The Christmas Blizzard of 2009 at UMBC – A Pictorial

This weekend’s major snow event buried UMBC – but not so much as to keep campus from opening. Here are some images from this morning:

This is what I woke up to Sunday morning:

It’s Christmastime at UMBC! (A Pictorial Essay)

And you thought it was the Christmas season!

Outside of the Math Psychology Building

In the lobby of the RAC

At the Commons

Outside the University Center

Seen all over campus

The UMBC Bookstore:

The Yum Shoppe

The College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences - 1st Floor UC

Through the window of the ELC

A successful 2009 Maryland Charity Campaign

At the Skylight Lounge:

The OIT Help Desk Christmas Party:

Winter Commencement, Regalia and The Mad Scramble for Graduation Tickets

In less than two weeks, I will publicly receive my undergraduate degree in History from UMBC. I officially graduated in August, and my diploma came in the mail in October, so, yes, to some degree (no pun intended), this event will be anti-climactic.

Still, I figured, why pass up a chance to celebrate one last time? It’s also a celebration for my wife and children, who had to endure the not-so-slight inconvenience of Dad returning to college. After a day of teaching History at Cardinal Gibbons School, rather than return home, I would head to UMBC for class. For me, taking classes was, for the most part, a blast. I loved my History classes, enjoyed my other Humanities classes and tolerated well the other GFRs. For them, it was a family often short one person.

Because they shared in my burden, it’s important that my wife and three children also share in the public culmination of that achievement. I would’ve liked for my parents to have been there also, but my father died seven years ago, and my mother’s back won’t allow her to sit through the ceremony (we’ll pick her up afterwards for the big-deal restaurant lunch we have planned). My mother-in-law, who I am very close to, also wants to be there, and I’d like her to be there too. This, however, is a problem.

If your commencement from UMBC is this Spring, it will be held at the 1st Mariner Arena (capacity 13,500). If your commencement is in December, it will be held in the Retriever Activities Center (capacity 4,000). This disparity in available seating creates a scarcity in graduation tickets, with each graduate receiving four tickets only. If you were doing the math one paragraph above, you now know my dilemma. I need one more ticket. (The university offers overflow seating in Lecture Hall III, where those voted off the island will have to watch by closed-circuit broadcast, but this is hardly an acceptable option for just one family member.)

The four tickets I was issued

Obviously, I’m not the only person with this problem. Apparently there are so many graduates looking for tickets that the university has set up a bulletin board outside of the Bookstore. Here you can pin your desperate plea for extra tickets, in much the same way that prayers are inserted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Board of Faint Hopes

That's mine, right under the sign

(If anyone knows a December graduate with a ticket to spare looking to make an easy $20, please let me know.)

Also, I get a commencement pass of my own:



Another part of the commencement experience is the regalia. The regalia I’ve been given comes with a long black gown, a gold sash (signifying that I’m graduating with Honors), a tassel and a really strange cap. I’ve already tried on the cap at home, and there’s absolutely no way I can wear this cap without looking like a twit. I can’t figure out how the tassel is attached, or where it hangs.  As you can tell, I’ve never worn regalia.

My sixteen-year-old son Zachary is an excellent amateur photographer (he’s been published in multiple newspapers) and he’ll be bringing his good camera to the ceremony. I’ll also make my guests patiently wait so that I can have my picture taken with True Grit. (Again, how many times in my life will I get to do this?)

After that, we’ll head to my car (I’ll use student parking, since I have a student pass due to my Graduate Student status), pick up my mother and then it’s off to The Olive Grove in Linthicum, which has become the traditional celebratory restaurant for our family.

While we’re there, I’ll be preoccupied examining the digital photos on Zachary’s camera to see how idiotic I looked in that funky cap.

UMBC Slogan Contest Analysis

First a new mascot, now a new slogan!

The good folks at Project Black and Gold have selected eight candidates (out of 137 submissions) for us to vote on at MyUMBC. They are:

  • “Be Proud, Be Bold, Be Black and Gold”
  • “Black and Gold, Breaking the Mold”
  • “Great Dogs Aren’t Just Born, They’re Bred”
  • “In Dog Years, We’re almost 200!”
  • “Raise The Ruff!”
  • “Retrievers, Ruff and Ready!”
  • “UMBC: Where Every Dog Has Its Day”
  • “Woof!”

In examining this group, it seems as if there was a definite push amongst the judges to make the slogan somehow dog-centric – six of the eight possibilities make a canine reference. Let’s examine these first.

