Stop thinking and Just do it!

Virginia Tech students helped the volunteers of the Hurley Community Development by providing services to low-income families in the area.

The team after building the deck
The team working on underpinning






As an international student, I never imagined that the United States had communities with a lot of low-income families. That’s not what we watch on TV. We think that everyone lives very well in the States. Non-US citizens like me never plan to visit places like Hurley while living in the United States because:

  1. We do not know that these communities exist and,
  2. We prefer spending our time visiting the most popular cities in the US.

The moment that really touched my heart was when we arrived Hurley. During the entire way to the Community Center (the place where we stayed), I had tears in my eyes just by looking at the houses where people live. The houses are in a very poor condition. They were built by their owners and/or the volunteers of the community using track trailers. Look at these houses made me feel sad. I realized how I have given priority to other things in my life neglecting the fact that I can also help people in so many different ways. To be honest, I regretted of all the times that I wanted to participate in a community service trip and I did not do it because I always had the excuse of having a lot of things to do in my Ph.D.

Hurley (Video)

I was the only graduate student in the group, all of the volunteers were undergraduate students. I really admired the attitude of these guys! There were always willing to help and to do whatever they had to. They never complained and they enjoyed every single moment, even if they had to wash a bathroom. I told them in our final reflection meeting in Hurley:

“Do not stop helping people! As we get older, we get busier and we always have an excuse. Our responsibilities are more important than anything. We prefer going on a vacation than going to a community to help people. That’s the reason why I am the only graduate student here! Everyone is back in Tech working. I probably should be doing the same, but I took the risk of coming to this trip because I wanted to do something that was worth during the break. Of course, I will have to work twice harder once I come back to Blacksburg in order to meet all of my responsibilities but that’s ok, I will do it! So, do not let your enthusiasm and desire to help people disappear as you get older!”

This semester I am teaching the Construction Management course in the Civil Engineering program. I shared my experience in Hurley with my students because my main purpose as an instructor of this course is not only transmitting knowledge but also to motivate and inspire them to be their own best selves. When I was showing them all the projects that we did such as building a deck, repairing a roof, installing drywall, painting, repairing a floor, plumbing, and underpinning, I told them:

“We should stop thinking only about us!! We complain so much about all the things that we do not have. These people have few amenities but they are more thankful and humble than us! There is always an excuse, so if you have the change to giving back to the community, don’t think too much and just do it because, at the end, it is very rewarding!!”

I was the only civil engineer in that group. There was only one student in the construction management program and two of the architecture program. The rest of the students were from programs like biology, psychology, materials science, computer science, etc. So, Anyone can do it! Remove that excuse from your list!!

Working as a volunteer is something that I want to do each time that I can because this makes me happy. It is also a way to show how grateful I am for all the help that I have received during my life.

“A thank you” coming from people that we help really touch the bottom of our heart. This is the most truthful thank you that we can ever hear.




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Cloud Computing: A Collaborative Learning Tool for Students

Have you ever seen the message “Put your file into OneDrive or Google Drive to get them from any device”? That’s how I learned what a cloud is. I am mentioning it because, at present, people are talking about Cloud Computing. So, I was wondering if, this is the same that a cloud or if, this is something else. Since I have no clue, I decided to dig deep and to figure it out what Cloud Computing is and how I can use it.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Cloud Computing is defined as A model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction

Let’s try to keep it simple. Cloud Computing gives users an effective way to access, work on, share, and store information/ and or applications using the Internet rather than saving or installing them on a computer. In essence, data is stored on web servers owned by a third party. Through their servers, companies offer users storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and more. In fact, companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have invested a lot of money creating their own clouds. This investment can be noticed in the recent ranking provided by Forbes where the Top 5 Cloud-Computing vendors were highlighted. Currently, the leading companies are:

  1. Microsoft
  2. Amazon (AWS)
  3. IBM
  4. Salesforce
  5. SAP

Third-party tools also exist to provide extended data management features on top of those offered by the cloud provider, for example, NetApp’s AWS storage solution.

Maybe, you are wondering why I am mentioning these companies. Well, this is because Enterprise Cloud Computing is another term in the radar when talking about Cloud Computing. In general terms, Enterprise Cloud Computing is a computing environment that provides software (SaaS), infrastructure (IaaS), and platform (PaaS) services to an organization [6]. Some of the main benefits of acquiring these services are:

  •        Faster delivery of information technology services and resources
  •        Lower infrastructure and operational cost
  •        Safer computer environment

[6], [7]

On a regular basis, people use Cloud Computing without even noticing it. As users, people do not need any knowledge about the technology behind this internet-based technology [2]. They can just access the information from anywhere and at any time, and share their resources with a lot of users.

