News+Stories: You will soon finish your bachelor's degree in psychology and are about to start your computer science studies. An unusual route. What inspires you about computer science?
Naomi Pfaff: The programming itself. You can lose yourself in it completely – just like reading a good book. Then you get up, it's three hours later and you realize that you’re actually hungry. Even if there were no other reasons, like doing research or working with it professionally, I would sit down and program. I knew that even before I studied computer science. What surprised me was the feeling of happiness when you solve a mathematical problem you have been working on for a long time. If someone had told me beforehand how many hours I would sometimes deal with a problem in my computer science studies, I would certainly have scored it as a point against. But actually, I love this aspect of it. You always have the feeling that you’re close to the answer, and you keep changing your approach until it finally works.
You always have the feeling that you’re close to the answer, and you keep changing your approach until it finally works.
What were your first points of contact with computer science?
Naomi Pfaff:I studied psychology because I was interested in human consciousness and learned in my studies how neural networks work. When I found out that researchers were working on modelling consciousness in computer programs, I wanted to do the same. That was the first time I tried to learn the programming language Python. I only had a book about Python from the library and didn't know about the many YouTube tutorials. I was making very slow progress and had to hand things in for my psychology studies, which I had to prioritize. So I put programming aside for the time being and concentrated on my studies.
Graz University of Technology regularly offers IT summer courses for beginners and advanced students between 10 and 19 years of age, including courses especially for women and girls.
When did you make the decision to study computer science at TU Graz?
Naomi Pfaff: At first I was looking for specific psychological internships in which I could program. In my first internship I programmed statistical analyses in the programming language R, which was easier to start with. I got help from my supervisor when I went down blind alleys. In my next internship, my task was to design a game and write it in Python. In the fourth semester of my psychology bachelor's programme, I was sure that I wanted to program professionally. But I was also interested in psychology. Therefore I planned to start computer science only after I finished my bachelor’s thesis.
In your bachelor’s thesis you designed a tutorial game with learning tasks in particular areas of mathematics and programming, especially for female teenagers. How did that come about?
Naomi Pfaff: The design of the tasks in the educational game is in principle suitable for all beginners – male and female. The tasks are designed to put less strain on the working memory than comparable tasks. This is particularly beneficial for beginners, because they need more working memory capacity to mentally represent the problem area, i.e. to develop an inner idea of it. Female beginners, however, face the additional problem of a "stereotype threat" when programming. This is a working memory stress that arises when someone from a social group who is denied skills in a certain field deals with problems from that field. This puts additional strain on the working memory. My assumption was therefore that female beginners benefit particularly from tasks that can be learned without engaging a high working memory load. The design, storyline, gameplay and graphics of the game using these tasks are also tailored to female teenagers. To this end, we asked female teenagers about their preferences regarding computer games, mobile games and their general interests. That's how I learned who Billy Eilish is (editor's note: an American singer-songwriter who stormed the charts worldwide). Fantasy games and games where the storyline is central were most often named as favorite games. That's why the game is a fantasy game in which the plot is the main focus.
The game developed by Naomi Pfaff is about a girl whose dog Noodles disappears in a magic book. The girl enters the magic world of the book in search of Noodles and is taught magic by a sarcastic cat. Each spell is a programming task and its effect on the game world is linked to the effect of the code.
Who would you recommend the study of computer science to, based on your experience up to now?
Naomi Pfaff: I think computer science would be fun not only for people who like maths and physics at school, but also for those who like to write analytical essays in German, politics and history. The capacity for abstraction that is needed, the search for logical connections and even the mode of working are similar when programming and writing such essays. In computer science studies, you often have to think laterally, which is what is practised at school when writing essays. I would therefore recommend computer science not only to the "usual suspects" from the advanced courses in physics and mathematics, but also to people who would otherwise be advised to take law.
I think computer science would be fun not only for people who like maths and physics at school, but also for those who like to write analytical essays in German, politics and history.
Do you already have an idea of your career after graduation?
Naomi Pfaff: I definitely want to join the European Human Brain Project at some point. In it, researchers from computational neuroscience and neuroinformatics deal with the very idea that brought me to computer science at the very beginning. They use programs to model consciousness or parts of it.
Graz University of Technology is given a Key Role in the EU Flagship Project “Human Brain Project”. Dedicated to current projects in the field of brain research at TU Graz are the News+Stories articles “New approach for a biological programming language” and “Our brain – the most exciting computer of all time”.