What Defines Learning? Amy Szczepanski

Dr. Amy Szczepanski is a math educator who works at the Art of Problem Solving. She previously coordinated education and outreach for the Remote Data Analysis and Visualization Center at the University of Tennessee, and in her spare time enjoys sewing and knitting, especially projects with a mathematical flavor to them.

Trena Paulus interviewed Amy Szczepanski via Skype on behalf of Geek Puff.

GEEK PUFF: ​All right, tell me a little bit, Amy, about your work and what you do.

AMY: ​Okay. There’s two parts to this. I have a day job, and then I have the things that you’ve asked about, which are the interesting things. In terms of what I’ve been working on with Evan Meaney (at the University of South Carolina), we’ve been looking at all sorts of ways of thinking about the relationship between data, information, and knowledge. You have these really low level bits and pieces of, you know, bits, zeroes and ones. These are just data. These have nothing attached to them, no meaning, they’re just facts that are out there. Information is, in some sense, what happens when you try to start to construct meaning with them. And then finally, knowledge is the human side of things, what it is that you do once you construct this. There’s this hierarchy with it, and we’ve been looking at this from a range of viewpoints. The first project we worked on is a project called Null_Sets, which thinks about the way that you encode information, especially for computers.

Binary, flickr.

Binary, flickr.

Everybody has been told that the information on your computer is stored in points of zeroes and ones, that your files are made up of zeroes and ones. This is mostly true – true enough – but human beings are what decided what the zeroes and ones are going to mean. It’s not like there is some sort of rule in the universe that says, if you take a photograph, this is the way that the zeroes and ones shall be recorded, in order, on a hard drive, so that somebody else opening up this file will see the same photograph. People have come up with all of these sorts of protocols, and codecs, and structures.

null_sets, Pride and Prejudice, Amy Szczepanski.

Null_sets, Pride and Prejudice, Amy Szczepanski.

Our first project was exploring this, and we said, “Well, what if you take the way of encoding text?” There are certain rules for encoding text. Typically what happens is that you take the text, you break it down into letters. Text is one of the oldest things that we’ve been encoding on computers, and so some of the protocols are very simple and straightforward. You take your text and break it down into characters. Each character has an encoding of seven zeroes and ones, and they all are in order, they turn each into a number. It’s very, very structured, and we said, “Well, what happens if you took text, turn it into the zeroes and ones, but then lied to the computer, and said, ‘Hey computer, this is not text broken down into clumps of seven or eight. Computer, this is a jpeg image, and so, I would like you to take these zeroes and ones, and render them following the jpeg decoder.’” This is where we got all of these colorful images from.

Lizzy Glenn, or The Trials of a Seamstress

Null_sets, Lizzy Glenn, or The Trials of a Seamstress, flickr.

We lied to the computer, and it did what we told it, because that’s what computers do most of the time, and so, this is how we got these images. An analogy to this is that if you’ve ever tried to learn another language, and you’ve seen a word that looks like or sounds like a word in your own language but has a very different meaning in the language that you’re learning, this is the same sort of thing we’re doing to the computer. We’re showing it, in this case, a file, and we’re telling it to open it, in some sense, in a different language. That was the first project.

GEEK PUFF: ​And so what are some of the outcomes that have come from this project?

AMY: ​Mostly, we have a body of two-dimensional work. We’ve shown it at some shows, which was part of a film festival, which also had a 2D component to it. We wrote an academic paper about it because we both worked at universities at the time. Evan still works at the university, but I don’t anymore. And simply, that’s what people who work at universities do: write academic papers. Now we’re making a short film that’s sort of an outgrowth of these ideas.

GEEK PUFF: ​So tell me about that.

AMY: ​Though the film is structured, it’s based on the idea of archiving information. You’ve seen probably news reports of the Dead Sea Scrolls and really old pottery, and here we have people from hundreds and thousands of years ago who have found and written something down, and after hundreds of years, or thousands of years in some of these cases, we can still reconstruct what they did. But a lot of the structure that we’re using these days don’t have this property to them, and especially, we’re looking at film.

Some of the earliest movie film was done on film stock made of chemicals that, now, the way they’ve degraded over the years, if you open up the can, the film could explode, like literally, big fiery explosion, because of the types of chemicals and the way they’ve degraded. So there’s that, and then also, sometimes people have a flash drive or some sort of computer media or a hard drive that’s just gone and died on you, your digital media. We’re looking at these sorts of things in terms of archives.

