Melinda Crane: Game Girl

In high school, Melinda Crane enjoyed playing video games like MapleStory in her spare time. When she began contemplating college majors as a junior, her parents suggested she look behind the games to the people who created them.

“I had taken AP CompSci and really enjoyed it,” she said. “We had some game-like projects and that really piqued my interest. My parents were pointing out there was more to computer science than those simple projects, so I decided to become a CS major to learn more.”

Her search for universities with strong computer science departments began close to home with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and expanded to include other schools. Crane said, “Hardly anyone has heard of Rice up there. Both my parents had worked at Texas A&M for several years, so they knew about Rice and pointed out that it was a really small school compared to UIUC.

“Before I even visited Rice, I emailed the CS department and they put me in contact with Dr. Stephen Wong. He invited me to visit his office in Duncan Hall and when I did, he asked some thoughtful questions relevant to my interests – things that I’d never considered. He also talked about some of the possibilities I could try at Rice with regards to games. Basically, talking with Dr. Wong showed me that I could learn more about my interests at Rice.”

While on the campus tour, Crane was stunned by Duncan Hall’s beauty and open collaboration spaces. During her campus tours, she appraised the buildings for her anticipated major because she expected to spend a lot of time there. “Then I saw Duncan Hall [at Rice University] and I was flabbergasted. I ended up applying Early Decision.”

Her first COMP class as a freshman confirmed her choice. She said, “Video games had sparked my interest, and COMP 160 was an introduction to Python via video games. The class was small and everything I had wanted, coming to Rice. Halfway through the course, I declared CS as my major.”

She was so impressed by the material and the way it was taught – part MOOC, part flipped classroom – that she became a teaching assistant (TA) for the course the next year. “Dr. Warren is a great instructor, and he’s structured the course as an inverted classroom where you read or watch the lectures before class then spend your time in class collaboratively working on the projects.”

Crane also credits Warren with strengthening her application for a summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) position through the National Science Foundation. “I was very lucky in that Dr. Warren wrote support for me when I applied for an NSF REU my freshman summer. I was accepted, and that summer I got the opportunity to work with augmented reality via the LeapMotion.”

As a junior, she became a TA for COMP 321 and enrolled in Warren’s advanced game design course. She said, “I’m taking Dr. Warren’s COMP 460 right now. In the advanced version, we’re expected to know how to learn new languages on our own. A lot of it’s in C++, which many people don’t know coming into the class. He expects us to be able to figure out what we need to learn in order to make the projects happen. He’ll give us advice, but he acts a lot more like a manager than a professor.”

She also launched her own course on visual novels analysis.
“In the class I’m teaching, COLL 157 Visual Novel Analysis, I lead ten students through this relatively new medium that combines story-telling entertainment with game-style decision making.

“Visual novels and videogames overlap in certain departments, and I want to highlight the creation process. At the end of my class, the ten students in it will be able to understand what makes up the synergy of a visual novel. They’ll be able to come up with their own design decisions and defend them. Visual novels are a newer medium, and there’s a lot of room for creativity.

“I’m happy to have the opportunity to teach others about what I like. It’s great Rice University gives students the chance to teach.”

Whether she’s in instructing or learning, Crane feels communication is a one of the keys to success for CS majors. She said students, TAs, and professors all like to explain things. “I’ve never met anyone here who is exasperated from being asked to explain. Besides, talking through something helps you understand it better.”

If she needs to talk through a problem and no one else is around, Crane creates her own rubber duck audience. “People are definitely better than rubber ducks,” she said, “but just the act of walking through your code by telling it to someone or something helps you understand it better.”

The most important advice Crane offers new CS students is to keep working on the problem. “Determination is one of the biggest traits the students in this major share. None of us will give up without a fight. Despite how cheesy it sounds, you really can do it.”

She said prospective CS students should expect nitpicking challenges every step of the way, and that constant series of one hurdle after another can cause some students to drop out of the major. “But that’s when you go to your TAs, your classmates, your professors. It’s not a lonely trek up to success,” said Crane. “Sometimes it feels like the mountain itself is blocking your path, but keep going. The view from the top is worth it.”

Crane’s determination to succeed has resulted in internship offers from Hewlett Packard and SnapChat. She said, “HPE was a good experience and I learned how to work in a large team. This summer, I’ll be at SnapChat. It’s a nice contrast with HPE because SnapChat is both smaller and newer, but I’m most excited about the way it is more closely aligned with my interests.”