First week of school (A complaint about the Mat-Su School District)

On Monday, the Syllabus … Syllabi? for my two fall classes for grad school went live. I’ve got a sense of schedule, topics, and platforms. And at the same time, I’ve got absolutely NO idea what to really and truly expect – except that I’m going to be challenged. My kids, however, started on Monday and complaints about classes has started already. I’m usually one to support whatever is going on in the education realm because even if I disagree, they need to know that sometimes you just have to deal with bullshit. This year is a bit different. A new superintendent, who is presumably very experienced and whatever, has completely changed how the high-school curriculum works. Change isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it has to be carefully organized, planned, and executed to be successful and have the correct impact. In spite of all of the best efforts of teachers, administrators, and councilors, the current situation is not good.

Before I continue to complain, I want to make it clear that my experience with everyone at the school has been a case-study in professionals trying very hard to make sure our students are getting what they are supposed to out of school. I am fully confident that my kid’s whole school is full of people focused on student success. I genuinely don’t believe that is the case with the superintendent. In fact, I’d argue that’s he’s set up our educators for an unnecessarily challenging year with a profoundly vague plan to improve MAP scores. Which is to say, he gave them a directive without even bothering to think it through.

My main complaint is one of the changes to graduation requirements. I’ve got concerns about several aspects, but the largest is a new intro class called: Intro to Career Pathways. In the first class my middle child was treated to a full-on repudiation of college in favor of ‘certificate’ programs. ie: Why would you get a college degree when you could get a certificate for less money and make as much as anyone with a bachelor’s degree? That’s a bloody great question. By some accounts, plumbers make up the largest segment of people making more than $1M/year – and I generally believe this is true (have you ever paid a plumber?). But you know what? If it were the typical case where I could jump over to plumbing and make more than ten times what I do now, I’d change my job TOMORROW.

Realistically, that’s not how it works. I think we all know that – a good, skilled plumber has years of experience, training, expertise etc… I mean, if someone told you: Go into plumbing, you’d make a mint. Wouldn’t you do it? You would, right?

You know why people don’t?

I already said it. Look at the paragraph above about all the training. Where the hell do you get that? There is no real ‘path’ for students. The same goes for virtually any trade. I’d even argue that super popular classes like auto-shop don’t offer a path to employment. That’s why there’s an apparent dearth of ‘qualified’ applicants (of course, if companies were a little more keen to hire people at something approximating a living wage, with no experience, this would be a different story). Yes, there are ‘trade’ schools, and programs at universities that support this, but it’s not remotely enough. If there aren’t enough qualified people, clearly, the education system is the place where we have a problem. Nobody doesn’t want to do these jobs.

When I was in high-school, one of the career paths I was interested in was carpentry. Hell, I still love working with wood and building things. I even loved building my house even though it brought me to tears more than once and nearly killed me and my marriage – but why didn’t I? Why did I go into computer science? Because there wasn’t a path to get into carpentry. When I started looking, there simply wasn’t any way to get to a job that didn’t involve having someone already in the field give me an opportunity.

The best advice I could drum up at the time is stupid shit like: Get apprenticed (with whom, exactly?). Oh, an apprenticeship program with the union? The same union that takes 30-40 applicants a year? (Full disclosure – I am 100% a full union supporter. I refuse to cross anyone’s picket line, no matter how distantly connected they are to my work.). The point is that the school district (the superintendent) has decided it’s a great idea to shit all over college prep and tell kids to go into a ‘trade’, without actually doing anything meaningful to develop a tangible path. Had my child been assigned welding, machine shop, auto repair or even sanding wood 101, I’d have been perfectly fine supporting that because they’re learning an actual skill. This class is pretty clearly designed to indoctrinate kids into a false conservative narrative designed to get them to accept lower wages.

When it comes to college, you can’t deny it’s as expensive as hell. The benefit? It opens up a whole suite of opportunities, and (to be perfectly blunt) is open to everyone. This is not the case for ‘trades’. Even if you get an, I dunno, MBA, this opens up a whole classification of jobs. We’re talking about dozens of possible fields. I know computer scientists who do admin work, biologists who are doing social science work, mining engineers who wound up doing petroleum engineering most of their career. The point is that the batchelors degree is the main point of entry.

