A Human-Centered Hairdressing Experience

I was in China this summer and went to a barber shop. I had always been to that particular barber shop so I didn’t expect anything special. At least not until I was covered like this —


As you can see, part of the cover was a transparent plastic film, which was designed at the exact position where the customer (in this case was me) would hold his/her phone. I literally screamed due to surprise at that moment and instantly asked my Mom to take this picture for me. It is amazing how technology has influenced every single piece of our lives. If it was not because of how much people use their phones these days, this barber shop would certainly not have such a cover. I asked the barber when they started to have a cover like this. He answered nonchalantly: “We’ve had it for quite a while.” Alright. I’m again behind the times.

First Time TA in GaTech

This past semester, my second semester in Georgia Tech as a PhD student, I TAed for CS4660 Educational Technology. This was not my first time of being a TA. When I was still a master student, I TAed twice for two graduate classes in my major. I took these classes before, so it was not too difficult for me to TA them. Plus I was not the only TA. This time, not only I was the single TA, but I didn’t take this class before. All the students would be undergrads, and I was no familiar with the undergrads in the US at all. Being a PhD student in School of Interactive Computing, I would say I knew a decent amount of knowledge of technology, but I was in no means an expert in education. How could I be a good TA with all the barriers above? I had to say TAing for this class definitely posited a challenge for myself.

I didn’t know a lot about pedagogy. Therefore, I didn’t perceive myself as a structural TA with many intellectual rationales behind. Nevertheless, from my previous experiences as a TA, I knew what would always work was to be kind, be responsible, and work hard. I cared about students in a sense that I would like them to learn well. Because most of my responsibility for TAing CS4660 was to grade students’ reading critiques, I wanted students to know that I cared about what I was doing through giving meaningful feedback.

What did I learn? The first thing that came to my mind was that being a TA carried a whole lot of responsibility. I knew some of the responsibilities before I started, but I learned other ones later. I expected students to care more about grades than to learn new knowledge (I used to be like this when I was an undergrad). Yes, there were students that were like this, but there were other students who were eager to learn. What could a TA help? To help create a more inviting learning environment and a more friendly learning experience – for each individual student. As a student myself at GaTech, I often felt the learning environment around me was more competitive than nurturing. Therefore, to encourage students to really learn instead of competing, I left notes where both insights shined and weaknesses shown in their critiques. I also thanked them for willing to share their own stories with me. My positive feedback strategy worked out when students told professor that they felt it was okay to really have opinions in this class, not the opinions that they “should” have, according to the textbook or the instructors.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know anything about a typical undergrad’s life or how he/she learned in class when I started. Because of this lack of understanding, I was afraid that I would not be able to be understanding. However, to my surprise, I soon (a week of into the semester) found out that these undergrads were in fact very similar to myself: they worried about their grades, they wanted to have fun outside of class but they didn’t really have much spare time, they worried about their job and they also worried about their future, etc. Initially, I though American undergrad culture would be very different from the one I experienced in China before. But according to what they wrote down in their critiques, no big difference really. Being able to identify these commonalities between myself and these students made me feel I could empathize them better.

Throughout this entire semester, I cared about the students and I graded each assignment cautiously. This was something that I would continue to do if I would be a TA in the future. What’s more, after 2 or 3 weeks, I could recognize each one of the students and their critiques. Since then, I started to give more individually-tailored feedback. This worked. I remembered giving this feedback last time and then saw this student worked on his/her assignment this time accordingly. I was happy about this and I was also proud of myself – for really worked hard on the class materials that I didn’t have previous exposure to. Another thing that I would love to keep doing was to keep promise. Never once did I handed back their assignments late.

In terms of improvements, there were a few things that I wanted to work on. I noticed students having problems inside and outside of class, but they didn’t come to my office hour for help. Did I reach out to them? No. Because I was not sure whether it was okay for me, as a TA, to email them and check in. I regretted for not acting earlier since one student came to meet towards the end of this semester and asking me questions about the requirement of the assignment. I wondered why this student did not come earlier, and maybe I should encourage students to come and ask any questions. In addition, my own student life became pretty stressful in March and April. At that time, I realized I wasn’t able to grade as carefully as I earlier did. I tried to change, but I failed. I guessed this was more a problem of myself other than the students, but still I hoped I can figure out some solutions to balance my workload.

Overall, I had a great experience of being a TA this semester. I felt lucky to be trusted by both the students and the instructor. Most likely I will continue to be a TA next semester. Hopefully I will have another great time with students again.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