Sebastian Dziallas

wrangler of learning tools

A Retrospective on the First Part of Summer...

Lot’s of things have been happening this summer and I finally got around to writing most of them up. I started my summer back home in Germany and was going to make my way back to the US at the beginning of June to help out with Olin’s I2E2 summer institute.

A Story of Flight Delays

But that would take longer than expected: I was scheduled to fly from my home airport with a connection in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the plane on the way there had trouble with the fuel gauges, and having those in working condition would be really nice when it comes to flying a plane. To make a long story short, we got rebooked and everyone was really good about it, in particular the people at CDG who put me on the upper deck of the 747. And so I made it to Boston, where I was met by Brett at the airport, not long after failing the Olin challange once again.

I2E2 Summer Institute at Olin

I2E2 is Olin’s Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education. Over the past two semesters or so, I’ve been working with a couple of other students to host visitors to the campus during the semester. Oftentimes, those visits involve a tour of the campus and conversations to provide a student perspective on the college. I2E2 has also been running a weeklong summer institute to introduce faculty from other institutions to techniques that would be useful for designing curricula with the student in mind given the constraints of their context. For this year’s summer institute, Brett and I were able to be around for the week to help arrange logistics, provide a student voice during the workshop, and spend time working with the faculty.

More Than Just Courses

As we tried to figure things out over the course of the week, we learned a lot from everyone involved, in particular our own faculty. Part of it was also that we saw something we had seen before reinforced: there’s more to the courses (and their respective learning objectives) at Olin than just cramming material and attempting to retain it. After all, why would we be putting professors from other institutions through parts of our introductory experience if it was just about content?

One of the most fascinating things was to see the introduction of concepts from user-oriented collaborative design to the curriculum design: attendees were exposed to an introductory modeling & simulation experience and then asked to redesign that experience based on the values and needs of the students and faculty at their institution: they were designing for their own context.

80s Rockin’ Fun

Another pleasent surprise was the soundtrack of the week: our professors had been looking to provide some background music during the activities, and our very own Rob Martello had quickly repurposed our 70s & 80s playlists. As a reminder, I took the Stuff of History, an integrated course that covered both historic and material science topics. Over the course of the semester, we created multiple Grooveshark playlists and implemented a feature that would automatically post the most recent songs every half an hour to Twitter. Follow @StuffofHistory on Twitter and message me with any suggestions for songs to add!

Documenting Olin

After the I2E2 summer institute, I spent a few days talking with Mark Somerville about the Documenting Olin course in the fall. I was part of an independent study this past semester with a couple of other students that was looking to identify key elements of the college. Expect me to write more about this in the near future.

Craft of Electronics

As you may have noted from my Twitter stream, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working in Kentucky at Berea College designing a new introductory electronics curriculum together with Matt Jadud and Mel Chua. I won’t go into too much detail here, as you can explore most of the project on, but there are two things in particular that I’m excited about.

The first is a visual programming environment that Matt blogged about here. We also have a brief video explaining how it works here. I’m actually quite excited about how this is coming together: clearly, it’s not yet ready for production, but it’s a working prototype that demonstrates what we can do with a visual environment and parallel programming. In short, it’s using a library called WireIt that is based off the same toolkit as Yahoo Pipes. In our case, that code is running off a node.js server which returns a representation of the diagram upon clicking the run button. It then triggers, and that is probably the most interesting part in my opinion, a piece of code written in Scheme (yes, that language that we used in Foundations of Computer Science) to convert that output to occam-pi. Matt has worked with it before and the Transterpreter project actually lets us to parallel program for the Arduino. So in short, this allows us to convert the blocks and wires from the visual interface to code that runs flawlessly on the Arduino.

The second part concerns our learning objectives: we’ve previously identified three major components of what we call the craft of electronics – safety, design, and fabrication. Recently, we focused on the design aspect and brainstormed possible activities, partially inspired by the process I experienced in User-Oriented Collaborative Design. Over the course of the conversation, we noted that walking students through an entire design process with full-blown user interactions might be too much for a 14-week electronics course. However, we came up with a modified version which captured the major aspects: people and their respective needs, as well as prototypes. The design process could then be described as an iteration between the creation of such a prototype and the testing of the prototype against the user’s actual needs with appropriate adjustments being made over time. Once an acceptable state has been reached, the project can move into a more permanent state with its first release.

Red Hat Summit

Then, last week, I made it out to Boston for the Red Hat Summit thanks to the nice folks at I was part of a panel at the summit last year and gave a brief ignite talk on the intersection of open source and education this time around. The talks were being recorded and should be posted on soon. Since I wasn’t able to make it to the last FUDCon, it was also really nice to get to see all the people from the Fedora community and friends in Boston again. Rock on!

What’s Next?

Well, I’m going to be in Kentucky for another four weeks. There’ll be a brief interlude in Raleigh at the end of July after which I’ll head back home for two weeks. And then the summer will be almost over already and I’ll be making my way back to Olin – it seems so close and yet so far away. But isn’t that oftentimes the case?