A huge stink is being made about not enough kids getting into ‘trades’ and people somehow disrespecting trades – literally nobody disrespects the trades. Hell, if it offered benefits most of the time and you could find a way in, it’d be just fine if not GREAT.

Unfortunately it’s exclusive – you have to know someone or get lucky. There’s a certain amount of luck required after completing your college degree. I am NOT going to refute that. My own position I got because of luck and whiteness initially. I hold that job by making sure that I follow through. However, my luck aside, I literally had dozens of opportunities across a huge swath of industries and occupations. So, instead of waiting for an apprentice carpenter job to come up somewhere, maybe very, very remote, I can apply for a dozen jobs in my own town. So there’s trade-offs.

Thinking about my situation: yes, I’m driving my kids to go to college, even though we can’t afford it. Yes, I’m going to grad school myself. Could any of us do better in a trade? … No, actually. In my case, I’m nearly 20 years in. My path is set. Could I have done better in a trade fresh out of high school? … actually, also no, there was no place for me to become skilled an acquire a real job in a trade. My kids? Also no. I can promise they wouldn’t find a job in the trades for the same reasons I couldn’t. College offers the best opportunity, so that’s what we’re doing.

I think my complaint here is that my kids are being subjected to a political class instead of something useful. If my kids were required to take a class to do – I don’t know – small engine repair, or basic automotive skills, welding, basic into to pluming, I don’t even care… any of those things, it would be a FAR better use of their time. What’s more, in my short experience working with students in high school, NOBODY DOESN’T want to do trades stuff, there’s just no opportunities. Jobs, yeah, maybe, but opportunities? No. You can argue, if you like, but you’re a white guy with some kind of personal connection.

For my part, I want my kids to learn skills and have opportunities, not be subjected to political beliefs and false narratives. If you want kids to get into trades, train them, get them experience, and make sure the opportunities are actually present. Don’t present false narratives.

Before you get shitty about me saying companies needing to offer more opportunities to young people – I do my best to maintain internship programs as often as possible with the specific goal of making sure our young people (or even slightly older folks going back to school) get experience and have a vector for entry into my field. It’s a HIGH priority for me and it should be for literally anyone having more than 1 employee.


Full Speed Ahead

As of about a week ago, the most I could tell you about the graduate program I’m starting this fall is that term starts on the 23rd of August and it’s a great program. The program ranks with equivalents at UC Berkley, UC Davis, John’s Hopkins, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (A well known top computer science university) and above many other distinguished programs. As of this morning, I now have my email address, have connected up core security things and am diligently working my way through pages and pages of information to prepare for term. At this point most of that is just making sure my computing environment is all set up to hit the ground running when term starts.

All that ‘administrative’ bologna aside, I’ve now got a better sense of what to expect from the classes through preview materials and videos. I just spent the past 4 or so weeks intensively studying linear algebra and have pivoted over to probability and statistics. So far, it looks like (if nothing else) I’ve done a good job at identifying what’s likely to be critical for success and preparing well. Even then, it’s pretty clear that I’m unlikely to be at the level I’d like to be before school starts. Not so badly it’ll impact success as much as it’s going to result in more study time. When they say this program is ‘rigorous’ I feel like there’s a bit of down-playing going on.

Today was the new student orientation. I was impressed by the concise presentation (I wish every meeting could get thorough as much material as quickly). I thought it was highly effective in communicating a TON of information without making it feel overwhelming. I took a lot out of it, but there’s a lot to digest and internalize. More than that, what I really took away was the impressive range of students. There are people from all over the US and the world: Nigeria, South Africa, Finland, UAE, Russia and even more places. In hearing all of that, it made me ask myself(again): how the hell did I get to this table? I’m just a ‘trash bag’* from Wasilla. —I’ve been in places like this before, surrounded by truly remarkable people, who have remarkable things to say and remarkable stories to tell. It forcibly reminds me that I was a scrappy kid who grew up in a trailer park playing on those big wooden spindles for laying cable, getting in fights, and spending my time being a feral child. My stories aren’t remarkable. At best, I can tell a story that sounds interesting. Perhaps that’s part of my problem —I don’t feel as though I’ve got a great narrative. How can I measure myself against those great individuals who broke trail that I now have to help steward? Just by turning up and doing my best, even though I know I could do better, I’ve been given an avenue for success and recognition that feels vaguely unearned.

