or UT’s microcontrollers class.

research: best practices in online education [WIP]


1 to 2 hour lectures may be better for those driving to work



Yet as consummate professionals, all of you have conducted copious research, applying sound methods and appropriate metrics, which demonstrates the many positive academic benefits of high-quality technology-enhanced education for all learners. And your efforts have produced tremendous innovation in both technology development and the learning sciences.
The problem is that, for the most part, we are sharing that research with each other at conferences and in publications created specifically to advance the e-learning field. So without verifiable data to consider, our more traditional colleagues are still making instructional decisions based on personal experience or professional bias, political expediency, or just because everyone else is doing it.

To read! many links.



Firstly there is the issue of digital mimicry.  The Coursera platform, alongside rival Stanford start-up Udacity and the non-profit venture ‘edX’ from Harvard and MIT, currently hosts courses that are broadly conservative in terms of online educational practices.  All of these MOOC platforms appear to justify their status by promoting curricula that are equivalent to campus-based courses, with a strong focus on content delivery and an emphasis on the rigor and formality of their assessment methods.  However, some of the most interesting and innovative practices in online education have emerged by challenging these very ideas; loosening institutional control of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, shifting from a focus on content delivery to a foregrounding of process, community and learning networks, and working with more exploratory assessment methods – digital and multimodal assignments, peer assessment and group assignments, for example.


So we are keen to avoid both the over-celebratory fetishizing of the teacher associated with some MOOCs, and the tendency to see the technology as allowing us to write the teacher out of the equation altogether. We want to explore how a MOOC pedagogy might work with a construction of the teacher that has an immediacy that can succeed at scale.


The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. The best online courses are born digital.

‘Best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right.


Setting up the open source Mechanical MOOC, part one

Step 2 for dumb demo, set up a site where I can post content and syllabi.
For this, I am following the popular Learning Creative Learning course and using Mechanical MOOC, and open-source version of the massive open online course software used by Udacity and Coursera and EdX and others. Their github page is well-documented and made this process a breeze — maybe 30 minutes because I had to install basic things (this is starting from a clean xubuntu installation, well, running on liveusb actually).

anndd it’s live! http://cryptic-sea-7936.herokuapp.com/ for the next few hours/days, at least.

Sentences highlighted are the non-liveblog, what you actually want to do steps.

  • Spin up an xubuntu liveusb… I really don’t want to try to do webdev on a windows machine

step 1: git clone https://github.com/p2pu/mechanicalmooc

  • Install git
  • It’s a fairly old xubuntu liveusb (12.10 from lsb_release -a) so some repository 404s initially

sudo apt-get install git

Failed to fetch http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/pool/main/g/git/git_1.7.10.4-1_i386.deb  404  Not Found [IP: 80]
E: Unable to fetch some archives, maybe run apt-get update or try with –fix-missing?

sudo apt-get update –fix-missing
sudo apt-get install git
okay works now.
git clone https://github.com/p2pu/mechanicalmooc

step 2: Spin up a new instance of the heroku cedar stack

  • https://devcenter.heroku.com/articles/cedar Needs CLI

step 3: git push to heroku instance

  • git push git@heroku.com:cryptic-sea-7936.git
    Permission denied (publickey).
    fatal: The remote end hung up unexpectedly
  • Right, I need to do the remote key thing https://help.github.com/articles/generating-ssh-keys
    cd ~/.sshssh-keygen -t rsa -C "your_email@example.com"

    cat id_rsa.pub

  • Copy paste into https://dashboard.heroku.com/account and hit “Add new key”
  • cd ~/mechanicalmooc/
    git push git@heroku.com:cryptic-sea-7936.git
    fatal: ‘master’ does not appear to be a git repository
  • lol not a valid command. okay time to refresh flaky memory
    enh that is too manpage like for me to understand, try this instead
  • Well this works, hope it doesn’t mess anything up.
    git remote add heroku git@heroku.com:cryptic-sea-7936.git
    git push heroku master
  • visit site http://cryptic-sea-7936.herokuapp.com/

Hrm, okay, now to fix things up

Continued thoughts on online edtech startlols

Formalizing why my idea is a valid one (a good plan before spending several months / hundreds of dollars on it).