Our short film is structured in terms of film clips and interviews and working with a piece of software. This piece of software which tries to say, “Well, what if we can go and preserve things perfectly, and what are the consequences of that?” We’re exploring a lot of these things in terms of “what would happen if you tried to take film and encode it with some sort of perfect software and were able to go and save it forever?” The piece of software we were working with is called ‘big_sleep’. The trade off with big_sleep is that, with this way of thinking about things, you can save things permanently, but you can’t ever retrieve them, like putting something into cryogenic suspension. The film explores all of these ideas.

GEEK PUFF: ​So it’s a film about film?

AMY: ​Yes.

GEEK PUFF: ​[laughs]

AMY: ​It’s a digital film about digital film.

GEEK PUFF: ​Ooh, it’s very meta [laughs]. So what’s your role on the project, then? So you do a lot of the coding, is that right?

AMY: ​I did a lot of the coding. I also came up with some of the engineering side of things, in terms of how these sorts of encodings would work, plus I knew some of the people who we’re going to interview about this.

GEEK PUFF: Great! You mentioned that you also have a day job. Is your day job related to these projects, or is it totally separate now?

AMY: ​It’s very separate. I work at a online school called Art of Problem Solving. What Art of Problem Solving does is provide math education opportunities for kids, primarily in the United States and some in Asia, for bright, motivated math students to learn world class mathematics, because some of them live in places where the public schools just don’t offer a rigorous enough course sequence. For example, they could live in an area in which there’s a very small school, very rural, and just can’t offer the honors courses. Some of them are home-schooled and the home-schooling parents don’t know enough math, and so we teach the math over the internet.

Enjoying the Maths, Carlos Gracia, flickr.

Enjoying the Maths, Carlos Gracia, flickr.

GEEK PUFF: ​All right! How did you get into that?

AMY: ​Gosh, we could go all the way back to 1990 when I was a high school kid and I went to summer camp, Research Science Institute, and it turns out that somebody else who went to the same summer camp in a different year worked for the company, and we have been in touch, on and off, over the years. Other people who’ve gone to that camp have either worked at the company or have been involved with it in some way, and so through those connections, I ended up working there.

GEEK PUFF: ​So when you think about your background in Math, Engineering, Computer Programming, Encoding, and all the different aspects of your work, what would you say overall, what kinds of problems your work solves? Or what kind of opportunities your work fills?

AMY: ​Over the years, I’ve worked on so many different things. I have done Theoretical Mathematics where somebody can say, “Oh, this is the most general case in which we know that an extension of a commutative ring is a Jacobson ring,” and this matters to about four or five people in the world who study these things.

A lot of the things that I’ve done, in terms of education, have been involved with trying to figure out how to connect students with the right opportunity for them. When I was at the university, I did a data analytics project that tried to figure out how scores on the placement test related to success in first math classes, to try to figure out how to group placement recommendations so that students would take a math class that was both relevant to their intended major but also where the students could be successful. Because similar to what I said before, schools vary from place to place, and if you’ve taken pre-Calculus at one school versus another school, you may or may not be prepared for Calculus as well, and so, I worked on how to get people into the right courses.

I’ve worked with gifted students in terms of getting them research opportunities, because a lot of kids see school as, here are homework problems to do so that I can do well on a test so I can get a score, and they see it very much in terms of racking up pieces of paper that have to do with solving things that somebody else hardly knows the right answer to. I was working on getting some of the students into research opportunities so that they could see where it is that nobody knows the answer, and what sort of strategies people use, and what it really means to be stuck, because a lot of these kids have never been stuck on a project. Typically, they work on a problem that you can solve within minutes, or maybe even an hour if it’s a really tricky problem. So here’s this idea of saying, “Here’s something that takes a team of people weeks and months to work on.”

GEEK PUFF: ​And that’s okay, and that’s the real world, with how things are?

AMY: ​Yes.

Faded Nature, Holly Lay, flickr.

Faded Nature, Holly Lay, flickr.

GEEK PUFF: ​And kind of what you and Evan have been doing is solving this problem of, film deteriorates, we’re losing a lot of objects, what can we do to preserve those in a new way?