1. “Great Dogs Aren’t Just Born, They’re Bred” – This one sounds promising, except that I’m not exactly sure what it means. Isn’t breeding the process by which puppies are born? I guess the point here is that we (great dogs) are not the result of random dog fornication, but rather a carefully coordinated reproductive effort to produce a purebred offspring. I don’t know about you, but this slogan makes me feel uncomfortable in mixed company. Pass.

2. “In Dog Years, We’re almost 200!” – I’m confused. Isn’t UMBC over 40 years old? And aren’t dog years seven times human years? Doesn’t that make us about 300 in dog years? In any event, this attempt is cute, but certainly not slogan-worthy.

3. “Raise The Ruff!” – Another cutesy dog reference. This might be nice on a poster at a basketball game, but it’s  too lightweight to be the entire campus’ slogan. Also, it’s almost exclusively a sports slogan. Do we really want to “raise the ruff” in engineering?

4. “Retrievers, Ruff and Ready!” – Again with the “ruff” reference. I like the alliteration, but I can’t get by my childhood memories of “Ruff and Reddy,” a no-frills 1960s cartoon that, in reruns, was a staple of “Cartoon Carnival.” It was about a dog (Reddy) and a cat (Ruff) who had adventures together for a season or two. One thing I remember clearly about the show was that the dog was a moron, which taints my view of this slogan. The best part of “Ruff and Reddy” by far was the catchy theme song.

5. “UMBC: Where Every Dog Has Its Day” – In this slogan, it is insinuated that even hapless losers can succeed at UMBC. Pass.

6. “Woof!” – Really? That’s it? Our university is to be represented by an onomatopoeia -in this case, the sound a dog makes when it wants to go outside to urinate? Really? I think not.

Having worked our way through the six canine slogans, we are left with the two more generic slogans:

7. “Black and Gold, Breaking the Mold” – I like the rhyming, and I like the idea that UMBC is unique. I could live with this, I’m just not sure that it says enough.

8.  “Be Proud, Be Bold, Be Black and Gold” – Of all of the candidates, this is the one I like the most. It doesn’t just rhyme, it actually comes with its own rhythm. It also urges us to take positive action, and it identifies those actions as emblematic of the Black and Gold. It’s versatile enough to be applied to any university activity, but it could also work as a chant in the RAC on game day. I can even see variations on tee shirts and hoodies. “Proud. Bold. Black & Gold.” Nice.

Voting is on MyUMBC until December 18.

Proposed Math Requirement Should Be Reconsidered

In today’s Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a former math professor, says that he wants to see university-bound high school seniors forced to take challenging math courses. His object is to better prepare students for college and for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers. It is his hope that forcing students into math classes will produce more STEM majors at the university level.

If the object is to channel more students toward math and technology careers, then we should be spending more time identifying likely prospects far earlier in their lives, not using a “one-size fits all” approach after having ignored differences in aptitude for a child’s first three years of secondary school.  As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it is usually clear by a student’s sophomore year whether or not he or she will be a math scholar. The 300 lb. gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that many of our children are just not equipped for advanced math courses, and for them, surviving basic math classes is challenge enough. Compelling kids to take advanced math courses will not change this, and is patently unfair to a student who will derive no real benefit from it.

This brings me to a second ugly truth that mathematicians hate to admit: very few adults retain and use advanced math skills in their daily lives. In the Sun article, Skip Fennell, a professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in defending the proposed requirement, says as much. “If you don’t use it, you lose it…” Mr. Fennell, this applies to nearly everyone who isn’t in on a STEM career path. More to the point, many kids never had it to begin with, and won’t miss it as adults.

The narrow utility of advanced math skills sits in stark contrast to the broad and sweeping utility of English language skills. Whereas mastering calculus is of dubious value to the majority of graduates, being able to use language at a high level is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to do more with their lives than settle for low-paying, menial work. Additionally, I can personally attest to the weakness of our high school graduates in the areas of reading and composition, and these students (and their instructors who are forced to slog through their papers) suffer as a result. It may even be true that a STEM major at the university level will spend as much time crafting sentences as equations, and yet we hear nothing of increasing requirements for this critical, and universally necessary skill.

If this suggestion becomes reality, there is little doubt that those students with an aptitude for mathematics will enter college more prepared for STEM classes. But not every college-bound senior has this aptitude. If we truly want to be about the business of creating STEM scholars, then we had better get on it while our children are still in elementary school, rather than penalizing them as high school seniors.

