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Tag: grad school

Who am I writing for?

I want to write.

I want to tell my story, help others, create knowledge, learn, grow, and everything else that one can do. I want to do it all - and writing is necessary for this. Therefore, I want to write.

The advice I have always been given (or, more accurately, have read) is to just write. Write anything that you want, but just keep writing and do so regularly. I'm not even going to find attributions for this because I think it may even be common knowledge by this point. Another bit of common advice is to know one's audience. (Kurt Vonnegut gives some advice for writing short stories, and many other authors have spoken or written on the subject.)

Well, who exactly is my audience? This website is a blog - my blog - and I write whatever I want. The name at the top isn't a cutesy title derived from a statistics or education term; it is my name. My audience is me. I'm writing to myself because I want to remember this time in my life. I want to remember the joy and pain, the triumphs and defeats of doctoral school (hopefully heavier on the joy/triumph than pain/defeat).

But I'm not solipsistic. I also have a 'real' audience in mind. It is fragmented, but it is still my intended reader. The groups I imagine comprising my audience are:

  • Graduate students (or soon-to-be graduate students) - We will undoubtedly share many similar experiences, and camaraderie (even if virtual) is a Good Thing.
  • Anyone at UF - I sometimes post things that are related to Gainesville and UF, and these might be good resources for anyone involved with UF (undergrads, grads, staff, faculty, etc.).
  • People interested in statistics education - Statistics education is what I'm studying, and I'll be posting things related to it pretty much for as long as this blog is around. This includes both researchers and teachers of statistics. Hopefully this audience will grow over time.
  • People interested in statistics/data - I attended statistics graduate school for two years because I love statistics - I just happen to love the educational aspects of it more. I still love data, graphs, R, analysis, visualization, etc. and will post on these things from time to time.
  • People searching the web for individual examples of statistical things - I get a good number of hits from people searching for misleading graphs in the news, and I'll try to keep posting things that people are looking for. This is an audience that I wasn't intending to have, but will try to be a good steward of.
  • People searching the web for specific computer issues - I know how frustrating it is when hardware or software goes awry, so whenever I have issues (or find what I consider a particularly good solution for a problem/task) I'll post it. The more quality explanations for problems the better.

So that's who I'm writing to. If you are a member of one of the above groups, what would you like to see more of? If you are not, do you still view yourself as my audience? Respond in the comments and we'll get a dialogue going!

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A productive (in an abstract sense) week

This has been a pretty productive week, all in all. Not a lot to show in terms of work completed/produced, but that isn't everything. Most of the time, but not always. (Also, there's no pun on "abstract" anywhere in here. Sorry to disappoint you.)

On Tuesday I attended a seminar on Backward Design offered by Sarah Miller of Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence Program (University of Wisconsin-Madison) through the CALS Teaching Resource Center, an organization I was unaware of before this event. The focus was on how students learn, practical ways of incorporating active learning into the classroom (e.g. we worked in little teams to turn lecture points into prompts for small discussions), and finally discussed Backward Design. In a nutshell, Backward Design is a three-step process:

  1. Identify the goals for students (i.e. what they should know or be able to do after the course).
  2. Make assessments that actually assess these goals (because students value what you assess, but also build in some gradation into exams).
  3. Fill in the rest of the learning activities for the class.

All in all, this was a helpful seminar and a good use of two hours.

On Friday (today), the GSAC met with the Provost (and the Dean and Associate Dean of the Graduate School, among other big shots). (Recall that GSAC is the Graduate Student Advisory Council for UF's I-Cubed program, and that I am a new member this semester.) While I attended the pre-meeting planning session last week, I have taken a very passive role with regard to the agenda and content (mostly because I lack the perspective gained from attending the previous meeting with the provost). While I wasn't thrilled with the way the presentation ended up developing, it was still a worthwhile presentation to attend, at least from my perspective. The main thing that GSAC was trying to address was the lack of faculty support in some areas for interdisciplinary projects and events, and they were looking for possible solutions from the institutional/administrative side. The response was mild, and with seemingly good reason. The provost offered many good points that GSAC could do to address the issues we perceive, and also noted that 'the faculty' is a very diverse group of individuals that spans the university, and there isn't some magic tool that the administration has to control and inform the entire faculty. The main takeaways from where I was sitting were:

  • Get your message out to as many groups as possible as often as possible. This is the only way to become visible and get the faculty to respect the work GSAC does.
  • Creating space, either physical or virtual, won't be enough to change anything. There must be a clear plan for how such space would be used to foster interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Some faculty have no interest in interdisciplinary collaboration. If a student is interested in interdisciplinary collaboration, then why choose such a faculty member as an advisor?
  • Rather than waiting for an institutional stamp of approval, we should approach the people of power in our departments and colleges directly for things. Go to the source.
  • Similar to the above, if we aren't sure what a group of people (e.g. the faculty) are thinking, we should just go ask them.
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration takes a lot of time and effort, and faculty (that are universally very busy) are unlikely to participate in overly broad programs that have the hope of some real result in the end. When doing a project, identify a specific expert need that you have and approach an expert. Explain exactly what you need and how they can directly help.
  • Faculty (and possibly academics more broadly are motivated by three key things):
    1. Money (e.g. grant money) - you can't 'buy' faculty with money to elicit sustained change: when the money dries up, they go elsewhere
    2. Recognition (e.g. authorship or awards) - this is related to money and can be used for promotions, tenure, etc
    3. Intrinsic academic interest (e.g. their love of the field) - they do what they do for a reason: appeal to this reason directly (e.g. "We need your expert knowledge to do X and Y.")
  • Lastly, graduate students should focus on keeping their advisor happy. Advisors control the education of graduate students, and while some negotiation over work and projects can work, in the end what the advisor says goes.

Speaking of keeping my advisor happy... right now I'm still working on some side projects, but I'm trying to only engage in new work that relates to statistics education. I just want to wrap up these holdovers from my previous life and then... onward and upward!

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Grad Life at UF

Being a seventh-year Gator affords me a unique perspective at times. While it is true that many students continue their studies at UF seamlessly from being undergraduates, I find that most are working on masters degrees and, as such, leave relatively quickly. Also, the sheer number of students that did not attend UF for undergraduate (with many, many being international students) makes my perspective stand in greater relief with their perspective and background.

My perspective can be characterized by appreciating what changes UF has made since 2006, and recognizing the different attitude that the university holds toward graduate students. While getting scores of emails can at times be annoying, the number of important, relevant opportunities that are presented to graduate students seems to be greater. Moreover, the support systems seem to be institutionalized. Of course, some of this may be because I have had the time to find these resources and come, but I do seem to remember that receiving better emails happened almost overnight, and other double-Gator colleagues have made similar comments about the increase in respect we feel from the university. (Not everything is roses, but improvement is improvement. And tautologies are tautologies.)

The best example of this respect that I can give is that the administration really seems to listen to graduate students. The three ways I've seen it manifested recently are:

GSC logoGraduate Student Council: At UF, the GSC is an organization affiliated with the Graduate School and Student Government (SG) that is designed to meet the needs of graduate students. The key ways in which their presence has been felt recently are in the awarding of travel grants for students to present at conferences and in the changes made to the support systems for international students post-admission but pre-first day of classes. The administration seems to have been supportive of efforts to help students not be stranded at the local airport (more bus routes), not find themselves homeless the first few nights in Gainesville (specific, affordable temporary housing), and other orientation programs that are appreciated. While their seems to be some confusion about the role played by GSC in the overall university among graduate students (e.g. many people don't understand the need to vote in SG elections despite GSC being funded by SG), the faculty and administration seem to respect the aims of GSC.

