Andrea Lawrence Interview: Selected Quotes


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Knowing you're going to have a great career

{Question: Tell us about the boarding school you went to} "Well, it was an interesting school. It was a Methodist school, and really sort of an outreach project. At that period there were a number of schools, places in the South, where were no high schools for the black students. Else they had to ride miles and miles and miles to go to a consolidated school because of segregation. So these schools were started around the South to provide high school educations for black students. Mine was a girls' school, and the teachers -- it was very small, everybody knew everybody and everybody was convinced that you were going to do great things. We all just knew we were going off to college and we were going to have great careers because our teachers were so convinced we were going to.

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Grandmother's help in building an interest in math

My grandmother was a sixth grade teacher -- in fact, taught me in the sixth grade. And she really loved math and always wanted to go further in math. So she kind of pushed me to excel in mathematics. So it seemed natural to go ahead and major in it when I got to college. She made it fun. She would give me things to do, puzzles to solve, exercises to do, and it just got me interested in seeing what could I do with math.

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Nobody thinks you're odd at an all-girls school

So I went from a girl's high school to a women's college. And the thing about being in that kind of environment is that nobody thinks you're odd if you want to do well in math or science. Nobody thinks you're unfeminine or anything, they just encourage you. So there were a number of us who went to school together as math majors. Some of them have since become ... one of them, actually, a couple went to medical school actually with the math major and they added biology to it. A couple of them I have heard about other places. Some women went on to get the higher degrees. But it was never any question that we could not do it ... that we would do it. Our teachers were very encouraging. One in particular, Dr. Etta Falconer, was one of the first black women to get a Ph.D. in mathematics.

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Choosing to do computer science

At first I was thinking about getting a Master's of Arts in teaching. And the chair of the department of mathematics and computer science persuaded me that I really should get a Master's in a subject area, computer science or mathematics. When I started thinking about how long it had been since I did a proof, I decided to go for the computer science. And I had done some computer science courses in the process of finishing my degree at Purdue. In the process of getting a teaching certificate I had done some computer-related courses. And we had gotten a Radio Shack computer and I had played around with that. So I thought, "Well, I think I'd like to do computer science!" And the rest is sort of history, as they say.

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The supposedly portable Osborne

[M]y best help at that point was my mom, who had decided to get interested in computers from a user perspective and in fact went out and bought an Osborne. Now you may not remember the Osborne, but it was supposed to be portable, but it was more like luggable. And it had a little about 5-inch screen. And she went out and bought this ostensibly because she wanted to try to word process on it. But I later figured out that she did it so that I could do some of my homework without having to go to the lab. Because we had to program, I could do some of my programs on there, at least the preliminaries. And my database stuff I could do on there. And that was why she went and got it. She was really supportive.

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The Ph.D. as a driver's license

And then Dr. Falconer showed up again and said, "Well you know you can't stay in college teaching if you don't have your Ph.D." She said, "It's like a driver's license, you've got to go get it." And I'm like all these children, you know? And they were getting ready to go to college, too. So I'm like, "I don't know how I'm going to do this." So she goes away and leaves me alone. After a while she comes back and says, "I put you in for this fellowship, you need to start applying to schools." So sure enough she got me a fellowship, an IBM UNCF [United Negro College Fund] fellowship, and I decided to try to find a school.

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Too old, wrong color, wrong age

So I got in my car, drove over to Tech, and applied. And as it turned out, that worked out well. It was a bit of a challenge. Georgia Tech was a school that was traditionally male, traditionally white. So I sort of felt like I was too old, the wrong color, the wrong age to be going there. There was nobody that looked like me. Very few women in the program. And there were maybe 110 students and maybe 8 of them were female in the Ph.D. program when I went. And most of them were in their 20s, and I had a college-age daughter. So I obviously wasn't in my 20s. And it was kind of difficult in the sense that, you hear people talking about the isolation, how people don't want to form study groups with you. I would end up doing projects by myself because I couldn't get a partner. And there were a couple times when I thought, you know I don't really want to do this, I can go back to [teaching] high school, I know how to do that. But I stuck it out.