Maker culture isn’t turning to Sand Hill funding because this experience doesn’t scale or grow at Paul Graham rates. The experience, for each child, will personal and meandering. Great mentors can guide, good materials can enable, but there’s nothing to automate.
I’ve felt the incredible rising tide of Maker-Ed over the last 10 months, but that hasn’t made my work with actual kids move any faster.
LittleBits, MakeyMakey, and other funded projects in this space have found success producing a discrete tool/play kit that a learner can continually and non-linearly poke at. If someone shows me a graduated sequence of LittleBits learning targets and an web quizzes for assessing them, I will build a banana triggered junk kicking robot just for them. –andrew carle

Hmm. This criticism is super-concerning to me, because I’ve heard a lot of similar sentiment (fully kitted / canned labs) from friends of mine (e.g. from hall alum feldmeier, founder of openmusiclabs (hackaday)) I respect.
Maybe this is true. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of people I’ve had approach me or MITERS who are interested in making things but not quite enough and seem to just need a little guidance. Similarly, for myself, I found it useful to build something cool/awesome in order to learn the skills (not just technical skills, but also skills like how to find resources online, finding the courage to ask questions, how to ask questions coherently… okay still working on that last one) I needed to go forth and build my own cool projects. For learning, there’s no shame in copying as long as you credit your sources. No need to reinvent the wheel just yet.

[edit: 3/24/13] After talking a bit with +Josh Gordonson (blog / working on olopede), I have some further thoughts:
“Just do it.” So what. So it’s not a kit that empowers people to build everything ever. So what if by its very nature the kit is rather formulaic. There is still value in exposing people to cool things and showing people they’re capable of building and understanding these things. So maybe it’s not the most innovative / experimental online learning platform out there (right now I’m planning on following the learning creative learning’s path of not writing my own platform and really on tools existing out there). And even if I fail (to make a sustainable business), I will still have accomplished something useful to other people and to myself. Better than sitting here and fretting — even if I fail, less of a waste of time to have attempted to engineer this than to constantly research.


What troubles me about many of the criticisms of Khan Academy is that they are positioned against alternatives that are relatively scarce in the real world. Are Khan’s videos essentially lectures? Sure. But they’re better lectures than many students will ever get from their classroom teachers. Are there more effective ways of teaching some students? Sure. But many students (many, many, many students worldwide) will never have access to those teaching methods at any price, never mind for free.  —Michael Feldstein

I’ve been working in a public classroom for one of my classes, and teaching is hard. More on that in later posts, but doing things like asking kids “what do you think that is” (engaging them) versus “this is what’s going on” (lecturing them) is something that takes effort. Is this something that is transferable to the online world (because currently I only have udacity-style in mind, which is basically lecture based with “finger questions,” mid-lecture questions that check understanding and you raise your finger to show your asnwer)? Does it matter if you don’t have 30 kids compelled to be there and instead are addressing self-directed learner? Not sure.

I’m learning toward KISS — keep it stupidly simple. Do a bare-minimum, replica of existing work just cobbled together, for Aug 31. Hopefully that will give me enough momentum / convince people to help me to make it seem definitive that I can do this instead of landing a job.

Also, such an excellent image from that article:

obama marshmellow canon

Also, today I talked to Prof. Mitch Resnick when Dale Stephens (Uncollege) came to give a talk at the media lab. More about that later too! Briefly, there were some provocative comments, such as 
  • “If/When will an unschooler ever get a Nobel Prize in Science, and how do we get there?”
  • And I asked the same question mentioned earlier by another blog: where do we stand, university’s value to students versus university’s value to society? (university as public good)
  • Education becoming like a game, with loopholes, for premed and finance students
  • and a key thought that was surprising to me back when I first heard of it: common core (more rigid curricula) as a detriment to self-motivated learning. This is because the teachers don’t have time to be flexible and accommodate things, for instance some people from Harvard/MIT/Wellesley coming in and teaching about engineering and the design process.
Also, LOL, a comic about the increasing frenzy surrounding Massive Open Online Courses:

Khan Academy has hands on projects now / general web roundup

Hands-on projects at Khan Academy? So it begins.