For my part, I would rather see our educational system geared to identifying each student’s strengths at an early age and then directing their coursework to produce citizens highly equipped to succeed in life. Not every child has the intellectual makeup for success in math and science; to act as if they do does both the student and the national economy a disservice. Rather than requiring every peg to fit into a round hole, why not invest time and treasure in identifying the peg’s shape, and then creating holes that fit?

Help Desk Thanksgiving Party!

Today, the Help Desk was the scene of an all-day potluck dinner. Lots of folks brought in food, desserts and beverages. Here’s the menu (I think this is everything):

Sliced turkey, Cranberry sauce, Deviled Eggs, Apple Pie, Stuffing, Crab Dip, Chocolate cake, Pumpkin Pie, Green Bean casserole, Sweet Potato Pie, Shrimp Cocktail, vegetable platter, chips & soda.

Here are some photos:

If we had been at Charlie Brown’s house, this would’ve been the fare:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Addendum: It’s only 2PM, and I’ve already consumed more calories than I would in an average day (the Belgian Chocolate cake finally got me). Not good! (And there’s still tomorrow…)


Sadly, Sondheim Still Sans Spectacles

On May 11, 2005, the Social Sciences Building was renamed – and rededicated – to the legacy of Walter Sondheim, Jr. , a leader in the fight for school desegregation in Baltimore, and also a visionary in the revitalization of the Inner Harbor. Since 1999, UMBC has been home to the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program, targeting students seeking to become community leaders themselves. Positioned at the main academic walkway in front of the building is a cast bronze statue of Sondheim, also dedicated that day, and granite benches inscribed with his words. Here’s the original press release.

Dr. Hrabowski and Sondheim at the dedication ceremony.

“Like Mr. Sondheim, this statue is inspiring and educational,” said sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez. “In the future, students who view it will understand his character and dedication to community service.”

The Walter Sondheim statue, with glasses.

In early 2008, someone was apparently inspired to deface the statute – or more accurately, despectacle the statute. On Tuesday morning, February 5, Campus Police noticed that the statue’s glasses were broken. They’ve been gone ever since.

Sonheim, sans specs.

The Sondheim statue today.

It’s been almost two years since the original glasses were removed. Are there plans to restore them or have we admitted defeat? Certainly Mr. Sondheim is worth another try, isn’t he?

Of Squirrels and Ships and Sleeping Students, Of “Out Of Service” Rings

I’m a fan of the UMBC squirrel community, presently 50,000 strong (or so it seems). I even joined their Facebook group. I’ve always thought it was pretty cool how they have no fear of people; they just go about their hyperactive business, ignoring all passersby, often only a few feet away. It’s not unusual to see a number of them working the same small area of grass at the same time, involved in general digging, jumping and scurrying while the academic year passes around them.

The rare UMBC chameleon squirrel.

In spite of my esteem, I must admit that the squirrels’ foraging habits are sometimes, well, less than dignified. In fact, to make their trash-diving easier, the ingenious squirrels installed “squirrel doors” on many of the older trash cans around campus.

Trash can with "squirrel door."

This semester, though, we’re starting to see upgraded trash receptacles that have a different design:

Are these supposed to be "squirrel proof?"

Maybe these have been added for ascetic purposes (they do look much better than the old cans), but if these are an attempt to stop the dumpster-diving of our furred population, I think someone has underestimated their ingenuity. I give the squirrels two months before they’ve figured out the new design.

Before I came to UMBC, I actually thought squirrels hibernated inside the trunks of trees (where they store their forage).  This is not so. Rather than hibernate, the squirrels are active year-round, and live in what, to the untrained eye, appears to be over sized birds’ nests.

The winter home of Stephen B. Squirrel.

Recently, a U.S. flagged cargo ship (that had been the subject of much pirate drama earlier this year), successfully repelled a pirate attack near Somalia. What I don’t understand is why any vessel would operate in those waters without being armed to the teeth. The pirates, from what I’ve seen, are lightly armed, and these ships are huge. Why not mount machine guns, SAMs and grenade launchers on these ships and teach the sailors how to blow these dingys out of the water?

I work in the ECS building, at the Help Desk.

This is where I work. That's my office in the background.

One of the things I think that we need to be more grateful for are the sleeping stalls that have been conveniently scattered across the campus for student use. Clearly, the administration knows how little sleep most young people get, and in appreciation of that fact, they have distributed throughout the buildings temporary rest stations. I am pleased to report that these sleeping stalls are being put to good use on a daily basis.

Sleeping stalls at max power in the ECS Building.

