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My First Blog Post

The best way to predict the future… is to invent it

— Alan Kay.

So the thing about me that most people know is that I study mathematics and I happen to be rather good at it. What most people don’t know is that I want to do so much more! I’m so interested in technology and how it can and will change the world, my only problem is I’m a bit scared of technology. So I decided I’m going to get a blog started where I will try to figure out how to make technology more accessible to people like me who are a bit scared of it and also try to see what I can create.

If that interests you, stick around! Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

Vanessa tries to learn Python for the 6th time

(A guide to getting stuff done)

As the title suggests, I have been trying to learn Python for a while now. I have tried a number of different methods with varying levels of success but each time I have been left feeling as though I didn’t know much more than the last.

In my quest for knowledge in the realm of Computer Science, I have learned a few lessons and through the medium of example , I want to share them with you. These lessons are not only specific to learning a programming language but are fairly applicable to most things but I learnt them in this context so I’m going to roll with that.

If it just doesn’t work, try something else

There is a subtly to understand here. This isn’t an excuse to give up at the first hurdle you encounter but more a way to wisely think about how approach you problems.

So I’ve been made around 6 major attempts to learn Python in the last few years and 5 of them were using the same method.

Smart right?

Nope.

This method just did not work for me and this became clear around the third time I had tried it. No matter how hard I worked, I didn’t seem to get any better but this is when I decided I needed to stop this cycle of investing effort with little return. I recognised that this was not the method for me and while I could continue slogging away at this thing that is clearly not working, I could be more effective and be more strategic about how I choose to spend my time.

The biggest reason I didn’t change strategy after the second, third or even fourth time, was mostly because the angle I was approaching it from was a popular one. A method that seemed to work for everyone else so maybe if I did it one more time, I would have some kind of epiphany and everything would fall into place and I would become this programming wiz I strived to be? Once again…

Nope.

The first bit of advice I would give to getting things done is to recognise when a method isn’t working for you (and here’s the key thing) and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT

Work out why it isn’t working, if there is a new approach you can try or if you need to put it down for a couple of days and try again. But if a method is just not working for you, change it!

This doesn’t just go for trying to understand the ins and outs of Python, it goes for revision techniques, organisation, general productivity and most other things that you might need to get done. Just because something might be a popular way to do something, doesn’t mean its the right way for you to be doing it.

But the best way I’ve heard this said is ‘Work hard and smart’.

The awareness of an impending deadline may be your friend

Ah deadlines. The very word has probably struck fear into half of you that are reading this at the sudden reminder that you have something you need to get done and not so long left to do it.. You’re welcome.

But how would you feel if I told you that setting yourself deadlines and making them ‘real’, while this can induce stress, may also be a great friend? One of the biggest reasons I made huge progress in my quest to learning Python was because of deadlines. These first took the form of university coursework.. so actual deadlines, yes, but the point is they forced me to get stuff done. So I realised shortly after that if I start putting deadlines in place, I’ll get better at getting stuff done and yes that worked… until I missed one of these ‘deadlines’ and realised that there was no consequences.

And that’s at the point where most people stop. Life overwhelms you with actual deadlines that carry consequences heavier than the shame you might feel for not finishing the little thing you ‘would have liked to have done’. And this was where I got stuck for a long time until a few months ago. A friend of mine who was also struggling to ‘get stuff done’ suggested the idea of a ‘Working Out Lord Circle’ where a group of use got together and kept each other accountable for the things we said we could do.

And turns out the added social pressure that comes from wanting to avoid the embarrassment of not having done what you said is surprisingly effective and may or may not be the main driving force for me getting this blog post out as soon as I can despite having a million and one other things to do.

So everyone says their next AT MOST three goals for the next period of time that you set and it’s helped me.. A LOT. (At most is in capital letters for those of you who are like me and try to get everything done is a short period of time- seriously, no more than three).

Link things together (where possible)

I cannot overstate how important this was for me in a number of different areas of my life, but as I mentioned, I’m going to use my Python quest as an example.

Until my 6th attempt, I was largely learning skills in isolation. Different nifty things that I could make a computer do but the more of this I did, the more I realised that I had no idea how to put these concepts together and so in real life, my understanding of isolated concepts was not all that helpful. Then comes along university coursework in which I am set a ‘project’ that forced me to combine ideas and suddenly everything started to make more sense, it was more satisfying and most helpfully, everything became way easier to remember! It also meant in the long run, I had to commit fewer individual things to memory because in my brain, everything was linked so remembering one thing would remind me of another and so on. This is when I really started to feel like I was getting somewhere, like I was making progress and like I could actually code.

This was definitely not a method I use in only one place. As a mathematics student, I learned fairly recently how incredibly useful mind maps are because they link things together and mean I have to commit fewer things to memory. Also, the more you do this, the better some of your writing will become because you are used to linking concepts together in ways that make sense.

To wrapping this up, I wanted to share an interesting insight, I gathered from a fairly unexpected place. My sister said something quite interesting to me when I told her the title of the post, I said ‘Vanessa tries to learn Python for the 6th time’ and she ‘finishes my sentence’ by saying ‘and hopefully the last’ and that’s where I had a realisation. This a continuous process. The learning of a programming language or of anything for that matter is a continuous process, the world is constantly changing and we’ve got to adapt and change with it in every sense and that’s how we’ll all get better at getting things done.

Stay curious

-Vanessa

GHC19- A trip of firsts

“That will be me one day”

-Vanessa

Passport ✓ Comically large suitcase given the length of the trip ✓ Business attire ✓ Travel sized items ✓ Open mind ✓ Good to go!

The question that most of you probably now have is where did I go that required a 21kg suitcase for 5 days? Well, I had what can only be described as the privilege to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing held in Orlando, Florida! I spent some time thinking about how best to tell you about this trip since it was one of those truly incredible experiences that is difficult to actually explain using words . Then I remembered that I had a staggering number of ‘firsts’ happen very consistently over the course of the trip, so perhaps I’ll tell you that way.

First time to America

This seems a good place to start. As someone who has not done very much travelling, this was an overwhelmingly exciting moment, this combined with my first long haul flight made for a very interesting experience. I will admit to, however, spending a rather embarrassing amount of time getting excited in my head at the feat of engineering that I was sitting inside of… Planes are cool!

First time going to NASA

I mean what more needs to be said?! We went to NASA!! It was definitely one of the most inspiring and quietening moments I had been in in a while. Just to give you an idea as to the size of some of these rockets, here’s me standing underneath one

The Saturn V rocket

The size, complexity and incredible engineering, technology and mathematics that went behind this rocket had me speechless (and that is quite hard to do!) It was one of those times that all I could do was smile, I was so excited at this culmination of STEM that allowed people to go to space and couldn’t help but wonder what the future might hold and what I could do to contribute, invent or create. Maybe one day I might use the mathematics I learn to help build or create things even greater than this.

And can we please have a conversation about how cool these socks are!

First time attending the Grace Hopper Celebration

I had heard, year after year of people I knew from school or other STEMettes attending GHC and had heard them say how amazing of an experience it was but I didn’t expect it to be quite as amazing as it was. First of all, being in a room with more that 25,000 other women who love technology… how often does that happen?! We heard stories of amazing women who had beat the odds, who had innovated and women who had changed the world and with every passing second, every thought that said I couldn’t be influential in technology was dispelled. I met women who came from the most diverse of backgrounds and suddenly it didn’t feel as impossible to get into tech with my mathematics degree(in progress) as I first thought.

One of the most inspiring people that we heard speak was Abie Student of Vision Award Winner, Jhillika Kumar. She is the founder of Mentra, a platform aiming to create a neurodiverse workforce and the thing that struck me most about her was the fact that she was the same age as me. Which by extension made me realise that I’m not too young to make a difference or have a voice that is heard which inspired me to further pursue public speaking and work on my projects to make an impact. When she started speaking, totally involuntarily, I said, that’ll be me one day. This was the first time I felt like I could really have some kind of an influence.

As a part of the conference, we also attended sessions and my two favourite were both related to public speaking. The first was about finding your inner tech talk and gave us practical steps to finding your technical topic and how to put together a talk. As a result of this session, I did my first ever solo talk at the Imperial College London Mathematics Undergraduate Colloquium to around 40 people about the how Group Theory and the Hydrogen atom are related and despite it being difficult, it was such a valuable experience that I received very positive feedback on and I probably wouldn’t have even attempted should I have not attended that session.

The second session was about why students should do public speaking and more practical tips. This time the talk was more about general talks and the ideas that I learned, I then used on the evening of the day I did my first ever solo talk, doing my second, at the Women of the Future Reception at the Guildhall in front of around 200 people. And I had never received such positive feedback on any talk or panel I had ever done. My confidence shot through the roof.

So very soon after returning to the UK after the conference ended, it became very clear just how much I had learned at the conference and how much confidence I had gained.

First time picking up around 5kg of swag in 3 days

Yeah… That would be why I had such a large suitcase for such a short trip… I was told to anticipate a lot of swag but I did not expect nearly as much as there was. But if you think I picked up a lot, go ask Hadiyah how much she got! (Hint: It was a lot!)

First time being in a room with people who ‘look like me’

One thing about being a woman studying a STEM subject is there aren’t very many of us and there are significantly fewer black women. I am the only black woman in second year maths at Imperial and that gets very lonely. It also isn’t helped by the fact that there are very very few black women in senior roles in the department so I don’t have many people who ‘look like me’ to look up to. I mean you can’t be what you can’t see right? Well I attended the reception for black women in technical roles and it was so amazing and inspiring to be part of a community of so many awesome women who ‘looked like me’. I saw black women who had done amazing things in technology and it inspired me to think ‘maybe I can do that to’.

So what did I learn?

This trip was a truly life changing and I learned so much. I learned small things like how much I like beef jerky, how to use chopsticks (courtesy of Charlotte) and I learned that American portions is significantly larger than the British version of the same dish. But I learned some really big things too, I found out that I have been one of my biggest obstacles, I learned how to handle impostor syndrome as a friend and not a foe, I learned that ‘your network is your networth’ and that ‘opportunities compound’ and I learned how valuable having a community of women to support me is. And that is exactly what the STEMettes is to me, a network of amazing people who all love STEM and who inspire me everyday. Since getting back to the UK, I have been so much more confident, I have been able to ask questions in lectures and to speak up about what I believe, I’ve been able to call out sexism and geek out openly about things I find cool. I’ve been held accountable by the 5 amazing friends I went to GHC with and I’m so excited to see what comes next for me.

I wanted to thank Deustche Bank for sponsoring this trip and STEMettes for choosing me to come along to such an amazing opportunity. This conference changed me so much as a person and I would love to see more young women going next year.

-Vanessa

The Future of STEM is in our 4 year olds

So, those of you keeping up with my blog might know that I had the … pleasure of working in a primary school this summer. Due to the nature of my work, unless I decided to actively add a task to my job description, I would spend most of my time playing the ‘monster game’ with the Nursery children. This consisted of me chasing them, while running as slowly as possible until they realised there were more of them than me and then they would proceed to grab me by my wrists and put me in ‘jail’.

After being thrown into ‘jail’ by excitable four year olds more times than I could count, I decided to accept my fate and sit still for a while and have a think. Another colleague came over to me and we had a conversation which sparked the idea for a social experiment.

My experiment

“A doctor is like a nurse, but a man.”


Now, I know that after reading that, some of you are having a field-day. A woman can be a doctor too! But apparently the instinctive response of way too many young girls is that a Nurse is a Girl and a Doctor is a Boy. The position of higher responsibility goes to the man and the assisting position goes to the woman.*

After going around asking these questions, I decided, it might be a bit more informative to get the children to draw me some pictures and see what I got back, and maybe you’ll see something interesting here…

Age 11

Age 9

Age 8

Age 7

Age 6

Age 5

Age 4

A very striking pattern emerged here. Girls aged 8 – 10 saw men as the ones doing the very technical, STEM based roles as opposed to women. However, girls between 4 – 7 drew astronauts, mechanics and scientists as girls; when I asked them to imagine these different careers, they imagined themselves. Despite my samples size being very small, this experiment was very insightful, these young children haven’t received enough social stereotyping to count themselves out of careers like engineering or science yet and this is where some of our attention needs to be shifted.

Another interesting thing I noticed is to do with the number of astronauts I received. Almost every girl I asked to draw an engineer got visibly nervous, saying ‘miss, I don’t know what an engineer is/ looks like’. This was the same for people in technology and many other STEM roles, so another issue we have is exposure, these girls, including up to the age of 11, didn’t know what an engineer did but most of them could draw an astronaut so I ran with that.

This is where we need to be providing role models whether it by real people or in the form of cartoon characters. We need to not only tell these girls that they can STEM, we need to show them.

But there was one thing a 5 year old child said after I asked another child to draw a builder, that made me very curious.

“Oh I know builders, there are girl builders and there are boy builders.”

And after she had said this, I had a look at what she had drawn when I asked her to draw me an astronaut.

She drew two.

A girl and a boy.

This really got me wondering, what did her parents and/or teachers do that was so right? to have this child understand that these careers are for everyone, not just men and not just women because whatever it is, we need more of it.

-Vanessa

*This was the impression I received from the children, nurses are amazing and I have so much respect for what they do.

Everyone, guess what! The technophobe built a robot!

Yes, the rumours are true- I, Vanessa Madu, the girl who could flaunt her maths but was way too intimidated to do much more than type out her code has built a robot.

It was stressful at times. There were frustrations. And there were times where I just wanted to give up on it but I persevered, and here we are, I am now the proud owner of a Raspberry Pi powered robot!

‘But Vanessa, how did you manage this feat?’ I hear you ask, well it all started when I was trying to get an operating system onto my Pi (the thing that let’s the Raspberry Pi perform basic functions) and this turned out to be more problematic than anticipated.

For those of you who don’t know, in order to get an operating system onto a Pi, you need to download it onto an SD card and use an SD card reader to help your Pi read it. Now I was a bit lazy at first, so trying to avoid anything that required me to do anything I could mess up, I bought an SD card that had the operating system that I wanted preinstalled and an SD card reader. Without reading the instructions, I just popped it into my Pi and to my surprise it worked! …Well Kind of. The operating system downloaded and then when I went to reboot, I got this:

Oh no.

‘That’s sort of screen is not normally good’*, I thought to myself, slightly panicking. The screen then continued to an error page that despite, becoming very well acquainted with, I never managed to get a picture of, and it did this over, and over and over.

I was stuck like this for about 3 days, getting more and more frustrated until I read somewhere online that it could be the SD card reader and so I went out to buy a new one along with a new SD card, reinstalled the operating system and it worked! The system booted up and I felt so clever despite not actually having done very much.

I spent sometime thinking about what I should do next and decided I was going to build a robot. So I did a bit of research and ended up using the CamJam EduKit which I would totally recommend, if your’re just starting out. After some work, and careful handling of small wires, I ended up with this!

And now I have a robot, that can move; follow lines; avoid obstacles and for the purposes of entertaining children, spin around indefinitely. It was pretty satisfying and something I never thought I’d actually be able to do and it definitely wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

So if you’re on the fence about trying to do this sort of thing, do it! Once everything starts working, it’s super satisfying and really fun and a really good way to practice your code in a fun way. I had been coding with Python before this for some time and so far, this is my favourite use for it! But one thing I definitely recommend doing before anything else, is reading the instructions!

I’ve had some pretty cool ideas about what to do with it next and so now the work begins.

See you soon!

-Vanessa

*Note that this rainbow coloured screen is a normal part of the Raspberry Pi boot up process (It’s testing the GPU- the thing that is responsible for your graphics) but it shouldn’t freeze on the screen, if it does then you may have a slight problem but as you’ve seen, it’s fixable!

X-Ray Goggles- The first experience of many

So aside from being a mathematics student, I work at a primary school from time to time and as tiring as that is, I get a lot of really good and fun experiences out of it.

The primary school I am working at, at the moment runs a holiday club during the summer and after a series of events, I ended up as one of the members of staff for this summer. Now these children range in age from 4 to 11 and do many activities throughout the day and one of those include spending some time in the ICT suite.

In the knowledge of this, I decided to ask if I could hold an X-Ray Goggles session* with some of this children to give them an insight as to what website building is like. Of course I didn’t quite market it to the children in this way, since telling them I’m going to teach them to hack does evoke a slightly more enthusiastic response!

I had a few children doing the session but there was one girl in particular who really impressed and inspired me and reminded me why it is I decide to run or help with these sessions in the first place. She had gravitated towards an article on Climate Change and decided that instead of leaving the article as one that gave information about how much we have damaged the planet, she changed it to one that talks about what we can and should do and this is a valuable perspective that should be preserved.

But there was one thing that got me more than her remarkable resolve for saving the planet, picking up one piece of litter at a time. Usually when I do this sort of thing with children, the most complicated question I get is how to spell the longest, most obscure word they can think of but she asked me questions that were conceptually far deeper, especially by way of an 11 year old!

I was impressed and inspired by her enjoyment of what we were doing and so I started to ask her some questions and it came out that her father works with computers and so she had some exposure and this is the thing that I missed out on. Having very little exposure to computers until the age of 18, I would have not tackled such problems with that much fearlessness as she did at the age of 11. Perhaps there is something to learn here.

Exposure is so important, it increases confidence and widens thinking, both of which are important in helping more young women feel as though they can take up careers in technology and this is something that a lot of schools don’t do well or early enough. There are young girls who grow up thinking dealing with technology is a boy’s thing since they were never taught differently and it is those young girls who could have the potential to come up ideas that totally transform the way we do everything.

But one major thing I gained from the experience is that since these sessions were such a success, and I enjoyed them so much, perhaps, I’ll be running some more in the near future.

-Vanessa

*For those of you who don’t know what X-Ray Goggles is, it is an add-on to Firefox that allows the user to look into the code of a website and alter it temporarily. If you want to have a play, you can find it here, but will need a Firefox browser to use it.

My Adventures with my Raspberry Pi 3- What on Earth is this

I got given a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ for my birthday this year and I’m really excited to have a play with it.

At the moment, I’m pretty intimidated by the idea of getting involved in technology since it was always something my brother did because in my head it was too hard for me. He was always the one who was building computers and the one who came to my family’s rescue to reset the router when the WiFi wasn’t working and somewhere along the road, I sort of decided that it wasn’t for me because it was a ‘boy’s thing’. But I really do believe that technology is the solution to so many of the problems that we face as a society and so I want to first of all get to grips with this and see what I can build and second, find a way to make technology and its development more accessible to people who are interested like me but are a little intimidated. Then maybe, a whole bunch of people who could be incredible tech makers, who would have counted themselves out otherwise could be inspired.

So this is what we have to work with

And it was at this point where I got stuck, what’s in this box? what does it do? What’s the best way to not break it? So at this point I’m going to do a bit of research.

See you soon!

-Vanessa

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