In fact, there’s even a “lead of applied learning” position at Khan Academy (ran across this while browsing the SXSWEDU schedule)  who is “focused on leading and supporting a variety of strategic initiatives and creating project based learning content.
Vibrobots / brushbots: an alternative to using toothbrushes (and cutting up new ones or something) for a class is to use business cards! See howtoons: “Introducing Gami-Bots!“. Pretty awesome.

In other news, I am going to linkdump from facebook because it’s hard to search through facebook posts.

There’s actual less-derpy flying hexapods now:

Now they just need to write the code to make it dance… Also apparently going to be on kickstarter soon, like everyone else’s projects ever.

Additionally, there’s a simulation game for making robots covering things like drivetrain tradeoffs now/soon/in-the-making! Exciting.

I discovered pinterest, or rather pinterest for hexapods:

2009? How did I miss this? ^^


it actually walks! http://www.kineticcreatures.com/pages/modding-with-lego

That same term, lasercut mechanism, on google pops up a BS in MechE thesis by one of my classmates, @JoshRamos
It’s a paper about trying to make a lasercutter. Has good background information, so goes on my toread list.
According to +peter krogen on facebook,

Peter Krogen · mmm laser cutter made of legos Its a shame he didn’t build it in 2012, then he could have used the new 2w 445nm diodes (which have much better beam quality) that were available a few weeks after he turned in his report.

Additionally, discovered this on a list of startups at the ongoing San Francisco Hardware Meetups, a folding portable kayak:

origami kayak!

Finally, I am going to be addicted to this site, I just know it. There is now a robotics StackExchange site:

braindump: further research on online education and/or kits

general pedagogy

https://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/ec/sp13/ec.717/courseMaterial/topics/topic6/readings/Penick_Where’stheScience/Penick_Where’stheScience.pdf (restricted to class) (ugh, I hate that I can’t share this article, it’s an excellent one. It’s from 1991, sheesh).
The basic idea is, this teacher started out doing a cool demonstration in class, however, when students went to do it themselves, they did the bare minimum needed to replicate it without much enthusiasm. Then, the teacher switched it up — he asked students to predict the outcome of the experiment, and also structured the demonstration such that the students themselves came up with some of the lab procedures, like adding water to acid very slowly, that the teacher would then try. The students then were very engaged and eager to figure out whether the experiment would work out like they thought.

How global is online education?

Wow, it really is really all around the world. This is exciting to me. They’re really at a scale where they can have pocket communities form on google hangouts.

http://learn.media.mit.edu/syllabus.html The Media Lab Learning Creative Learning class, which actually has a tremendous following and is really cool.
(g+ community: https://plus.google.com/communities/106132864609383396284)

Gears, serving as models, carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head. I clearly remember two examples from school math. I saw multiplication tables as gears […] I am sure that such assimilations helped to endow mathematics, for me, with a positive affective tone that can be traced back to my infantile experiences with cars.[…] First, I remember that no one told me to learn about differential gears. Second, I remember that there was feeling, love, as well as understanding in my relationship with gears. […] the “body knowledge,” the sensorimotor schemata […] It is this double relationship–both abstract and sensory–that gives the gear the power to carry powerful mathematics into the mind.

Wah, cool,
Crowdsourced video captioning and translation! This is excellent. I will often spend a long time typing up video transcripts just for my own reference, so cool to be able to not just have it for myself, and also a really convenient interface online. Now someone should just hook this up to those language learning programs online… ALSO. Why can’t I type things and the software automatically figure out where in the video it belongs? I think that is definitely a do-able thing.