I-Cubed logoGraduate Student Advisory Council: While GSAC has an unfortunate name (leading many to confuse it with GSC), it is one component of a coordinated effort by the Graduate School to improve the lives of graduate students. In 2009, several key members of the administration (including the Provost and Dean of the Graduate School) were awarded an NSF grant that has become the Innovation the Institutional Integration (I-Cubed) project. The goal is to improve the lives of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and SBE (social-behavioral sciences) graduate students. One component of this is GSAC, which is a committee comprised of graduate students that work with the administration to identify areas that could be improvement and work to change things. I'm serving on GSAC (a new member as of Spring 2013), and the project really seems to both have an impact on graduate students and have the actual (not just nominal) support of the movers and shakers. Because the grant ends in 2014, the goal now is to institutionalize the changes so that UF continues to have in place the mechanisms for helping graduate students.

"Dine with the Dean": Last but not least, the Dean of Students (apparently) likes to have monthly meetings with different groups of students to figure out what is working and what needs improvement. A few days ago, a group of graduate students (including myself) had a quick lunch with the Dean and were able to share our thoughts. I was able to pitch my idea about allowing students to keep their email address after graduation, and it seemed to be well-received. It remains to be seen if anything will come from this, but the free food and face time with the Dean were both appreciated.

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On submission and rejection

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor are good manuscripts published in one. I've heard similar comments for some time, but they don't really ease the sinking feeling when an email containing the tactful "unfortunately..." that often precedes the 'we are not publishing your manuscript'. So it goes.

Swallow hard. My CV has been once again updated ('under review' becoming 'in preparation'), and time to get back to work on this project. Bigger and better (guided by the reviews' comments). Meetings, coding, and reading. Things to keep me from getting bored.

On a similar note, I got back in touch with a professor from last semester to talk about collaborating and expanding a project I did for class last semester. This happened within a half hour of getting the aforementioned email.

When it rains it pours. Hopefully this will water the seeds.

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Monte Carlo Tree Search in R

While I was working on my master's degree I took an introductory course in Monte Carlo methods (STA 6866 at UF). As is typical of grad school, a final project was required - in this case something related to a Monte Carlo method not covered in the course (we used Introduction to Monte Carlo Methods in R by Robert and Casella). I chose to do a brief report on and implementation of Monte Carlo Tree Search (MCTS).

The purpose of this post is not to introduce MCTS, but rather to post what I did for the project in case others find it useful. MCTS is a method that can be used to create an artificial intelligence (AI) for games (both video games and traditional games). As a proof-of-concept, I implemented MCTS as an AI for a game of Connect Four. (It was really 'Connect Three' on a 4x4 board due to computational constraints, but the concept remains the same and the code should generalize easily.) Connect Four is not an ideal use for the MCTS AI because it is a solved game (unlike Go or Chess). I chose to use Connect Four because it is easy to code in R, easy to play, and the purpose is to demonstrate the MCTS method for AI and not to create a truly competitive AI.

The relevant files are:

  • An R file that explains how to use the game and AI (OPEN-ME.R)
  • R code for the Connect Three/Four/K game (can choose Player 1 vs. Player 2, Player 1 vs. AI, or AI vs. AI) (connect-game-code.R)
  • R code for the MCTS AI (mcts-ai-avec-block.R contains deterministic code to make the AI play defensively if Player 1 can win in one move to make play more realistic; mcts-ai-sans-block.R does not contain the blocking code)
  • R code for a 'naive' AI (selects from the available moves without doing any weighting, coded for comparison purposes) (naive-ai.R)
  • A helper file previously detailed (pprint.R)
  • A file containing 25000 simulated games (giving this to the MCTS AI improves its performance) (BLR-4x4-AI1-24k.txt)
  • The report I wrote about MCTS for the class (pdf)

The report I wrote for class can be download here, and all of the other files are in one zip archive. If you found this useful, I'd love to hear about it. If you want me to do something else with this, also let me know.

A snippet of an a game being played in R.Update - December 8, 2014

It looks like the statistics department finally took down my old homepage. I've uploaded the files to this website instead. It may be worth repeating that this work was work done for a class, and, while I enjoyed doing it and learned a lot, I make no guarantees about the code or report.

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