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Today we introduced some future Indian teachers to tools many US teachers don't even know about.  Logo, Scratch, and Alice are pedagogical programming languages - they're designed to teach kids how to program, and introduce them to computer science. These new tools are easy to use, and we're hoping they can use them here.  We presented them to Panchsil College of Education, in our hometown of Visnagar, Gujarat.

Logo is the age-old classic that draws geometric figures based on simple commands.  By putting the pen up and down, changing its color, and changing the direction, you can make Spirograph-style designs and drawings.  If you can trace (x,y) coordinates on graph paper, you can program Logo.  Michael taught the students a simple program of how to draw a simple square box. Then he rotated it 15 degrees, randomized the pen color, and did multiple iterations to make a pretty sunburst design.

He then moved on to Scratch. Scratch lets kids make 2-D graphical games and stories.  In Scratch, kids don't type code; they drag-and-drop colorful building blocks to create little scripts.  The basic unit is a "sprite" - an animated character that responds when you click on it or it bumps into something.  Michael built a Pong-style game right in front of them in five minutes.  He also showed them a little maze game he'd written, where a little cartoon mouse "accidentally" morphs into a flying hippo. That was a hit.  We found out later that Scratch has also been translated into Gujarati, so they can even use it in their native language.

Michael then blew their minds with Alice.  Alice is designed for 12-year-old girls to write their own 3-D videos and games. It's very fashionable right now in computer science education.  Alice was Randy Pautsch's project (the late Carnegie Mellon professor of "Last Lecture" fame). The popular computer game, "The Sims" even has plug-ins for Alice. 

Michael demonstrated the capabilities of Alice, together building a little farm scene with a field, barn, mooing cow, and flying bird. The students objected slightly to it being an "American"-style cartoon cow; he challenged them to make one with an Indian cow.  He then showed them one of the demos, a flight simulator program, to give them a taste of how powerful Alice can be.

They let me speak too.  I kept it short, five minutes.  I mainly reinforced Michael's points, that programming is an important life skill for kids, and starting early led to my current career in software. The podium was next to a big poster that said "Preparing Teachers for the I.T. Age."  I pointed to the poster and emphasized how these teachers really are creating the future of India. I also mentioned how my software company has several Indians who were lucky and learned how to program early, and now these future teachers can share those skills with their students.

After the workshop, we toured their beautiful campus.  Panchsil College of Education is a well-designed college.  It has lovely landscaping and the campus is immaculate--no trash or pollution.  It's also very new, only about six years old.  We also met a few of the faculty and talked with them briefly.  They were pretty shy, but nice.

The people were also incredibly friendly and welcoming.  For instance, our first sight was a beautiful welcome design on the floor, crafted of flower petals.  They welcomed us ritually and marked our foreheads with red coucomb (sp?) and draped us with heavy, fragrant garlands of sacred marigolds. They tied little red strings and folded papers to our wrists, as some kind of protection against evil spirits.  Then Dr. Neelu Ghosh gave the most wonderful, warm, welcoming introduction that Michael has received in India or the US.  We found out what the prayer is, that's at all these ceremonies. It's to the Hindu goddess Saraswati. goddess of education, music, knowledge and the arts.  At the end of the day, they presented us with a lovely souvenir of Saraswati, with the Teacher's College's name.  We're still deciding whether we'll end up displaying it in our house, or put it in Michael's office.

We hope we helped make programming more accessible to these students. Michael and I are excited about this college. If these teachers actually implement some of these tools, it could make a huge difference in preparing their students. Not to mention, it enables them to build their own educational computer programs.  Michael plans to collaborate with Dr. Ghosh on future pedagogical research. We'll both keep in touch with her and her family as friends, too.

A small side effect, I think I got hooked on Scratch.  It's so easy it's addictive. The sprites are reminiscent of my very first programming back in the old TI-99 days.  It really does encourage object-oriented thinking and event-driven programming. I went a little crazy and spent the rest of Saturday afternoon making an Indian version of a Frogger game.  The frog has to dodge the cows, not just cars, to cross the road.  If I can figure out a way to post it online I will.
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There are three big uncertainties in the US, that are very dependable in India: weather, women, and work. One of Michael's Indian colleagues pointed this out, and it's worth writing about.