I am particularly interested in session 2 (interest-based learning) and session 5 (open learning).
session 5 notes:

“how and when learn should be under control of learners” (well, maybe not below a certain maturity level) and “who participates” not limited
“we want to crack it open, what we’re learning, figure out how it works at fundamental level” “things that let us dive in and not just sit back and consume are incredible important” “also produce” “still hasn’t changed schools in which most learning still happens” “there is a strong notion of activism” “[teaching at university] I want to go, everyone gets an A today, if you still want to come back, great lets learn something”
(all of this conversation seems focused on university level)
are MOOCs example of what have in mind, do they fall short in some way?
do need to interrogate what mean by open (not slapping on a label)
letting anyone sign up for a class is huge, don’t want to diminish that at all
but do want to ask, is open enrollment sufficiently open?
never took a programming course, learned from being exposed to people way better than me
(me: i wish that were possible in the open source hardware community to the extent it is in the open source software community! how can we make that happen?)
idea of debugging ideas, all sorts of things in open learning,
often best way to learn, push yourself to maybe things start to break, 

toread: http://mako.cc/writing/unlearningstory/StoryOfUnlearing.html yay, pills. -.-

http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0811.pdf This reading is flaming awesome. 

It is unlikely that sufficient resources will be available to build enough new campuses to meet the growing global demand for higher education  

Open Educational Resources (OER) movement 

Light discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students’ success in higher education— more important than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own. 

In a traditional Cartesian educational system, students may spend years learning about a subject; only after amassing sufficient (explicit) knowledge are they expected to start acquiring the (tacit) knowledge or practice of how to be an active practitioner/professional in a field 

 “productive inquiry”—that is, the process of seeking the knowledge when it is needed in order to carry out a particular situated task


The recorded audio is now online http://sxswedu.com/audio, and I’m guessing they won’t have recorded video

Online Learning
toread: http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf
“US Department of Education
Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning
A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”

I listened to two talks, which you can find if you go to the “audio” site and look up the titles. Some notes:

  • Project Based Learning: The 8 Essential Elements http://schedule.sxswedu.com/events/event_EDUP14902
    mostly “hey supply chains are actually difficult” and the actual implementation of a donorschoose but hyperlocal supply granting program instituted in El Paso, Texas
  • MOOCs: Hype or Hope? http://schedule.sxswedu.com/events/event_EDUP16136
    this is a big mess, e-commerce took 10 years: amazon is there, but what was in-between, cosmos delivered candy bars in the middle of night, …
    this is the phase we’re in: people are going to try weird stuff, it’s not going to make any sense, but we’re trying, that transformation is happening.
    change: not only matriculated students, now global. MOOCs are changing the concept of matriculation.

some talks i picked out to listen to in the future:

sadly does not appear to be online 

Project Based Learning: The 8 Essential Elements

The Double Bottom Line for Education Entrepreneur
This panel will discuss social entrepreneurship in education and look at examples of education social ventures that have successfully scaled.

Tinker Tailor Solder Ply: Why Makers Rule in EDU
Hear how makers are helping kids unlock their creativity while applying their STEM know-hows — and, in doing so, shaping how we rethink the value and purpose of an education.

Nation in Decline: Why We Suck At Science & Math

Meet the Educational Stars of YouTube

Breaking the Mold: New Models for Learning (K-20)

The Magic of Making: Engaging Students As Makers
We’ll look at the importance of creating makerspaces in schools, developing a community of practice around engaging kids as makers, and how online tools can enhance and extend the value of making to the broader community.

Think Outside the School: Learning is Everywhere
 How can we use social technology to foster peer-learning and to recognize knowledge acquisition regardless of where it takes place?

Based on the case studies of the Mozilla Open Badge project and E-180,

Digital Harbor Foundation
will share our experience designing a Common Core aligned tech and maker curriculum that helps place kids in real world paid internships.

Peer-to-Peer Marketplaces, Meet EdTech
they also allow their educators to earn meaningful income by teaching online

Open Education: Still a Chasm to Cross

The Problem Finders: Design Thinking Across School
learn about new techniques for getting the best ideas, language use, and higher order thinking out of students.

