2013 in Review

This year I have been documenting my exploits and it is my first attempt at doing a formal reflection and write-up on the past year.

2013 in Review

PROFESSIONAL

This past year was a monumental shift for me:

I finished my PhD.

I officially graduated in May. I transitioned my work to a research associate position, meaning I continue doing the same work I did for my PhD but working fewer hours (no school requirements!) and making more money (no school costs!). My time was mainly spent on research and development work around Zydeco, though I began to do side projects through my company, Elastic Focus.

Zydeco

Zydeco was a project I developed during my PhD that investigates how to bridge formal and informal environments (e.g. classrooms and museums) using a mobile app and accompanying website to help middle school students engage in science inquiry investigations. In March, we were able to (finally) release Zydeco to the iOS App Store as a free download. This was a tremendous struggle, not only to prepare the software and the help pages for the release, but also to deal with the process of releasing through the University of Michigan. That endeavor took 12 weeks; Apple approved the release in 5 days. Zydeco was released in a closed beta, where users must request to have more than a demo account. And though it was not advertised, we’ve had account requests from over a hundred organizations, teachers, and researchers across the world and it has been terrific to get positive feedback from these people.

With Zydeco being publicly available, we were able to oversee and run research trials in even more locations than before: more Michigan schools, the Field Museum in Chicago, Seattle Public Schools through the University of Washington, and with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education located in Toronto. I also managed to sneak in a Kidsteam design session, a partnership of children and adult researchers that work together to co-design children’s technologies at the University of Maryland, getting feedback on how to better design Zydeco for a younger audience.

I worked with Michelle Lui from Toronto to publish a long paper on research that combined Zydeco with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest. The paper was accepted to the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference that takes place in Toronto next April. Michelle and I also submitted a CHI Interactivity to demo the combination of Zydeco and EvoRoom at the conference, though we are still waiting to find out if it is accepted.

Elastic Focus

In a move to align my research work and my company, I submitted a grant proposal for expanding Zydeco that I was co-principal investigator on through my company (a first!). This grant partnered with The Field Museum and Steven McGee at The Learning Partnership. If we receive the grant, it would provide 3 million in funding for the project over 4 years. My portion of the grant would be used almost entirely to hire software developers to work for me, as well as paying a portion of my salary (it will be SO nice to work regularly with other developers on the project).

In September, I released Big Presentation Timer (it does about what you’d expect) to the App Store, working with Brenna McNally. This app fulfills a frustration I had as an instructor trying to help students finish presentations on time with gentle warnings (do NOT make me stay late!). While the market is flooded with presentation timer apps, none of the existing apps met my needs for giving warnings and I hope others find this app useful.

Working with Mauricio Gomes, I made a fill-in puzzle iPad app called Crazy Crossword that was meant to be a fun little side project done in an intense weekend burst. However, generating decent New York Times style crossword puzzles turned out to be a little more complicated than expected for a weekend project, forcing us to put it on hold until we have time to finish this up.

My favorite side project this year has been Colibri, a German vocabulary learning software for iOS. This project was initiated through meeting Peter Lewis while I was living in Berlin and trying out his web prototype of the system. I found the web prototype so useful for learning German that I offered to adapt it to the iOS version so it could be used offline on my commutes. I’ve been happily using the app for a few months to learn over a thousand new words and it is in the final polishing stages and will soon be available on the App Store.

As I love learning languages to interact with people while traveling, I’ve been quite interested in the overall language learning technology scene (spoiler alert: it is quite lacking). Beyond working with Peter on Colibri, I began collaborating with several people to explore this area, including Brenna McNally and Emer Corrigan. While I’m still in the learning phase, I began to survey and interview people on their language learning needs, as well as recording my own experiences.

Conferences

I was fortunate to be able to attend a number of exciting conferences this year. These events have always been one of the highlights of my academic career, as they are a chance to learn new things, meet old friends in the field, explore new places, and make new friends all while having fun. This year was no exception!

I attended two research conferences that I’ve been a regular at for a number of years: the Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Paris and the Interaction Design and Children Conference in New York City. Both were fantastic, keeping up the tradition of being a high quality experience! In between these two conferences I had the opportunity to take part in an EduCoder retreat at a cottage in Wisconsin. This was put on by Tom Moher’s and Jim Slotta’s labs from University of Chicago and University of Toronto and was a great opportunity for sharing lessons learned and getting feedback from other educational technology researchers and developers.

I also was a last minute participant in the LinguaCamp BarCamp in Berlin. This was an interesting un-conference-style event with the goal of discussing learning and teaching languages and, to that theme, was run in English, German, and French. I went to this event shortly after my arrival in Berlin, and it was here that I met Peter Lewis with whom I later collaborated with on Colibri.

Near Misses

A number of things I attempted did not work out as desired this year- much of which involved being rejected on grants or positions I applied for. I applied for a Stanford Design School Fellowship and an internship under Seth Godin, but was rejected for both. I was part of two different research grant submissions that were also rejected.

However, these rejections don’t overly bother me, as the act of submitting and putting in a solid effort is redeeming in itself (though I’d love to have received any of them!).

Unfortunately, there were a few cases where things were unable to be submitted. I attempted to write a Small Business Innovative Research Grant, partnering with a learning technologies startup, though this failed to come together before the deadline and the project was scrapped. I also was working on a grant between the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto for combining and extending Zydeco and EvoRoom to make a next generation augmented learning environment, though this was not completed before the deadline and delayed until a later grant cycle.

The most frustrating experience was when bureaucracy killed a funded project that could have helped a lot of people. Working with a therapist, we applied and received a grant to make a mobile app and an accompanying website to help adolescents with anxiety, particularly those that were working with a therapist. An important part of the children’s treatment is performing exercises outside of therapy, and a personal mobile device could streamline this process and provide reminders for the user to complete the exercises. However, due to the bureaucracy of an establishment I’m choosing not to name, the project became a time-sink trying to get access to the funds. In the end we were unable to use the money.

