I have memories from early childhood of hanging out with my grandfather, drawing pictures on his home computer. I’d spend hours creating pictures in his old version of paint, and then we’d print them out – in black and white – on dot matrix printer paper. My grandfather, an engineer, provided my first introduction to technology.
When I was in elementary and middle school I had a VTech PreComputer 1000. Using this simple device I taught myself BASIC coding – I’d spend hours coding games that would disappear as soon as I turned off the device because of the lack of internal memory. This was my first introduction to programming and I loved it. I liked that there was always a way to do something – you just had to figure out what it was. I liked logical structures, which made sense to me. I enjoyed the creativity with constraints. Unfortunately, neither of my parents have much of a tech background, and my grandfather passed away when I was 15, so I lost his influence and perspective. I somehow never realized that programming was something I could do for a career; I never knew about robotics or engineering. I think that exposure to these kinds of opportunities has improved a lot since the early 2000s, but I still wonder if students know about all the options that are available to them.
In college I never took a formal computer science or programming class, but I taught myself bits and pieces for my physics classes and research. Every time I had the chance to program I took it – and I loved it. I just somehow missed out on a formal education in it. As a result, I program like a physicist – enthusiastically but without much understanding of efficiency or proper form. In graduate school, after a brief foray into Physics Education Research, I turned to computational space physics. I had finally figured out that I could do the thing I enjoyed in the context of the discipline I loved. But my lack of formal education in programming made it difficult for me to feel confident in my research, and I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout graduate school.
Now, as a faculty member at Oglethorpe, I have created the Computational Physics track so that our students have a formal and structured path to combine programming and physics. I’m so excited that this program has attracted several students over the past couple of years – both those who love physics and want to study it using computational methods and students who love computational methods and programming and are content to learn those skills in the context of physics.