5 years at MIT: post mortem

I wrote most of this 1.5 years ago, but for some reason never published it. This is a super condensed summary of my experience at MIT, written a few months before leaving the Institvte.

Each year in two sentences or so

Year 1 – I experience college real quick — social butterfly Cathy makes friends all over campus, attends frat parties, joins a ton of activities, takes part in a bunch of freshman programs. I also take too many classes and do not get enough sleep, but life is great and college is fun.
Year 2 – I explore the breadth of EECS — I start taking foundational classes and doing *real* research, I go to fewer parties but I continue to make friends, and I also try sleeping regularly, which is wonderful. MIT and life are dandy.
Year 3 – Then, in an attempt to not sacrifice depth while going after breadth, I hit a brick wall, crash and burn, become perpetually stressed, and withdraw from most people. I feel simultaneously empowered yet crushed, and MIT has not quite been the same place since; I am grateful to my friends who kept me alive and sane. I feel ready to leave MIT, for better or for worse. (But I don’t, despite company offers urging me to leave early.)
Year 4 – I essentially take this year off, at least technically, indulging myself with growing URGE, taking less technical classes, teaching computer architecture and ESL, and contemplating my future. I gain a ton of unexpected skills, experiences, and friends; this year is immensely rejuvenating and convinces me to stay at MIT for one more year, for the MEng.
Year 5 – I broaden my horizons by immersing myself in academia, and along with it, the adventures of rushing to my first conference deadline, agonizing over PhD programs, understanding advisor relationships, and working my butt off to make it to Germany. This year is marked first by the fear that the best days of my life have already passed and my unwillingness to grow up from being an undergrad, and second by the gradual realization that life can be better–more free, more engaging, more intellectually rich–in the future.

My main technical interests also morphed over the years

Year 1 – “durrr, what is EECS?”
Year 2 – signal processing (6.003) → speech recognition (UROP/6.345)
Year 3 – vision (MASLAB + 6.869)
Year 4 – vision (UROP) → autonomous robotics/vehicles (6.UAT)
Year 5 – autonomous vehicles → distributed control of agents + transportation

What I learned from MIT

There are no rules. There is no box to think outside of, anything could be possible.
To think further, broader. In some sense, I feel that every year I have spent at MIT has allowed me to think 5 years further out.
To go for it. In the words of my former advisor Professor Seth Teller, if you think something might be your life passion, go at it as hard as you possibly can. Otherwise, you might never find your passion. Become the world’s foremost expert in what you love.
To not be afraid to ask. I have earned and spent tens of thousands of dollars for student groups, by asking. By asking, I learned more about robotics during my CMU visit (Robotics Institute) than in a year working in a robotics lab. At the Berkeley visit (EECS), several professors remembered who I was because of my questions.
Having money is very nice. Having a department rolling in money makes wonderful things like URGE, Maslab, 6.570 possible (with just a little bit of student motivation).

Teaching recitation: post mortem

I wrote previously about my insights as I started teaching 6.004. Well the semester is over, and I think it’s been a semester well done. I had a thoroughly amazing experience, and I just wanted to say a few words as I was reading through the course evaluation results that came out earlier today.

MIT makes some effort to get students to fill out course evaluations at the end of each semester. A majority of the students in 6.004 are silent this time around, but I am pleased that I believe a majority of the students attending my recitations filled it out, perhaps because I asked them for feedback twice in the middle of the semester and continued to ask them to fill out the evaluation towards the end. The takeaways here are that 1) instilling the idea that feedback is important is effective and 2) spamming works!

Anyway, I am pleased with my ratings and feedback. I definitely “Encouraged participation,” and what I need to work on most is “Stimulating interest.” “Defining goals” is another area for improvement, but that’s no doubt easier the second time around. I would have expected lower marks in “Well-organized presentations,” but shhh—maybe they didn’t notice me blundering around the classroom every 10 minutes. I find it so interesting how I have gotten to know some of my students enough to (perhaps!) identify them by the pattern of numbers and the few words they left me. There’s almost a beauty to that — the rating makes sense, and that’s awesome.

I am truly encouraged by the enthusiasm in the comments on my teaching, along with comments in personal emails students sent me after the course was over. I can sort of feel the learning that happened, the insights gained, and the new-found appreciation of the material. I know that probably only a minority of the students came out of 6.004 feeling this way, but I’m almost jealous of these students. I had to take 6.004 twice to achieve what they achieved. But then again, I found the lectures excellent the second time around, and I was certainly motivated by the responsibility to teach it to 50 students.

