On dream schools, and getting deferred

A couple days ago, I sat in the back of a mostly-empty Starbucks across the table from one of my best friends, anxiously counting down the seconds to 6:28 PM, Eastern. The newspaper-reading, latte-sipping crowd that chilly December afternoon sat unaware of this all-important countdown occurring just across the room. I contained the bubbling feelings I could only begin to describe as nervousness to a light, repeated tap of my right foot. The day, or perhaps the last three-and-a-half years, had only been building up to this moment.

I will pause the narrative here to be a little more transparent: this is me opening up my application decision from my dream school, and my dream school is MIT. I feel that I can say that now as brutally honest fact; I previously shielded this borderline-obsession I had from conversations beginning with the dreaded question, “so do you know where you want to go to school?” I didn’t want to seem like the overconfident dreamer I knew I was. I didn’t want to hear what people thought my chances were. All I knew is that I wanted to be at MIT.

The clock turned 3:28: it was Tau time in Massachusetts. There were two thoughts in my mind: I would either be rejoicing or dejected within the next few seconds of clicking that green button. Nothing prepared me for the confusing feelings that followed when I read out loud, “deferred,” with a short sigh.


The strict dichotomy of reactions I anticipated completely shattered. Was I supposed to be happy? Statistically, this was nothing short of a soft “no.” When I opened the MIT Decisions website that day, I had set myself up for failure in all scenarios but acceptance. Among borderline grades in difficult classes, with a packed schedule that week, this was my escape. I began to hope against hope that I would be freed that Thursday from worries about mid-year marks, final exams, college essays, and just about the million other things I was procrastinating on.

Reading this result frustrated me. I thought out of all schools that MIT would get me, understanding me as a maker and aspiring entrepreneur more than any other school. Unsure of how to react, I just kept refreshing the page and logging back in, just to see the same frustrating reality over and over. But the good people of MIT Admissions do understand this frustration as part of the process. They even posted this video for deferred applicants and held an open forum for us – with no lack of memes to boot. I remembered this post from an admissions officer on their blog:

“I read about your triumphs, I read about your dreams, I read about the tragedies that define you. I read about your passions, your inventions, your obsession with video games, dance, Mozart, Monet. I read about the person close to you who died. I read about your small towns, your big cities, the week you spent abroad that changed your life…”

Ben Jones, It’s More Than A Job”

I am thankful to have my story read in front of these thoughtful people (yes, admissions officers are people too!), and to be considered among the most talented students in the world.

So for everyone who deferred or rejected in this application cycle, perhaps by your own dream school like I was mine, I hope this gives some perspective. Many of the people that have poured out support for me in this time of mixed feelings have told me that everyone finds a school in the end, and your experience all depends on what you make of it.

I want to end with this quote that I learned this summer from a fellow Horizons instructor, and dear friend, Lane Rettig. It speaks to the importance of being a trailblazer – to find meaning and purpose in something that is self-fulfilling, and not just something that everyone else finds fulfilling. It goes like this:

“When everyone around you agrees on what success means, it is all too easy to join them. And if you allow others to define your goals for you, then there is a pretty good chance you will end up holding a prize you did not choose and you do not want.”

G. Richard Shell

While these decisions occupy most of our thoughts as first-semester seniors, let’s not get caught up in the madness and lose ourselves in the process – the application speaks as to who you are, and not the other way around.  And in a time of mixed feelings over these so-called dream schools, just remember the person you wrote about in that application. Because that person – that bright, multitalented, incredible person – is the most important part of this process.

Feature on SMCHS Eagle Eye

The amazing Ivanna Rea wrote up an article about me and what I do on our school’s blog/newspaper. Go give it a read and support the Eagle Eye!

Lessons learned from PIxEL, and how computer science education needs to change

This year I started a non-profit organization of after-school high school clubs called PIxEL (programmers + innovators * entrepreneurs + leaders) with the goal of engaging students in the disciplines of design, code, and business. What I also wanted to do was expose computer science to as many students as possible in a positive way. Of course, this is not an original idea. Even the President has acknowledged that the increasing demand for work in the computer science industry must be met with a movement to integrate that into primary education.