Not Another Zombie Idea: Customizable, Open Digital Content Transforming Learning
 also the future of concept-based (bite-sized) learning leveraging multiple modalities (text, videos, exercises,interactive learning objects) that will help students and educators transform learning experiences.


Some thoughts on expectation management versus just getting courses up and out there:

“Given the prestigious name of the institution and their reputation for ground-breaking methods developed in the Media Lab, my expectation was that, as part of the transition to on-line delivery, they would have taken time to prepare a clear and thorough presentation of the subject, taking academic lectures to a whole new level.”
“I’m afraid the lectures have the feeling of “oh bugger, I forgot to prepare anything, I will do it as I go along”. You can get away with this in real lectures, but for video presentation then I’m afraid it isn’t good enough.” … “With all the resources of MIT, it must surely be possible for someone to digest these lectures and present them in the form of mostly pre-made slides

Developing Countries
One of the stories that was exciting to me about 6.002x was a university prof or student in another country who was like, hey, I will take this and make it an after-school program, because this topic isn’t really taught at my university (or something like that). I think MIT’s model of hands-on learning (mens et manus) is definitely gaining momentum (not MIT-driven, of course, but still). E.g. Skoltech, SUTD, and based on my own conversations with people such as +David Li, China’s government is interested in supporting makerspaces.

Is this actually true though?

Are universities good candidates for foreign aid? Blattman thinks so;

Foreign aid’s educational blind spot http://chrisblattman.com/2011/09/03/7358/

Second, the aid community are on top of primary education like an overzealous mother. Tertiary education is pretty much ignored. The MDGs are both a cause and en effect of this sad state of affairs. 


The United Nations is to focus more strongly on higher education in developing countries, Qian Tang, UNESCO’s newly-appointed Assistant Director-General for Education, said in Paris last week.

education designathon, liveblog (ish) – hands-on activity resources for teachers

look! it’s a woodie flowers, who as it turns out really dislikes massively open online courses (MOOCs).

chilling at the designathon
lots of cool people and ideas being thrown around (mmm… throwing people)
you can read all about prof. flower’s agenda against MOOCs in the tech & the faculty newsletter

kittens! from education arcade talk

people gave talks. 
e..g the educational arcade one, some notes:
why do goats and animals continue to play dangerous games that can end in death? play must be advantageous if this behavior wasn’t selected out by evolution/
4 freedoms of Play
freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to try on identities, freedom of effort (can play intensely or at a relaxed pace)
exact opposite of
4 freedoms of school

educational games are not “grand theft calculus,” tricking people to learn calculus by giving something the skin of a game

Then we did a lot of research into my recent problem of finding hands-on activities for primary school kids.
A teacher there mentioned, there lots of message boards where half the activity is teachers looking for a specific activity to fit a specific curriculum standard
e.g. http://learningcenter.nsta.org/discuss/default.aspx?tid=fIPYH6I51D8_E

This is my fourth year teaching but my first year at a new school. I am having a hard time trying to find labs for my students to do. I am in a regular room that is not made for a science class. I do not have bunsen burners or gas. I looked in the chemistry chemical cabinet and there are really not many chemicals.

Wah, this is cool way to not bother busy teachers, lurking on teacher forums 🙂

  • july and august: good times to get teachers to notice new things, when they take a break / do professional development workshops / reflect on their lessons
  • scale: must do it through professional societies (american association of physics teachers, etc.)
The Head of the MIT Department of Physics was also there and he is so awesome. He specifically said he is trying to figure out how to increase the numbers of people from underserved communities coming into STEM. %lt;3
Anyway, Turns out there’s an excellent site specifically for finding science and math hands-on activities, (perhaps more oriented at least for the lower grades), at

Our research notes here:

talking to teachers!
hi michelle

So, we decided the issue we were trying solve (collecting resources like how2today and observationsblog and connecting them to teachers) was approximately solved by howtosmile.org (probably busy teachers want a fully-fleshed out lesson plan anyway), and we split up to work on different things.