How can I live up to that?

I don’t know. I suppose I just have to. I’ve been afforded opportunities I feel don’t belong to me. The only thing I can do is to do everything in my power to make good on them. At this point the only thing I can do is say: full speed head.

*Trash bag – I’m taking this use of trash bag from “The Good Place” TV show. If you haven’t watched this, you need to.

GA Tech vs. OU (which program?)

Wow. I haven’t blogged in a long time. To be fair, it’s been busy and the time I have had, I’ve chosen to spend on time relaxing. I’m only taking a few minute just now because the grad-school prep has kicked into high gear, and I have some thoughts on the process.

I wasn’t sure what I might expect in applying for grad programs. I did know that I needed an asynchronous online program delivered by a good and preferably recognizable school. A traditional education environment wouldn’t really work for me. After researching programs for a couple weeks, I narrowed the list down to 3 top pics: Georgia Tech (GA Tech), University of Oklahoma (OU), and Michigan Tech. I was also in touch with recruiters from three other schools that didn’t really fit my need. One of them appears to be more of a degree mill than the kind of program I want. There were two more I hadn’t quite gotten around to calling, but they were more on the expensive end and would be down the list. In any case, I put in for GA Tech first (my top choice), then OU (University of Oklahoma). I never got around to my #3 pick because OU accepted me before the ink was dry on my last letter of reference.

Many weeks after my initial application, GA Tech came through with an acceptance letter. Meaning I got into both schools and I had to make a choice. For me, it a huge surprise. Yes, I had really good reference letters, brought a pretty robust track record in data management and statistics, but I’ve been out of school for about 20 years. For OU, I was really confident about my application package. Given their acceptance rate, I reckoned I had a really solid shot. GA Tech, however was a different story. To start, it’s a notoriously difficult school to get into (23% acceptance rate?), and the Online Masters program is no different than on-campus. While I do have a good work-record, I was worried that my ‘pretty okay’ GPA and (while I think it was fantastic), relatively unremarkable university degree were going to work against me. In any case, I made the cut, and I’m feeling really good about that.

Anyhow, I got into both schools I applied to, so why did I pick GA Tech? That’s actually what I wanted to write this blog about. Perhaps you’re also looking at a data science degree and what to know why I picked one over the other? To be sure, I haven’t started courses yet so the relative value isn’t known, it’s just sort of anticipated, but I do expect to be challenged and learn a TON (that’s the point, right?).

The whole reason I want to get the MS is to expand my knowledge and skills in the realm of data science. Not just statistics or biometrics, but sort of overall. I’m a senior research analyst, but I actually don’t have the full background I’d need to go to another organization if I needed to (you never know, I’ve got no plans to leave, but I do have a powerful need to keep a paycheck). Plus, those skills can help us my current organization tackle research questions with even more capacity and knowledge. Just the other day, I was asked about a meta-analysis of income. This is a master’s thesis on it’s own, and it’s on my radar to just sort of slip it in at some point… How much better would it be if I took that database of well over a million rows and hundreds of variables and hit it with a giant statistical baseball bat? That’s the stuff grant proposals are made of. Anyhow, that was my frame of mind when looking at these.