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Showing whether animations work

At first I thought I wanted to write an intelligent tutoring system. And one of my committee members, John Stasko, was doing animations. And he said he would be really interested to see if they really helped. And everybody said, "Ooh, ahh!" when they saw them, but he wasn't sure if they would really help. So I took that as my project, and it was very interesting. I got to figure out all the nuances of what do you do to animations: Is it the color that matters? Is it how fast they move? Is it how you represent the data? And what I really found out was that it's involvement. If the student isn't involved, it's just like watching a cartoon or something, it doesn't really go in. If they don't do something, if they don't put in the data, if they don't manipulate it some kind of way, it doesn't seem to stick. So that was fun.

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Being visible as proof you're working

And I found out one thing that was sort of a trick. That I had ... if my advisor didn't see me, he didn't think I was working. So I was there all day Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. So what I found out I had to do was along about Wednesday I would leave work, ride to Tech, put my coat in the office, go by, let him see me wandering back and forth carrying something, speak to him, and go home. And after that happened he said, "Yes, I'm glad to see you're really working now." OK! [...] But I had to put the coat off first because it had to look like I was there. So it was interesting how that half-an-hour really made a difference to him, because he felt like he was seeing me every day.

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Helping students find out how to learn

I think my teaching philosophy basically is to try to help the students find out how to learn. So what I really am about trying to do is showing them enough so they can go from there later, when they don't have me. And I think the other piece of my philosophy is that I should make an effort for them to understand me. That is if I were to give a test and everybody was unable to do something, or even a majority, I would think that was my fault. Because if the good students can't get it, then I'm not putting it across. So I always measure my success as a teacher by their success as students. And I don't think that's changed much. I think I've always been inclined to think that the measure of a good teacher is whether the students are really learning.

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Renewal from involvement in professional organizations

{Question: Did involvement in professional organizations has affect your career?} You know, actually speaking, I don't know that they really have affected in the ... Except that they've kept me engaged and excited about my profession. When I go to SIGCSE and find out new things people are doing. When I interact with my colleagues. And when I work at ADMI and see the students succeed. I think that brings me back, refreshed, renewed, with new ideas, and keeps me from falling into a rut and having things become stale. So in that sense yes, they very much have.

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Ice sheets in Antarctica

My latest is I'm learning about ice sheets in Antarctica. We're going to be analyzing data from the census that measured the thickness of the ice in Antarctica. Now, I don't know if I'm going to get to go to Antarctica on the field trip. Some of the scientists in the project are going to go. I'm not sure I'm going. In fact my daughter expressly forbade me to go, but ... I'm really excited about this; it's a whole new realm of study. And my idea is to apply what I know about HCI to make the data more meaningful. So I have one student who's a biology major, I have a math major, and two computer science majors. And the biology student wants to work on how, if the ice really is melting, this may affect the biosphere. The mathematics major is interested in analyzing. The computer science major is also looking at how we're going to do algorithms to analyze the data. So that's my latest project and I never would have thought of it.

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Reach out for support and get involved

So I think that what I found out with the challenges is don't sit there and suffer by yourself. Reach out for whatever support, whether it's friends, whether it's family, whether it's a group, whether it's a church, whether it's an organization. Get involved.

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Consider possibilities, look around, pick something you like to do

If I could give advice, I would advise that you not limit your choices, that you consider all kinds of possibilities. And that if something gets hard that you look around to see how can you succeed. Don't just give up, but look around and see what do you need to do differently so you can succeed. And I would advise them to pick something they like to do. If you're going to be doing something all day long for 30 or 40 years, you want to enjoy it. So not by prestige, not by pay, but by what you can enjoy and get pleasure from doing.