jump to navigation

Class Discussion March 3, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.

In the class of this week (I have only one course; distributed database systems; to teach this semester and over two days I give 7 classes,) we had a discussion about whether or not database systems are becoming obsolete. I told them it’s a possibility and the debate is considerable about this issue, they asked me then what technology is competing, and I said technologies like data warehouses and data marts are examples (most of them don’t hear about data warehousing until after graduation.) Then they asked the obvious question any self respecting Egyptian student would ask :D, which is why are they studying databases and distributed database systems if they are obsolete. I said they’re not obsolete, but new technologies are always trying to find a solid market share for themselves to justify their costs. An example I gave was Cobol; which is still deployed in some big corporations and organizations despite database systems being the norm of the era. Then we asked ourselves; why do such big organizations keep old fashioned technology. The lengthy discussions lead to us making the conclusions that there are three reasons why:

  • Whenever an organization is thinking of deploying Hi Tech for the first time, it goes without saying that they will pick the most up-to-date technology there is. This means that the chosen technology is highly expensive because it’s cutting-edge. The investment in this technology becomes a part of the organizations assets.
  • Migration from “supposedly” obsolete technology to more top notch technology may result -in addition to and extensive transition time- in possible loss of data that’s very valuable to the organization.
  • Most people don’t like change! It’s a miracle people accept Hi Tech solutions as it is, but to force them to adapt to the very quick pace of technological advances is beyond reasonable! After all, old habits die hard. I, who should be quick to adapt because I was born and educated in the Hi Tech era, still find it very hard to change my home page from Yahoo! To anything else, even if it was more informational!!

The importance of the discussion was not due to us making any breakthroughs or novel discoveries; I’m pretty sure more sophisticated outlines of the situation are already established in business and systems sciences. What made me write this entry was that I really was content to push them for once to discuss things despite the fact that they were aware what I’m saying is:

  • Out of the main point of the class.
  • May not be included in the final exam!!

Not that I don’t trust students to be interested in anything rather than making the grade, but I know from experience that they don’t get excited about things easily. There is no wonder in their minds about science and how and why things are what they are. To feel that we make the closest thing to a seminar in an undergraduate class made me feel good about my decision to choose a course that I can provide ideas about on the fly without having to go to the books to know the answers. That’s a real pleasure, even when I’m pretty sure than practical-wise, they’re most probably (or at least a subset of them) better than me.


Another day March 2, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
add a comment

It’s been a very trying day at work today; Sunday is a day in the week in which I have work from 8 to 12, then a break, then some more work from 4 to 8. I can’t blame anyone for this; I did it to myself as I was the one who set the timetable. Actually, the only three problems I have with such a day are:

  • I repeat the same things four times!
  • My back hurts by 6 o’clock!
  • I have four hours of spare time that I either spend alone or with colleagues; not that spending time with my colleagues is that bad; but I’d rather stay alone than keep talking and most likely say all the wrong things, despite the fact that I’m constantly training myself to talk less. Another fact is that they’re all younger than me; sometimes much younger, and I don’t find that situation gratifying at times (because they make me feel soooo old :D)

As for today in special, I had fun because the section was about the twelve principles of distributed database systems. I found myself to be fluent although I didn’t read the chapter, I found myself engaging my students in problems and ways to overcome them, and I found myself to not be that cynical anymore. It’s true I said things that should put me in the blacklist (as if I was ever on any other list!!!), but overall I talked in favour of hard work always paying in the end (at least I hope it does!)

At the end of the day, I met a former student of mine; Nehal; who was the first caller in Calls, and I had fun talking with her n our way home. She asked me at some point: “Why didn’t you try to pursue a career in another venue besides academics?” and it didn’t take me much time to come up with the answer; I love studying, and I love understanding things and making people understand or at least willing to understand. Although it would be nice to engage myself in some practical venues just to keep in touch. But my greatest passion is to read anything and everything that manages to be interesting to me. That’s the point me and Ahmed Elsumm were making at one of our conversations; that what keeps you going and excelling at your job is for you to be passionate about it.

I’m falling asleep now as I’m talking, so until next time.

I still don’t know what was the point! February 26, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
1 comment so far

Prologue (Not the logic programming language :D)

I was notified by Mrs. Azza; the secretary of the faculty deputy for students affairs; that I’m a part of a team that is formed every year to go to a village and raise young people’s awareness of computers and their uses in our lives. I was told the trip should take place at the 2nd of February, then after the day passed she told me it was rescheduled at February the 16th. After that date passed as well she told me it was February the 20th. Luckily it was true this time. Here is my account for the events of the day.