As I walked near the pond next to the AOK library recently, I saw this out-of-order fire hydrant.

The "Out Of Service" ring tells us not to bother in the event of a fire.

Well, at least this hydrant isn’t near anything really combustible, like thousands of books and irreplaceable documentsMaybe they can just pump the pond water if there’s ever a fire.


My First, Largely Wasted Semester of Grad School

This fall I entered into my first semester of graduate school. (One of the cool perks of being a UMBC staff member is that the tuition is completely remitted. Make that a very cool perk.)

My undergraduate degree is in History, but my career path has taken me to DoIT at UMBC, so continuing my history education didn’t make much sense. Also, I needed a graduate degree that I could pursue online. For these reasons, I selected the UMBC Online Information Systems program, which fit all of my needs. The folks both at UMBC’s Graduate School and at the IS Department were great, and I was quickly accepted (because of my undergrad GPA, I didn’t have to take the GRE). (Here I also need to thank Drs. Laurie, Kars & Lindenmeyer for their recommendations on my behalf, not once, but twice. But more on that later.)

With the help of my graduate advisor (and Program Manager) Shannon Keegan, I was soon enrolled in my first two classes: IS 607, Intro to Information Systems, and IS 631 Management Information Systems. My books arrived by mail a few weeks before the start of the semester; I was ready to go.

One of my first thoughts upon starting the semester was how little the degree of difficulty seemed to have changed from my undergraduate courses. I guess I was expecting the coursework to be really, really heavy, but it was actually pretty manageable, even with a full-time job. I was used to getting A’s, but had been worried that I’d get less than a B as a graduate student and be disgracefully booted from the program. A couple of weeks into the fall semester, that fear was gone. (Don’t worry, it comes back.)

In IS 607, the coursework started with basic HTML, which seemed ridiculously easy. During the first week or two, we were asked to write simple HTML webpages and then upload these to our personal userpages for viewing by the instructor. (This is around the time when I was deciding that getting a master’s degree was going to be cake.) In IS 631, the assignments were much like what I had grown used to as a history major: read, take an online quiz (as many times as you needed to get 100%), submit a chapter evaluation to the discussion board, and write a short paper every few weeks. Again, cake.

By October, IS607 had moved out of HTML and into CSS style sheets. This is when I started remembering how much I hate coding. I mean really hate coding. But it was still OK, because there were plenty of workable examples I could use as a template (in the book and online) and I could modify these and learn enough to get by – for a time.

By mid-October, the class had moved into JavaScript, and I was panicked and lost. Hours and hours were spent banging away at the keyboard, bleary-eyed and wondering why pages weren’t rendering the way they were supposed to. More hours were spent doing internet research, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, what key element I was missing in my code. This however, just added layer upon layer of suggestions and confusion to my already messy code, and before too long, I couldn’t tell what was broken and what worked anymore. I hate coding. I really do. I began to question whether I was cut out for online learning; maybe I needed an instructor in front of me two or three times a week. Maybe I’m just stupid.

OK, now... what's not quite right with this code...

I looked at the course catalog. Was IS607 really critical? Oh, it was not just critical, it was a prerequisite for every other class in the catalog. Awesome. Just awesome.

By Halloween, I had come to the grim and deflating decision that I had been defeated by IS607. I would withdraw, not just from the course, but from the Online IS program. I had been totally and utterly defeated – by JavaScript, no less.

Fortunately, I found another online graduate program that is more in line with my strengths, the Online Master’s in Instructional Systems Development – Training Systems. This program is more about people than code, which suits me far better, but still relates to my career in IT (think online learning, Blackboard, etc.). Even though it seemed like a lateral move to me, I had to reapply to the Graduate School ($50), forcing me to get my three recommendations all over again (thanks again Drs. Laurie, Kars & Lindenmeyer). But, that’s all done now, and I’m just waiting for the official word that I’ve been accepted so that I can get my spring classes set up.

Chuck Hodell, the nice guy at the ISD program who also wrote the book on ISD - literally!

What about IS631, you say? Well, I’m still acing that, although I must admit, not knowing if the credits will be transferable has certainly lowered my motivation, making even routine assignments feel like heavy lifting. Reading and then writing about something you won’t be needing in a few weeks gets progressively more difficult. So why not just withdraw from this class, too? Because I hated the feeling of being whipped by a class, and also it seems like such a waste, especially at this late point in the semester. I figure I might as well finish, get my A, and salvage a moral victory from my experiences this fall.

So it goes.