Life as a Computer Engineer at San Jose State University – Zoie MacDougall’s Coding Journey
DUBLIN, CA–Dublin High School Class of 2015 alum and San Jose State University Class of 2019 sophomore Zoie MacDougall, now pursuing a degree in computer engineering, is our next Life in College and Women in STEM profile. Zoie was a member of the Dublin High School Gael Force Robotics Team which competed in tournaments including the VEX World Championships.
OneDublin.org: How would you describe coding to a middle school student?
Zoie MacDougall: “Coding is using a computer to create things and solve problems. I started coding in 4th grade on Neopets, a site where you can modify pages using HTML. At the time I never thought of that as coding, it was just a way to make my page look nice. I ended up Googling ‘how do you make your page look pretty’ and learned how to code in HTML. I would learn how other people’s code worked and then write my own code.
“At first coding was a way to make a computer do fun and cool things. As you get more into coding you learn it’s is a powerful tool for self-expression. Coding can be really helpful in solving math problems. In robotics, code is a way to bring a hunk of metal to life. Coding is so many things – you can do whatever you want with coding.”
OneDublin.org: What experiences at Dublin High School helped prepare you for computer engineering at San Jose State University?
MacDougall: “Challenging myself at Dublin High School with AP classes and a busy schedule by participating in extracurricular activities like robotics prepared me for the time management and challenging classes that I’ve had to face in college. It’s always scary when you go up a grade or start a new semester, but by college it felt like I’d done it so many times it wasn’t as intimidating. Living on my own and having a job has been a major change from high school. I have to feed myself now, and there’s no one else to do the chores.
“Dublin High School’s Engineering Academy classes were excellent and really prepared me for college-level engineering courses. In college, however, you are no longer spoon fed the material. You have to take the time to figure out concepts on your own. I found it’s more common in college for a large portion of the class to find a concept confusing or difficult, and that students have to take more time to self-learn than in high school.
“Time management for projects is a big deal in college. I’ve only had one B so far and that was because in my first semester our team struggled to make the logistics work, getting enough access to the lab and finding times to meet. It was an important learning experience.”
OneDublin.org: Building on that experience, what have you learned about making group projects works?
MacDougall: “Dublin High School helped prepare me for managing projects in college. A big difference in college, at least so far, is not knowing most of the people I’m working with, whereas in high school I knew everyone. Because of that I need to dedicate time at the start of the project to understand what people are good at, what roles they feel comfortable with, and what their skills are, so that we can divide up the work.
“Any teamwork experience you can get is valuable. I didn’t spend a lot of time in extracurricular sports or team-based activities until I got to Dublin High School and joined Gael Force Robotics. Robotics played a very significant role in teaching me teamwork skills. In Gael Force Robotics there’s a wide variety of people who put in a varying amount of effort. You’ll have people on a team who are willing to work day and night on the project, and people who’ll just put in the bare minimum. Robotics taught me how to manage a timeline and work towards deadlines; we kept notebooks with goals, milestones and prioritized tasks.
“Gael Force Robotics taught me how to break down a problem into manageable chunks.”
OneDublin.org: You just noted a key skill of engineering – breaking down problems. Tell me more about that.
MacDougall: “If you want a robot to walk you have to tell it to lift the leg up, extend it forward, put the foot down. If you want a person to do the same thing you can just say ‘walk forward’. When you program you have to think about problems in the tiniest of steps, and that’s helped me do the same for projects. You have to break down problems in manageable chunks or you’ll just have an intimidating dream and not know where to start.”
OneDublin.org: What have you learned from the internships you’ve had so far?
MacDougall: ” I’ve learned to be open-minded because a job can be more complex and intricate than you initially assume. I also recommend doing things that you are afraid of, or that you don’t believe you are capable of, because that’s the only way you’ll make progress. If you mess up, that’s ok, you’ll learn.
“I don’t have any formal education in web design; everything I’ve learned has been through Googling or messing around for fun. It was really scary going to a company and saying I’d create a new front end for their website. It was a really big job and I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but as I dug into the project I met people that could help me and found resources online. The coding resources available online are amazing – from education to open source code. I’ve learned to take on challenges and believe that you can work through them.”
OneDublin.org: Being in STEM means dealing with a lot of failure. What failure have you learned the most from so far?
MacDougall: “The most painful failure I went through happened during high school. During my first two years of high school I went from knowing nothing about robotics to being really successful. I’d been on a robotics team that went to the VEX World Championships. I won first place at Dublin High School’s first Entrepreneurial Competition, I learned how to program and how to manage teams. I had lot of confidence going into my junior year, took on a lot of AP classes and worked hard to be a leader on my robotics team. I also took on a project management position for a project that went way over budget, and was the biggest robot built to-date at Dublin High. Because I bit off so much, everything suffered. It made me feel like I’d reached my peak and it really hurt my confidence.
“Rebuilding my confidence after what happened in my junior year was a really valuable learning experience. I needed to remind myself that you learn from failures. By going over budget I learned a tremendous amount about how to budget. I learned how to get back up, ask for help and do things differently the next time, and to never be too proud to ask for help.”
OneDublin.org: If you were talking to a group of middle or high school girls, what advice would you have for them regarding STEM?
MacDougall: “Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated. I wasn’t planning to be an engineer until I went to a meeting after school during middle school. There was an announcement that students from Dublin High School were on campus to give a presentation about robotics. I thought it sounded so cool – I just wanted to try it. I showed up at the presentation and I was the only girl. I was so embarrassed – I thought I had misread something, and that it was only a boys robotics club. I almost walked out.
“That one meeting had such a big impact on my life, and I’m so happy I stayed. Finally when the high school presenters came in there was a girl with them, and I realized I hadn’t messed up.
“Don’t be intimidated by engineering, it’s just another problem to solve, and if you don’t challenge yourself to do new things then your life is going to be boring! As a girl in STEM you might find yourself in situations where teammates look like they know what they’re doing, and you’ll feel intimidated at first, but that’s how everyone starts. Even the smartest people in the world who are building the best computers and the best robots, who are writing the most intricate code, they all started knowing nothing!”