O'Really?

July 17, 2019

Educating Computer Scientists: What should we discuss at #SIGCSE journal club?

fightclub

The first rule of journal club is, you do not talk about journal club. The second rule of journal club is, YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT JOURNAL CLUB.* Discussions will go on as long as they have to. If this is your first time at journal club, you have to debate. Dress code: silly frocks and ridiculous hats are optional. Picture of my colleagues in the School of Computer Science ready for a graduation ceremony 2013, by Toby Howard.

So we’re starting a new Journal Club and Special Interest Group (SIG) for lecturers, teachers and course leaders in Manchester to discuss Computer Science Education (CSE). We’ll pick interesting papers, read them and then meet regularly to discuss them. It’s a bit like Fight Club but instead of beating each other up, we’ll “beat up” (review & critique) papers. Hopefully we’ll all learn something along the way. The first question to answer is, which papers should we discuss?

Computer Science (CS) is a young and professionally immature subject, it has only been taught at undergraduate level since 1965 in the UK. Across the pond in America, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (sigcse.org) only started as recently as 1968, making it a very spritely fifty years young. On educational timescales, computer science is a whipper snapper! Fifty years is peanuts when you compare it to the millennia that mathematics has been taught for. In ancient Greece the earliest lessons were mathematics hence μάθημα (mathematics) means the lesson and derivatives like μαθαίνω (matheno) mean to learn or to know. While the greeks built some impressive analogue computers, digital computers and computer science as we now know it, did not exist in Ancient Greece. 🇬🇷 

What this means is that there is plenty of evidence about what works (and what doesn’t) when teaching mathematics. In contrast, how to teach Computer Science, what should be taught and why, to whom and when are all open questions

So, to get the ball rolling here are nine papers that tackle some of these open questions in Computer Science Education. We’ll vote on the three most interesting papers and read them before meeting to review them. Many of these papers are likely to be of interest to “educators” in its broadest sense. That means anyone teaching coding, computer science, tinkering, hacking and software/hardware engineering at any level. Which includes primary schools, code clubs, bootcamps, CoderDojos, hackathons, secondary schools, CPD programmes, K-12 education, lifelong learning, staff training courses, onboarding, induction, adult education programmes, return to work schemes and so on. If you’d like to join us we’ll be meeting in the Kilburn building, Manchester, M13 9PL (mosty likely first week of September, date and time tbc, drop me a line). Otherwise enjoy reading the insights below (DOI’s link to originals which may be behind a paywall, freely accessible versions are provided where available). Some papers are quite short, and have been selected for the topic they discuss rather than the quality of the content.

Twenty dirty tricks to train software engineers by Ray Dawson

A classic paper from Ray Dawson in the department of Computer Science at Loughborough University describing dirty tricks they use to introducing the frustrating realities of a software engineering development to students.

“Many employers find that graduates and sandwich students come to them poorly prepared for the every day problems encountered at the workplace. Although many university students undertake team projects at their institutions, an education environment has limitations that prevent the participants experiencing the full range of problems encountered in the real world. To overcome this, action was taken on courses at the Plessey Telecommunications company and Loughborough University to disrupt the students’ software development progress. These actions appear mean and vindictive, and are labeled ‘dirty tricks’ in this paper, but their value has been appreciated by both the students and their employers. The experiences and learning provided by twenty ‘dirty tricks’ are described and their contribution towards teaching essential workplace skills is identified. The feedback from both students and employers has been mostly informal but the universally favourable comments received give strong indications that the courses achieved their aim of preparing the students for the workplace. The paper identifies some limitations on the number and types of ‘dirty tricks’ that can be employed at a university and concludes that companies would benefit if such dirty tricks were employed in company graduate induction programmes as well as in university courses.”

Identifying student misconceptions of programming by Lisa Kaczmarczyk et al

This paper by Lisa Kaczmarczyk et al (formerly University of California, San Diego) recently came top of the ACM SIGCSE Top Ten Symposium Papers of All Time. In Lisa’s own words from the reinventing nerds podcast “The paper is sharing the results of a research study about misconceptions that novice computer science students have. Computer science is also a very abstract topic and the mistakes that students make are often baffling. The paper reports on the misconceptions that students have and why they have them. It’s important because this paper was the first to apply rigorous research methods to investigating misconceptions.” From the abstract:

“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.”