Wednesday, February the 20th

  • 7:40, I arrived at the faculty building, no one was there yet, I drank Nescafe and hanged out on the front “yard”, waiting for somebody to show up.
  • 8:20, Mrs. Azza arrived; she told me how things should go: “They know you’re coming, and they are prepared, you’ll make small presentations about computing and its importance in our lives, then you’ll please write a report about the day and present it to me.” I asked where everybody else is and she said they’re coming.
  • 8:30, people started coming; Ahmed Elkhateeb, Ehab, and Sameh. Later on, Amira, Abd ElAzeez, and Islam came.
  • 9:00, after everybody who was supposed to come was here, we were told that the microbus which was supposed to pick us up was not allowed to enter campus, so we had to be “shipped” three by three in a private car to where the microbus waited outside.
  • About 9:30 or even after, we began moving towards our destination; a small village called “Demellash” near Belqas. We were told the distance took 30 minutes by the car. As soon as 15 minutes passed, Ahmed got a call; the summary of which was that we had to go back to the campus to pick up a team from the university media center!!!!!!!
  • Around 10:00, we arrived at the campus, waited for around 30 minutes for the “media team” to assemble and come with us. The microbus got crowded with 4 or 5 of that team. Now we’re around 13!!!!!
  • Around 10:30, we began moving again, arriving at the entry point of the village after about 45 minutes. The village roads were extremely muddy because of the rain, and at one point the car was close to turning up side down because it couldn’t get past a road bump that oversaw a deep hole in the ground (I’m dramatizing the whole incident to justify our entitlement to a compensation for work hazards!!)
  • Around 11:30, we finally arrived at our destination; the youth center for the village. The youth center was closed, the school located just beside it was almost empty I think. We stood there, like tourists in wonderland, and we kept making jokes about the situation. A couple of big guys were standing nearby; probably smoking Bango or something. Our guide; a native from the village, kept wandering around the nearby houses looking for someone who knows the principals of the youth center. Suddenly, the guys who were standing near us began to run in a rush, and we were caught off guard, then we knew why. A police officer showed up, asked the guide about our mission, and said he was sent by the governorate to keep us safe ( بيأمّن المنطقة:D) and I thought in my mind “How come we could be in danger here? It’s a village whose residents should be the epitome of Egyptian hospitality, not hostility!!” but apparently I was wrong somehow.
  • Around 11:45, the principals in the nearby school “received” us. We entered the headmaster’s room and were offered tea. I kept looking around, hundreds of impressions coming to my mind. How come some people here are willing to get an education in this isolated place? Why? People here are not forgotten, they get periodical instructions and inspections from the regional educational board. So the ministry knows they exist, but the school conditions makes you want to cry out loud. Anyway, we were finally shipped 15 minutes later to the youth center after they got someone to open it for us. We sat in a gloomy room, waiting for someone to tell us why the hell are we here if no one knows we’re coming and no one cares!!!
  • Around 12:00, we were shipped again to the “library” room in the youth center. The place they call the library has a 50 years old TV, some thin meaningless books that are probably left-outs from people who don’t want them anymore, and a couple of tables. It was a bit cozy though. A woman (presumably the library employee or something) arrived and kept asking us: “Are you a medical mission?” We said no, and wondered why did they get the impression we were doctors, and then we concluded that since some people referred to us as doctors (being seeds of faculty doctors and all!!!) the people of the village assumed we were medical doctors :D. That would have made much more sense to them since they could use our services. But academic doctors?!! What good are we for?!! Anyway, we explained to the lady why we are here, and she was pursing her lips in contempt. “Why didn’t anyone tell us you were coming?” she said. I concluded that she was at home; safely cooking or doing whatever housework, and they grabbed her to come see what’s going on. She’s supposed to be an employee who works at the center everyday and should be there everyday. But since people here don’t give a damn about culture she can stay home and officially she’s at work or something.
  • Around 1:00, they collected some of the school students to come and sit in the library to watch us explain to them how computers are good for them. We agreed that Ahmed would make the presentation, he did, and students knew almost every thing he was talking about!!! I couldn’t stop smiling as I kept listening to the students repeat in one voice after Ahmed whatever he said. It reminded me of my school days. I remembered how enthusiastic I used to feel about things, about knowing stuff and acquiring new information. I said to myself “These young students are not getting the most prestigious education, but some of them sure want to learn and love to learn. And they’re getting their education in the middle of no where; they walk through the mud to their school, and their parents struggle to provide them with the necessary stationary although they’re probably poor, that sure accounts to something deeply meaningful to them; even if they don’t realize it yet.” I remember how I felt when I was young; how the education atmosphere provided me with a sense of warmth and security, and also with a sense of responsibility. I wish these little boys and girls are feeling the same way, or at least a portion of them.
  • We wrapped it up at around 1:30, and after the team of the “university media center” made some “trivial” meetings with some students and teachers, we collected our things and prepared to leave. The same excruciating trip to head out of the village was made, and for the second time we were almost killed :D. We finally made it to the city, thanking Allah that we didn’t have to go through this trip on a daily basis. But I kept wondering about university students who lived in that village, how do they make it to the city everyday? I don’t have a clue.