A lot of the comments on the class struck a deep chord with my sentiments on the course when I took it a few years ago. I did not have a great recitation, and section-hopping just got tiring after a while. Lectures caused me information overflow, and I certainly did not have an intuition on the real-world physical aspects of computer architecture (the EE side of things). The lab work seemed unconnected to the general concepts, and I, like many others, learned that it was quite easy to get an A in the course by pattern matching across old quizzes. This course, though stable, seemed less than ideal.

But I am fortunate to have had these insights into the course before TAing for it. From the very beginning, I knew I would be doing things a bit differently from the other TAs. The TA’s job is to go over the tutorial problems and cover any background necessary to talk about said problems. But I knew I would be trying, every step of the way, to connect these problems to the lectures, the labs, the big picture, the physical world, and anything I could think of, really. In theory, I was doing more than the TA’s job, but in practice, I often forwent half or more of the tutorial problems I was supposed to go over. I often just talked at them, trying my best to tell them a complete story, and yet, the material I presented was very different from lecture. And I hoped that my students could take my simple words and do the rest of the problems on their own. Just as importantly, I tried my very very best to hide the fact that old quizzes were an effective resource.

This combination of not covering the material I was supposed to and not pointing out the resources that would ensure good grades (but also ensure less learning) made me very nervous at first — who am I to come in to this class that’s been run a certain way for the last N years and, without any experience, do things another way? But the results every few weeks affirmed my teaching methods — my sections consistently did great on the quizzes and in the class overall. I certainly understand the typical EECS undergrad here better than some others. I am a typical EECS undergrad here, after all, and I taught how I wish I were taught.

I feel quite fortunate, also, in the students that I had. I do believe that enthusiasm is contagious, and that students enthusiastic about learning will seek out enthusiastic instructors. After a few weeks into the semester, if I kept up the enthusiasm and since students are free to come and go between the 10 recitation sections, I would only have the enthusiastic students left to teach. The students who don’t need recitation and the students who prefer another teaching style filter themselves out, and it no longer becomes my duty to instruct them on a bi-weekly basis. And then, life is wonderful. Teaching enthusiastic students is infinitely easier than teaching unenthusiastic students.

I am grateful to have been a part of this journey working from inside of a 200+ student foundations class at MIT. Through all the ups and downs, these past few months have made me truly realize that I love teaching, and I want to thank all of my students for that. I sincerely hope to teach again soon.

But despite all my new insights and experiences, this TAship has also reminded me to keep things in perspective. MIT is first and foremost a research institution. The professors are here because they can produce good work, not so that they can teach undergraduates. Turns out, the same applies to the graduate students, who serve as TAs for funding, and only the occasional dedicated instructor is going to devote his semester to the students in need. This is no earth-shattering epiphany, and I am no exception. My TA offer for next semester is sadly expiring in a couple days, and I am gearing myself up for the research that I am here to do.

I hope my experiences here are useful to the aspiring teacher, and I will close off my discussion of 6.004 with two fun anecdotes:

First. I daresay that incentivizing my sections with something as simple as food to complete the Beta Processor lab early worked! One of my sections was at a 80% completion rate 2 days before the due date, statistically significantly more than the next best section. I made them muffins afterwards, and a good time was had by all.

Second. I wore a friend’s pedometer a few times during recitation, and learned that I actually pace around a classroom 1 mile when I teach for 2 hours. Crazy!

Summary: Asiatrip

Four MIT engineering undergrads, interested in just about everything, took our summer savings and threw it at Asia on a grand 2-week long Asiatrip in an effort to expand our horizons. We came back with so much more.

Nancy Ouyang, the mastermind of this journey, nyancat hacker, hexapod enthusiast, secretary of MIT makerspace MITERS.  She was the point person for Hangzhou, all the flights, and the makerspace contacts.
Josh Gordonson, makerspace advocate, EE + art hacker, analog electronics enthusiast, president of MITERS.  He was the point person for New York City and part of our visit to Tsinghua in Beijing.
Julian Merrick, eater of everything, motors hacker, power electronics enthusiast, core member of MITERS.
Myself, documentor, computer vision hacker, intelligent transportation and data visualization enthusiast, friend of MITERS.  I was the point person for Taipei and most of the manufacturing plant visits.

Nancy and I split responsibilities in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Tokyo was a free-for-all.

Tue 12/20/2011 to Thu 01/05/2012, just over 2 weeks.