Stride in BlueJ – Computing for All in an Educational IDE by Michael Kölling et al

This paper by Michael Kölling et al describes an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that combines the best features of visual programming languages (blockly, scratch etc) with text-based programming (such as Python, Java, C etc) for use in BlueJ.org.

“In introductory programming teaching, block-based editors have become very popular because they offer a number of strong advantages for beginning programmers: They avoid many syntax errors, can display all available instructions for visual selection and encourage experimentation with little requirement for recall. Among proficient programmers, however, text-based systems are strongly
preferred due to several usability and productivity advantages for expert users. In this paper, we provide a comprehensive introduction to a novel editing paradigm, frame-based editing – including design, implementation, experimentation and analysis. We describe how the design of this paradigm combines many advantages of block-based and text-based systems, then we present and discuss an implementation of such a system for a new Java-like language called Stride, including the results of several evaluation studies. The resulting editing system has clear advantages for both novices and expert programmers: It improves program representation and error avoidance for beginners and can speed up program manipulation for experts. Stride can also serve as an ideal stepping stone from
block-based to text-based languages in an educational context.”

  • Kölling, Michael; Brown, Neil C. C.; Hamza, Hamza; McCall, Davin (2019). “Stride in BlueJ — Computing for All in an Educational IDE”: Proceeding SIGCSE ’19 Proceedings of the 50th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education 63–69. DOI:10.1145/3287324.3287462

Ten quick tips for teaching programming by Neil Brown and Greg Wilson

This short paper from Neil Brown at King’s College London and Greg Wilson of software carpentry fame, is part of the popular Public Library of Science (PLOS) Ten Simple Rules series. The tips capture some ongoing research in listicle format.

“Research from educational psychology suggests that teaching and learning are subject-specific activities: learning programming has a different set of challenges and techniques than learning physics or learning to read and write. Computing is a younger discipline than mathematics, physics, or biology, and while there have been correspondingly fewer studies of how best to teach it, there is a growing body of evidence about what works and what doesn’t. This paper presents 10 quick tips that should be the foundation of any teaching of programming, whether formal or informal.

These tips will be useful to anyone teaching programming at any level and to any audience.”

How to Involve Students in FOSS Projects by Heidi Ellis et al

Initiatives like Google Summer of Code (GSoC) and Git going in FOSS aim to get students involved in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects, through paid work and online tutorials. Some courses use FOSS projects to teach software engineering, though these are fairly unusual. How can we get more students (and teachers) involved in FOSS projects? This paper by Heidi J. C. Ellis provides some guidance

“Software projects are frequently used to provide software engineering students with an understanding of the complexities of real-world software development. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects provide a unique opportunity for student learning as projects are open and accessible and students are able to interact with an established professional community. However, many faculty members have little or no experience participating in an open source software project. In addition, faculty members may be reluctant to approach student learning within such a project due to concerns over time requirements, learning curve, the unpredictability of working with a “live” community, and more. This paper provides guidance to instructors desiring to involve students in open source projects.”

  • Ellis, Heidi J. C.; Hislop, Gregory W.; Chua, Mel; Dziallas, Sebastian (2011). “How to involve students in FOSS projects” Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) DOI:10.1109/FIE.2011.6142994 (ironically, if there is an open access version of this paper, I can’t find it! Another nominee for the Open Access Irony Awards)

A methodology for using GitLab for software engineering learning analytics by Julio César Cortés Ríos et al

This paper by Julio César Cortés Ríos at the University of Manchester describes using GitLab to analyse and improve courses.

“To bridge the digital skills gap, we need to train more people in Software Engineering techniques. This paper reports on a project exploring the way students solve tasks using collaborative development platforms and version control systems, such as GitLab, to find patterns and evaluation metrics that can be used to improve the course content and reflect on the most common issues the students are facing. In this paper, we explore Learning Analytics approaches that can be used with GitLab and similar tools, and discuss the challenges raised when applying those approaches in Software Engineering Education, with the objective of building a pipeline that supports the full Learning Analytics cycle, from data extraction to data analysis. We focus in particular on the data anonymisation step of the proposed pipeline to explore the available alternatives to satisfy the data protection requirements when handling personal information in academic environments for research purposes.”