At first sight, we may think that Cloud Computing is only used by computer science engineers or related fields. Well, we are definitely wrong!! Cloud Computing can be applied to different areas such as those shown in the figure below. Because Education is my area of interest, I will focus on the use of Cloud Computing for teaching.

Taken from [3]

Nowadays, several universities in the United States are using Cloud Computing This is the case of Eastern Michigan University, University of California, University of Westminster, and Florida Atlantic University [1]. According to the report published by Technavio about Global Cloud Computing market in the education sector, its use will grow at a compound annual growth rate of over 26% from 2017 to 2021. Indeed, several Cloud Computing courses are already offered via online.

Cloud Computing in Teaching

In the past, students working in groups struggled a lot trying to make progress in their assignments and/or projects since only one of them could work on the file. Now, the team-work is more efficient. All the students can work on the same file using their own laptop, tablet, cellphone, or any university equipment at the same time [6]. They do not even have to be at the same place. Isn’t amazing? The results of a survey taken by 40 undergrad students of the Technology College at Eastern Michigan University show the different cloud applications used by the students. Have a look at the results!

Taken from [4]

Although the use of clouds is increasing among undergraduate and graduate students, Cloud Computing is not often used by professors. They have been teaching their classes in the same way for years, so they are still reluctant to change the way how they have taught their classes. In order to fully incorporate Cloud Computing in a classroom, new faculty generations should take a step forward because the learning approach and needs of students are definitely very different in the current technology generation.

So, what benefits can Cloud Computing provide to students and teachers?

  •       New innovative methods for teaching and learning.
  •        Fast access to the class material.
  •        Flexible communication between professors and students (they do need to be in the classroom).
  •        Promotion of E-learning (use of technology in learning and the promotion of online courses)
  •        Stimulation of a collaborative learning environment among students when working together.
  •        Enrichment of the group based work allowing students to share references material, papers, journals,  software, etc.
  •        Better interaction between students and instructors during the class. Professors can ask questions during their lectures and allow students to participate by using an online interactive software (This is really useful when having large classes). Having the students answers on real-time help instructors to focus on student weaknesses instead of repeating and what student already are good at.  
  • Allowance of real-time feedback for the students when they are working on assignments (Professors can access to students’ work using the cloud-based storage service).

[1, 2, 3]

So, what are you waiting for? Start using Cloud Computing in your classes!!

“Using cloud-based learning, teachers are improvising on teaching methodologies by integrating modern technologies such as blended learning and collaborative learning, thus creating an effective learning environment for students” – Jhansi Mary (A lead analyst for education technology research)


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Communicating in Science: More Difficult than You Think

Have you been in a room listening someone speech and you do not understand what the speaker is talking about, even when you are familiar with the topic? It happens to me all the time! Now, imagine the same scenario but this time, the audience does not have any background in the speaker’s field. Even worse, don’t you think?

Oftentimes, I struggle so much trying to explain my research to both people related to the field and non-related. For me, it is hard:

  • To convey all the key information in a short amount of time.
  • To clearly convey my research when I have to improvise (when I do not have time to think what I want to say) In my non-native language, this is even harder!
  • To quickly think of creative ways and examples to explain my research in a way that everyone can understand.

We do not train ourselves for that. We learn how to write scientific papers but even with that knowledge, we also struggle trying to explain what we did when we write. We understand what we wrote but if we give the writing to someone else, it is not clear.

Research but itself uses complicated terms and definitions. Thus, as investigators, it becomes essential to have the ability to clearly communicate our research in a way that non-special audiences can easily understand the topic. It is not a matter to say what we wrote or how we think. It is a matter of how we connect with the audience and how we creatively engage them.

Nowadays, research has become a vital part of the development of society. Therefore, we need to find alternatives ways to develop the skills needed to communicate research to people from different education levels, academic disciplines, research specialties, race, culture, religion, and so on. Why? Because research requires interdisciplinary knowledge.

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Studying Abroad: Do You Speak English?

Do you speak English? That’s the question that most of the people ask when you tell them that you want to study abroad. However, studying abroad requires more than having good foreign language skills. That’s what I learned since I arrived Blacksburg, VA to pursue my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. In this blog, I will share my experience so far. Just to give you an idea, everything was new for me, so I had to learn pretty much the whole thing and guess how did I learn? Making mistakes all the time!!

