Summer Learning

Last day of sophomore classes already, and suddenly I am back in the first grade. It is that week when the weather is much nicer than usual, when homework has softened into keepsake projects (if coding is anything like arts and crafts), and everyone is starting to get a bit emotional. Back then, we spent the week running around, sharpie in hand, getting friends to sign our yearbooks. We saved the extra pages in the back for our closest friends, so they could fill an entire page in tiny handwriting complete with pictures and loop-de-loops of memories from the year and well wishes for the summer. We always teared up a little, I guess because the thought of missing your friends for a whole summer was too much to bear. Then, there were the times when a friend was placed with a different teacher in the next grade, or had to transfer to another school; we teared up a lot then.

Even cooler than getting your friends to sign your yearbooks, though, were your teachers. We ran up to them boldly at recess, hoping to be one of those few students that received an extra-long, heartfelt message about what a great student you had been, or even better, how proud they were to be your teacher. Those were the best! Getting one of those notes put you on a higher plane: not only did you have great friends, but you had the respect of that higher power, who had spent 9 months opening your eyes to the wonders of the universe and somehow saw deep into your fascination of it all.

As a kid, I loved learning more than anything. A nice book on volcanoes or outer space was far superior to any fiction, and for a while, the Magic School Bus CD’s were the best video games around. School was all about the classes, and every day was a new opportunity to learn something fantastic. Thus in the last week of each grade, there was a feeling that always trumped the excitement of the summer warm weather, playdates, trips to the beach and all-night N64 sessions: it was an itch. What am I going to learn this summer? Who was going to teach me about the world? After I begged my parents to upgrade our cable channels, getting to plop in front of the Science Channel all day certainly helped… but something was still missing. Or someone. (The SoCal inland summer weather is hell, actually, but that’s another story.) In hindsight, I know that my curiosity was not complete without someone to share it with: I needed someone whom I could bother with all of my intriguing questions or exciting facts I learned on my own. That was a teacher to me.

As I moved on through high school, my teachers became my own age as well. I met friends who were just as curious about the world, and together we spent our time exploring it. We could always lend a hand with homework, and I was determined to find the best way to explain difficult concepts. We were excited to learn, and I realized that one of the things I enjoyed the most was getting others excited about life, the universe and all its mysteries. I kept at it, with unparalleled optimism. In a sense, it was my way of giving back to my instructors, by passing on their dedication towards others and the pursuit of knowledge they fostered in us all.

Every time I consider it, it still sounds a bit funny that anyone could be so inspiring by teaching Computer Science, where the topics can often range from the syntax of Java to becoming a human cache/environment diagram simulator. Yet here at Berkeley, the teaching staffs of lower-div CS courses are filled with undergrads who enjoyed a course so much that they came back, hardly a year later, to get new students captivated with the power (and future!) of computing. And guess what, it works! I think what often gets students so excited about CS is the fact that the skills you learn can be applied so rapidly afterward: with an idea and some free time, anything is possible. In this culture of collaborative people who are excited to learn, I have never felt more at home.

This Wednesday my CS70 TA concluded his last discussion section before leaving Berkeley to pursue his PhD. He taught three sections this semester (an extraordinary number!) and put an unbelievable amount of work into every one, infecting students with his infatuation with teaching, encryption, graphs and other big topics in computer science. In his last remarks, he gave his students the famous words of advice:

“The best way to learn something is to teach it!”

I only learned those were his actual words when I re-watched the recording I made. At the time I was so lost in thought, the words only entered my head as “The best… is to teach…!” But it sounded fine to me.

This summer I will be a first-time TA for CS 61BL, Data Structures, and suddenly I’m back in the first grade. It is the first day of class, and I am itching to learn something fantastic. Let’s see what my students have in store.

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