A few days ago, I received an email from Wssl.mn with a password and username. I thought it was spam as it asked me to click on a link, but apparently Coen had sent me the login details for his blog. I guess this is his way of telling me it is time to start writing, so here we go. I’ll do this in English as I’ve had some complaints from English speaking friends that all our ‘vlogs’ were in Dutch, and all my family and friends are perfectly able to understand English anyway.
So where to begin? Maybe with some frequently asked questions:
Q. How’s Pittsburgh?
A. Great! So far, Pittsburgh has been good to us. It’s a lovely city with friendly people. When you drive into Pittsburgh through the mountain (Fort Pitt), the first thing you see is a beautiful view of Downtown Pittsburgh and its bridges and rivers. The city is divided into neighborhoods, which look very different and all have their own atmosphere and types of people. We live in Shady Side, which is very popular for newcomers because of it’s convenient location and variety of bars and restaurants. It is also known as a bit more expensive, but luckily, we are used to Amsterdam, so we’re good. In the first week, we went downtown, to see the city center and walk around, watch people, and maybe go shopping. We are used to city centers being the liveliest parts of town. If you are new to a city, that’s where you go. Bummer! Nothing to do or see here. Although Point State Park is cool to see (the point of the Pittsburgh triangle, where the rivers come together), there’s no reason to go downtown if you don’t work there. It’s a business center, with tall buildings. A cool thing to do in Pittsburgh is to go up Mount Washington, where you have a beautiful view of the city. We didn’t go to a lot of museums and stuff, because we’re waiting for you to come visit us and discover those touristy things together! At this moment, we are mainly discovering others parts of Pittsburgh by foot. It’s nice to just go outside and walk and see where you end up. There are many great parks to walk around. I’m looking forward to the spring, so we can go running.
That brings me to another topic: the weather! My God, it’s crazy! I mean, I’m Dutch, I’m used to all kinds of weather (that’s what I thought). Nope. It was freezing -15 degrees (Celsius) when we arrived here in January. I thought it was fine, it felt like a ski trip. A few weeks ago, however, it was 27 degrees (still Celsius!)! The city and its people felt totally different! That’s great, you think.. Well, it was, but just 2 days later is was freezing again. From day to day, the temperature can differ almost 20 degrees. Also, I thought it was normal that the day start outs a bit chilly and gets warmer in the afternoon, with temperatures dropping once the sun sets. Apparently, my ideas of nature’s laws are pretty naïve. Here, the day can start with 13 degrees (nice, you think), and then it drops during the day to 5 degrees as the wind slowly turns. Crazy. On average, it rains one third of the days. People always carry a small umbrella with them. Unfortunately, I had to find out the hard way.
Q. Are you settled in yet?
A. Yeah, I think so! We were very lucky finding an apartment so quickly. It is nice place, I enjoy being at home in our apartment, which really helps. We bought many things at the Target (great place, see Coen’s earlier blog posts) and Amazon and I became friends quickly. The doorman knew our names within a week, because of all the arriving packages. I think we have all the furniture and stuff we need now, and a bit extra. We have a gym in the building, where we try to go 5 times a week to either run or look to ourselves in the mirror while lifting weights. It’s a great way to start the day, once I manage to drag myself out of bed. As I’m typing this, Coen is training on his tacx in the other room, or whatever you call such stationary bike equipment. Our apartment has a good view (10th floor) in East Liberty’s direction, with a balcony (again looking forward to spring!) and the location is super convenient with respect to supermarkets and work. It already feels a bit like home. But yesterday, when we watched Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover in Amsterdam, we were both missing our “real home”.
Q. How about all the other things you have to arrange when you’re new to a country?
A. That was not a problem at all! Well, sometimes I thought it was a hassle, but in hindsight it really wasn’t. I expected the worst, and sure, in the first few weeks there were a lot of things to figure out, but everything is arranged by now. I’m talking about electricity and internet for the apartment, getting a US bank account, US cell phone number/subscription. I even got a SSN (social security number). That was the thing I was afraid of most. I had heard stories about getting sent away from the US social security office, people that are rude to you, having to bring them thousands of documents, waiting for weeks. I was already considering not to get a SSN, as I don’t officially need one. My colleagues told me, however, that applying for one was easy and it would be convenient to have a SSN, so I decided to go for it. This turned out to be the easiest thing ever. It had to wait for not even 10 minutes at the social security office, they were very friendly, I gave the employee my papers, she types for a few minutes, and it was done. One week later I got my SSN. The only thing we still need to do (well, not me but Coen) is applying for a working permit. He sent the paperwork yesterday, so the waiting game begins. Oh, and we should also probably apply for a Pennsylvania driver’s license, as this counts as an ID (so we don’t have to carry our passports with us to buy beer).
