/r/IAmA with Allison Bishop, Computer Science Professor and Children’s Book Author

My love of reddit is no secret. I wrote a list of my favorite subreddits here and that list grows longer every day.

/r/IAmA is a variation of /r/AMA where someone states who they are/what they do and commenters ask questions. This interview with Allison Bishop, a computer science professor at Columbia and children’s book author, is a perfect example of Reddit’s awesomeness.

A guest like Bishop draws in CS majors, writers, math enthusiasts, and people generally into the same interests as me. When I’m so caught up in my studies, and getting that less-than-perfect grade, it’s easy to feel alone. But there are countless others asking themselves the same questions, overcoming the same obstacles, and pushing forward alike. I embrace every opportunity to connect with those people.

My short bio: I’m Allison Bishop, a computer science professor at Columbia and a quantitative researcher at IEX.

With Sasha Fradkin, I coauthored Funville Adventures, a math-inspired fantasy adventure that teaches elementary age children about mathematical functions. I am working on innovative ways to teach math and science at all ages. I introduced cryptography through storytelling in my TEDx NY Talk. Ask me anything!

Read the full interview here.

Some Q & A’s below:

Q: Hi, I have a degree in Computer Science, and I didn’t hate math, but I wasn’t very good at it. I think most of my issues stemmed from having errors in my work, as opposed to not understanding concepts. In programming, a lot of error get caught by the IDE (intellisense) or compiler.

My question is, do you think there is a need in teaching/learning math that relies more on concepts and letting software do the ‘plug and chug’ and making sure the calculations are error free?

A: It’s a great question. I do believe math can & should be taught more conceptually, with less emphasis on rote calculation. But we shouldn’t take it too far, ignoring details that might affect real outcomes.

Trouble is, I don’t think there’s such a thing as software we can rely on to eliminate human error. The disconnect between theory & implementation is the whole reason that crypto & cybersecurity are very distinct & complementary disciplines.

Q: How many math classes did you take to get a CS degree? Would you consider a B.S. in computer science to be worth it?

A: My first two degrees were in math, so, a lot! That’s not a typical path, but it gave me a strong foundation.

I think CS degrees and math degrees are both valuable, and I encourage people to take classes in both.

Q: To a computer engineering graduate (bachelor’s) with average mathematical knowledge, do you recommend MS in CS or is it safer to just go work in some coding job?

A: If you have the option to work in CS, I usually say “take it”. You will learn more about what you do & don’t know, and what areas of study interest you. If you then decide to go back to school, you have that option.

Otherwise, I typically only recommend a MS in CS to those whose undergrad degree is in something else.

Q: How can Computer Science and other STEM majors attract more women?

A: For one thing, I think we need to push back against the myth that if you haven’t started in computer science/STEM very young, you won’t be able to keep up. Also, we need to do a better job of showing all students the role that STEM can play in domains they may already care about: like the role of mathematics in medical imaging, the role of computer science in disaster relief and response, the role of statistics in baseball, etc.

But actually we are starting to see more women in STEM majors in some undergrad programs these days, for example at Columbia, though this trend is far from universal. But retaining women in the academic pipeline and industry at large beyond that remains more of a challenge.

Q: What does the feedback loop look like for the children’s book? With an audience this young, how do you find the right balance of vegetables vs dessert, so to speak?

A: The best feedback undoubtedly comes from the children themselves. Even though they are very young, they can generally engage with the concepts on a very sophisticated level. One can easily gauge both the level of interest and the understanding from reading the story with the kids, listening to their questions and comments, and supporting the discussion. As for the food analogy, I think of it as mixing in the vegetables with the dessert to a degree that makes them barely detectable. At the end they find out that in fact they had their vegetables and really enjoyed them. This encourages them to try the same vegetables in other forms as well.

Q: What are the answers to our final next Monday? 🙂

A: nice try.


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