I’m going to make a drawing robot and go ahead and throw together a demo online education with real-life kits thingamabob.

braindump, education (online, and IRL elementary school)

what are engineer (the design process is being taught in weston field elementary)

education designathon is tomorrow
woodie flowers will be speaking there! i still have like a hero worship thing going on from my FIRST robotics days.

once i dreamed of talking to woodie flowers about education and such
then i failed to grad school, or at least my super-specific version of grad school ^^; (MIT 2.007x)… eheh strategic failure
maybe it’s for the best, because i’m super excited for the future now! as opposed to stressed o__o
or maybe that is the soda talking
i wish them all the best, i hope it doesn’t turn out to be a lot of talk and indecision and less doing

oh also as i mentioned i am co-teaching lessons in a 4th grade science classroom
the teachers are super nice for letting us do this x.x
also learning a lot about pedagogy
the difference between doing a demonstration (e.g. a chemical reaction) and asking students to predict what will happen and then letting them do it (mystery novel! there’s suspense!)

1) hands-on online blah mouthtwister thing
to make this happen logistically:

  • live dirt-cheap (pika… ~$1.5k for three months. oh man, i can go there and eat all the portobello mushrooms! okay to be fair i just want to live at MITERS all the time but maybe that is okay, also there is a waitlist so if i don’t get in then my living costs go way up, oh dear)
  • affiliate self with shop: done (TAing job, again where being female was a plus… mixed feelings, but it should be super fun!)
  • earn money (contract work? essess.com, other places)
  • convince friend to come work on this near full-time with me, work out logistics (in progress)
    it’s a childhood friend who is a senior at cornell (she’s doing a M’Eng – PhD thing, so I only have her for the summer :3), and does meche and ee and bio things, i am super excited!
    plot twist: she is also super-awesome at piano and improv, which means by summer’s end i should be one step closer to my goal of being a hobo playing piano in bars in europe
  • feed ourselves during the summer (http://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/fsa accelerator program? only pays MIT students) 
  • ? get the word out (http://info.p2pu.org/projects/propose/ peer-to-peer university)
  • read read read. 
  • http://learn.media.mit.edu/about.html
    One of the big challenges of online learning is to scale the expert. In the studio model of learning, which is pretty much how things work at the Media Lab, more experienced students and faculty will review and critique your work. That is hard to move online. But we’ll try. As part of the course, we will organize a studio review session in which Mitch and Natalie will invite some of the online students to present and discuss their work and give them feedback.
  • … we didn’t build a shiny new platform. Our platform is the web and we like things distributed and open. We also wanted to create a model that is easy to replicate for anyone. We use off-the-shelf Google+ tools, like Hangouts and Google+ communities; and open source software like the Mechanical MOOC (github). You have no excuse not to build a course like this yourself!

Although initiatives by MIT, Harvard and other leading universities such as Coursera, Edx, Udacity are generating a lot of of buzz, I strongly believe it will be startups led by young students themselves rather than old brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that will be responsible for changing the way students learn.

From my own observation, universities running these programs are fundamentally limited, because their first priority must always be to the real-life students they are serving, and more often than you might think there are staffing issues in answering real-life students’ questions, let alone the questions of a gazillion people of varying backgrounds online. responsiveness — i don’t see that happening in a top-down fashion. perhaps as universities change? how do you motivate students to help other students? a stack-exchange-esque platform?

This is what I think: People are taking these courses because for many it is the only way to learn about interesting topics like robotics or machine learning. Take a video of a Stanford professor talking about a hot topic and people will eat that up. That does not necessarily mean that we have unlocked the power of online education. I also doubt it will give any value to a Stanford student who can sit in the real classroom.