One thing that stood out to me while arranging all these things was how hopelessly old-fashioned the US is when it comes to banking. I have recently learned how to write personal checks, as this is often the only way to pay (money order, or personal check). Come on US! I haven’t written one check in my life in the Netherlands, this was something my grandma did! Wire transfers are usually not possible here (for example, when you are with a different bank than the receiver) or are expensive. Online banking is fairly new here. I pay my rent online, but what really happens is: I provide the bank with the details online, they print a check, and this gets send to the realty company (by snail mail!!). Then the realty company has to cash the check (although I think you can do this with a mobile app). In total, the money gets subtracted from my balance like 5 working days after I gave the order. Ridiculous.
Q. How’s work?
A. Work is fine I guess. I mean, work is work. Not a lot has changed, except for the setting. That’s my experience for this type of work anyway. I can do my work wherever I am, at any university. I have some ongoing projects at Erasmus, for which I still do a lot of work (at least half of my time). The other half of my time I spent following class and doing homework. Yep, I’m a student again. I started following the Personalized Online Learning course, where I learn about Intelligent Tutoring Systems and how to create cognitive tutors with CTAT (cognitive tutor authoring tool) software. For the people who have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll explain:
I have been doing research in Educational Psychology. Very simply put, the goal of my research is to found out how learning is most effective and efficient, so for example, I study learning strategies (during my PhD, this was focused on reading comprehension, but at Erasmus more on learning in general), and the cognitive processes that are involved with learning. For the Rubicon (name of the grant I got), I proposed to study how technology can be integrated in education to help learners. Nowadays, almost all students use computers for school, but mostly to browse the internet for information. This is not very effective for learning and there are many technologies that can help us learn better (it’s all about how the technologies are used), so why are these not used in education? Carnegie Mellon University is one of the best universities in the world when it comes to Computer Science. I’m now working within this department at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), where they combine Computer Science with Psychology. Sounds kind of perfect right? Well, it is! It is a great opportunity for me to learn about educational technology. At HCII, they develop cognitive tutors. This is a computer system that can provide the students with individual feedback, hints, instructions, etc, while they practice all kinds of tasks. It does not replace a human teacher, but it certainly helps a lot (human teachers cannot give every student individual attention all the time)! I am now learning what these systems can do, what works best, and how I can create one. I do not have any programming skills, but with the CTAT software, you don’t need knowledge in machine learning/programming to create a cognitive tutor. I have a lot to learn, but the environment is very inspiring!
My advisor Ken Koedinger is great. We have weekly meetings where I can ask him all my questions and we discuss papers and research ideas. The colleagues I’ve met so far are friendly, but sometimes I do feel a bit like an outsider, as I don’t understand a lot about their computer science related research. I guess Computer Science people are different from Psychology people, which is fine, but I need a bit more time to adapt. I’m going to present my research and ideas to a group of people that is in educational research on Tuesday. I am very excited (read: nervous), and I hope I’ll meet some people there with whom I can collaborate.
Less great about the work environment is my office. Unfortunately, my desk is in a small office without windows. I heard this is fairly normal in the States, but for me it’s a big no-go. I get super demotivated in such spaces. It’s fine for a day, but I simply cannot work there for over 40 hours a week. Luckily, there are no strict rules regarding presence at work. I can work from home whenever I want, as long as my output doesn’t suffer.
Next week (March 12-19), Coen and I are going to Austin, Texas, and we’re super psyched! We will be visiting two awesome guys we met in Colombia 2 years ago and I hope we’ll be able to see something of the SXSW festival. I’m sure we’ll write about our experiences there when we come back and have slept for at least 24 hours straight.
Send me your questions, so I have something else to write about next time!