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2016 March 31

Pep talk for students frustrated at the end of the first week

Filed under: Circuits course,Data acquisition — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:48
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Some of the students in my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course are feeling frustrated at the end of the first week (often due to imposter syndrome, not any real inability to do the work).  I sent them the following e-mail this evening:

To the class—a number of people are feeling overwhelmed, because of the wide range of preparation that people in the class have had.  This is supposed to be a first course in electronics, but a number of people are taking it after having had other electronics courses.  If the advanced students are allowed to dominate the questions in class, I’ll never know what help the students with less preparation (that is, the students the course is intended for) need.  If you are feeling overwhelmed or out-matched in class, please ask questions!  I know that there are people feeling like they need more help, but I don’t know exactly what help they need.
I could guess at what is causing people problems, but I’m likely to guess wrong, and I don’t want to waste a lot of time on reviewing stuff that everyone in the class gets, while not spending any time on the stuff that is really needed.
In short, I’m saying that I need a lot of questions from people in the bottom quarter of the class, and I don’t think I’ve been getting them.
Going to [the group tutor]’s sections is another way to catch up to those you perceive as being ahead of you.
It looked to me like everyone pretty much got labs 1 and 2 done, and that most of the class (though perhaps not everyone) had a decent grasp of aliasing.  A bigger fraction of the class had PteroDAQ and gnuplot installed and working by Lab 2 than in any previous offering of the course—so this looks to me like a very promising start to the quarter—it may have seemed chaotic to you with not all the parts arriving on time and last-minute patches to PteroDAQ to compensate for changes in laptop operating systems, but these startup pains are normal—I expect to have them every time the course is offered.
Lab 2 was much harder than intended this year, because of the resistor assortments not including 470kΩ resistors, and I was impressed by how the class rose to the challenge, despite not having had the lectures yet that would really support the design work done (those are scheduled for week 3, I believe). I’m going to have to rewrite parts of Lab 2 to allow for the possibility of not having the right parts available.
The deal with Lab 2 was this: I had given them in the book a circuit to build that consisted of a function generator, a capacitor, a pair of resistors, and the Teensy board with the PteroDAQ software. The idea in terms of skills was for them to learn how to lay things out on bread board, collect data with PteroDAQ and do some minimal plotting with gnuplot.  The concept they were supposed to be learning about was aliasing, which I was planning to cover in lecture yesterday, but I got diverted to other equally important topics.
The problem was that the design I gave them could not be implemented, because the resistor assortments (which only arrived yesterday, so I had no idea exactly what resistors would be in the kit) did not have the specified 470kΩ resistors!  I probably should have redesigned the circuit for them and had them build a different circuit which would have worked equivalently (like using 1MΩ and 4.7µF instead of 470kΩ and 10µF), but I did not know what resistor values they did have in their kits.
Instead, on the spur of the moment, I chose to have the students come up with a design themselves that has the same (or nearly the same) RC time constant as the circuit in the book.  If I’d had an hour to think about how to handle the challenge, I might have chosen a different approach. The assignment I gave them tied in well with yesterday’s unplanned lecture—without that lecture, I would not have considered them capable of redesigning the circuit.
 I think that everyone in the class did come up with a design that let them do at least a few recordings with PteroDAQ, though they did not get as much time to explore aliasing as I had originally intended. There were several different designs students came up with, including the 1MΩ and 4.7µF design, 10MΩ and 0.47µF, putting two 1MΩ in parallel to make 500kΩ, and building the 470kΩ out of a series chain of resistors.
Having a real design challenge for this first lab was in one way a good one (it had bothered me that there was no design element in the first week of lab), but this design challenge was too much for the first week.  After lab some students were feeling overwhelmed and wanting to drop the course—even though this year’s class is well ahead of previous year’s classes (even the students who are struggling are further along than their counterparts in previous years).
Now my challenge is to convince the students who are feeling stretched to stick with the class for another week or two, so that the lectures can catch up to what they need to know and they can have a more confident base to work from.

2014 January 1

Technical entitlement—is it a thing?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:49
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I learned a new buzzword yesterday: “technical entitlement”.  I encountered the phrase on  the blog On Technical Entitlement | Soshitech.com, though apparently Tess Rinearson originally wrote it in June 2012 and also published it on medium.com.