Let’s start! I went to my first class and I was ready to take notes in my notebook as usual. Then, I realized that I was the only student who did not bring the laptop to the class. I was wondering to myself, did I miss the announcement of bringing the laptop? It turned out that this is the way how most of the students take notes in class. In Colombia, we use binders all the time mainly because in most of the civil engineering courses there are a lot of equations and problems. I tried to use my laptop several times but I just gave up, this is not comfortable for me.

Then, I was expecting the professor to use the board to give his class, but guess what? He did not use the board for the entire semester. Professors have prepared their entire class in slides and they do not mind to share those slides with students. In Colombia, if a professor has slides, which is very unusual, he/she is very reluctant to share the material. To be honest, I have no idea why? Here, classes pass so fast that you cannot even notice. In Colombia, classes are 120 minutes long meanwhile here, classes are, on average, 55 – 75 minutes long.

Let’s talk about exams. When I was about to start studying for my first exam I did not know what I should study. I felt that I knew and understood all the topics. This feeling was very weird for me because, in Colombia, you have to look for the copies of the exams proctored in the last 10 years so you have enough material to practice. In addition, students do around 100 exercises from the books. Even, sometimes students invent potential problems that they may have on the exam. After all that work, students feel kind of well prepared for the exam. What is the difference?

First, professors of public universities in Colombia always want students to fail on the exams. Do not misunderstand that expression! But this is the way how I see it. Students always have to solve the most difficult problems during the exams. They may spend hours working on that and sometimes the problem does not even have a solution! Second, assignments are not something common during the courses. That’s why we are not well prepared when the time of the exam comes. Here in the United States, assignments are part of the courses. On average, students have to do one assignment every two weeks. That’s why I was prepared for the exam without having to study so much. Also, professors want students to do well on the exams. They do not add tricky questions or problems. Everything is pretty much the same to what students did on the assignments.

The question that you may have is, why do professors not provide assignments as part of their courses? The answer is quite simple. We do not have the figure of teaching assistant well developed in Colombia. So, they would have to spend a lot of time grading the assignments plus the fact that they also have to grade the exams. Professors have, on average, 40 – 50 students per class and they have to teach, at least, two courses per semester. They can not do it. Do not forget that they also have to “try” to do research!

Two things really surprised me here. First, how quickly a professor answers you an email and second, the fact that they are always available during their office hours. Even, if they cannot make it, they notify students of their absence. In Colombia, students have to spy professors so they can find them. It means that you usually do not find them during their “supposed” office hours.

So, if somebody tells you that you need to speak English or another language to study abroad, tell him/her that you need more than that if you want to succeed there! You have to learn the culture, the education system, and so on..


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Are Students Ready for a Change in the Teaching Approach?

I have been discussing that the traditional approach in which classes have been taught for decades needs to be changed. However, I have not considered the student’s reaction when facing new approaches. I assume that all these new ideas will be a complete success. Nevertheless, they would probably be a complete failure at the beginning. Why? Because we cannot change the world in one day. Similarly, we cannot make all the changes in the class at once. We should do it step by step, like a baby when he/she is learning to walk. One step at a time.

From a student perspective, it is not easy to get out of the comfort zone. That’s why I believe, at the beginning, students would be reluctant to try new things. Students won’t be 100% engage in the activities. Why? Because they are not familiar with these new ideas. They will not feel comfortable in this active learning environment because they will not be able to anticipate the outcomes. They rather will have, sometimes, to improvise. Make mistakes is not something that they feel good about it. It is hard to try to change the misconception that grades are all that matters. Students hate when they make mistakes.

I have a very committed student in the class this semester. I know that he understands very well all the topics. He always works in class and in all the assignments. Unfortunately, he makes small mistakes on the exam and assignments that affect his grades. This really upset him because the grades do not reflect what he knows. For me, this is not a big deal because I know that he will get a good great at the end of the semester. One day, he was very disappointed because of the mistake that he made in one of the assignments that I actually helped him.

This is a part of what he wrote me:

“I am just frustrated I forgot to press one button and it threw everything off, especially after you helped me find the other issue I was having”.

This is what I replied him: “Don’t worry about it! What really matters is that you understand what you are doing. Do not feel disappointed. Keep up working hard. I make mistakes all the time. In my case, this how I learn. At some point, I understood that it is ok to make mistakes. I am pretty sure that you are not going to forget re-scheduling a project again”. At the end, he really appreciated what I told him. As professors, we need motivate students!

Please do not give up and keep trying. Roma was not built in one day. One step at a time! We can make the change! It would take time but at the end, it will be worth. The learning environment should change and adapt to today’s generation and world.

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