I have wasted around five hours of my time (from 7:40 to 1:00, I excluded the time that was actually used for the presentation and the trip back to the city) for no apparent reason. I didn’t raise any awareness, I wanted to talk to the children but the media center people with us who didn’t care and wanted to go home would have killed me if I made them stay any longer. They have a point though; there was no planning or anything, and it was a very stupid charade that was conducted for the benefit of the university image as an institute that contributes to the community. I’m sorry to say this, but I know the report about the trip will come up to be an “excellent” account of the “awareness” we developed in these young helpless kids. This is not how things should be! It should not be about an image, it should be about a real and tangible benefit! And what the hell do these people need with a youth center?!!!!! The “expenses” that go to principals in that youth center should go to the school to make better conditions for real education. When that’s settled, we can think of recreational activities for people who can hardly afford for the basic needs in life, let alone go play some ping pong and “read” books beyond their needs!

On the good side, I had some good laughs, it’s an irony that I could laugh in such a sarcastic situation, but I did and so did my colleagues.

"I don’t have the desire to put myself in their shoes" December 21, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
add a comment

This quote from a blog entry of a dear friend and colleague; Ghada, is what’s been playing in my head for two weeks now needing to come out as a blog of its own. She spelled it out first, and that encouraged me to write. I understand she might be having these feelings about the students due to personal or domestic problems, but I think it’s mostly because of two things: the first was that she had to deal with a generation of students that can be irritating because they’re more and more “programmed” to have things readily available to them in what I can call “success capsules”. That sector won’t waste time trying to make an effort or understand; and they were treated in their homes as if these capsules are their “right” in this life so they have to get them as their right in college. The second reason is that we contributed to her negative feelings about the students with our own complaints and negative views of the students and maybe the faculty as a whole. Someone told me once: “Don’t let the people outside realize how bad things are inside; you’re not only making them see the bad side of your system, you’re making them lose faith and trust in the system, including you because you’re still a part of it.” People “need” to “know” your system is stable or they not only will freak out, but they’ll question everything you say or do that involves them and is related to the system. If our negative views are a part of the reason you feel bad about the job Ghada then I’m truly sorry for this.
Now that’s only a side note; what I really wanted to talk about is the quote; its meaning and its implications. When I was a student, I only saw my world of lectures, sections, homework, assignments, and projects. I didn’t give a damn about “others”; be that my parents or my teachers. I only saw my hardships and problems and I was engrossed in my friends and study. Then I became a TA, and the picture was altered completely! I saw the students as a different and annoying species, except for some of them who really put a smile on my face whenever I see them in a section. At first, you do the job the best way you can, and I wanted -while doing my job- to have every single students understand completely what I’m talking about. I became more and more frustrated as I realized this is not happening no matter how much I try. At the beginning I was frustrated with myself, then as years passed by and the same scenario happened, I began to blame the students; they don’t want to understand, they don’t want to make an effort, they don’t want to evolve and reach higher standards in science and in real life. This is true for some students; but I skipped a very important fact: the normal distribution! There has to be students who do not want to progress, and there has to be students who want to progress for personal gain, and there has to be students who are “geniuses”. I came to the conclusion that it’s up to us as TAs and lecturers to “widen” the area of the curve that belongs to geniuses, and this only happens when you try to “engage” students that are highly motivated to join the “geniuses club.” how to engage this category of students is a matter of finding out how to present an “excellent material” with an “excellent way.”
Once I realized that this distribution in itself is not my problem and that “shaping” it is the problem that I need to address, I began to relax a little bit and try to focus on the new mission, I don’t have a solution yet, but I’ll keep looking and experimenting until I get there. I also began to look at the students with fresh eyes; trying to understand why the different categories would behave in different ways. The important breakthrough I had out of this realization really extended to all the other aspects of my life. I began to see why other people may act in certain ways, and not only that; but I began to imagine how would I’ve acted had I been in their “shoes.” In the past I’d see the bus driver curse at a someone crossing the street and slowing him down and I’d say to myself “how impolite! What’s the big deal?!” Now I can understand his frustration. I see my friend complaining about the kids and how hard it is to take care of them and instead of criticizing her for it I begin to see the stress she’s under. I look at a student who’s coming late half an hour to class and instead of kicking him or her out I say “surely he’s detained for reasons beyond his will, and even if he’s not, he already missed the important part of the section when I explain what we’ll do, so he is a loser anyway.”
A human is not born with this realization; he grows into it, and when this realization fully evolves, a lot of good things come with it; compassion, forgiveness, appreciation, and most important of all, peace of mind. You do not obsess about things, you rather “understand” why they are the way they are, and if that way is the “wrong” way, you can find a solution because you “understand” and “sympathize”, the solution here is not for a problem; you don’t have to deal with it as a problem because it’s not your problem, the solution here is rather a “way” to deal with these things that brings you the peace of mind. For example; a student being impolite with me can be because he’s raised that way or because he’s extremely stressed out because he “has” to succeed because of his ambition or reasons other than his ambition. If I look at him this way, I’ll understand that most probably his impoliteness is not directed at me as much as it’s directed at my ability to make him move forward or backward. If he’s raised to be impolite then me taking action is justifiable. If it’s the other reason then instead of aggravating him even more I can assure him and make him lighten a little bit. This way we both win; I win a student who’s more positive toward his study and who respects me for understanding his situation, and he wins some peace of mind and a feeling of security because someone does understand and is willing to give him a hand.
I admit that my views of today’s students is not optimistic, and I still believe that the portion of them who do not want to make an effort to progress is only increasing, but I can’t work putting that perspective in front of my eyes. I have to believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves. I have to work as if they want to make things better, maybe then they WILL make things better, maybe if they see that you have hopes in them they’ll start acting on it in a good way.
As for putting yourself in others shoes, it’s a strategy you’ll acquire only when you want to, and when you do have it, it will make you friends and allies you never dreamed you could have, and it will make you more loving of the world you’re in, even when it’s not perfect!