Scaling Introductory Courses Using Undergraduate Teaching Assistants

Teaching computer science to large classes requires typically requires armies of teaching assistants, demonstrators. Your TA’s need to know their stuff and should be able to deal with students in a fair and consistent way. This paper is a medley of opinions from Jeffrey Forbes at Duke University, David Malan from Harvard University, Heather Pon-Barry from Mt. Holyoke College, Stuart Reges from the University of Washington and Mehran Sahami from Stanford University.

“Undergraduates are widely used in support of Computer Science (CS) departments’ teaching missions as teaching assistants, peer mentors, section leaders, course assistants, and tutors. Those undergraduates engaged in teaching have the opportunity to deeply engage with CS concepts and develop key communication and social competencies. As enrollments surge, undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) play a larger role in student experience and outcomes. While faculty and graduate student instructional support does not necessarily increase with the number of students in our courses, the number of qualified undergraduate teaching assistants for introductory CS courses should scale with the number of students in our courses. With large courses, the significance of the UTAs’ role in students’ learning likely also increases. Students have relatively little interaction with the instructor, and faculty may have more challenges monitoring and supporting individual UTAs. UTAs have a major role in affecting climate in computer science courses. The climate in large courses has substantial implications for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in computing. This panel will discuss how undergraduate teaching assistants can serve as a scalable effective teaching resource that benefits both the students in the course and the UTAs themselves.”

What Are We Doing When We Teach Computing & Programming by Sally Fincher

Two closely related papers by Sally Fincher at the University of Kent, the first published in 1999…

“The academic discipline of computer science uniquely prepares students for future study by teaching the fundamental construct of its practice-programming- before anything else. The disciplinary argument seems to run that if a student is not versed in the practicalities, then they cannot appreciate the underlying concepts of the discipline. This may be true. However an analogous simulation would be if it were thought necessary for architecture students to be taught bricklaying before they could appreciate the fundamentals of building design. This argument is clearly flawed when compared to endeavours such as the study of English Literature, which makes no claim to teach the practice of producing work before the study of the products of others work. It is possible that this is an argument of disciplinary maturity-that all disciplines have passed through a similar phase. This paper examines the emergent approaches being defined, all of which address the central concern of the teaching of programming and its relationship to the learning of computer science. It examines: the “syntax-free” approach of Richard Bornat and Russel Shackelford, the “problem-solving” approach of David Barnes (et al.), the “literacy” approach of Peter Juliff and Owen Astrachan and the “computation-as-interaction” approach of Lynn Andrea Stein. These approaches are discussed both in their own terms, and also placed in a preliminary taxonomic framework for the teaching of programming.”

….and the second published in 2015:

“Research on the cognitive, educational, and policy dimensions of teaching computing is critical to achieving “computer literacy.”

Making CS Learning Visible: Case Studies on How Visibility of Student Work Supports a Community of Learners in CS Classrooms by Amber Solomon et al

This is a paper by Amber Solomon et al from the Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (ITiCSE) conference is about reducing defensive and competitive (macho?) cultures in Computer Science  (via Mark Guzdials blog).

Modern learning theories emphasize the critical social aspect of learning. Computer science (CS) classrooms often have “defensive climates” that inhibit social learning and prevent the development of a community of learners. We believe that we can improve the social context of computer science learning by expanding CS learning beyond the single student in front of a display screen. Our theory is that the single student and single display inhibits collaboration and collaborative awareness of student work. In this paper, we present two case studies where we explored ways to make student work visible to peers. The first case study involved using a studio model for learning enabled by projection-based Augmented Reality (AR), and the second case study involves using a maker-oriented curriculum to make student work visible. Findings suggest the visibility of student work in CS classrooms helped support a community of learners: students collaborated, used each other as sources of inspiration, and felt more comfortable asking for help.

References and notes

*”You do not talk about Journal Club” is an adapted quote from the 1999 film Fight Club, see below. I’m only joking, you are of course welcome to talk to anyone who will listen about Journal Club.