Weather. The weather doesn't change much from day to day here; it mainly depends on the season.  It rained in Visnagar last night, the first time in over a month. Last night's rain was unusual enough for our driver's family to call him and tell him about it.  Most of the time, the days are always sunny and hot (90s to 100s Fahrenheit). I've stopped my US habit of carrying an umbrella in my purse, since I haven't needed it.

Women. When an Indian man needs a wife, his relatives arrange the marriage. The relatives investigate prospective families, their wealth, land holdings, family background, and education.  Most families handle all the details and background checks, then have their children meet each other well in advance of the wedding. There's often an extended one to two year engagement period, where the couple gets to know each other through telephone calls, movies, etc. in nonthreatening settings. Engagements can be broken without much social stigma. School crushes still happen, but most do not turn into marriage. If two friends want to marry, they will ask their families to arrange the marriage, and generally abide by their parents wishes if the families think it's unsuitable.

Indians view arranged marriages as good ways to promote stability and happiness; they pity Americans with our high divorce rate. There are hundreds of people involved in arranging a single Indian marriage.  In the US, we're entirely do-it-yourself, with elaborate dating rituals and the full spectrum of relationship ups and downs. We often wait to introduce our significant others to our parents until we're getting serious about our intentions. It's still fairly common in the southern US for a man to formally ask a father for his daughter's hand in marriage, but he doesn't need to have met the family beforehand. 

Work. In India, people don't change careers the way we do in the US. You do the same type of work for most of your life and then you retire.  It's not just caste. Most jobs have minimum education qualifications and if you don't meet them, you can't work there.  College admissions are competitive, with room for less than ten percent of all Indian high-school graduates. For college-educated people, their degrees often determine their work for the rest of their lives.  People can still branch out and start their own businesses, but it's not as common. Esteemed job holders like lecturers/professors and software engineers earn bragging rights in the Times of India matrimonials section, right next to the MBAs and medical doctors. 

The major exception to education? Housewives. All the engineering faculty we've met have wives who also have engineering degrees. In Visnagar, one (male) professor estimated that about 70 percent of the wives stay home instead of working.  I gather that for housewives, their status is based largely on their husband's job. That's why I've been the guest of honor at several functions along with Michael. There are a handful of female faculty too, but neither Michael nor I have had a chance to talk with them yet (we've both asked to, repeatedly). Kind of a double standard.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Forget the pied piper of Hamelin.  Nothing lures a crowd of homeless children faster than an American with an iPhone.

Whenever we walk into town, we pass through a neighborhood of several blocks of improvised dwellings. This is where the poorer people of Visnagar live; the not-quite-homeless. The structures are not really houses, either, just lattices of wooden sticks, with tarps or blankets stretched over them to provide some shade against the sun.  They're at least semi-permanent structures, and families live there year-round.  We see women doing laundry in basins in their yards behind the lashed-stick fences. Despite the poverty, they're all genuinely friendly. The adults smile and wave at us; the kids stare and smile and follow us like puppies. These aren't beggar children living off tourists and wanting Western money. They're just normal kids wanting attention from the only non-Indians they've ever seen; they look at us like movie stars.