2) elementary school projects
Wah! I get to teach this term as part of D-Lab Education at Weston Field School, which has a long history of working with the Kasiisi project / partnering with schools Kibale National Park in rural western Uganda. Thus, I’ve been doing a lot of research into hands-on projects for kids, which is more fun than I thought it would be. 
Holy hexapods, there was a sxsw conference about education:
That was this week. A ton of interest in hands-on learning on the schedule there. XD; SUCH A FAD. Well, looks like I need to wait a few days for the videos to be up.
oh, and briefly, i’m making a writeup on rapid-prototyping tools, so for my reference:

yet another braindump (mostly on feminism)

I have decided to do a non-technical braindump. The main themes will be “brain, you are weird,” “strange corners of the internet,” and “f* constantly trying to figure out if I’ll be making people uncomfortable.”

What I have been thinking about:

  • I’ve possibly become sexist against guys.

I really am trying hard to help it. I am taking a new class, D-Lab Education, which is all “haha yay educational theory oh yes by the way you are teaching a class in two weeks” which is all sorts of bats* nerve-wracking for me. I walk into the classroom and all I want to do is be like, “girls, science is awesome. f* yea I’m a female engineer studying at MIT” and ignore the boys. Which is all sorts of problematic, because boys have all sorts of their own educational issues as well. I just… don’t care enough about those issues. Maybe someday in the future.

There’s like TED talks  about it (that I don’t think I’ve watched…) and in D-Lab education the topic itself has come up. The lady founder of the Kasiisi program mentioned briefly how it’s actually very difficult to get grants to work with boys. The basic summary was

  • Girls start dropping out when they are old enough to get pregnant. Attendance-wise, one easy fix that actually seems to work is providing menstrual stuff.
  • ~ (JPAL, which does actual rigorous testing, says otherwise, at least for girls in Nepal)
  • Guys start dropping out when they are old enough to contribute to household income (tending the livestock)
  • ~ The fix for this is creating income-earning opportunities, not an easy fix

She mentioned that uneducated and illiterate men is problematic for women as well when men have the upper hand in society, and that she’s thought about figuring out ways to co-found programs for men because everyone wants to fund women-oriented programs.

Of course, the other half of the time I’m sulking because I’m like, wtf, these kids living next to northeastern universities are so lucky. One of the reasons why I haven’t really volunteered with HSSP (high school studies program) or Edgerton Center is because I’m envious of these kids. Again, brain, weird, illogical.

Also, going back to elementary school, although I honestly don’t remember much of it, is bittersweet and kind of strange. Now that I’ve actually met these kids face-to-face it’s hard to back out on them, though. Uweh, what did I get myself into?

Resource links (our partners are learning about the water cycle)

  • Education

It’s the new thing, just as last year health and quantified self started coming to the forefront. You can tell by the creation of new hackathons around the topic:
and the Yunus challenge this year is education:
One of the MIT Media Lab fellows is an “open education advocate” (and there’s a “maker movement advocate” too!)
Also, did you know there is a hands-on online learning task force at MIT? Haha.
The hands-on-online-learning-task-force at MIT (MIT certs required), an incredible linkdump.
(towatch: http://www.media.mit.edu/events/2011/10/26/john-maeda-stem-steam)

  • Feminism

Speaking of misconceptions and preconceptions, two years ago I was asked point-blank if I was a feminist and I politely demurred. Srsly. I had no idea what feminism was (equality). I’ve since educated myself (well, it’s an ongoing process).

MIT Women’s and Gender Studies handed these stickers out last year. It’s my laptop decoration ^__^
  • constantly having a slighty sore heart from all the news (linked is amherst, the latest flurry from the oscars/seth mcfarlane, Quvenzhané Wallis, bingo from australian-diaspora).
  • wondering if it hurts my chances of being hired if I ask how many female engineers there are in a company (rather interesting to hear this speaker from etsy say that it’s probably a good sign if the company is actively trying to address this issue: http://www.adafruit.com/blog/2013/02/07/how-etsy-grew-their-number-of-female-engineers-by-500-in-one-year/)
  • constantly trying to figure out how to ensure i’m serving as a good example as a technically competent female (am I being assertive enough? asking for enough salary? am I actually competent?)
  • ~ 4th grade science: you learn there’s no real room for modesty. The answer to “Do you go to MIT?” is not “Erhm maybe yes, you probably know more than me though!” but rather “F* yea I go to MIT and am in love with engineering.” srsly. That last part has gotten buried under gunk lately.