OU (University of Oklahoma)

So, what did I think of OU? It looks like a ‘solid’ program. I can say that their student success game is good enough that I seriously considered just staying on track there. The program has an ‘average’, if slightly more competitive price-tag – About $32K USD in total (it was a bit more and I think subject to change, but it’s a university, that’s how it goes). The key for me, however, was the mix of coursework The classes I’d have taken are:

  • Required Classes:
    • Computing Structures
    • Algorithm Analysis
    • Advanced Analytics and Metaheuristics
    • Fundamentals of Engineering Statistical Analysis
    • Database Management Systems
    • Intelligent Data Analytics
    • Professional Practice
  • Electives (probably, it’s not clear what is offered in any given semester based on the materials I have)
    • Financial Engineering Analytics
    • Bayesian Statistics
    • Time series Analysis (I think? – this may not have been offered in a way I could do it)
    • Introduction to R
    • Advanced R
    • Data visualization

The total list of courses offered were fine for this kind of program, but missed some key elements, while involving things I’d like to swap out. Tor example the financial stuff and database management systems are low-priorities for me. Further, I don’t know that R would’ve been the best use of my time because that’s something I can learn on my own. Nevertheless, these remained the most valuable of the remaining courses.

Overall, the application and on-boarding experience was great, I was really impressed and never for a minute felt like I didn’t know what was coming. Thinking about that and the mix of classes, I’d describe This as the kind of program designed for people looking to transition into data and analytics from a related job or an entry level job to something more advanced.

This is a pretty luke-warm review of OU, but there is enough in there that It would have been a valuable learning experience. If you’re new to data science with some background or looking to jump up a level from junior or mid-level to a senior analyst, I think this is likely to be a really solid option and reasonably priced. And again, they have a VERY strong student success process.

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech. / GT)

What was it about GA Tech? Well, if you’re researching these, you’ll probably have spotted that the price-tag clocks in at about 1/3 the usual price. I found it at $10K USD. It’s low enough, I even asked admissions to verify the price. That was the key attention getter and driver initially. Their admissions deadlines are a bit more stringent than other programs, and I found myself up against a deadline, so I applied before I’d fully digested other options.

I would describe the admissions process as ‘fine’, but a little slower on the information dissemination than I’d like, though it’s not proved a problem. I’ve received helpful responses to inquires in a timely fashion. One difference from OU was that this program also made it clear you need to be prepared with a strong STEM background to begin with, including pre-requisites such as Calculus, python programming, statistics and probability and Liner Algebra from previous schoolwork. This is also pretty typical among these programs, but OU placed less focus on that (Michigan Tech. my 3rd choice also emphasized these).

The course material, while still including things that aren’t essential for me, is very much in-line with my goals for this degree. Also, there are 3 tracks to help you focus your attention, I picked the Analytical Tools Track. The courses I’m going to try to take (again, not sure how scheduling works):

  • Required:
    • Introduction to Computing for Data Analytics (I may see about swapping this one out. The course description sort of suggests this is what I already do every day.)
    • Introduction to Analytics Modeling
    • Business Fundamentals for Analytics
    • Data Visualization Analytics
    • Data Analytics in Business
    • Applied Practicum
  • Electives
    • Regression Analysis
    • Bayesian Statistics
    • Probabilistic Models
    • Time Series Analysis
    • Computational Statistics

I think really, if you’re looking at something like this, unless you’ve already got an undergrad that’s strong in the maths or computer science, even getting accepted may be a challenge. It works for me, and I’ve got the background to launch in with an expectation of success. Term starts in about eight weeks, and I already have a significant amount of review and prep work to do (I’m about 3 chapters into my old Linear Algebra book at this point, and I’ve got lots more to do). I’m generally up to that challenge, as it is review, but I can see where some prospective students would be intimidated.

Other considerations: Neither program required GRE tests, OU is on a Fall-Winter-Summer schedule that appears to be partially aligned with the on-campus schedule, GT is fully aligned with a Fall-Winter schedule. Both programs are fully accredited and will result in a Master’s of Science in Data Science and Analytics. Both require a practicum, it appears OUs practicum comes from corporate partners or your current employer, where the GA tech one is less clear, seems to be either from your own job or they have ready-made projects that can be used.

So, that’s where I am. As I get into it and start really working toward this, I’ll be posting more about it, but for now, I’m going to unwind with some video games before bedtime.