Michael takes his iPhone with him, snapping photos of everything and everyone. The kids (and adults) see, and want their pictures taken too.  All the people are delighted to see their picture on an iPhone. The kids run up to us, wanting us to take their picture with them and show it on the digital screen. They're aware the technology exists (cell phones are plentiful), but it's a novelty to pose with a westerner. Apple iPhones are in kind of a gray-market status in this country. Jailbroken phones work for voice (albeit unsupported) with a local Vodafone SIM card, though not the data connection.
Michael with the kids.
The attention is fine, even cute, for the first couple kids. But once the crowd gets to be over a dozen it's unmanageable. The children all followed us as we continued walking through their neighborhood. Even the kids we had photographed didn't stop, they just kept following, and called to their friends to come running out to join them. There must have been fifty or sixty kids, or maybe more. We ended up running out of the block and into town. They didn't follow us across the busy road into Visnagar proper.
Indian mother holding her child
We probably can't post many more of the pictures, since so many people are missing clothing. It's not just the kids. One woman insisted we take her family's picture, and only afterward remembered to pull up her choli. More problematic are the children who run around bottomless or completely without clothes.  And there are lots of those kids.  The ones who do wear clothes might never have seen Americans, or even met anyone who traveled there, but many wear American castoffs from  "Boys and Girls Club of the Monroe Area" or similar giveaway items. It could indicate real abject poverty, since textiles are so inexpensive in India. But it's also possible the kids enjoy wearing shirts with English words on them; certainly most of the college students do. It's probably some of both.  But these kids aren't beggars like Slumdog Millionaire; they're living with their families. They didn't look malnutritioned. And none of these children asked us for money. One kid even bicycled up to us and wanted to give us a rupee coin (we refused). What a change from Delhi!

I don't know how many of these kids are in school.  Friday was a national holiday (Gandhi's birthday), and the schools were closed. India reportedly offers free primary-school education through age 14, though I don't know how widely it's enforced or effective; it is a developing country.  Most of the college's faculty send their upper-middle-class kids to "English medium" private schools.  Whenever we ask the ages of the professors' kids, the answer is always given in their "standard" (grade level), not their age in years. That may also reflect the academics' bias toward schooling.

We didn't know it, but our driver's rental-car business is right downtown. So we ran right by the little shop where our driver, Alkesh, does business. His father was minding the desk, and he sent Alkesh after us. They invited us in and treated us to some cold Thums-Up [sic], a popular cola here.  Alkesh has a little house that belonged to his grandfather. The front room has his black-and-white photo in his policeman's uniform, next to a half-dozen large, elaborate portraits of the goddess Lakshmi. The whole house sits behind a little front office with a rope bed/bench and a desk with a Gujarat map and mileage chart. His whole business office is about half the size of my cubicle at work. 

In addition to Alkesh's father, we met his wife and their children, two seven-year-old twins (a son and daughter).  Alkesh's kids are learning English at school, and they said hello to us. Mostly they were shy and hid behind their mother.
Alkesh's wife, Abiditi, and her children Rasviti and Rasvitya
Alkesh's wife is a mechanical engineer by training and housewife by choice. These days her mechanical devices are limited to her treadle-powered sewing machine (for private use, not like the many men in the tailor shops).  She invited me to try it; they were surprised that I knew how to operate it.  She doesn't know English. She learned ME in the Gujarati language. She chose to stay home and raise the kids and teach them good values. Visnagar is a small town with a very low cost of living, even by Indian standards, and single-income households are the norm here.  I get the impression that dual-income couples are considered one of those things that city people have to do to afford living, but it's strongly preferred to have the wife stay home and raise the kids properly. And here, running a household is a lot like running a full-time business. The wives manage the servants, and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning for their households, which often are large families spanning multiple generations.

Housing is not very expensive, but that doesn't mean everyone has a proper house.  Some of the college students choose to pay $20 per month and rent a whole house, instead of staying in the college hostels (dormitories). One of the professors, driving us around in our first week, pointed out what he called the slum areas.  Those have enormous trash heaps and big stinky cesspools next to shacks constructed of whatever was handy at the time. It's common there to build a temple in front of the illegal houses that don't meet building codes. The temple blocks people from trying to tear down the building. Apparently there are between ten and twelve thousand homeless people in Visnagar, and hundreds of temples. The town's total population is about 50 or 60 thousand, a small town by Indian standards. That professor is of the opinion that people who want work can find it, and people who are homeless are probably that way by choice. I don't know if our stick-house neighbors are included in the "homeless" figure, but I would expect so. They probably don't consider themselves homeless; they're with their families.