PERSONAL

The biggest change in my personal life was restoring a sense of work/life balance after the previous unrelenting cacophonous hell that was my life while I finished my PhD.

This year I had the opportunity to travel extensively and also live for several months in Berlin as well spend several months with my cousin Aaron and his partner Michelle. All of these opportunities combined for a terrific personal growth and helping me better discover how I want to live my life and spend my time going forward.

Travel

Getting to travel and experiencing different cultures is always a personal highlight, and I strive to spend at least 20% of my time each year doing so. This year I well exceeded my goal, having a great mix of work and personal travel that amounted to 155 days away from my home in Michigan.

The big highlight of this was living in Berlin for 70 days. I went there to experience the growing startup community, learn German, and get a taste for life in such a transformative city. While in Berlin, I attended a variety of different meet-ups (primarily through meetup.com) and met a variety of interesting and unique people.

The experience of living in Berlin was quite profound to me, as I got to experience quickly integrating into a new location and making many friends and having a diverse range of experiences in my short stay. Between the meet-up websites and Airbnb, a website to facilitate renting a room or apartment from someone else, my conception of how travel can be done has shifted greatly. The ease of being able to integrate in a new location is far easier than ever before, and I look forward to having similar trips like this in the future.

My period in Berlin was a wonderful experiment in exploring language learning. Through regularly going out and forcing myself to speak German, it helped me get over my fears of fumbling in a foreign language and embrace the uncertainty inherent to the learning phase. This was a big issue I faced when I previously studied abroad in Germany seven years before, where my fear of speaking German was quite a limiting factor in being able to go out and interact with people, as well as my ability to improve my speaking skills.

My language learning endeavors were not limited to the practice I had in Germany this year.  Through my travels to Costa Rica and Paris, I also had an opportunity to improve my (poor) Spanish and also begin to learn French. These experiences contributed to making me more carefree in practicing, particularly in the struggle to conduct basic tasks in French when I have such a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Beyond the language learning, I had a lot of amazing new experiences this year. One of my favorites was getting to spend a few weeks in Alaska, where I got to explore Denali National Park, sea kayaked off the Kenai Peninsula, and got side-tracked on many other adventures along the way. The untouched natural environment of Alaska was astounding, and I plan to return again in the future to further experience it.

I also helped facilitate an environmental biology service-learning trip in Costa Rica for students at Madonna University. This was a diverse range of experience condensed into one intense week, where we worked on different organic farms, patrolled the beaches at a turtle station to protect eggs from poachers, and helped maintain nature conservation centers.  While I had traveled to Costa Rica before on a vacation, getting to work alongside students at these tasks was both tremendously fun and educational, and was an entirely new way to experience the country.

While I only mentioned a handful of my trips this year, it embodies the range of travels I hope to have more of in the future.

Habits and Systems

Implementing effective routines has been an area I’ve struggled with for years and is an ongoing area for improvement. This year I made headway into several areas that have had a noticeable impact on my life.

One of the most important things was starting a daily journal. This was done using a modified form of the Five-Minute Journal that I write up in Evernote. By writing out things I am grateful for each day and having a time of reflection at the start and end of the day, I’ve noticed a substantial improvement in my happiness and productivity.

One of my favorite things to do before grad school was reading books for fun, and I’ve been able to restart that practice. This past year I’ve read ~40 new books (a combination of fiction and non-fiction) that were not directly related to work, as well as revisiting many of my favorites.

On the language learning theme I’ve explored this year, I also began a number of practices to continue studying German. While my motivation has decreased as to when I was living in Germany (and needed it for survival!), I have been trying various methods to keep my knowledge fresh. This has involved changing the default language on my web browser to German, as well as regular exposure through German videos and music.

Health and Wellness

While I managed to generate a number of beneficial habits, those around my health have been more mixed. This past year has been fraught with inconsistent exercise patterns due in large part to the constant relocation and travel. I’ve maintained weekly or twice weekly (brief) weightlifting and/or kettle bell exercise through the year. At periods I started running, though these habits stopped when traveling. While living in Berlin I cut back on working out (no equipment) but walked a lot (averaging ~4 miles a day). While I desire to take part in a consistent sport or activity, I couldn’t get any routine in and my fitness declined when it started getting cold in November.

My eating habits are one area that have held up well and improved this year. I’ve continued to reduce my meat consumption after my mother’s heart attack and resulting surgery, and restricted myself to only eat chicken, turkey, and seafood. This has continued unabated beyond a handful of exceptions and confusions during my travels. I’ve been pleased with this development and found the process of restricting my diet far easier than expected, barring a few areas where red meats reign supreme and finding alternatives can be tricky.

GOING FORWARD

I’ve been happy with how this year has turned out and hope to continue on a similar vein in the year to come. While my plans are quite fluid as I like to be open to new opportunities, continuing to travel and grow is my top priority. I hope to return to Europe for a substantial amount of time as well as explore new places, and in the process I’d like to become conversationally fluent in German (returning to Germany should do this!).

Professionally, I’m hoping to continue iterating on Zydeco and attempt to receive additional funding. I also want to continue exploring and pursuing projects in the area of language learning, as this is a great intersection of personal and professional interests.

Beyond the software development, a big goal is to start writing more. I’m planning to start blogging on topics of interest and as a means to refine my interests organically as well as expand my knowledge.

Overall, the year has been great and I’m supremely grateful for the family and friends that experienced it with me and also helped me through the rough times. I’m excited to see how the future develops through the uncertain times ahead.