I’m Done….. December 17, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
add a comment

At last this is the last day of the semester sections, and it was a very hard day. It was very hard for two reasons: the first is that I had to explain to the students a chapter that’s heavy with conceptual theories that don’t fit in with the common way people think; that is “The basis and dimension of a vector space and the vector spaces of a matrix.” The second reason is that I had to do something I really hate in the section; that is stopping the section after a stupid comment made by a student and not finishing the last part. I’ll not talk about the first reason because of its abstract nature, but the second reason is what really upset me. I always make excuses for students who are late, who want to freshen up after a previous section, and who are bored because they don’t want to attend and are forced to because of the mandatory attendance policy. But the end of the semester is a critical time; professors are finishing up and stressing advanced chapters in the curricula, and students are recapping the previous subjects and raising questions. In general, the stress is escalating in volume. This last section combined all that; a dense and extensive chapter with lots of advanced concepts, and students who want to ask a lot of questions. I have to stress a fact here which is most of the students really don’t care, even if they study hard, they don’t care about science. The only interest for this majority is to pass the exams and score a high grade. They don’t want to open the books and elaborate on their content, they don’t want to search the web for additional material that may clarify things a little bit or even give novel ideas to do things. This means that no matter how many times I stress that they have to return to the textbook to find satisfying explanations, they don’t listen, they want me to summarize the ideas and present them off-the-shelf for them to use ONLY for the exams. It’s a rare sight to me to find a student who’s interested in the mechanics of a subject outside the scope of the lecture.
Any way, this is what happened: I’m in the middle of the extensive section, trying my best to help them understand, and as soon as I finish a subject and move to the next, they start complaining and wanting me to stop, I say that this part is the last part of the section so please be patient, and one of the students say: “Heeeeeeeeeey” as in “Hurray”. Sometimes the smallest things break you, and this audible “hey” broke me. Here I am, preparing for this section for two weeks now, trying to understand and find a way for them to understand, and this is the last they will see of me, and they need it bad, and all I hear is “hey”! I went blank then, I said in a calm voice: “I want whoever said this “hey” to get out of the section” Nobody moved, I said it again and still nobody moved. At last, I said something I never said before and have no intention to say again: “either this person gets out or I will not finish the last part and you study it on your own!!!!” Everyone freaked and they started objecting, for the first time I stood my grounds and insisted. I waited five minutes and when still nobody got out I took off.
There are two contradicting points I can make here: the first one is that it’s completely normal for university students to study on their own and understand things, I did nothing wrong, just what every professor and lecturer can do every once in a while to stimulate the students to establish knowledge for themselves. The second point, though, is that I’ve been avoiding all my life the notion of being “unjust” to anyone, and I developed a technique of “putting myself in the shoes of others and understanding – rather than judging – their actions, however they may seem stupid, challenging, or irrational”. I felt that today I was unjust to the students who wanted to understand, and even to the students who wanted to “pass with a good grade and forget all about it after the exam.”
What’s done is done, that’s right, and I can make some corrective actions to remedy the mishap, but I keep blaming myself for one single fact; I was unjust while all my life I hated the practice of injustice that others do. I hope I learn never to do injustice to anyone for the rest of my life.
The good side of all this hassle is actually two things: that was my last section for the semester, and what happened made most of the students say good things about my section. Appreciation is a wonder drug, really, and I hope it can make me (a) forget about the bad things that happened today, and (b) make me appreciate – rather than fear – the responsibility I hold for my students welfare, even if it’s not for the ultimate reason of science and progress.

