Saturday, June 30, 2012

Just Keep Learning

I've gotten through the first two units in my Udacity AI class.  Unit 1 was on localization using Histogram filters; and unit 2 was on tracking using Kalman filters.  It's an amazing class to me in much the same way that the Stanford AI class was.  It just cuts through all the BS and presents the core ideas, not dumbing them down, rather approaching the material using intuition first; and leaving mathematical formalism for later (another class perhaps), after the core ideas are absorbed.  I think I'll blog more about those methods in the future; but I wanted to go in a different direction today.

I thought I would take this opportunity to acknowledge two teachers who have contributed in no small part to my recent renaissance of learning.  I've always been a lifelong learner; but I would say I was getting a little down about not being able to keep up with the areas I'm interested in.  A great teacher can be such an inspiration in your life; but they also back it up by giving you the knowledge and tools to act on your dreams and ambitions.

So, click on my friends; and let me know about your favorite teachers.

When I got my iPad, I quickly discovered iTunes U.  Soon after, I discovered MIT's online courses, and Gilbert Strang.  Professor Strang has been teaching Math for over 50 years now I guess; and I gather he's had a huge impact on how linear algebra is taught around the world.  Not enough though because I was not taught in such a clear and concise fashion when I took it.

His computational science and engineering lectures absolutely blew my mind.  His lectures on four special matrices and their applications should be required viewing for all engineering students.  Their magic is the simple presentation of a common framework, using matrices of course, that is very quickly applied to very different applications, and that show you how to solve problems in the area.  The range of applications he covers are greater than many students even get exposed to within a single major.  Least squares, finite differences, electrical networks, trusses, finite elements, and on.

Professor Gilbert Strang

After going through professor Strang's classes, I looked into Stanford's courses; and watched several of the programming lectures.  Then an announcement caught my attention.  Stanford was going to be offering a free, online course in artificial intelligence.  I was hooked at that point.  My assumption was that it would be the same type of recorded lectures that I was used to; but I was completely mistaken.  Instead, this excitable and passionate German fellow started zipping through ideas and giving me simple quizzes.  By the end of the first couple of classes, I felt like I had been through a month of lectures in a normal classroom.  Thank you Sebastian Thrun.  You helped me learn material that I thought would require much longer and slogging through many papers and books.  Your vision for free and open education might actually change the world.

My alma mater is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  At the time, it was the third-ranked school in my field behind Stanford and MIT.  I actually remember 4 or 5 excellent professors who were also gifted teachers.  None of them conveyed the material with as much clarity and sheer joy as these two gentlemen have done though.  Unfortunately, in hindsight I realize that some of that was due to my own immaturity at the time.  I was not ready to receive a lot of what those professors were trying to pass on; nor did I have the scope of knowledge to assimilate what I was learning and connect the dots.

Alma Mater

How cool would it be to go back and be able to hear some of those lectures again with the benefit of a little more experience?  Very.  Ah well, that is the great trade-off between youth and experience I guess; but that is also a problem that things like Udacity, MIT OpenCourseWare, Kahn Academy, etc are solving.  Been a couple of years since you took the class and want to go back and hear something explained again?  Just watch it again!

What teachers have inspired and equipped you?

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