Getting Schooled

Have any of you taken a class at Coursera? It’s one of several websites aimed at offering free online college courses (Udacity and edX are a couple others, though I haven’t tried those yet) from various universities. You don’t get university credit, but a lot of the courses do offer a statement of completion.

For many years I’ve had an interest in artificial intelligence and robotics; I took Introduction to AI my senior year of college, which was hands-down my favorite class during my college career, and my senior design project was a six-legged walking robot. After graduation, though, I never really pursued those areas any further, and certainly none of the jobs I had pertained to those areas. Recently I was reading an issue of Marquette Engineer that profiled some of the new faculty, and discovered there’s a new professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department that’s going to have a humanoid robotics lab. My immediate reaction was “WHERE WAS THIS GUY WHEN I WAS IN SCHOOL?!?!”

I suddenly felt a strong desire to go back to school for an advanced degree, but with a toddler running around the house, and probable plans to add another kid to our family in the next year or so, it doesn’t seem very feasible for me right now. I’m sure if I had to, I could make it work, but I’d rather not attempt grad school with an infant. So, if I do go back to school, it will probably have to wait till kid #2 is at least 2 or 3. I can’t just let my math, programming, and general academic skills deteriorate in the meantime (any more than they already have, of course), so I decided to take a few Coursera classes.

So, for the past month I’ve been taking AI Planning and Control of Mobile Robots. AI Planning offers three levels of completion: Awareness (which involves just watching a selection of the lecture videos, and then taking an exam), Foundation (which requires watching all the lecture videos, taking the Awareness level exam, and taking a Foundation level exam with more involved questions), and Performance (which involves all of the above, plus a couple of programming assignments.) Being the nerd that I am, I went for the Performance level. I’m glad I did, because the programming assignments were no joke, and it really helped refresh my skills a lot.

I’m enjoying Control of Mobile Robots a lot too; it’s definitely a challenge considering the fact that Control Theory uses a lot of differential equations and it’s been about a decade since I took differential equations. I’m finding myself really tempted to buy a little robot kit so I can test out some of the stuff I’m learning.

I managed to finish AI Planning a week early this past weekend, which is good because this week I’m starting another course: Natural Language Processing. There are going to be a few programming assignments for this course, and while I could probably do them in C++ (the language I know best), I’ve decided to learn Python and use that instead. For one thing, it was one of the programming languages recommended by the instructor, and for another, I’ve read that it’s well-suited for NLP, and for another, I want to learn it! (In case anyone cares, I’m using the tutorials at Learn Python The Hard Way.

I’m really enjoying this format for taking classes; I can fit in my classwork during Drake’s naps or after he goes to bed, or whenever Kevin takes him off my hands. Even if I don’t ever end up going back to school formally, I’m really glad I’m doing this. 🙂

P.S. Some of my hobbies (knitting, video games) have fallen by the wayside a bit, but I am trying to make time for them once in awhile. I’ll save some of that for another post, seeing’s how I’m doing an abysmal job at my blogging New Year’s resolution!


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