I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up. When I was 11, I made my first website and within a year I was selling code. I took six semesters of computer science in high school, and I had two internships behind me when I started my freshman year of college.

Despite what it may seem, I’m not trying to brag—seriously. I’m just trying to prove a point: I should not be intimidated by technical entitlement.

And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.

You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question—and occasionally tries to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.

That’s technical entitlement.

“Technical entitlement” seems to be the flip side of “imposter syndrome”. In imposter syndrome, competent people question their own competence—sometimes giving up when things get a little difficult, even though an outside observer sees no reason for quitting.  “Technical entitlement” seems to be blaming those who have both competence and confidence—as if it were somehow deeply unfair that some people learned things before others did.

Certainly some things are unfair—as an engineering professor I’ve been able to provide opportunities for my son to  learn computer science and computer engineering that would not be available to a parent who knew nothing about those fields.  And some of the characteristics she lists would apply to my son—I can see him correcting his professors, and although he’d never introduce himself by sharing his StackOverflow score, he did include it in some of his college essays, as evidence that he was knowledgeable and interested in sharing what he had learned.

But Tess Renearson goes on to say

It starts with a strong background in tech, often at a very young age. With some extreme confidence and perhaps a bit of obliviousness, this blooms into technical entitlement, an attitude characterized by showmanship and competitiveness.

While my son has confidence in his abilities and “perhaps a bit of obliviousness”, neither showmanship nor competitiveness are big factors in his behavior.  I think that Ms. Renearson has confused a personality trait and stereotypical US male behavior (showmanship) with early technical education. I see the arrogance as a bad thing, but the early technical education (which she herself had) as a good thing.

The rest of her post goes on to talk about ways that Amy Quispe and Jessica Lawrence managed to increase participation (particularly by women) in tech events.  But the analysis there really addresses imposter syndrome more than it does “technical entitlement”.  She quotes Jessica Lawrence: ‘“There is,” she said, “an under-confidence problem.” But Ms. Renearson then says

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s exactly the kind of self-doubt that can arise when there are so many technically entitled people around.

Somehow blaming “technically entitled people” for the under-confidence of others seems to be imposing blame where none is warranted.

Now imagine someone starting out as a college student taking their first CS course. Imagine how the technical elite make them feel.

I can understand someone being intimidated when entering a new field if they are surrounded by people more skilled in the field—but that is hardly the fault of the those who are skilled.  Newcomers anywhere are going to feel out of place, even when people are trying to welcome them. The “technical elite” are not making the newcomers feel intimidated.

If Ms. Renearson’s point is that some of the tech communities are not sufficiently welcoming of newcomers, I agree.  I’ve seen snarky comments in places like Stack Overflow that offered gratuitous insults rather than assistance.

But Ms. Renearson seems to assume that anyone who is more experienced than her is automatically trying to put her down, and that this is the way that everyone should be expected to feel.  When one starts with that assumption, there is no remedy—no matter what those more experienced or more skilled do, they will be seen as threatening.

Perhaps she has not identified those who should be getting blamed precisely enough.  I don’t think that it is “The one who was soldering when she was 6” who is a problem, but those who refuse to give children an opportunity to learn (no public school in my county teaches computer science, except one lottery-entry charter) or who force students who’ve been programming for 6 years into the same classes as those who have never programmed, as many college CS programs do, providing no way for more advanced students to skip prerequisites.

Unfortunately, identifying the problem as being “technical entitlement” makes the problem worse not better, as it encourages public schools to suppress the teaching of technical subjects, rather than expanding them.

If she means to attack the arrogant culture of “brogrammers”, mean-spirited pranks, and other unpleasant culture that has emerged, then I support her, as I’m not happy with some of the culture I see either.  But don’t blame it on the kids who learned tech early, nor on the parents who taught them—the late-comers are more likely to be the arrogant bastards, since that arrogance is mainly a defense mechanism for incompetents.  The competent tech people are much more likely to be eager to share their enthusiasm with newcomers and help them join in the fun.

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