AMY: ​Yeah. We don’t have answers to this, but we’re certainly raising questions. For example, you’ve probably seen where people on Throwback Thursday on Facebook will say, “Oh, I got this photograph. It was tucked into some book of my grandmother’s, and I scanned the photograph.” So here, they have two representations of it, they have the original, and then they have the digital representation, for different purposes. But, one of my hobbies is aviation photography, and I’ve taken 6,000 pictures of airplanes so far this year, and–


AMY: ​–I don’t have any prints of these. Maybe nobody cares about my prints of airplanes, but there’s also people who have babies, and weddings, and family events, and whatever, and they only have digital pictures of them, and you have some sort of memory card, and you don’t even know where you’ve put it, and it’s not like somebody is going to, decades from now, say, “Oh, I looked in the family bible and I found a memory card from 2015.” [laughs]

GEEK PUFF: ​Right. Tell me about your aviation photography hobby.

N214WN, Southwest Plane, Amy Szczepanski.

N214WN, Southwest Plane, Amy Szczepanski.

AMY: ​Airplanes are, in some sense, like a lazy person’s bird watching, because with the birds, you have to go out there in the woods and stand around all day, but the airplanes have a schedule. You know when they are coming, and you go to the spot, and there it’ll come by. But there’s a whole variety of them, just like with bird watching, the airport that I watch almost always has Boeing 737s and Airbus 8320s, and if you want to see some sort of fancy rare plane, you have to go someplace else. I took a graphic design class from Cary Staples when I was at the University of Tennessee, and one of the things that Cary talked about is the idea of collections. So, I’m working on a collection right now. Southwest Airlines has about 650 airplanes in its fleet. I’m trying to get photographs of each and every plane that Southwest has, and I have– gosh, almost 150 of them. So I’m almost a quarter of the way done.

GEEK PUFF: ​So there’s that many different planes, and then of course, they’re probably, they’re not all unique types of planes?

N243WN, Southwest Plane, Amy Szczepanski.

N243WN, Southwest Plane, Amy Szczepanski.

AMY: ​Southwest has an interesting business model. Every plane in their fleet is a Boeing 737–


AMY: ​–and the 737 comes in different varieties. There’s little ones and big ones, comparatively, but they’re all roughly the same. And just like cars have license plates, planes have tail numbers, which are their registration numbers, and so, you can tell which one is which because they all have this number painted on them. Most of them look the same. Southwest is actually in the process of repainting all of their planes, so some of them look different.

GEEK PUFF: All right, so what would you say are the top five things to do on your daily task list?

AMY: ​My daily tasks list is kind of boring because right now, the company I work for is in heavy recruiting mode, and so, one of the things I need to do every day is reach out to people to see if they will come and work for us. A lot of recruiting, human resources type of stuff. I also deal with the teaching schedule where I work, and so, I’ve lately been making sure that all the new teachers have been trained, that everything in the schedule works together, that somebody is not teaching two things that happen at the same time.

I’m also working on a data analytics project. Since we do online education, we have a lot of stuff that’s logged. We have an online homework system so you can figure out what’s the interval of time between when somebody clicks, submits an answer, and submits another answer. Or when somebody goes to the online class session, are they active or not, that kind of stuff.

The first question that’s really, really hard is this, what defines learning? What even is a good outcome? Because you can say, “Oh, somebody who has high scores on all the homework has this good outcome,” but that’s actually quite simplistic, because high scores on homework doesn’t really necessarily mean anything. And just like lower scores on homework can mean somebody who, for some reason, just didn’t want to do it but learned a lot. So I’m working on those sorts of things.

GEEK PUFF: ​I don’t know if I can answer that question myself, actually [laughs].

AMY: ​Often, it varies from day to day. Sometimes, there’s just a lot of looking out the window and trying to come up with good ideas which– nobody likes to admit that, but I spend a lot of time kind of stuck, and just need to think about things and try to figure out what’s next.

Looking Through The Window, Esteban Chiner, flickr.

Looking Through The Window, Esteban Chiner, flickr.

GEEK PUFF: ​I like that idea of being stuck. You mentioned that before – that it’s important for people to realize or just be okay with being stuck and just sit with it for a while. 