However, I don’t think we’re doing this correctly. I am currently taking an AP Computer Science course at my school, and the class size is less than half of any other elective. The introductory course, on the other hand, seems to be one of the most widely opted classes taken by freshmen. What is the reason for this disparity?

“…students need to see what they are doing to remain interested, especially from a technical standpoint…”

Firstly, I think courses like these focus too much on the principles of computer programming before the students even understand how this could ever be used. Side projects (“labs”) written by the College Board are insufficient; students need to see what they are doing to remain interested, especially from a technical standpoint. The choice of Java for this course is understandable; its syntax is relatively simple while exposing some of the key concepts of extensibility and polymorphism. But is it still relevant?

Many enterprise applications and Android native apps are written in Java, but we are quickly seeing Java being outmatched for simplicity and portability by other languages, namely its oft-mistaken-for web scripting language, JavaScript. Any curriculum based on Java is difficult to introduce graphical interfaces for, since frameworks like Swing are too extensive to teach within the AP subset. The more I think about this, though, the more absurd it seems – in the most prominent high school computer science course that exists, we ignore one of the most important pieces of the big picture in terms of applicability – the interface. Do we really expect students to be engrossed by Scanners, System.out.println()’s, and the plethora of command line classes they create? 

JavaScript, on the other hand, was made from the ground-up for the Internet. Its applications stretch from websites to server-side management, and it has been called the most important language to know. When you teach JavaScript, it is often considered a prerequisite to know HTML and CSS – languages that are display-first and show students exactly what they are doing and how they could use it. All of these web technologies enable students to experiment with it themselves. When teaching at PIxEL, it’s consistently inspiring to see students come up to me and show me what they’ve done with what they’ve learned – outside of the things we’ve made in the club. I think of it like this: I am not teaching tools or patterns or even algorithms for that matter. I am teaching skills and perspectives and applications – things that are exponentially more important for the long run.

“If that sounds too idealist to you, just remember how technology has always been built on idealism…”

This is not a plea for JavaScript or any language in particular to work its way into the syllabuses of computer science education. I am asking teachers and board members everywhere to ask ourselves: what are we really trying to accomplish? Of course, it could be that I have completely different goals than the College Board. I want to envision everyone at PIxEL as a critically-thinking and design-conscious engineer or entrepreneur. If that sounds too idealist to you, just remember how technology has always been built on idealism – from the printing press to the iPhone, the ingenuities and innovations that have touched all of our lives come from visionaries who see a future that could be better.

To this end, I believe that at this point in time there is a larger zeal for computer science education than has been at any other point in history. We need to make a positive impact on the students we teach this to. For that to happen, I think that a hands-on approach is the best way to accomplish this; no textbook or lecture can substitute for personal exploration and accomplishment. Remember the time when you first learned this beautiful thing we call programming – the sheer joy of making the computer do something. If we want to bring more people into the field like we advertise that we do, we have to pass this on in a way that shows people how programming inspires people to creation.

For the next generation, technology will be an integral part of most careers, and this demands skills that we must teach to today’s students.

That’s a pretty big responsibility. Let’s not screw it up.


For more information about PIxEL and what we do: email me – ethan at pixelclubs dot org.

Hello world!

I’m Ethan, but you probably already know that by now. My aspirations to write freely on a blog of my own have far outstretched my actual willingness to sit down and do so. So here I am, doing exactly that.

This blog actually stems from my many rants, whether on politics, technology, or ethics, which my family sees mainly as white noise around the house. I felt a need to release opinion through some medium, and thus I realized that blogging would be much more fulfilling and permanent than words falling on deaf ears, so to speak.

However, in a world bustling with opinions, my own is probably not that valuable at my age. I understand that, and yet, I write not because I expect readers. I write because I love to write (and I don’t pursue this love nearly as much as I should). If anyone is reading this, I appreciate your time and your eyes. This is just an experiment for me to restore a passion for writing that I’ve always had. So anticipate the incoherence that comes with my late-night writing and the irregular times between posts (I’m a busy student!). I hope one way or another, though, these posts help out somehow.