Convocation ‘22: Emma McDonald, MSc Computing Science

From MOOCs to STEM, Emma McDonald sees computer programming as a way to build community.

Donna McKinnon - 06 June 2022

When Emma McDonald finished her double undergraduate degree in mathematical and statistical sciences, and computing sciences, she says she had a hard time reckoning with the milestone because the next direction for her academic career felt unclear. Her accomplishments, however, were many, including a degree-spanning volunteer role with Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (WISEST) and Ada's Team, a student group that encourages diversity in STEAM with an emphasis on technology.

Between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Emma worked with the CMPUT 174 team as a subject matter expert, helping to develop and then launch a massive open online course (MOOC) in computational problem solving and programming video games.

Now graduating with a master’s degree in computing science, where she worked on the development of an educational tool for sequential questioning, Emma feels more purpose-driven than ever, advocating for gender diversity in STEM and ready to take on new challenges in her field.

Congratulations Emma!

What led you to pick the U of A?

Before my graduate studies, I worked with professors Paul Lu and Duane Szafron on the development of the Problem Solving, Python Programming, and Video Games MOOC. This experience was amazing, so my reasons for attending the U of A were twofold: I wanted to continue working in the space of computing science education and I wanted to continue working with professor Lu. There is a very thoughtful, caring community of educators at the U of A and I was so excited to be a part of it.

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?
One of my favourite instructors invited me to a casual research group that was just getting started. I was late to the first meeting because of a conflicting class. I stumbled in partway through, out of breath, absolutely terrified and feeling out of my depth, and immediately my colleagues made room for me. We took turns sharing why we were interested in our shared area of research. This simple reflection still sticks with me, as well as the friendly atmosphere that took both me and the things I was interested in seriously. That was one of the first times I thought maybe I was in the right place in graduate school.

What advice do you have for current and future students?
My advice is to keep talking to people. If you don't, it is far too easy to start believing you are grappling with something unique only to you. There's almost always someone out there who feels similarly to you, whether it is excitement or fear or confusion or even a philosophical quandary about what kind of impact any of us can hope to make through our work. I had a wonderful relationship with my supervisor, but in the day-to-day, I still had to remind myself to keep up communication so I didn't get bogged down in details.

I initially thought I would not need to talk to anyone else besides my supervisor. But we are at a university — we are a community! Of course I needed other people in my circles: for advice, complaints, brainstorming, tough conversations, encouragement, all of it. Reaching out to a variety of people allows you to have all the conversations you need to have, to get help and to offer help, to keep thinking and growing.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?
When I finished my undergraduate degree, I had a hard time reckoning with the milestone. I didn't feel I had accomplished what I set out to do when I started university. This time around, I feel so much more like I am coming out of my degree with a sense of direction and purpose. So, on the one hand, I feel like I am already celebrating just by feeling excited about what's next. But, on the other hand, I am really looking forward to celebrating by taking some time off!