A Seminar Gone Awry! December 17, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
1 comment so far

Yesterday, I attended a seminar for an Egyptian professor living and working in America. I should’ve blogged the event yesterday except for the fact that I got home around 9 and jump started the preparations of the Algebra section of today. Well, to make it short, I didn’t attend the whole seminar due to the prior engagement of an “oral” exam I had to attend. What I learned from the seminar is not scientific as much as it is social.
First of all, the professor was late to show up, I think it’s his fault, even if it wasn’t. if he was available and got detained by formalities such as the head of the department “welcoming” him with tea and coffee, then the professor – being a staff member in the advanced world – should have pointed out the extreme importance of time and respect of appointments. If he himself was delayed, then he should have sent someone to notify the audience that the seminar will be delayed. We sat there, being used to never having anything happen on time (except for taking our attendance in a previous not so pleasant era!!!!) and we could’ve sat there for all it takes except for the fact I mentioned earlier that we had to conduct an “oral” exam.
The second fact was manifested when the professor began to talk; I know and I’ve seen many compulsive actions done by many people; including me, that can be words or gestures. He had a gesture that he kept repeating and it reminded me of someone I genuinely loathe; the gesture was him making a short “sometimes totally uncalled for” laugh after nearly every sentence. Oh my God how this irritated me to the extreme! For God’s sake, why are you constantly laughing when you’re talking science?! I know I’m being completely judgmental here since almost all people have such uncontrolled gestures, but I confess that such little things make me want to cry and hit my head to a wall. I have this notion that when we’re young, we’re energetic and hyperactive in many ways, and as we grow older and gain more wisdom, we grow to be quieter, more serene, and less inclined to use unnecessary body language. The fact that he “chose” laughing to be his “thing” pissed me off because it doesn’t fit well with the seriousness of science. I’m not saying he should be gloomy and not make jokes or be funny, in fact, at some points he made excellent contact with the audience in the “fun” department. I’m just saying that when you’re giving a presentation you should plan every word and every gesture and even every joke.
The third fact was his “unreasonable” aggressiveness towards attendants who didn’t follow his lead or those who challenged his proposed model. He didn’t handle discussions with courtesy, he was even sometimes impolite and embarrassed some of the audience, and sometimes “forced” the participation. I couldn’t believe this could come out of someone who’s that experienced and who lectured in so many universities. Even if he didn’t want to answer a question or didn’t “know” how to answer a question, he could’ve got out without embarrassing himself or the other part asking. Furthermore, if wanted to activate the concept of brainstorming, he should not do it with brute force, and when someone does participate with ideas, he shouldn’t take them lightly even if they’re wrong, when he takes these ideas lightly or attacks them, no one would want to participate and he’ll have to talk to himself.
The forth point was his constant glorification of his experience and knowledge. I’m all for stating one’s experience so that people can learn something out of it, but I hate people who talk about their experience and skills as unique and grand things that other people should cherish. I “know” your achievements so don’t brag! And if I don’t know then maybe I don’t want to know! After all, I learned that when you’re impressed with someone’s talk about himself, this most probably means he “empty” inside. I’m not saying that he does not deserve to be known for his achievements, just please don’t state it yourself, others will want to know out of their admiration of what you “say”.
I wish I’d attended the whole seminar, maybe then I would’ve come out with some positive “points”; at least about the man if not about the science he was discussing, but maybe the points already made are good enough pointers for me to learn positive things from, or maybe I’m “programmed” to see the bad side of everything!

University Staff Payroll Dilemma December 12, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
add a comment

I urge you to read this article about the crisis of the University staff payroll that’s currently discussed by Egyptian professors and researchers, I think the link will work fine because it’s not from Al-Ahram..


I have no comment on the article except that I think the sufferers are a very small section and not the whole sector..that’s based on my observation..maybe the picture is more gloomy in Cairo, being the capital and all. As for young researchers and assisting staff (like me and my colleagues) I know the situation is bad, and I don’t think I’m a whistleblower if I state that the only way some can make ends meet is via private tutoring. I don’t think it’s a wrong way in itself, because I know that it’s acceptable practice around the world. I think what makes it a frowned-upon activity is two reasons: the first being this idea that we don’t want the students to believe that by taking private lessons they can figure out what the exam will be like since the assisting staff will have a clear idea. The second reason is this “stupid” concept that the state employee should not work outside of the government as this will tarnish his “dignified image”. I don’t understand what’s wrong with having a job that helps people improve their life standard. REGULATE, people! Don’t prohibit!
I don’t know, I never had the urge to work extra hours in other places, but I don’t blame people who do that unless the other work affects their performance in their primary job. After all, I have this ideal image about my job not just being about “delivering” information to students, it’s more about helping them “formulate” knowledge about the world and about themselves. It’s not just the average job, it’s a message to be conveyed.

Read This November 30, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Uncategorized.
add a comment

This article – in my humble opinion – is hilariously funny and honest..