Talking of David Malan, you can see his talk on making CS50 scale when he visited Manchester in 2017

June 23, 2017

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

CAS

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:

June 12, 2014

A passion for England: Suffering at the Brazil WorldCup in 2014

How to Win the World Cup: Step One: Dream on, Dreamer

Are you passionate about your football team? When I say passion I mean passion as in suffering, from the Latin verb patī meaning to suffer. World cups are passionate milestones for many people, they leave indelible marks on the psyche, you remember who you were with, where you were and how your team suffered.

Like many England supporters I’ve suffered as the english media whips up false hope about the prospects of the squad every four years. “This year could be our chance”, and “we’ve got some really good players”, “remember 1966?”, “thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming” bla bla bla….

Passionate English suffering at the World Cup (1982-2014)

All this hope, passionately flies in the face of reason, cold facts and history:

So if history [2,3] and mathematics (via predictwise) are anything to go by, there is (at the time of writing) a 96.5% chance that English suffering will continue and a 60% chance that the suffering will occur in the latter stages of the competition…

Wherever you are, whoever you support and whatever their chances, enjoy the inevitable suffering that comes with being passionate about zero-sum games like football. Life would be very boring without passion and suffering…

References

  1. Clemente FM, Couceiro MS, Martins FM, Ivanova MO, & Mendes R (2013). Activity profiles of soccer players during the 2010 World Cup. Journal of Human Kinetics, 38, 201-11 PMID: 24235995
  2. Graham McColl (2010) How to win the World Cup Bantam Press, ISBN: 0593066227
  3. Alex Bellos (2014) Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life Bloomsbury Paperback ISBN: 0747561796

August 7, 2013

A sweet taste of beekeeping with @Grow4ItChorlton in Chorlton-cum-Honey

busy bee

Mosaic of a busy mancunian bee in Manchester Town Hall

Down in deepest, darkest Chorlton-cum-Hardy [1] the good people of Grow for it Chorlton have been running a series of taster sessions on beekeeping (a.k.a. apiculture). Here are some notes from one of these sessions held last weekend and some info on where to find out more if you’re interested.

Bee Science

With the ongoing mystery about the decline of bee populations [2,3] and controversial pesticide bans [4], there’s been a surge of interest in bees and beekeeping. If you’re thinking about starting a hive, here’s some things you’ll need to consider:

  • Beekeeping can be very rewarding. Remind yourself how fascinating the biology of bees is: dronesworkers, queens and swarms – you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
  • It’s a real buzz breaking the propolis seal on a hive full of ~60,000 bees and having a look inside, you can’t beat hands-on experience – handling bees was the highlight of the taster session.
  • Apiculture  takes lots of time, in peak season you’ll need to be inspecting hives at least once a week for any potential problems, such as the emergence of new queen cells or pests & diseases like Nosema and Varroa mites.
  • Beekeeping can be a substantial financial commitment too, depending on how resourceful you are. There’s a lot of kit you need, see thorne.co.ukbees-online.co.uk or beekeeping.co.uk for some examples of what you can buy and how much it costs.
  • One of the biggest threats to bees is irresponsible bee-keepers! If bees aren’t looked after hygienically, diseases can be spread to the  larger population. You don’t need a license (yet) to keep bees, but it’s a good idea to register hive(s) with DEFRA’s BeeBase (not to be confused with BeeBase.org) [5].

For such a tiny insect with even smaller brain, bees are surprisingly good at maths and computation. For example, bees use sophisticated vectors [6] to tell members of the hive where the food is during their famous waggle dance. Also, honeycomb is hexagonal because this is the shape that makes optimal use of beeswax – covering the maximum area using a minimum of material.

