A Somber Time in Thailand, but Teaching Goes On

It’s a major event when a King of 70 years passes away, particular one who was credited widely with holding a country together through numerous periods of significant turmoil. So when it was announced just mere moments after my arrival in Thailand that HRH Bhumibol Adulyadej had died, I wondered if my week of teaching would go on as planned. It did, and while most participants dressed in black & white (as did I), and there was much discussion of the beloved King and the future of Thailand, the participants were also attentive and engaged; they may even have appreciated the distraction.

With a full week there was time to do some of everything: A Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem Solving workshop, a substantial multi-day Big Data course, a research talk, and a women-in-technology roundtable. Everything went remarkably smoothly. Much of the credit goes to my highly organized but still pleasantly relaxed hosts: a Computer Engineering professor who’s been on the faculty at Kasetsart University more than 25 years, paired with a young Lecturer who clearly enjoyed organizing numerous meals and celebrations while also participating fully in the workshops and courses.

Putchong and Jitti were an ideal pair of hosts. Here they’re serving an elaborate lunch on my birthday.

While I may eventually tire of covering the same material over and over, I’m certainly not there yet. It was only the second time out for my modules on data analysis and machine learning using the Python language. In Bhutan I struggled with many technical obstacles; this time the internet was fast and the students were experienced programmers. We breezed through the material and I have no doubt many participants can immediately put what they learned into practice.

Big Data participants at the end of the introductory overview, ready to dive into details.

On the urging of a Thai Stanford student who was one of my best-ever teaching assistants, I traveled across Bangkok one afternoon to visit his alma mater: Mahidol Wittayanusorn School (MWIT). It’s one of the top math and science high schools in the country, providing free tuition and room & board for students who get in. My Big Data overview for final-year students was in a large, glittering auditorium with a formal stage — not very conducive to audience interaction, but I insisted on it anyway. While a few of the students dozed, most of them paid attention, and they set a speed record when I posed a problem requiring knowledge of combinatorics.

Venue for my talk at MWIT, one of Thailand’s top math & science high schools.

Each year a handful of MWIT graduates are awarded Thai government or royal scholarships and head off to universities across the globe. The rest of them, to nearly a one, stay in Thailand and study medicine. These high-performing students have their choice of career, and medical doctor is the most prestigious and highest paying profession in the country. I impressed upon them in no uncertain terms that if their goal is to have the greatest possible impact on human health then they should be studying computer science! But I’m not certain that is their goal. When I met with a group of successful women computer scientists and engineers a couple of days later, I learned that each one of them had, at some point, bucked family expectations that they would become a doctor.

Back on the home front, Stanford News put out a very nice article about my sabbatical: Stanford Professor embarks on an international teaching odyssey. So now my pet acronym — MOIC, for Massive Open In-Person (as opposed to Online) Course — has been publicized. I’m not holding my breath for it to catch on.

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