To Program or Not To Program? What is The Problem?! November 30, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Faculty Life.
add a comment

The reason I’m writing this blog entry is two-fold: Analyzing the problems I faced with the students for three consecutive years teaching data structures, and trying to answer the eternal question asked by pure information systems fans: Do I have to program to survive the IT industry?
I’ll first address the first part of the reason because it was what triggered the entry in the first place. The problem that made me wonder so many times and ask the question about programming was the fact that in the second year, I’m asked to teach the students a very hot topic (data structures) while they’re oblivious to the fundamentals of programming; and I mean basic programming (either that or I’m totally getting the wrong signs from their confused looks and questions.) Students cannot understand what functions are, how they’re called, what’s the difference between variables and objects, or between data types and reference types, how to define a class, what can be a class, how to debug, and most of all how to read and correct programming errors (either syntax or logic ones.)
Let me clarify two important facts here before I proceed: First, I’m in no way a programming guru; I know some stuff but no advanced programming. Second, there ARE students who seem to have programming “programmed” naturally in their genes. I asked myself many times what gives me the right to discuss a topic I’m not a hundred percent experienced with, and the answer came to me this year; there’s a serious problem with the way programming is taught, when it’s taught, and why it’s taught.
Second-year students are supposed to have studied at least one basic programming course in their sophomore year, and in the specific case of my faculty they’re taught in labs by two of the most gifted TAs in programming whom I hold a great respect for: Waleed and M. Handousa. And I always blamed the students for not listening in labs. I figured out the problem isn’t with the TAs ways nor in the students; the problem is, programming is a difficult subject to be taught and learned, and a huge effort should be paid to developing a methodical way of teaching it so that basic programming skills can be instilled in students to enable them to go the distance on their own.

The way programming is taught

In the first year, students are taught the basics of programming; that is, data types, variables, loops, flow control, and functions. I don’t think amateur students know what any of these things is good for! They don’t see the big picture: programming is a way to tell the computer how to solve problems, and it resembles our normal way of thinking when attempting to solve our problems. What adds “spice” to programming is that computer makes us capable of adding little “tricks” to solve problems that we don’t usually use in real life. But it has the drawback of sticking to the way computers are built. So students don’t see that programming is slightly different from ordinary problem-solving techniques in that it can do some things the mind can’t do and it can’t do some things the mind can do. Students should be able to see that all the basics of programming are tools to the original goal: solving a problem, and they should first be able to think systematically about how to solve the problem at hand and then proceed to check how programming is to be done, and what it will be able to do for them to enhance their way and what parts of the solution it will not be able to do “as they do it in their minds.” the brilliant programmer then will figure ways to use whatever “is possible” within the programming language to achieve whatever “that can’t be done following the normal human brain thinking.”
Programming courses tend to teach students “how” to do stuff instead of “what” to do if a certain problem needs to be solved. I think an emphasis should be made on how the human brain solves a certain problem and then how to adapt the solution “manuscript” to fit the intricate programming concepts and techniques.

When programming is taught

The problem here is that programming is taught before the students have any idea of how to “think” about the solution to a problem, how to build flow charts, and how to understand algorithms. When a child goes to school for the first time and is taught how to make simple calculations, he doesn’t see the big picture; the abstract mathematical principles that make computations what they are. That’s exactly how students are treated when taught programming: Do it now and you’ll understand later. Well, you can’t tell a 17 or 18 years old student that! He or she is mature enough to understand why things are done a certain way. I should never write a recursive function call without explaining to the student how it’s executed in memory. But to do that, he has to have a knowledge of memory and how to deal with it. That’s not a problem to me to explain that; the problem is with so little time in the semester how am I supposed to do this and still have time to explain the different data structures and algorithms? Either more time should be dedicated to this matter or it should be dealt with in a separate course. The curricula is so keen on teaching a state-of-the-art programming language and no focus is given to what principles make understanding programming possible in the first place.

Why programming is taught

I’d like to make a distinction here; there is the problem that needs to be solved, and there are problems related to programming the solution to the problem. Software engineers should be able to solve the first; meaning they should be able to analyze the problem, define how it will be solved, identify the user requirements of the software, identify the software components, and make a detailed description of what to do programmatically, while computer programmers should be able to solve the second; meaning that once they have the “manuscript” of the solution, they should be able to address any problems that arise during programming, what classes are needed, code optimization, testing, …etc. There’s a debate among many of the TAs I know about whether or not the first should do the job of the second, but I think there is an agreement -forced by the market- that the second “must” be able to do the job of the first. That’s where the real problem is; how is the student supposed to know how to program if he doesn’t realize programming is a tool to solve a problem and he must first figure out how to solve the problem?