If you’re interested getting your hands on some bees in South Manchester, contact Loucas Athienites, Nancy Green or Erica Gardner at Nam-Bee-Pam-Bee Beekeepers, Chorlton based at Grow for It, Chorlton – their next (most excellent!) beekeeping session is due to run in late August 2013. Manchester & District Beekeepers Assocation (MDBKA), part of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), run a longer two-day course at Heaton Park (and elsewhere) which is essential if you going to take things further. [7]

References

  1. Yes, as you might expect, Chorlton-cum-Hardy suffers from the Scunthorpe problem
  2. Bill Turnbull et al (2013) What’s Killing Our Bees? A BBC Horizon Special featuring Rothamsted and BBSRC
  3. Charlotte Stoddart (2012). The buzz about pesticides: Common pesticides affect bumblebee foraging Nature DOI:10.1038/nature.2012.11626
  4. Daniel Cressey (2013). Europe debates risk to bees: Proposed pesticide ban gathers scientific support as some experts call for more field studies Nature DOI: 10.1038/496408a
  5. Munoz-Torres MC, Reese JT, Childers CP, Bennett AK, Sundaram JP, Childs KL, Anzola JM, Milshina N, & Elsik CG (2011). Hymenoptera Genome Database: integrated community resources for insect species of the order Hymenoptera. Nucleic Acids Research, 39 (Database issue) PMID: 21071397
  6. Rossel S, & Wehner R (1982). The bee’s map of the e-vector pattern in the sky. PNAS, 79 (14), 4451-5 PMID: 16593211
  7. Ted Hooper (2010) Guide to Bees & Honey (updated): The World’s Best Selling Guide to Beekeeping Northern Bee Books, ISBN:1904846513

July 3, 2013

Manchester Digital and Higher Education in 2013

xkcd good code

Writing good code is often harder than it looks via Randall Munroe at xkcd.com

Manchester Digital is the independent trade association for the thriving digital sector in the North West of England. Last night they held their AGM and elections for new members of their council. I was encouraged to stand for election, and alongside 19 other candidates, had to give a two-minute  “manifesto” in a hustinglightning-talk format. Here’s roughly what I said, from the perspective of software, hardware and developers, with some added links and a bit more polish:

The success of Manchester’s Digital economy is dependent on educating, recruiting and training a pool of talented developers to work in the region. As identified in the Manchester Digital skills audit, developers are often the hardest roles to fill, as many graduates and potential employees are drawn to other high-tech hubs like London, Silicon Fen and Silicon Valley, California for employment.

Addressing this issue is an important for Manchester Digital and requires closer collaboration between Higher education, Secondary education and employers. As a tutor at the University of Manchester, with responsibility for managing internships for students in Computer Science I am in a strong position to enable more collaboration between educators and employers. As a council member I would do this in four ways:

  1. Encouraging students to consider employment in Manchester as their first job, by promoting internships and graduate vacancies with local organisations alongside traditional graduate programmes at larger multinational companies
  2. Listening to what employers in Manchester want so that students can be better prepared for the workplace, while balancing the competing needs of training and education.
  3. Challenging local employers to raise their game to compete with larger employers and attract graduates to work for their organisations
  4. Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers by extending current work with schools and supporting undergraduate students doing outreach work involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). For example: through the STEMnet ambassador programme, Code Club, Animation FestivalTeenTech and related work.

These are key activities that will enable the continued success of Manchester’s Digital Economy and I ask Manchester Digital members to vote for me if they agree. Thank you!

Whatever the outcome, the AGM & hustings were great fun and it was good to catchup with old friends and meet some new people too. Hope to see some of you again the Manchester Digital BBQ on 11th July…

April 19, 2013

Will Academic Education ever meet the skills needs of the IT Profession? #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

Here’s an interesting upcoming event: a debate on the motion: “This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT profession

Universities are failing to educate graduates with the skills we need – this is the oft heard complaint by employers of IT graduates. Does the problem start in school with the dire state of ICT teaching and assessment at GCSE and A Level? [1] Should academia be trying to produce graduates with only ’employable skills’ that have a shelf life of at best a couple of years? Are employers really expecting universities to produce a mature, rounded professional with 20 years experience straight out of university? Is it reasonable to expect Academia to bridge the skills gap when employers are not prepared to provide a robust career path for IT professionals?

Academia and the IT Profession seem to be out of alignment in a way that other more mature professional career paths are not. Medicine, law, accountancy and the teaching profession provide a clear path from university to the highest levels of those careers – not so in IT. The IT Profession’s skills framework (SFIA) is only a decade old, and IT is neither a regulated or statutory profession – perhaps employers ask and expect too much of Academia, when the IT Profession is still in its infancy.”

