O'Really?

April 28, 2020

Join us to discuss learning programming languages: Monday 4th May at 11am #sigcsejclub

Filed under: education,engineering,Uncategorized — Duncan Hull @ 10:17 am
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Hieroglyphs_from_the_tomb_of_Seti_I

Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I, by Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons and the Egypt archive

ACM SIGCSE Journal Club returns Monday 4th May at 11am. The paper we’re discussing this month is “Relating Natural Language Aptitude to Individual Differences in Learning Programming Languages” by Chantel Prat et al published in Scientific Reports. [1] Here’s the abstract:

This experiment employed an individual differences approach to test the hypothesis that learning modern programming languages resembles second “natural” language learning in adulthood. Behavioral and neural (resting-state EEG) indices of language aptitude were used along with numeracy and fluid cognitive measures (e.g., fluid reasoning, working memory, inhibitory control) as predictors. Rate of learning, programming accuracy, and post-test declarative knowledge were used as outcome measures in 36 individuals who participated in ten 45-minute Python training sessions. The resulting models explained 50–72% of the variance in learning outcomes, with language aptitude measures explaining significant variance in each outcome even when the other factors competed for variance. Across outcome variables, fluid reasoning and working-memory capacity explained 34% of the variance, followed by language aptitude (17%), resting-state EEG power in beta and low-gamma bands (10%), and numeracy (2%). These results provide a novel framework for understanding programming aptitude, suggesting that the importance of numeracy may be overestimated in modern programming education environments.

The paper describes an experiment which investigates the relationship between learning natural languages and programming languages and draws some interesting conclusions that provide some good discussion points. Does being good at learning natural languages like English make you good at learning programming language like Python? Do linguists make good coders? We’ll be meeting on Zoom, details will be sent to anyone who registers at sigman2.eventbrite.co.uk

References

  1. Prat, C.S., Madhyastha, T.M., Mottarella, M.J. et al. (2020) Relating Natural Language Aptitude to Individual Differences in Learning Programming Languages. Scientific Reports 10, 3817 (2020). DOI:10.1038/s41598-020-60661-8

 

March 4, 2020

Join us to discuss student misconceptions in programming, March 23rd from 1pm to 2pm

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The Scream by Edvard Munch 😱, reproduced in LEGO by Nathan Sawaya, the BrickArtist.com

In Canterbury, Glasgow and Manchester, we’re starting a journal club, as part of uki-sigcse.acm.org, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group (SIG) on Computer Science Education (CSE). Journal clubs are like a book clubs, but instead of chatting about books we discuss journal papers instead. Who should come? What’s on the agenda? How can you join and what are our club rules? Read on…

Who should come?

Our journal club will be of interest to:

  • Educators who teach some flavour of computing or you run a coding boot camp.
  • Employers who employ and train software engineers, data scientists, developers, coders, programmers, etc
  • Employees your boss has sent you on a training program or bootcamp to learn or improve your programming
  • Students what misconceptions about programming have you encountered?
  • Everyone and anyone who is curious. Our doors are open, this is not an ivory tower. Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach.

Agenda: The paper we’ll be discussing

If you’d like to join us, read the paper: Identifying Student Misconceptions of Programming by Lisa Kaczmarczyk et al [1] which was voted a top paper from the last 50 years by SIGCSE members in 2019. Here is a summary:

Computing educators are often baffled by the misconceptions that their CS1 students hold. We need to understand these misconceptions more clearly in order to help students form correct conceptions. This paper describes one stage in the development of a concept inventory for Computing Fundamentals: investigation of student misconceptions in a series of core CS1 topics previously identified as both important and difficult. Formal interviews with students revealed four distinct themes, each containing many interesting misconceptions. Three of those misconceptions are detailed in this paper: two misconceptions about memory models, and data assignment when primitives are declared. Individual misconceptions are related, but vary widely, thus providing excellent material to use in the development of the CI. In addition, CS1 instructors are provided immediate usable material for helping their students understand some difficult introductory concepts.

In case you’re wondering, CS1 refers to the first course in the introductory sequence of a computer science major (in American parlance), roughly equivalent to first year undergraduate in the UK. CI refers to a Concept Inventory, a test designed to tell teachers exactly what students know and don’t know. According to Reinventing Nerds, the paper has been influential because it was the “first to apply rigorous research methods to investigating misconceptions”. After a brief introduction to the paper and its authors we will discuss the following:

  • What is good about the paper?
  • What could be improved?
  • What is the most surprising or interesting thing you got from the paper?
  • How convincing is the evidence, arguments and conclusions presented?
  • How could you use the results and insights in your own teaching or training program?
  • What are the next steps that follow on from this research? What has already been done to follow on from this work?
  • Has consensus and opinion moved since the publication of this paper ten years ago? If so, how and why?
  • Why was this paper voted top 10 of all time by SIGCSE.org members?
  • Are there any elephants in the room? Does the paper omit anything relevant or gloss over important details?
  • What do we know that we know (Rumsfeld’s known knowns)
  • What do we know that we don’t know (Rumsfeld’s known unknowns)
  • A.O.B.: Any other questions or comments?
  • Why was this paper chosen for journal club?
  • What paper should we discuss at our next meeting?

How can you join?

We’ll be meeting in the Atlas rooms, Kilburn building, Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, see bit.ly/directions-to-kilburn-building and www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/about/maps-and-travel online using Zoom, find login details and register at sigman1.eventbrite.co.uk.

Can’t make it this time? Groups will be running in parallel in Glasgow (23rd March at 1pm with Quintin Cutts) and Canterbury (Friday 27th March, 14.00, Room S132 in the Cornwallis building, School of Computing with Sally Fincher) to discuss the same paper. You can also join us online using the hashtag #SIGCSEJClub. If you’d like to know about future journal clubs in Manchester send an email to with the text…

subscribe sigcse-journal-club yourfirstname yoursecondname

…in the body of your email.

Start your own local journal club

If Manchester, Glasgow or Canterbury aren’t easy for you to get to, start your own journal club by joining SIGCSE at uki-sigcse.acm.org/membership and posting the details to their mailing list. We plan to have regular journal clubs every three months or so where we’ll discuss the same paper nationally during journal club week: this one is Monday 23rd to Friday 27th March.

 

Journal club rules

We will loosely be following the guidelines at Ten Simple Rules for Running a Journal Club including:

  • It will be casual  not formal. There will be coffee and refreshments available. We won’t be providing lunch but feel free to bring your own. Some companies call them brown bag meetings, because many of us may will only have an hour so we need to get straight down to business.
  • It’s about more than just the articles. We are building (and strengthening) communities of practice amongst peers in Computer Science education, not just inside academia but in industry as well. Don’t be shy, all are welcome!
  • Multidisciplinary is not a dirty word: we aim to foster equality, diversity and inclusion of different people, disciplines, practices and viewpoints. That means we’re open to anyone teaching computer science. That could be in a school, FE college, University, bootcamp, onboarding scheme, company induction or employers staff training program etc. Students are welcome too. The more diverse our journal club is, the stronger it will be.
  • Topics will reflect the diversity of our membership. We’ve started with student misconceptions, but we invite proposals for which paper we should discuss at our next meeting so we can vote on them.
  • We’ll pick interesting papers, but they don’t have to be award winning. Papers don’t need to be heavily cited either, but they do have to be thought provoking and provide something meaty to discuss alongside practical tips that can be put into practice straight away.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments section below, via email or twitter.

You might also like…

If you care about the training & education of software engineers and computer scientists, you might also be interested in #CSEdResearchBookClub which will take place on Thursday 5th March at 8pm. They’ll be discussing a paper by Sue Sentance et al. on using Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify & Make (PRIMM) called Teaching computer programming with PRIMM: a sociocultural perspective. CS education book club is co-ordinated by Jane Waite at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) see below:

References

  1. Kaczmarczyk, Lisa C.; Petrick, Elizabeth R.; East, J. Philip; Herman, Geoffrey L. (2010). Identifying student misconceptions of programming, SIGCSE ’10: Proceedings of the 41st ACM technical symposium on Computer science educationages 107–111doi:10.1145/1734263.1734299

January 27, 2020

Seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a Physicist

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Wandering the Immeasurable: A sculpture at CERN by Gayle Hermick, picture re-used with permission from the artist

Even if you’re not a Physicist, there is plenty to see and do above and below ground at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Home to the worlds largest experiment on what is arguably the worlds largest machine near Geneva in Switzerland, CERN is a very inspiring place to visit. Consequently, CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) feature in many guidebooks like The Geek Atlas [1], the Atlas Obscura, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.com. So what can you actually see and do at CERN?

  1. Get a well paid engineering job. Good news for engineers, there are loads of jobs at CERN. What better way to explore a place than to work there? If you’re a student see careers.cern/students for details on summer internships and year long technical student programs. If you have already graduated, take a look at the CERN Fellowships and the doctoral student program. There are also plenty of opportunities for more experienced engineers described at careers.cern/professionals too. CERN’s mission is to “unite people from all over the world to push the frontiers of science and technology, for the benefit of all”. Part of that means providing opportunities for people from CERN’s 23 member states to learn new skills at CERN and take them back to their home country. For every research physicist at CERN, there are ten engineers. [2] To run their experiments, physicists rely on massive, novel and a very precise network of machines made with millions of parts, both moving and stationary. You need an army of engineers to build, test, run and develop such a complex machine, for example:
    • Mechanical engineers develop heating & cooling systems and mechatronics (there are quite a few robots at CERN)
    • Materials engineers test novel materials, metals, magnets, microscopes, superconductors, vacuums, X-ray diffraction and apply radiochemistry
    • Software and hardware engineers develop applications, virtualised infrastructure, distributed computing and databases using a wide range of programming and scripting languages. These applications manage data in one of the most highly demanding computing environments in the research world
    • Electrical and electronic engineers work on energy distribution, signal processing, microelectronics and radio frequency technology
    • Civil engineers and geotechnical engineers develop structures, roads, drainage, both above (and under) ground to accommodate all of the above
    • There are non-engineering jobs too, in administration careers.cern/AdminStudent-projects and Applied Physics (obviously)

So CERN is full of engineers of every flavour. But if you’re not a physicist or an engineer looking for a job, there is still plenty to see and do. So let’s reboot our listicle again: seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a physicist, an engineer or job seeker:

  1. Watch cosmic rays arrive from outer space: There are two permanent exhibitions which can be visited without booking and they both have free entry. One is housed in the aesthetically pleasing Globe of Science and Innovation (GoSI) and is called the Universe of Particles. Another is opposite the GoSI and called Microcosm. There’s plenty to see in both exhibits, including film projections, spark chambers showing cosmic rays and cloud chambers which allow you to visualise ionizing radiation.
  2. Wander the Immeasurable with Gayle Hermick: Right outside the GoSI, sits an impressive sculpture made of 15 tonnes of twisted steel, stretched out over 37 metres in length and 11 metres up into the air. Covered in mathematical equations describing physical laws, the sculpture tells the story of Physics from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece up to present day Higgs Boson and beyond. It’s a beautiful work of art to contemplate by Gayle Hermick. Having been inspired by equations the next thing you need to do is…
  3. Crunch numbers using Einsteins famous equation: You can’t visit CERN without crunching some numbers. Many people will be familiar with Einsteins famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E=mc². What this means is that energy can be converted into mass (and vice versa) and the “exchange rate” () is a very large number – the speed of light squared. So, you can turn a small about of mass into a HUGE amount of energy. Armed with your handy mass–energy calculator, you can crunch numbers, for example 1 kg = 90,000,000,000,000,000 Joules.
  4. Thank the technology mothership: CERN is widely known as the the birthplace the Web, which we should all be thankful for. Many other technologies can trace their origin to CERN. Bent Stumpe and his colleagues developed the first touchscreens as early as 1973. [3,4] Cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure have some of their roots in Grid Computing developed at CERN too. [5] Key pieces of widely used open-source software like Ceph and OpenStack have been co-developed at CERN. Where would we be without massive international collaborations? Find out more about how investment creates a positive impact on society through knowledge transfer, spin outs, startups and more at kt.cern. Many of these projects have an impact far beyond physics in areas such as medicine and consumer electronics. Thank you technology mothership. 🙏
  5. Boggle at Big Data: Data speaks louder than words. Here is some random data for your mind to boggle on:
    • When switched on, some of the LHC detectors track up to 40 million events per second.
    • The LHC Grid computing generates 30 petabytes (10¹⁵ bytes) per year, with 300 petabytes of data permanently archived in its tape libraries as of October 2018.
    • The big loop underground is 27km long. Travelling very fast, close to the speed of light, a proton laps the circuit 11,000 times every second.
    • There are 100,000 scientists from over 100 countries working at CERN
    • More boggling can be done in the CERN data centre, especially the key facts and figures. [6] Anyone can explore and play with over two petabytes of Physics data at opendata.cern.ch
  6. Contribute to the Grid: Talking of data, Physicists from all over the world work on data produced by the experiments. This requires supercomputers, very High Performance Computing (HPC) and Grid computing that no single machine can provide. This is why the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) exists. With the improvements of the LHC more and more computing power is required to crunch the data. Anyone can contribute by joining in the LHC@home project. Who knows? Maybe you can be a part of the discovery of the new mysterious particle or the proof that physicists have been struggling with for decades. CERN’s Grid builds on volunteered resources provided via the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) middleware.
  7. Book a free tour: While the two free permanent exhibitions require no booking, the free tours do and they offer much more. Tours are typically given by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. You can learn a lot from the permanent exhibitions, but a tour guide brings the place to life. Tours fill up quickly and provide access to restricted parts of CERN such as mission control, the ATLAS experiment, CMS cavern, synchro-cyclotron, the CERN data centre and more. [6] The cyclotron tells the story of CERN from 1957, when the first particle accelerator arrived in pieces on the back of a few lorries. Today it spans 27 km of France and Switzerland. How did that happen? Using lights and projectors, the exhibition brings the story to life in an illuminating way. At the time of writing, limited underground visits are possible as we are in the middle of the long shutdown 2 [7]. Tunnels are accessible but you’ll need to book a tour.

If you ever get the chance to visit.cern, it is well worth it. There is nowhere else quite like it. CERN is a truly inspiring place that demonstrates what can be achieved when thousands of people collaborate on a shared vision.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank current and former CERN technical students from the University of Manchester for their tours (both virtual and actual) of CERN and comments on drafts of this article: Raluca Cruceru, Simeon Tsvetankov, Iuliana Voinea, Grzegorz Jacenków, Boris Vasilev, Ciprian Tomoiagă, Nicole Morgan, Paul-Adrian Gafton, Joshua Dawes and Stefan Klikovits. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or by email.

Thanks to Gayle Hermick for her permission to re-use the picture of her artwork in this piece.

DISCLAIMER: You can probably tell from reading the above that I am not a Physicist, unless you count a very rusty A-level from decades ago. Any factual errors in this article are the combined fault of me and my Physics teacher!

References

    1. John Graham-Cumming (2009) The Geek Atlas: 128 places where Science & Technology come alive O’Reilly Media, Inc. ISBN: 9780596802257
    2. Did you know, CERN employs ten times more engineers and technicians than research physicists? home.cern/science/engineering Deadlines for applications are typically, end of January for summer internships and September and March for technical studentships, check careers.cern for details.
    3. Bent Stumpe and Christine Sutton (2010) The first capacitative touch screens at CERN: The story of a forerunner to today’s mobile-phone screens, cerncourier.com
    4. Bent Stumpe (2014) The ‘Touch Screen’ Revolution: 103–116. DOI: 10.1002/9783527687039.ch05 Chapter 5 of From Physics to Daily Life by Beatrice Bressan Wiley‐VCH Verlag GmbH & Co ISBN: 9783527332861
    5. Maria Alandes Pradillo and Andrzej Nowak (2013) The Grid, CERN’s Global Supercomputer Computerphile
    6. Mélissa Gaillard (2019) Key Facts and Figures – CERN Data Centre information-technology.web.cern.ch
    7. Evan Gough (2018) The Large Hadron Collider has been Shut Down, and Will Stay Down for Two Years While they Perform Major Upgrades universetoday.com

 

December 10, 2019

Thank you Sara and Bhav at Wikimedia UK

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Participants in the Training of Trainers workshop at the University of Glasgow, November 2019. Picture by Sara Thomas (WMUK) [CC BY-SA 4.0 commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TtT_Group_Shot_2.jpg

Last month I attended a three day Training of Trainers (ToT) course at the University of Glasgow. Run as an interactive workshop, the course was designed to help leaders of Wikipedia training events to improve their delivery and organisation. Having participated and run several Wikipedia events in the past, such an Ada Lovelace event earlier this year, I was keen to learn how do things better. Here’s a report on the workshop, with some bonus extra curricular Glasgow goodies thrown in for good measure. Thanks again Sara Thomas and Bhavesh Patel for organising and delivering the course.

As a charity, Wikimedia UK (WMUK) is part of the global Wikimedia movement. WMUK organises events in order to:

… work in partnership with organisations from the cultural and education sectors and beyond in order to unlock content, remove barriers to knowledge, develop new ways of engaging with the public and enable learners to benefit fully from the educational potential of the Wikimedia projects.

Most of the workshop participants (pictured top right) were from Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum (GLAM)  institutions and a few educational and charitable ones too. Over the three days, here is what we covered:

Day one: Getting started

We kicked off with some introductory activities including “head, heart & hands” from Waldorf education. We looked at needs analysis (Who are the participants? What is the purpose?), adult learning (particularly Howard Gardners theory of multiple intelligences) and design skills (using David Kolb’s experiential learning and Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT).

Day two: From theory to practice

The second day revisited design skills while touching on delivery skills and group work. This covered elocution, voice projection, body language and an examination the range of experiential activities that can be utilised in workshops. We also discussed aspects of Dave Meier’s accelerated learning (with feedback) and finished the day up with teams preparing for activities for day three.

Day three: The Show Must Go On

The final day of the course finished with the participants divided into four small teams. Each presented a on hour mini-session and had it critiqued by peers. This enabled us to learn from;

  • Our own mistakes
  • Other peoples mistakes
  • Copying / stealing other peoples good ideas, of which there were plenty. Thanks Abd, Daria, Doug, Eoin, Ian, Tara, Ian, Madeleine, Marianne, Saeeda, Tore, Sara and Bhav!

Overall, this was a really useful and memorable training course, one of the best training courses I’ve been on. The content, participants, location were all great and I felt empowered by taking the course as well as making useful contacts from a range of different organisations. It had a clearly defined purpose, well chosen activities and participants, with nothing irrelevant presented. There were tonnes of practical ideas to put into practice straight away which I look forward to doing in 2020. If you’d like to do the course, get in touch with Wikimedia UK.

While in Glasgow, it would be rude not to take advantage of all the bonus extra curricular activities the city has to offer:

Bonus 1: People Make Glasgow Hospitable 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

They say that People Make Glasgow, and Glaswegians are very hospitable. In between training sessions our host Sara showed us around the city, including the University cloisters (etc), Inn Deep on the banks of the River Kelvin and Curlers Rest in the West End. Sara’s impressive knowledge of Glasgow and its history is wikipedian in its depth and breadth.

Bonus 2: Glaswegian-Mancunian connections 🇬🇧

To me, Glasgow and Manchester feel like sibling cities separated at birth. If you’re English, Glasgow can feel like a Scottish Manchester. Perhaps Manchester feels like an English Glasgow to the Scots? Here is the case:

  • Second city syndrome 🥈: As second cities, both Glasgow and Manchester live in the shadow of their more famous capitals, Edinburgh and London. Both cities are the “belly and guts” of their respective nations. Glasgow had its docks, Manchester had its cotton. While both trades are long gone, they leave similar post-industrial legacies on the culture and infrastructure of their respective cities.
  • Shipping 🚢: Ships, shipping, docks, ports, quays and wharfs run deep in both cities. Glasgow built ships on the River Clyde while Manchester used ships for export and import of goods on its Ship Canal.
  • Football ⚽: Love it or loathe it, the fitbaw connection between Glasgow and Manchester is strong [1,2]. Scrolling through the list of Manchester United managers I count not just one, two or even three but FOUR Glaswegians. Matt Busby (Belshill is basically Glasgow), Tommy Docherty, Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. Is this a coincidence or catholicism? [1,2] Who knows, but my hypothesis is that being shouted at in a strong Glaswegian accent can make teams perform better (although it didn’t work very well for Moyes). I wonder how many Glasgow kisses Alex Ferguson gave his overpaid prima donna squad to keep them in line? Strangely, the fitbaw manager connection isn’t reciprocated: I can’t find any Mancunians in the list of Celtic managers or the list of Rangers managers

Bonus 3: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut 🎸

Glasgow is home to the legendary King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. This humble venue, relatively small with a capacity of only 300, has hosted an impressive range artists including Coldplay, Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, you name it, they’ve played King Tut’s. Curious to find out what all the fuss was about, I arranged to meetup with an old Glaswegian friend for a drink at the venue. Assuming the gig that night would be sold out we asked at the bar who was playing. Turns out they had a handful of tickets left, so we spontaneously bought a pair to see Blanco White. Mixing Andalusian and Latin American influences, Blanco White play melancholic but beautiful tunes using a variety of instruments including the Charango [3]. Part of the reason King Tut’s is legendary is Glaswegian audiences are lively, and it was fun to see the band visibly moved by what Josh Edwards, the lead singer told us was:  “easily the best reception we’ve had in months of touring”.

Bonus 4: Like a Brudge over troubled water 🌊

Looking for a walk, run or ride in Glasgow? There are some great routes around the city like the Glasgow River Clyde Bridges, with at least 21 bridges to cross the Clyde on. On an early morning run, I couldn’t find any of the “bridges”, but there were plenty of “brudges” and some fantastic scenery along the Clyde. Och aye!

Bonus 5: The Glasgow Bucket List ☑️

There is still loads on my personal Glasgow bucket list for future visits, like the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, St. Mungo’s Cathedral, the Riverside Museum, Glasgow City Chambers, People’s Palace and the Glasgow Science Centre. What a great place Glasgow is, if you’ve never been, what are you waiting for?

References

    1. Frank Worrall (2007) Celtic United: Glasgow and Manchester – Two Football Clubs, One Passion, Mainstream publishing ISBN: 9781845962760
    2. Kieran Cunningham (2016) Alex Ferguson: The Irish Connection The Irish Daily Star, buzz.ie ☘️
    3. Blanco White: Olalla, more than a name…

June 23, 2017

Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference

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Delegates at the Computing at School conference 2017 #CASConf17 answering diagnostic questions, picture by Miles Berry.

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

  1. Linda Liukas demonstrated some intriguing ideas from her children’s books and HelloRuby.com that are based on Montessori education. I shall be trying some of these out (particularly the storytelling stuff) at code club to keep girls involved
  2. Sue Sentance and Neil Brown from King’s College London gave an overview of some current research in pedagogy.  They discussed research questions that can be tackled in the classroom like (for example) do learners make more progress using visual programming languages (like Scratch and Blockly) or traditional text-based languages (like Python and Java etc)? Many of these research questions would make good projects for undergraduate students to investigate in secondary schools, see research on frame based editors, for example.
  3. Michel Wermelinger from the Open University demonstrated using iPython notebooks for teaching data literacy at the Urban Data School. Although I’m familiar with iPython, it had never occurred to me to actually use iPython in school for teaching. It is a no-brainer, when you think about it, even for primary, because you have your code, inputs and outputs all in one window, and can step through code execution instead of (or as well as) using more conventional tools like Trinket, Thonny or IDLE. Data literacy is fun to teach.
  4. Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton demonstrated Diagnostic Questions in Project Quantum. These are a collection of high quality quizzes to use interactively for example as hinge questions, where teaching is adapted depending on answers given, like this multiple choice question:
    Consider the following Python code:
    
    a = 20
    b = 10
    a = b
    
    What are the values of a and b?
    
    A: a = 10, b = 10
    B: a = 20, b = 20
    C: a = 30, b = 10
    D: a = 10, b = 20
    

    You’ll have to try these five questions to check your answer. The useful thing here is that DiagnosticQuestions.com (the platform on which this is built) allows you to see lots of responses, for example each answer (A, B, C or D) above was selected by 25% of participants. You can also view explanations which illuminate common misconceptions (e.g. the classic mistake of confusing assignment with equality) as well as providing a bank of free questions for use in the classroom.

  5. Mark Guzdial from GeorgiaTech discussed using learning sciences to improve computing teaching. He demonstrated predictive questions (e.g. ask students What do you think will happen when we run this code? before actually executing it) alongside what he called subgoal labelling. These are simple ideas (with proven benefits) that can be put to use immediately. I’ll also be trying the Live Coding (with Sonic Pi) and Media Computation he demonstrated asap.
  6. Laurence Rogers demonstrated Insight: Mr. Bit  this looks like a good app for using BBC microbits in the classroom, connected to a range of sensors, provided you’ve got access to iPads.
  7. A copy of Hello World magazine was in the conference bag. The summer 2017 issue has an unusual article from Ian Benson from Kingston University and Jenny Cane describing their use of the Haskell programming language to teach 5-7 year olds to reason symbolically and learn algebra before arithmetic with help from Cuisenaire rods. The Scratch Maths project at University College London are doing similar things, building mathematical knowledge using Scratch, rather than Haskell. These are experimental ideas you could try out on unsuspecting (junior) family members.
  8. Lee Goss from Barefoot Computing, described the free CPD for primary school teachers on offer from BT. I’ve signed up and hope to plug some of the shortcomings in the Code Club Curriculum.
  9. Richard Jarvis demonstrated appJar, a handy Python library for teaching Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). That’s Jar as in Jarvis and Jam, not JAR as in Java ARchive BTW. I’ve not tried GUIs at code club yet, but appJar looks like a good way to do it.

There were lots more people and projects at the conference not mentioned here including tonnes of workshops. If you’re interested in any of the above, the CAS conference will be back in 2018. Despite the challenging problems faced by Computer Science at GCSE level, it was reassuring and inspiring to meet some members of the vibrant, diverse and friendly community pushing the boundaries of computing in schools across the United Kingdom. Thanks again to everyone at CAS for putting on another great event, I will definitely consider attending next year and maybe you should too.

July 31, 2015

Wikipedia Science Conference @WellcomeTrust in London, September 2nd & 3rd 2015 #wikisci

There is growing interest in Wikipedia, Wikidata, Commons, and other Wikimedia projects as platforms for opening up the scientific process [1]. The first Wikipedia Science Conference will discuss activities in this area at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London on the 2nd & 3rd September 2015. There will be keynote talks from Wendy Hall (@DameWendyDBE) and Peter Murray-Rust (@petermurrayrust) and many other presentations including:

  • Daniel Mietchen (@EvoMRI), National Institutes of Health: wikipedia and scholarly communication
  • Alex Bateman (@AlexBateman1), European Bioinformatics Institute: Using wikipedia to annotate scientific databases
  • Geoffrey Bilder (@GBilder), CrossRef, Using DOIs in wikipedia
  • Richard Pinch (@IMAMaths), Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. Wikimedia versus academia: a clash of cultures
  • Andy Mabbett (@PigsOnTheWing), Royal Society of Chemistry / ORCID. Wikipedia, Wikidata and more – How Can Scientists Help?
  • Darren Logan (@DarrenLogan), Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Using scientific databases to annotate wikipedia
  • Dario Taraborelli (@ReaderMeter), Wikimedia & Altmetrics, Citing as a public service
  • … and many more

I’ll be doing a talk on “Improving the troubled relationship between Scientists and Wikipedia” (see slides below) with help from John Byrne who has been a Wikipedian in Residence at the Royal Society and Cancer Research UK.

How much does finding out more about all this wiki-goodness cost? An absolute bargain at just £29 for two days – what’s not to like? Tickets are available on eventbrite, register now, while tickets are still available. 

References

  1. Misha Teplitskiy, Grace Lu, & Eamon Duede (2015). Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of
    Science Wikipedia Workshop at 9th International Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM), Oxford, UK arXiv: 1506.07608v1

July 3, 2015

Manchester Digital, Education & Digital Skills in 2015

deemind

#DeepDream manipulated image of the Creation of Adam, some rights reserved (CC-BY) by Kyle McDonald (@kcimc) on flickr

Manchester Digital a non-profit trade assocation of around 500 digital businesses in the north west of england. Every year they hold elections at their AGM for members of their council who serve for two years. It’s time for me to stand for re-election because my two years is up. Here’s a vote-for-me pitch in 100 words:

Digital skills are crucial to the success of Manchester Digital (MD) but many members of MD struggle to recruit employees with the skills their businesses need. Key questions for MD’s growing membership are how can the skills shortage be met, and what are the responsibilities of employers and educators in addressing the digital skills shortage? As a council member, I would reboot the education special interest group to report thoroughly on these issues at a strategic level. The report would provide an overview of what digital skills young people are likely to have aged 16, 18 and 21+ and what employers can do to bridge the gaps.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Manchester Digital, and hearing from diverse bunch of 18 candidates standing for 6 places on the council, come along to the MD AGM on Thursday 9th July at 5.30pm in Ziferblat (@ziferblatedgest) – where everything is free, except time.

References

  1. #DeepDream Inceptionism: Going Deeper into Neural Networks, Google Research blog
  2. #DeepDream – a code example for visualizing Neural Networks Google Research blog
  3. Britain faces ‘growing shortage’ of digital skills” Daily Telegraph
  4. A UK digital skills gap looms, The Guardian
  5. UK failing to address digital skills shortage, says Lords report, ComputerWeekly.com

May 8, 2015

MPs with Science Degrees: How did Science & Technology do in the UK General Election 2015?

In case you missed it, the people of the United Kingdom have just democratically elected 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) to run their government for the next five years [1,2]. How many of these newly elected MPs have science backgrounds? Like many, I was inspired by Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto [3] back in 2012 after reading an article which argued that (quote) “with just one British MP having a scientific background, the people who run the country clearly need some expert advice”. So when I heard the news that the MP concerned, Julian Huppert (a.k.a. the “only scientist in the commons”) had lost his Cambridge seat, I lamented accordingly on twitter:

My lament was retweeted quite a bit, then Roger Highfield at the Science Museum in London challenged the interwebs to find if it really was true:

The sciencey MP factoid was quickly questioned by some random bloke on twitter called Richard Dawkins:

… and lots of people weighed in (see below)  – as they usually do on twitter. Thankfully Margaret Harris at Physics World, set the record straight and drew attention to the impressively large Physics Vote. Viva La Relativity!

Who knew there were so many physicists involved in the election? Not me. Turns out, the article about only one science MP, is a bit misleading. Julian Huppert was the only MP in the last government to be a “primary science worker” – that’s not quite the same as studying science at university. Julian was the only MP in the last government with scientific background at PhD level:

Members of the UK Parliament with science and technology degrees in 2015

So with help from twitter, the list of MPs with science degrees looks something like this (for a 2017 update see MPs to watch via the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)):

  1. Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire (BSc in Astrophysics)
  2. Steve Baker MP for Wycombe (BSc Aerospace Engineering, MSc Computer Science)
  3. Gavin Barwell MP for Croydon Central (BA Natural Sciences)
  4. Margaret Beckett MP for Derby South (BSc Metallurgy)
  5. Karen Bradley MP for Staffordshire Moorlands (BSc Mathematics)
  6. Tom Brake MP for Carshalton and Wallington (BSc Physics)
  7. Julian Brazier MP for Canterbury (BA Mathematics)
  8. Andrew Bridgen MP for North West Leicestershire (BSc Genetics)
  9. Alan Brown MP for Kilmarnock (BSc Civil Engineering)
  10. Therese Coffey MP for Suffolk Coastal (BSc & PhD Chemistry)
  11. David Davis MP for Haltemprice & Howden (BSc Computer Science)
  12. Robert Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South (BSc Chemistry)
  13. Liam Fox MP for North Somerset (Bachelor of Medicine)
  14. Mark Hendrick MP for Central Lancashire (BSc Eletrical Engineering)
  15. Carol Monaghan MP for Glasgow North West (BSc Physics)
  16. Liz McInnes MP for Heywood & Middleton (BSc Biochemistry)
  17. Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle Central (BEng Electrical Engineering)
  18. Chris Philp MP for  Croydon South (BSc Physics)
  19. Alok Sharma MP for Reading West (BSc Physics & Electronics)
  20. Alec Shelbrooke MP for Elmet & Rothwell (BEng Mechanical Engineering)
  21. Graham Stringer MP for Blackley (BSc Chemistry)
  22. Stephen Timms MP for East Ham (MA Mathematics)
  23. Philippa Whitford MP for Ayrshire Central (Bachelor of Medicine)
  24. Sarah Wollaston MP for Totnes (Bachelor of Medicine)
  25. Valerie Vaz MP for Walsall South (BSc Biochemistry)
  26. Nadhim Zahawi MP for Stratford-on-Avon (BSc Chemical Engineering)

So there are at least 26 MPs out of 650 total who have some kind of STEM educational backgrounds, and hopefully several more. Thankfully, much better than none – but still not that high considering the proportion of STEM in the general population. This article MP’s Degrees: What do they know? claims there are many more scientific MPs, but it depends what you mean by Science of course. Over at the Science Campaign, they have counted 83 politicians with a background or “interest in” science. Doesn’t everyone have an interest in Science & Technology at some level? If so, there are 650 out of 650 MPs (100%) with an interest in science and technology then? As for MPs who have an actual science education, your mileage may vary, especially if you think Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) are all sciences. Wannabe sciences? Yes. Actual Sciences? No.

In an ideal world where politicians create policies based on evidence, rather than finding evidence to fit their policies, how many scientists and technologists do we actually need in our government? Would it actually help make for better policies?

[Update: Jo Johnson MP for Orpington (BA Modern History), is the newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science [4], a post formerly held by David Willetts. Apparently, Johnson doesn’t know anything about Science. Does it matter?]

References

  1. Castelvecchi, D. (2015). Why the polls got the UK election wrong Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17511
  2. Gibney, E. (2015). What the UK election results mean for science Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17506
  3. Anon (2012). Books in brief: The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters Nature, 485 (7397), 173-173 DOI: 10.1038/485173a
  4. Gibney, E., & Van Noorden, R. (2015). UK researchers fret about downgrading of science minister role Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17535

Thanks everyone who weighed in on twitter:

December 22, 2014

Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year!

Christmas lectures by Ben Nuttall

Christmas lectures 2014 by @Ben_Nuttall

Our homes are full of technology that we typically take for granted and understand little. Your average smartphone or tablet, for example, is a “black box”, that deliberately discourages modification by tinkering and hacking. This Christmas, Danielle George takes three technologies we routinely take for granted – the light bulb, the telephone and the motor – and shows you how to hack your home as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC Four.

Lecture 1/3 The Light Bulb Moment: First broadcast Monday 29th December

Inspired by Geordie inventor Joseph Swan, Danielle attempts to play a computer game on the windows of a skyscraper using hundreds of light bulbs. Along the way, Danielle will show the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the technologies found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Joseph Swan demonstrated the first working light bulb in 1878 he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by super-bright LED screens and lights that could be controlled using mobile phones.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and show how they can be adapted to help you realise your own light bulb moments. She shows how to send wireless messages using a barbecue, control a firework display with your laptop and use a torch to browse the internet. (via richannel.org/the-light-bulb-moment)

Lecture 2/3 Making Contact: First broadcast Tuesday 30th December

Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, Danielle attempts to beam a special guest into the theatre via hologram using the technology found in a mobile phone. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone in 1876, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d all be carrying wire-free phones in our pockets and be able to video chat in crystal clear HD across the world.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and shows how they can be adapted to help keep you connected to the people around you. She shows how to control paintball guns with a webcam and turn your smartphone into a microscope, whilst also investigating a device that allows you to feel invisible objects in mid-air. (via richannel.org/making-contact)

Lecture 3/3 A New Revolution: First broadcast Wednesday 31st December

Inspired by the Royal Institution’s very own Michael Faraday, Danielle attempts to use simple motors to construct the world’s greatest robot orchestra. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Michael Faraday demonstrated the first electric motor in 1822, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by mechanical devices capable of performing nearly every human task.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these robotic and motor-driven appliances work and shows how they can adapted to help you kick-start a technological revolution. She shows how to turn a washing machine into a wind turbine, how Lego can solve a Rubik’s Cube and how the next Mars rover will traverse an alien world. (via richannel.org/a-new-revolution)

If you miss the television broadcasts, the lectures will also be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days then at richannel.org/christmas-lectures.

This will (probably) be the last post of the year at O’Really, so if you’ve visited, thanks for reading during 2014. Wherever you are, whatever you’re up to, have a Very Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year in 2015.

2014 vs. 1964: Numbers speak louder than words

It’s that time of year when people look back at over the year that was 2014 (1-5). The place where I work, celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. Colleagues put together a little booklet of facts and figures with an some accompanying web pages to mark the occasion. My personal favourite factoid compares computing in 2014 with 1964. The Atlas Computer represented the state of the art in computing in 1964, and today that crown is held by SpiNNaker – a very different kind of computer.

fifty years of computing

50 years of computing (and pipe-smoking is lesson common around computers)

Sometimes, numbers speak louder than words, so here is a numerical comparison of Atlas (1964) with SpiNNaker (2014):

Feature (see this) Atlas Computer (1964) SpiNNaker (2014)
Size A very large room 19 millimetres square
Transistors 60,000 1,100,000,000
Instructions per second 700,000 3,600,00,000

One way of looking at this data is to say, based on the the instructions per second, SpiNNaker is around ~5000 times faster than Atlas. But what is probably more interesting is that SpiNNaker (which is due for completion in 2015) is expected to be used by neuroscientists and psychologists, as a platform to study problems such as Alzheimer’s disease – something that would have been impossible (and unthinkable) only fifty years ago [6,7]. Wonder where the next 50 years will take us in 2064?

References

  1. Anon (2014). The most-read Nature news stories of 2014 Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2014.16550
  2. Morello, L., Abbott, A., Butler, D., Callaway, E., Cyranoski, D., Reardon, S., Schiermeier, Q., & Witze, A. (2014). 365 days: 2014 in science Nature, 516 (7531), 300-303 DOI: 10.1038/516300a
  3. Anon (2014). 365 days: Nature’s 10, Ten people who mattered this year. Nature, 516 (7531), 311-319 DOI: 10.1038/516311a
  4. Katherine Maher (2014) What did the world make 100 million edits of in 2014? Wikimedia blog
  5. Hand, E. (2014). Comet Breakthrough of the Year + People’s choice Science, 346 (6216), 1442-1443 DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1442
  6. Furber, S., Galluppi, F., Temple, S., & Plana, L. (2014). The SpiNNaker Project Proceedings of the IEEE, 102 (5), 652-665 DOI: 10.1109/JPROC.2014.2304638
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