AMY: ​Especially if you’re going to do math. There’s a documentary called The Math Life, and I think that one of the most important lessons that comes out of that documentary is this idea of how mathematics works. If you’re not good at being stuck in mathematics, it’s not the right field for you.

GEEK PUFF: ​Yeah, it’s not a speed thing.

AMY:​ Sometimes you get lucky, but not very often.

GEEK PUFF: ​How do you bring ideas to life?

AMY: ​Well, it depends on the idea. I kind of have themes in what I talk about, and the one about, ‘It’s okay to be stuck’ was one of my themes. The other one is, ‘Somebody needs to be the grown up’, where you can’t just wait for somebody to give you permission or tell you to do something. Sometimes, you just do it. You think about where you’re going to start, and you do it, and instead of making plans, and spreadsheets, and telling people what you’re going to do. You just get started, and if it’s going well, you keep going, and if not, you change.

GEEK PUFF: ​What is one thing that you do over and over again in your work, and recommend that everyone else does, too?

AMY: ​I would say that everybody should learn at least a little bit of a scripting language, whether it’s Python or Perl. Something I’ve done at almost every one of my jobs is when someone’s given me information in a spreadsheet and it has not been formatted correctly – they’ve exported it in some funny way. You need to split things out, and yeah, you could go and click on every cell and try to take out the extra space, and so, whatever – but with a programming language like Perl, or Python, or any of these other scripting languages, you can save a remarkable amount of time.

GEEK PUFF: What advice would you give if someone who was trying to decide which scripting language to use?

AMY: ​Well, I would first figure out if any of my friends used it, because if people I know use it, then that’s going to give me resources. Otherwise, they’re just sort of tools so deciding is usually like saying, “Do you want to get your wrenches from Sears, or from Ace Hardware?” ​If you’re working on a really, really, gigantic project that’s extremely sophisticated it needs to push a language to its extremes, it’s going to matter, but for dealing with little everyday stuff, hard to go wrong.

GEEK PUFF: ​Okay, that’s good to know. Who or what has been your greatest influence personally or professionally, in terms of who’s influenced your thinking?

AMY: ​My grad school adviser, who told me that the whole key to being a successful researcher is to ask the right questions, that you want to spend a lot of time figuring out what sort of question it is that you’re trying to answer, because otherwise, you spend a lot of time answering the wrong question. That’s what I learned from Professor Lance Small. Let’s see, I learned a lot from my grandparents, who were really, really hard-working people. They didn’t have fancy professional jobs, but they took pride in their work, and always worked hard. That’s what it was that they did, and I think that that’s something. 

GEEK PUFF:  What’s one trend that really excites you in your line of work?

Working In The Dark, Ernst Grafenberg, flickr.

Working In The Dark, Ernst Grafenberg, flickr.

AMY: ​Let’s see, the fact that I work in online education, and that’s very trendy right now. The idea that, also, not just that it’s delivered online, it’s not really the delivery, but it’s the mindset that not every student– like where I grew up, it’s like, “Oh, you were born in 1973, and your address is located on a map inside this line. Therefore, you and everybody else born in 1973 who lived inside this line, and all are going to go to the same place at the same time, and you’ll hear the same lesson, and do the same assignment,” and we’re getting away from that. Not everybody needs to have exactly the same educational experience. Well, sure everybody should have as many opportunities as they possibly can. The way of getting people from where they are to where they want to be doesn’t need to be the same path.

GEEK PUFF: ​Especially not based on how old they happen to be?

AMY: ​Or also where they live.


AMY: ​The experiences I had were because of my zip code, and somebody who lived in the next zip code over was going to have different experiences, and perhaps not as many opportunities, which is unfortunate. I mean, they lived a mile and a half from me, but…

GEEK PUFF: So what software and web services do you use, and what do you love about them?

AMY: ​I don’t understand the question [chuckles].

GEEK PUFF: ​I think maybe, software products that are out there that people might not know about, that you’re using maybe in a way that maybe other people aren’t? Are there any particular technology tools that you would recommend to other people?