I feel a bit silly sometimes, complaining like this, since I think I’m actually a pretty lucky person (see: #firstworldproblems). Compared to the issues I imagine underrepresented minorities facing, mine seem pretty minor. But I guess I may as well complain 😀 And it threw me for a loop the other day when I realized that some people may never have experience having family members looked down upon (and worse) for not speaking perfect English. -__-

Uhm. A longer post to come.

Actually nah I probably won’t get around to it, so basically, what’s been sucking up my spare time over the summer (well, half of it) and I’ve been trying to move away from (because clearly to be successful I need to spend all my spare time reading about robots, not feminism… or something…).

linkdump (wherein, if you read nothing else, read the first two links)
estimated time to read through this: a weekend.
rape culture

I’m not slithering around on the floor and hissing with my forked tongue when I say that the situations described in these two letters are pretty good examples of what Rape Culture is and why it is so insidious.
Step 1: A creepy dude does creepy, entitled shit and makes women feel unsafe.
Step 2: The women speak up about it to their partners.
Step 3: It gets written off as “not a big deal” or “he probably didn’t mean it” or “he’s not a bad guy, really.” 


Reporting and conviction rates for acquaintance rapes are so low as to be useless as a diagnostic tool. And how else can we know? The rapists won’t just tell us that they are rapists, right? That’s what I would have thought. Turns out I thought wrong. 

These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence. The whole sample of almost 1900 men reported just under 4000 violent acts, but this 4% of recidivist rapists results in over 1000 of those violent acts.

schrodinger’s rapist

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur.

why is it up to the disadvantaged to “fix things” (not get raped,…

… learn to be more assertive) anyway

And I think it’s this: teaching women to be more assertive and agressive in speaking up and asking for stuff is all well and good, and it will certainly help women be more successful in a man’s world – but it’s yet another example of how women must adapt to men to get ahead.  Why is it never the other way around?

sweet talks
data visualizations
vending machines
and hackathons
and how confusing it can be to figure out what is the “right thing to do” (my conclusion: go forth and get something done, then worry about learning about how you f*d it up)
and then a brief note

  • Startups*


Let me be clear: This post is not “lifestyle businesses.” A lifestyle business and a startup are two totally different things. A lifestyle business grows slowly, the founder has total control over it, and it creates a nice life.

(hrm, I am mulling over this one).
* many of my friends at MIT have an allergic reaction to the word “startup,” which is curious

for myself, female CTOs / startup founders i should follow:

and some

resources at boston/MIT:
in general


  • Open source hardware

Holy hexapods! The open hardware summit is going to be held at MIT next  year and will be hosted by MITERS. I am super-excited about this 🙂

Anyway, my latest cynical attitude is a sort of wait-and-see on the potential for open source hardware, where really I am affiliating myself with it because the people who associate with OSH tend to be cool people.

todo: http://www.oshwa.org/sharing-best-practices/

  • Jobs

Things I’ve learned: R&D jobs are highly coveted in the engineering world (and looked upon more highly than jobs about manufacturing, which I am actually pretty fascinated by).

CS jobs start out high nowadays but have “salary compression,” wherein you start at 100k and might climb to 150k after 5+ years, while more hardware-oriented jobs tend to start lower and end higher.
(not much comfort to me, but whatever)

Hardware startup jobs: there really isn’t a search engine for this. There’s like… a small listing. http://www.adafruit.com/jobs/
Finding jobs with a laser-cutter: actually turns out to be the large companies, not the small hippie startups.

  • lasercutters

Uh… more on this later, but cool interface:
and the 2d-3d transition:


Uh…. so yea…. that’s what’s been coming out of my brain lately.