An interesting study conducted by Dr. Saeed Dehnadi and Prof. Richard Bornat from the school of computing, Middlesex University; which was titled “A cognitive study of early learning of programming”, argues that there are two distinct groups of students when it comes to the ability to learn programming skills: those who can, and those who cannot. The focus of the solution to this problem has been always on the teaching side: changing the language, using an IDE…etc. this will evidently lead to no progress, since the problem (from their perspective) lies in the learning capability, how to measure it, and I can add how to enhance it. I made a quick review of some programming course pages on the web (check below) and found an interesting point: these courses DO NOT teach a specific programming language, they just pave the way to that by focusing on principles and concepts of programming. The problem with our way of teaching is that we think it’s cool to hit it off and jump start the students into the completely different and mystic world of coding, thinking that their excitement about it is a good thing. They end up being so confused about what it is exactly that they’re supposed to do with all these for loops and if-else conditions. When I ask the students in my sections whether they can trace what a code does, they seem perplexed and unwilling to even try; to them, those who write the algorithm are super humans.

I conclude with excerpts from two of the sites I checked…

List and Explain the five steps in the Programming Process:
There is a basic flow for computers as well as in programming. All programming commands can be mapped to this basic flow: BASIC FLOW OF COMPUTERS = INPUT, PROCESS, OUTPUT.
To be effective in anything, you really need a Process. The programming process can and should be used for any programming language that you use. The five steps in the programming process are:

  1. Define the Problem – discuss problem with the users of a system and the systems analyst to determine the necessary input, processing, and output
  2. Design the Solution – design an algorithm and represent the logic using a Flowcharts or Pseudocode
  3. Write the Program – express the solution in a programming language
  4. Test and Debug the Program. Insure that the program works as planned (Use an Interpreter or Compiler
  5. Document Throughout – provide material that supports the design, development, and testing of the program.

From http://avconline.avc.edu/rhoffman/Programming.html

Introduction to Programming
By the end of this reading you should know the following:
Expain in simple terms what computer programming is.
Understand why there are programming languages.
Understand the terms high-level language and low-level language.
Understand the difference between compiled and interpreted programming languages.

From http://revolution.byu.edu/programmingconcepts/programmingIntro.php

Guide to Establishing Good Correspondence With International Professors and Institutes November 16, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research.

In this second installment, I’ll talk about what a researcher should do and in what order to establish a correspondence with an international professor or institute. The process is not greatly different if you’re pursuing a Master or a PhD degree, when there are differences, I’ll try to highlight them.

First of all, this is an extensive process that can give you a smash hit from the start or can go on and on for some time, so the key to complete it successfully and reach the goal is to be patient, dedicated, and appreciative (I’ll get to the appreciative part later). The following steps pretty much summarize what’s to be done:

1. Identify the countries in which your research is strongly established (for example: East Asian countries are strong in hardware-oriented research, robotics, AI, …, while European Countries have a strong base for applicable research, business-oriented research, …)

2. In each country you choose, identify the list of top 100 universities there. Note that there are numerous terminologies used there that are different in meaning. For example: a university is either composed of faculties (just like us) or schools (a school being an analogy for faculty), or departments (a department being an analogy for faculty). Faculties and schools of a university are not necessarily in a single building, rather they’re distributed all over a campus that’s much wider that what we know here. A faculty or a school can be composed of many departments, possibly located in a single building. A university also may have research centers which can be either independent (resembling a faculty) or a part of a certain department or faculty.

3. Now that you identified the list of universities, check in each one whether they have a faculty, school, department, or center that are related to the field of study that you plan to pursue. Keep an orderly journal on your computer for each university so that you won’t get confused, I personally use Microsoft Office OneNote (brilliant!).

4. In each faculty/school/department, you’ll usually find the following information:

(i) General info about the faculty/school/department
(ii) What undergraduate students study
(iii) What postgraduate students study
(iv) Research activities and areas
(v) Scientific degrees given
(vi) People (Faculty –> meaning professors, doctors, lecturers)
(vii) Current events and activities

In the previous list, only (i, iii, iv, v, vi) are of importance to you. You want to know about the faculty/school/department, what degrees they give (so you know if you can go there or not), what are their research areas (so you’d know whether they can support your proposed research or not) and what postgraduate students study, because that’s what you are. You also want to know the names and contacts of faculty members and what their research interests are so you can later choose who you’d want to contact.

5. The next thing to identify is whether the faculty/school/department provides the degree you’re pursuing by research or by courses. Usually, a Master degree is provided by courses, while a PhD degree will differ according to the country of choice. Let’s elaborate further:

  • A Master degree by courses means that the faculty/school/department offers a collection of postgraduate courses that you need to choose from until you complete a certain amount of credit defined by the requirements (will discuss requirements later), these courses usually are taken over a year if you’re a full-time student. After you complete the courses, you need to choose a research subject and write a research proposal to be presented to the faculty/school/department. If they agree to your proposal, they assign a supervisor to you and you start working for the amount of a year-two years max, by the end of which you need to present a dissertation (thesis) and defend your work orally in front of a referees committee. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the preparation of a research proposal is a piece of cake; it has to be detailed yet not long, and you need to device your research methodology carefully. It can be rejected if it does not meet the standards of the faculty/school/department.
  • A PhD degree can be obtained either by research or by courses. In fact, there’s not a great difference between the two. A PhD by research involves working with the supervisor(s) during the research phases proposed by you, with the possibility of taking some courses in the first six months of your stay at the university. A PhD by courses involves taking an extensive set of course for the duration of a year to two years (depending on the number of courses you should take to fulfill the credit required) then proceeding to work on a research dissertation; just like the Master degree. The difference here is in the amount of course credit required, which depends on whatever previous courses you took back home and whether you already hold a Master degree (Yes people, you don’t need to hold a Master degree to take a PhD degree, though you’ll need to take additional courses). Some faculties/schools/departments will acknowledge your Master degree while others will not. Anyway, whether you choose a PhD by research or by courses involves preparing a PhD dissertation (thesis) that you will defend orally in front of a committee. Not all faculties/schools/departments offer both options, in USA and Canada and some universities in Japan and Hong Kong, you can only take a PhD by courses. IN the rest of the world, you have a choice or you work by research. So you need to read carefully what the type of PhD offer is. As to the matter of which is better, it really depends on you:
  1. A PhD by courses has the following advantages: the courses provide a variety in study and practical involvement with teams of other researchers, and some people are more comfortable with course work, whose objectives are clearly defined. Also, courses give you a chance to see how different professors work and think and makes it possible for you to make an informed decision about who’s the professor you want to work with. The courses will often involve seminars and projects that are considered preludes to the actual PhD work, giving you more ideas about the “hot” points in current research. However, course work involves a lot of studying, and you have to maintain high grades in all course for all the duration it takes to finish course work and you have to work on many projects for different courses. So unless you’re fully prepared to meet the stress with equal vigor and hard work, you’ll take forever to finish.
  2. A PhD by research resembles what we’re doing here in Egypt; you make a proposal, then you’re free to conduct your research at your own pace. This has the advantage of being a little less stressful and does not involve the hectic course schedule and project deadlines. However, since you work more independently, you risk the possibility of falling behind your timeline. So you must not give yourself much slack and you need to try and stick to your own schedule. Foreign supervisors are often polite; they will not chase after you with a stick to finish because they realize it’s your own work!

6. (Requirements part!) The next important thing to check is the admission requirements for the degree you’re pursuing. Usually you’ll find that in a section or link for “prospective students ->postgraduate”. Read the basic information provided and do not forget to check the requirements from international students, which usually involve the language scores required and whether recommendation is needed by local professors. DON’T forget to check the accommodations provided (in-campus housing, near campus, or private; the best option is in-campus if available). Also, check for the deadlines for admission, usually deadlines for international students are earlier that the official deadlines (for matters related to limited places and required visas, …)

7. Make a checklist of all the required paperwork and check which is already available to you and which needs to be obtained (TOEFL, GRE, Recommendation letters,…)

8. Begin to make a list of all the professors/doctors/lecturers in the faculty/school/department you’re planning to join and who specialize in the subject area of your interest. Then proceed to write e-mails to them explaining your wish to join the faculty/school/department and your wish to have them as supervisors. That’s only preferable if you’re conducting a degree by research. There are a number of rules for writing these mails:

  • Address the professor as: Dear Professor …….. or Dear Dr. …….. According to his/her title
  • The first thing in the body of the message is to state your name and affiliation: I’m ….., a teaching assistant in ……, university of …..
  • Then proceed to state that you’re planning to apply for the degree you want and that your research interests are so and so, and that you’ll be honored if he/she agrees to supervise your work
  • State any research publications, test scores that you ALREADY have. They’re great assets in you advantage.
  • Say thank you for the time spent reading the mail; he could discard the mail and don’t bother at all, it’s gracious of him/her to read your mail and take the time to reply (that’s the appreciative part!).
  • Write a detailed signature stating your name, affiliations, and contact info.
    If the professor replies with a no, you have to reply with a thank you anyway for your time, otherwise, he/she will usually ask for your plan of work, so be ready with it! Also be ready with any information they need about your place of work or future plans (when do you plan to join the research,…)
  • Make the mail as short as possible with separate paragraphs for separate parts of what you want to say. Be concise, don’t tell a life story!
  • DO NOT write to more than ne professor in a single department or school. Write to as many as you like, but not to two people who work together. Wait a week until the first replies, if he/she doesn’t, then safely proceed to his other colleagues. Notice that they have a weekend on Saturday and Sunday so don’t send Friday expecting a reply the day after. Also notice the time zone differences.
  • Wait, be patient, and watch for admission deadlines and send your papers before them, the earlier you send your papers, the earlier they will process them, and the earlier you’re granted admission and accommodation.

I hope this article sheds some light on this subject that’s usually left to the imagination of the researcher!