We have seen the truly homeless. There's a family of at least three adults and several kids, who all sleep on the sidewalk right outside the gate to the college. We've stepped over them several times or walked around them when we go walking at nights.  Click to read the rest of this entry; it's disgusting. )
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My husband is a guru. Or is it a god?

Michael had a faculty member visit this evening.  As a Fulbright lecturer, Michael is not just here to teach undergraduates, but also to mentor faculty.  One of the Indian lecturers here had just applied and been accepted to a US graduate school for a master's degree. The professor came over to our apartment for the evening, and he and Michael talked for a couple hours.

In the US, we joke about the slavery of underpaid graduate students. Here, it's actually true. In India, if you want a PhD, you find somebody who already has one and you become your advisor's peon. This includes doing laundry and errands and washing dishes and other menial tasks that have nothing to do with the field of study. If you're lucky, the advisor might choose to advise you too. Doctorates are heavily dependent on a PhD student's relationship with the advisor, unlike in the US where doctorates are University-centric and students might change advisors a couple different times. Very different. It helps explains the frequent spam from hapless Indian students who send unsolicited CVs to American professors, begging for their support.

Michael explained the American graduate-school systems as he understood them.  Most foreign students to focus exclusively on rankings, and US students (and employers) are only somewhat aware of them. Realistically, it's much better to balance the rankings against the possible funding available and the chances of getting in. Multiple applications are good-- you apply to a top school you would love but don't expect to get in, a lower-tier school where you're pretty sure you'll get in, and one or more middle schools where you feel you have a good chance. A program ranked #17 is not appreciably different from a program ranked #5. And funding is critical; if a university is a regional state school it can still have plenty of research dollars, even for master's students, despite that university being ranked 70th or 80th in the country. It still provides a very valuable US degree and often leads to success (with an American job and visa to follow).

In India, there are hordes of agents who students can enlist to take care of applying to American schools and coordinating all the paperwork. Our Desi friends in the US, who succeeded, generally said those agents are worthless. (Though granted, our NRI friends are stunningly brilliant people and are completely fluent in English. It might be different for a person who less talented or less fluent.)  Michael also suggested the professor contact the Indian student associations at the schools where he was applying. They can tell what the climate and atmosphere are like for Indian students at that particular school, and they'll have the inside scoop on if a program suddenly cut its funding. For visas, the existing students also know what days and times the nicer visa officials are on duty, and can advise each other on when to go to get a visa.

After their talk, when the professor was leaving, he caught Michael off guard by bending down and called him guru.  He asked Michael for a blessing and wanted to Michael to run his hands over him, like a god! The request felt very strange. But that's the sort of esteem in which Doctors of Philosophy are held here. It certainly takes arcane knowledge and higher-than-average luck to get a PhD, but in the US it is nowhere near as prestigious as it is here. One more difference.
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We arrived back a little late for the Pharmacy College's fall welcome event/dance.  This was the same idea as the MBA school's event, welcoming alumni to mix with students and dance the gerba. They had a booming live band but, curiously, only a handful of people were dancing (though most were in gerba clothes). The food was much better. The pharmacy college's director/dean, Dr. J.K. Patel, welcomed us heartily.  He had shown Michael around his pharmacy the day before, including their greenhouse of plants used for drugs and drug research.

Michael joined in the gerba circle and danced for two rounds, arms waving, and surprising everyone including himself. As for me, I think I did a little better trying to dance this time, joining the line of women and mimicking their steps: turn clockwise and clap, turn counterclockwise and clap, then turn around and move forward and clap again. Maybe I'm learning this thing.

Pharmacy is a growing field in India; many drugs are manufactured here. Language note: in the US, a pharmacist is a highly trained dispenser of prescription drugs--those people are called "chemists" in India (and here, they normally don't ask for prescriptions).  In India, a Pharmacy degree prepares you for biochemistry and drug research.  They have several different concentrations at this pharmacy school, including animal research and ayurvedic (traditional plant-based medicine). It's not quite NIH, but they're doing real research here.
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In India, undergraduate Electrical Engineering is all about power. It's very different from the normal US EE curriculum.

Today Michael met the electrical engineering faculty and finished touring their laboratories.  The undergraduate electrical engineering curriculum is quite different from the US.  He knew that something was different at introductions when, of fourteen professors, ten said that they worked in power, three in machines, and one in controls.  It reminded him of the scene in the Blues Brothers when he asked if their curriculum covers all areas of electrical engineering and they replied, "Of course we do.  We teach both types of Electrical Engineering: Machines and Power."

The labs are different too.  In US EE labs, equipment is along the lines of breadboards, oscilloscopes, function generators, or logic analyzers. There's no need for them here; they apparently don't teach much analog electronics, electromagnetics, radio, communication, logic, or digital electronics at the undergraduate level.  However, there is a single course in digital signal processing and a single course in microcontrollers. 

Michael really enjoyed the lab equipment.  It's like props from the Frankenstein movies (or his office and our barn back home, for that matter), with Jacob's ladders and other electrical devices buzzing with activity. They also have giant tesla coils, mammoth AC motors, and labyrinthine networks of relays.  Most of the machines emit giant sparks.  The "low voltage" labs deal with 240 and 480 volts (household wall-outlet voltages in India). The other lab rooms are surrounded by thick Faraday cages.  Students don't do much design work, but instead operate preconstructed machine modules.

There are plenty of jobs for Power engineers in India, with its electrical grid still in the formative stage. So it makes sense to have that focus. Michael's doctorate is in Electrical Engineering, but that means something totally different here.  That's why he's teaching "Information Technology" (which is really computer engineering by a different name).
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The Indian collegiate system here is very different from the US. At American colleges and universities, usually a single professor writes the syllabus, projects, homework assignments, and exams for a course; and the same professor teaches the class. That professor chooses what topics to teach and adjusts as needed; there might be some key concepts the department wants, but the subject matter is really up to the instructor. That sort of academic flexibility is not common here in Indian engineering schools, except possibly at IIT.  I think that was the biggest surprise to Michael.

Grading at Sankalcand Patel College of Engineering depends heavily on standardized final exams for each subject, given at the end of each term. SPCE is part of a consortium of a half-dozen engineering colleges and universities.  Most of each student's course grade is determined by his/her performance on the final exam, and the exams are developed separately by an independent examination board. Consequently, the subjects really need to teach to the tests.  Faculty at SPCE typically team-teach, with two or more faculty teaching each course's  "theory" lectures, plus lab instructors.  All students in a given year and major take the same classes together.  In computer engineering here, there are about 120 students per class. The classes are divided into smaller sections or "batches" for the more practical lab sessions, about 30 or 40 students per batch.

Scheduling the teaching will be interesting.  As I mentioned in previous posts, their semesters don't line up with the traditional Fall/Spring semesters at US colleges.  It didn't help that Michael had to wait for 4 weeks after his visa was approved. Those dates were more convenient for us, but the main SPCE semester ends in mid-October. They are still working him into the schedule on a supplemental basis.  He is supplementing Artificial Intelligence, Operating Systems, and Parallel Processing. The current faculty will continue teaching their course material and will cover the standardized exam topics.  Michael will cover specific extra topics in each course, that he feels would be good additions to the existing material.

Michael will also likely give some workshops and seminars, especially starting late October. The college plans to invite faculty from other institutions, and possibly some students too. He and Hiren worked out a list of teaching and seminar topics on Friday and Saturday.

The work week here is six days, Monday through Saturday, and faculty teach a certain number of hours per week.  The engineering class times range from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a half-hour break for lunch.  A majority of the students stay in "hostels" (dormitories) on campus.  Some additional students stay off-campus, and commute from the surrounding areas.

The engineering college has fewer female students than male students; I think it's not as bad a ratio as it is in the US, but it's still about a two-to-one ratio. The girls sit separately, too; female students cluster together at the front of one half of the classroom, and male students on the other half and behind them.  They also have separate dormitories ("hostels") and eat at a separate dorm cafeteria ("mess").

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