Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Least Favorite Question

If you didn't know, I'm a semi-grad student. What I mean by that is, while I haven't finished my undergraduate degree, I'm taking graduate level classes that will count towards a master's degree because my school offers a combined Bachelors/Masters (BS/MS) program for my degree (Computer Science) and some other degrees here. I do the same course work as a graduate student, and I'm a TA for a graduate level class, but on paper, I'm an undergraduate. It's a very awkward position to be in, as I never know how to introduce myself. I think of myself as a grad. student, so we'll go with that for this post.

One of the most common questions to ask a graduate student is, "What's your Research in?". First, you have to understand that as a BS/MS student, I'm not writing a thesis. I'm required to spend a number of credit hours in "independent research" and I have to produce a paper at the end, but it's not, strictly speaking, a "thesis" with an adviser and a defense committee and all that jazz. In fact, I'm hoping to do my "research" for that requirement in an IRAD (Internal Research and Development) project at my internship this summer. We'll see if I can pull that off.

However, I AM involved in research now, of a different kind, so when people ask me "What's your research?" I proudly tell them about my project. And usually, they have weird reactions which is why "What's your research" has become my least favorite question.

Here's how I answer it. "The NSF (National Science Foundation) has a pot of money set aside for Computing Education in the 21st Century (CE21 Marie desJardins (the faculty member I work for on this research project) is one of the Principle Investigators (PIs) for the CE21 in Maryland grant. There's a couple of projects under this that I've worked on. First, the TUES project, which is about "Transforming the Student Experience for Freshmen Computing Majors". On that, I served as a TA for two sections of the course, worked to develop curriculum materials, lead lecture sections, held outside of class tutorials and office hours, and led data collection chats with the students. Second, I've recently become involved with the CS10K project, which projects for ten thousand CS teachers, and is working to implement APCSP Curriculum (Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles) in Maryland schools. On that, I serve a more generic student researcher position, collecting data from teachers about their CS classroom experience, commenting on APCSP from my own AP CS experiences, and other administrative tasks."

Both these research projects have been absolutely transformative for me, and I wouldn't trade my experiences working on them for anything. However, I usually get confused looks when I describe them, sometimes followed by the question, "No, what's your real research?". I recognize that education is not what you'd generally expect a CS major to be passionate about or be studying, but to not consider it to be "real" research kind of offends me. (The University president thinks it's real research:,0,5843165.story). CS education in high school and in the early years of college is crucial to producing great CS graduates. Honestly, I'm also interested in getting CS education in schools even earlier than high school (Robot Turtles was a gift from me to my little sisters this past Christmas) but we can only cross one bridge at a time. No, my research may not be producing a new theorem, or new encryption algorithm, but it is producing curriculum that will peak the interest of young students and help them understand why the theorem or encryption algorithm is important, and to me, that's real research. Education has been something I've been interested in since my own phenomenal experience in high school with Mrs. OC (Who is on the CS10K project with me, a dream come true). I'm not interested in CS education because I'm "a girl, and of course CS girls do education" (something I have heard). I'm interested in it because that's what will make CS in the US sustainable, and because I want to pass the passion along.

Thanks for reading this far (if you have) and letting me vent about my research and why it's 'real'. With all this social stigma, do you understand why "What's your research" has become my least favorite question, despite how much I love the project I'm on? Fighting against social constructs is something I do everyday as a woman in a male-saturated, male-dominated field, but it's kind of exhausting.