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
120 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 230 31 01
02 03 04 0
06 07 08

Lost day (due to passing the dateline, excluded in indexing of blog posts)
On a plane |On a bus/train
Boston |Seattle |Taipei |ShenZhen
Hangzhou |Shanghai |Beijing |Tokyo


View the path of our journey on this Travel Map and check out the makerspace link dump!

City visits (9): NYC, Seattle, Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Detroit
University visits (3): Tsinghua University (Taipei), China Academy of Art (Hangzhou), Tshinghua University (Beijing)
Touristy vists (14): Night market, Long San Temple, Gondola, Maokong, Taipei 101, West Lake, Lingyin Temple, Chen Huang Temple, CMoDA New Media Museum, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Akiabhara, Shibuya, Asakusa
Company tours (3): Advantech, ZyXEL, Seeed Studio
Production line tours (10): Asia Optical (lens/prisms, scanner head, laser rangefinder, picoprojector, camera, molding), GTBF, Failong, Colibri, Great Wall
Hackerspace visits (6): Chaihuo, OnionCapsule, Xinchejian, SkyWorks, Beijing Maxpace, Tokyo Hackerspace
[Some photo credit: Nancy Ouyang and my dad]

What and Why
Whereever we went, people welcomed us with open arms, but we had a bit of trouble at first answering the question “what is the purpose of your trip?” We came for a variety of reasons. We came for fun (it’s winter break, after all), we came to learn about manufacturing, we came to check out the makerspace movement, we came to visit relatives (well, just me), we came to grow up a bit (Nancy and me), we came to emmerse ourselves in a different culture, we came to eat good food, and we came to make friends and felt the world become a smaller place.

Seeing all the manufacturing has given me a new perspective on how the everyday items we use come to be. We saw factory workers putting together cameras that are the same make and model as Julian’s. We saw boards that dictate how many units the operators need to produce each hour. We learned about their wages and the overtime they need to work in order to make a living, and how social mobility is dictated almost solely by test scores. And then we learn about how little profit each unit makes for the plant, and yet, we saw the rising labor costs. We saw how cheap everything was sold locally; life is hard both domestically and abroad. Profit margins in the manufacturing sector are ridiculously low, and any and all inefficiencies must be engineered out.

Honestly, it was mostly the others who were interested in the makerspace movement in China as we were planning the trip, but I found our visits to be entirely worthwhile throughout. As a sort of outsider from makerspaces, I found it inspirational, seeing actual active communities, how much makerspaces could be, and seeing how fast China can make change.

I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit a good portion of my extended family and my entire immediate family this holiday season. It was far more than I bargained for. It was wonderful to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. The last time I saw most of them was 7.5 years ago, which is sort of baffling in my mind.

For Nancy and myself, this was our first time traveling abroad that didn’t simply consist of following our parents and extended family around the entire time. Instead, our family and friends kept a watchful eye on us from a distance nearly every step of the way, which I wanted to avoid at first, but later on realized that our trip would not have been possible without all of their help. Our trip began with our hands held as tightly as they could thousands of miles away, and it definitely made our transition from the States quite smooth. The intensity of our trip gradually increased, and towards the end of our trip, we were finding our own accomodations, doing our own research, and finding our own means of getting around. Everything we managed on our own and every mistake we made was a learning experience. With the last two weeks of experience, perhaps next time, we won’t need any hand-holding.

Length of trip: 16 days

Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights)
Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)

Suggestions for travellers going on similar trips
Things to bring, some of which I forgot, others of which I found useful:
Portable router: hotels often come with a single ethernet jack, so a router is essential for sharing internet between multiple travelers.
Ear plugs: traveling means non-ideal sleeping situations, but sleeping is all the more important.
Long beanie: doubles as a hat during the day and a light/noise blocker during the night.
Toilet paper and toiletries for the first few days: otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time looking for these things while getting used to a new country.
Cold/flu medication: you may get sick.
Anti-diahhrea meds: the food may not agree with your stomach.
Hand sanitizer: no need to waste precious time looking for soap and water whereever you go.
Moisture cream and chapstick: hand sanitizer will dry out your hands; also, hotel rooms will sometimes be very dry.
Underarmor: space efficient for keeping warm.
Cash: withdraw lots of cash before leaving the country, or you’ll risk incurring a lot of fees on your ATM card.

Plan in advance: if you can help it, you don’t want to be spending precious journey time planning the trip.
Plan in downtime: travelling is tiring, and time to relax a bit and take in what you’ve learned thus far is very meaningful.