This deliberately provocative motion conflates Education with Training as well spreading further confusion about the important differences between Computer Science and Information Technology. There’s already been some debate, including this early response from Ian Sommerville at the University of St Andrews:

“Computing systems are now ubiquitous in all areas of our professional and personal lives – which means that are incredibly diverse from personal apps for your phone to remind you to exercise to safety-critical, world-wide air traffic management systems. The notion that there is a single body of practical skills that is applicable to all of these different types of system is ludicrous as is the expectation that university courses should attempt to cover all aspects of computing practice.”

That’s a view from academia, no doubt employers will probably have a different take on the motion. David Evans and Deborah Trayhurn will be supporting the motion, with opposition from Bill Mitchell and Kevin Jones. Whatever your opinion, the debate takes place on Wednesday 12th June 2013 from 6.30pm – 9.00pm at the Armourers’ Hall, 81 Coleman Street, London, EC2R 5BJ. You can book a place at events.bcs.org/book/577, more info on twitter at #BCSDebate.

March 15, 2013

Creating with the Raspberry Pi vs. Consuming Apple Pie at the Manchester Raspberry Jamboree

MiniGirlGeek

Thirteen year old Amy Mather aka @MiniGirlGeek steals the show at Manchester Raspberry Jam 2013

Last Saturday, the first ever Raspberry Jamboree rolled into town, organised by the unstoppable force of nature that is Alan O’Donohoe (aka @teknoteacher). The jamboree looked at the educational value of the Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer) one year on from its launch on the the 29th February 2012. Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the things that happened in the main room, aka ‘Jamboree Central’. The workshops and other events have been covered by Jason Barnett @boeeerb.

A key feature of the Raspberry Pi foundation (and the Jamboree) was neatly summed up by Paul Beech (aka @guru) who compared the Raspberry Pi to various Apple iThings. Paul’s view is that when it comes to computing, Apple gives you a “sandy beach, sunbed and cocktail” to passively consume digital content with while the Raspberry Pi gives you a “desert, knife and a bottle” to actively create new things (see his tweet below).

Consuming Apple Pie on a sandy beach, with a sunbed and a cocktail

Engineering evangelist Rob Bishop used Apple Inc. to illustrate what the Raspberry Pi is about in his talk ‘one year on‘. Rob pointed out that a huge amount of effort at Apple Inc. is put into making Computing invisible and seamless. This is great if you’re consuming content on your iPad or iPhone, and what many users want – easy to use, with all the nasty internal gubbins tucked away, out of sight. This is tasty Californian Apple Pie, which many of consume in large amounts.

However, invisible computing is a problem for education, because it is difficult to demonstrate the Wonders of Computer Science (Brian Cox’s next TV series) with a device like the iPad.  Many of the internals of modern devices are completely inaccessible, and it’s non-trivial for budding young engineers to build anything very interesting with it particularly quickly.

In contrast, the Raspberry Pi can be challenging to setup, just getting the Operating System up and running isn’t always straightforward. However, there’s a ton of interesting stuff you can build with it: Nifty robotics, bionic bird boxes, musical hackery, twittering chickens, live train departure boards, internet radiossinging jelly babies and loads of other pideas. Try doing that with your iPad…

Creating with Raspberry Pi in the desert, using a knife and a bottle

Most of the jamboree focussed not on Apple but on the things that can be created with Raspberry Pi: the What and Why and When And How and Where and Who with keynotes from Steve Furber [1] and talks and panel sessions from:

A highlight of the jamboree was the closing keynote given by the thirteen year old Mini Girl Geek on what she’s been doing with her Raspberry Pi. MiniGirlGeek (aka Amy Mather pictured above) stole the show with her demo implementations of Conway’s Game of Life in Python. [update: see video below]

What’s interesting is that Conway’s Game of Life is used as an exercise for first year undergraduates in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. So it’s great to see teenagers mastering the “knife” of Raspberry Pi, and reminds us that Raspberry Pi is no “sunbed and cocktail” but with a little patience, ambition and talent there’s plenty to capture the imagination of young people about Computing.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
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