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 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 (see comments on Mark Guzdial’s summary):

“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 1, 2016

Dear Europeans, do you know who your MEP is and what they do?

banksy-does-brexitAlong with 16 million other people on the 23rd June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union (EU). I believe the benefits of EU membership exceed the costs. Free trade and free movement have been beneficial to me personally, many of those around me, as well as the wider UK economy [1]. I even married an EU migrant too, so I love Europe in more ways that one. Life outside the EU is very difficult to imagine, professionally, financially, culturally and personally.

So when I woke up to Brexit EuroDoom last Friday, to find I was in a minority outnumbered by 17 million leavers who disagreed, I felt sick. After a gloomy week of miserable soul searching, I realised I didn’t have the foggiest notion who my Member of European Parliament (MEP) was or how they got elected. Although not a student of (or expert in) politics or economics, I don’t believe I am apathetic or unaware. I follow the news, vote in general elections and write letters to my MP. I try to understand what is going on in politics and bend my head around the dismal science of economics. But until this week, I had little or no idea how the European Parliament (EP), let alone the European Commission (EC) or lots of other acronyms starting with E, actually work in practice.

Now if you are also a participant in the failing (?) European project, do YOU know who your MEP is? Any idea what they actually do? The chances are you don’t because Euroignorance is widespread [2]. Fortunately, Professor Google can help us. In Manchester, the MEPs for the North West Region of the UK comprising Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire are:

Unfortunately, I’d only heard of two of those MEPs beforehand, and neither of them because of their activity during the EU referendum. Nuttall I’d heard of because the comedian Stewart Lee performed a brilliant satirical piece mocking Nuttall’s views on immigration [3]. Woolfe I’d heard of because his campaign leaflet came through my letterbox during the 2015 general election. How did they get elected as MEPs because I can’t remember seeing their names on a ballot paper?

MEPs are elected using the D’Hondt method [4], a form of proportional representation (PR) used in the European elections in 2014 and elsewhere. As of 2016, the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament are: UKIP (24 MEPs), Labour (20 MEPs) and The Conservatives (19 MEPs). Isn’t it remarkable that so many of these MEPS were neither seen or heard during the almost entirely fact-free® debate [1] preceding the UK EU referendum?

So what is the nature of an MEPs power? Back in 1998, a politician by the name of Tony Benn proposed five democratic questions to understand the powerful:

“If one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions:

  1. what power do you have?
  2. where did you get it?
  3. in whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. to whom are you accountable?
  5. how can we get rid of you?”

According to Benn, anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. [5] Personally, I’d like to get rid of UKIP from the European parliament. How can I do this? While I can’t vote for individuals, I can vote for political parties. However, turnout in european elections is often embarrassingly low, in the UK a pathetic 35.6% showed up in 2014. Which means two thirds of UK voters were unaware or didn’t care who their MEP was, including me. My bad. You could call this democratic deficit, not one where people can’t vote but one where people are unaware or don’t bother.

Right now, it is really hard to see how any good can come of what is unfolding in Great Britain and Europe. Brexit leaves the sector I work in, and many others, facing huge uncertainty [6,7,8]. Let’s hope one thing will happen, a reformed EU where those in power are more engaged and accountable to the people they claim to represent. Personally, I am not in a position to judge if the European Union has a democratic deficit or not [9,10]. Neither can I judge if the European Union is as anti-democratic as some eurosceptics have suggested [11, 12,13]. But I do know something has gone badly wrong with the EU if many europeans have no idea of who their parliamentary representatives are and how they can exercise their democratic rights to get rid of them using the ballot box.

If you are staying in the European Union you have a duty to find out who your MEP is and ask them the five democratic questions above. You better do it quickly before risking a Frexit, Czechout, Swexit, Departugal, Grexit, Bygium, Italeave or bidding Austria La Vista.

References

  1. Zanny Minton Beddoes (2016) The Brexit Briefs: The 17 things you need to know before Britain’s #EUref—in one handy guide, The Economist
  2. Oana Lungescu (2001) EU Poll reveals huge ignorance, BBC News
  3. Stewart Lee (2014) Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2: England
  4. Jeremy Vine (2009) D’Hondt Explainer, BBC News
  5. Anon (1998)  House of Commons Debates, Hansard, parliament.uk
  6. Anon (2016) Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities, Times Higher Education
  7. Alison Abbott, Daniel Cressey, Richard Van Noorden (2016) UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock: Researchers organize to lobby for science as country prepares for life outside the EU Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 597-598, DOI:10.1038/534597a
  8. Anon (2016) Brexit vote highlights lack of leaving plan: Scientists — just like everybody else — have little idea what will happen now that the United Kingdom has voted to exit the European Union. Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 589-589, DOI:10.1038/534589a
  9. Andrew Moravcsik (2008) The Myth of Europe’s “Democratic Deficit” Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316–340 DOI:10.1007/s10272-008-0266-7
  10. Michael Dougan (2016) The UK’s position following vote to leave the EU, University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice
  11. Tony Benn (2013) Tony Benn speaks at the Oxford Union on Euroscepticism, The Oxford Union.
  12. Martin Durkin (2016) Brexit: The Movie (warning: contains Nigel Farage and dubious opinions europhiles will find offensive, factual content is highly questionable in places)
  13. Tony Benn (1975) Letter from Tony Benn to his constituents about the UK European referendum of 1975, The Spectator, Coffee House

* Disclaimer, like I’ve already said, my grasp of politics and economics is pretty basic. I have made every reasonable effort to get the facts right but correct any mistakes I might have made below. These are personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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.

December 13, 2013

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Podcast, now on BBC Radio 4

ISIHAC

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also unavailable on Samsung Android devices.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (ISIHAC) is a superbly funny comedy show broadcast by the BBC since 1972 and currently airing it’s sixtieth (yes 60th!) series. