New MOOC for a new year

This is it. This is, barring some disaster, the year I go to adult college. But of course one cannot just take the bus to State U and begin taking classes for credit; unemployed 21-year-olds with high ACT scores* and a smattering of online credit from San Jose State University have to navigate the bureaucracy of admission like everyone else. On top of that, the Pell Grant structure dictates that I start in the fall rather than the summer. It’s not like I plan to spend eight months sitting on my hands, however. That would not be The Way of The Student. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

The free college courses that have been popping up across the internet like wildflowers may not be the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original options available, but they are the cheapest, and they have changed my life. In the past year, they taught me that my childhood obsession with biology and my adolescent obsession with chemistry were not outbursts of silliness to be left behind, and that I am not, as previously believed, bad at math. They taught me how to study long and hard for tests, and to see how that studying is worth it. Because of MOOCs I no longer hang my head and mumble about trade or culinary school when my elders interrogate me about my future. “I want to be a scientist,” I say, “I am thinking of chemistry or genetics. It’s hard work, and not everyone can be Linus Pauling, but I’m willing to bore through dozens of barriers to be part of something amazing.”

Modern science wouldn’t be modern science without computers, so my first MOOC of the new year is Introduction to Computer Science, offered by Harvard University via edX. I’ve tried to take these coding classes before, and I’ve found that they tend to move too quickly for someone unaccustomed to the key concepts of computation and programming languages. This is where CS50x has already proved helpful in its first two batches of lectures and assignments – the charismatic professor starts his students off in Scratch, a playful pseudolanguage that introduces the ideas of strings, variables, functions, and loops using colorful puzzle pieces. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced computer-savvy people saying, “It’s okay, n00b, come into our world of mystery and power.” My hope is to be proficient in, or at least familiar with, the C language by the time I complete this friendly course. These peculiar, literal, half-mathematical languages with which we speak to our machines are major assets to a student of the sciences, whether or not he or she ever plans to work as a programmer.

I retook the test in October to make sure State U would understand that I, a mysterious self-educated gypsy-person, can read and stuff. Walking into a medium-security testing center with a bunch of teenagers felt strange; I couldn’t believe I’d ever been such a poor awkward creature, and had allowed myself to be intimidated by other such poor awkward creatures. Anyway, composite 32, math 28, English 36, science 27, reading 35.