2014 in Review

2013 in Review

PERSONAL

This past year was an incredible year with the dominant experience being my nomadic lifestyle. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied new experiences and friendships that pushed me to grow a lot and provided a wealth of great memories.

Travel

In the last decade I had often dreamed of a lifestyle that enabled me to travel extensively and this year well surpassed what I had dared to hope for. I lived for almost three months in Berlin and Croatia, as well as traveled to various other countries in Europe. I also managed to dodge the polar vortex that hit most of the United States this winter by enjoying myself in New Orleans and San Francisco while staying with friends.

While living abroad I was able to become friends with many locals and get a sense of their culture and way of approaching life. After having spent several months in two foreign cities that I knew no one upon arrival (nor the language to any solid degree), I feel much more confident about my ability to move to new places and integrate with the lifestyle there. However, I desire to see how the experience changes as I live in new cities, particularly when I am outside of Europe.

I was able to experience watching Germany win the World Cup while in Berlin and also participated in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While these were fantastic to be part of, I equally enjoyed the occasions to experience another lifestyle in a personal manner, such as spending a weekend with my friend’s family in Slavonski Brod and having them show me their hometown.

Language

My interest in languages and the act of language learning has continued to grow through my travels. I routinely talk with people I meet about the difficulties they face learning languages and how they approach the task, as well as compare strategies with language instructors. Additionally, I keep exploring the academic literature on the subject and the less formal tips that polyglots give for learning, trying out these various methods in my own language learning. I detailed my experiences with various methods in my post on learning German and continue to evolve my strategies as I learn new languages.

Through spending more time in Berlin this summer and speaking it regularly, my German is at a highly conversant level that I am quite satisfied with. I reached my goal with German, which was to be able to talk with someone I just met across a variety of conversation topics with only minor difficulties. Currently I am seeking to maintain and slowly improve my proficiency with the language while I am away from Germany, exploring various tactics in this regard.

During my stay in Croatia I made a point to spend the initial month intensely learning the language to see what strategies worked best for a fresh language. This was a frustrating experience to be starting from scratch in a language that is substantially different from anything I had learned before. The initial frustration paid off, as by the end of the month I was able hold basic conversations on a range of common topics that people discussed, as well as understand the general highlights of a conversation, though I was not properly conversant. Unfortunately since people had such a high proficiency in English it further disincentivized learning Croatia, but my knowledge enabled me to have a more enjoyable trip and helped out greatly in navigating daily life with ease.

In the recent months I have been refreshing and furthering my Spanish knowledge in preparation for an upcoming trip to Spain. I have been able to make terrific progress by listening to podcasts and other online materials, having lessons with online tutors, and attending local meetups where Spanish speakers gather in a cafe, all without being in a Spanish speaking country or taking any formal course.

Health and Habits

My personal systems and daily habits are an area that I continue to experiment with regularly. Throughout the year I have iterated on some existing habits, such as having nearly continuous daily journaling and also implementing a system of tracking how I spend my days using a physical calendar.

Health and fitness are an important part of my life and this year was a struggle to ensure I maintained positive habits while traveling. While some exceptions were made to my diet (particularly in the meat-heavy culture of Croatia), I overall was able to adjust to a healthy diet wherever I went and keep exercising regularly. Walking continues to be an important part of my life as both a stress reliever and a way to experience a city. This year I expanded how much I walked while abroad, averaging between 5 and 8 miles a day depending on where I lived.

It has also been a pleasure to continue having time to read for personal growth and enjoyment. This year I averaged over a book a week on a plethora of subjects, as well as follow a few podcasts on my walks. After spending most of my PhD years with little free time to read for pleasure, this continues to be a tremendous joy that I can experience wherever I am living.

PROFESSIONAL

While living and exploring different places around the world, I continued working as a researcher for the University of Michigan on the Zydeco project. This past year my work involved furthering the design and development of Zydeco, helping educators use the publicly available app, and applying for additional grant funding, while also exploring new directions and side projects.

Zydeco

While we did not receive the follow-up Zydeco grant we submitted in 2013, the reviewers provided helpful feedback and we revised and expanded our plans before submitting a new grant in October. Steven McGee is the primary investigator through The Learning Partnership and we expanded to work with three museums (the Field Museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum in Chicago, and the Michigan State Planetarium) and will be working with Chris Quintana at the University of Michigan and myself through Elastic Focus.

With the future research directions for Zydeco in mind, we redesigned Zydeco and also reimplemented most of the underlying code base to remove a lot of technical debt. The app should be ready for a re-release in early 2015, leaving us well positioned if we are able to receive additional funding. While we have been redesigning the software, we continue to have new teachers and researchers begin using the existing version of Zydeco in their own classes and projects. It is great to see people continuing to use the software that we all spent so much effort on and I hope we are able to make the project live on after the grant ends.

This past year we presented a demo of Zydeco at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference working along with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest that Michelle Lui designed. Michelle Lui presented a paper regarding a study we collaborated on that combined both of the systems. This was an interesting experience as we had to deal with the logistics of setting up the physical installation on site as well as attend it for most of the conference at certain intervals, akin to manning a conference booth. The presentations seemed to be well received and provided us with further helpful feedback to advance the research.

Side Ventures

I continued exploring several side projects and learning opportunities this year. Most notably was the release of Colibri, an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary in German that I developed with Peter Lewis. Due to some legal holdups, we have not begun marketing the app and it remains relatively unnoticed in the App Store at this time. However, I was able to use the app myself during my stay in Berlin this summer and learned over a thousand new words with the app – a very satisfying feeling to get such great use out of my something I built.

During my travels I was also able to participate in the second LinguaCamp BarCamp for language learners in Hannover, Germany and the WebCamp conference in Zagreb, Croatia. At WebCamp I led a sold out workshop on an Introduction to Usability Testing that was well received. Leading this workshop and also giving a talk on Introduction to Visualization with D3.js has revived my interest to start teaching again and I will be seeking out further opportunities to do so in the future.

During my stay in Croatia I became friends with a senior supervisor at Toptal and was considering working for them as a lead technical editor to develop a whole range of technical resources for software developers. This was a bit of a lateral move that I had never considered before and while applying for the job I wrote an iOS Hiring Guide for Toptal, though in the process of doing so I decided the job was not a good fit for my interests at the time.

GOING FORWARD

I am looking forward to continue being a nomad and traveling further this next year. My immediate goal is to become conversant in Spanish while living in Spain, as well as finish implementing the Zydeco redesign and make that update available on the App Store.

Additionally, I want to try and write more in this coming year. I had hoped to get more blog posts finished this year, but due to various distractions many of my posts in progress became sidelined.

I am also excited to do some exploratory research with the remaining time on the current Zydeco grant. Though my path is not clear after my position ends this summer, I am looking forward to the various possibilities that the future holds.

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.