AMY:Yeah, I’m really somebody who keeps things very simple in terms of what I do. For example, I rarely install software on my computer. I have a MacBook Air, and almost everything that I use is what came with it. I’ve downloaded R, which is a data analysis environment, and then the developers’ tools, which I have all of the software, and compilers, and development environments. But I use text editor– in terms like, for example, the work with Evan, he’s creating all the multimedia visuals. He uses a lot of very sophisticated graphics editing, and video production, and things to get the sound to match up nicely. He uses a lot of those types of tools, but I kind of stick with the basics. I write a lot of words also.

GEEK PUFF: ​You write a lot of words?

AMY: ​I do.

GEEK PUFF: ​What do you mean? [laughs]

We All Have Our Weapons, LaVladina, flickr.

We All Have Our Weapons, LaVladina, flickr.

AMY: ​A lot of what I do involves coming up with the specification for something, where you need to describe what’s supposed to happen, and so, I just write that in a text editor. I don’t even use a word processor. I’m easily distracted, so I try to keep it simple.

Colorful Library, See-Ming Lee, flickr.

Colorful Library, See-Ming Lee, flickr.

GEEK PUFF: ​[chuckles] Okay. What book do you recommend that our community know about? Is there something that you’re reading right now that you would recommend? I guess, on any topic, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your line of work.

AMY: ​Well, it’s funny, the book that changed my life was an art book.

GEEK PUFF: ​Hey, cool!

AMY: ​It’s called Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, and the one thing that you learn from this is that you can’t trust your eyes. This book has illustrations where he’ll have the same color green, and in one place he’ll have the green surrounded by yellow, in another place he’ll have the green surrounded by some other color, and you do not believe that they’re the same green until you look on the next page and he’s gone and drawn a line that connects them. It’s the idea of how people perceive things, how people think. If you’re in education, you need to think about people as people. When I was at the university, that was one of the things that I think was a big problem, especially in the larger classes where the students seem to be just numbers, is that they’re all individual people, and they want to be successful.

GEEK PUFF: ​How did that change your life, when you read that?

AMY: ​It’s just the idea that you can’t trust your eyes. Because I came up from a very science-y background, and there’s these science facts, and the idea that, “Oh, we have this light, which is a wave at however many nanometers, and it hits your retina, and it excites this such and such protein, which causes a signal to go to the optic nerve which courses to the visual cortex.” You can define it very scientifically, you can talk about the names of chemicals and pathways and parts of the brain, but it doesn’t matter, because the human experience, it’s not broken down in terms of a scientific way like that. That you have to deal with things as people see them, as people interact with them, no matter what the scientific truth is, like what you can measure with some sort of instrument.

GEEK PUFF: ​And that’s so ironic, given what they’re doing in education right now, with the whole way they’re trying to define success, and yeah, with the standardized tests. Wanting to take a very scientific model and put it on top of people’s lives when that’s– well, as a social scientist, what happens in the social world is so different from what happens in the natural world in ways that we seem to not want to acknowledge. [laughs]

hammertime, flickr.

hammertime, flickr.

AMY: ​Right. Standardized tests, there are entirely reasonable things that you can get out of them, but it’s like that saying,“When your only tool is a hammer every problem is a nail.”


AMY: ​Again, it goes to what Professor Small said. You have to come up with the right question, and then work to answer your question.

Misty and Daisy, Stewart Black, flickr.

Misty and Daisy, Stewart Black, flickr.

GEEK PUFF: ​Yeah, all right. Are there any closing thoughts, or advice, or musings that you would want to share with women who are interested in the same fields?

AMY: ​Find something interesting and do it. Just jump in and do it.


AMY: ​It’s a cliché, but it’s also true.

GEEK PUFF: ​Yeah, and don’t be afraid to get stuck [laughs].


To generate a Null_sets image, go to Amy and Evan Meaney’s jpeg decoder site and select “participate.” 

Watch Amy in this short video introduction to Null Sets. embed: 

Watch an excerpt from Amy’s Big_Sleep film about film.

Visit the Video Data Bank page on Big_Sleep. 

Interaction of Color by Josef Albers PAPERBACK  or as an iPAD APP.

Art of Problem Solving is hiring graders, teaching assistants, and instructors for their online school. This is a part-time role that can be done from anywhere with a stable internet connection. They are also looking for people to work full-time in our office in San Diego, CA. For more details see the Art of Problem Solving Careers page.

To learn more about a Jacobson Ring check out Wikipedia’s page.

Creative Commons License for all flickr photos.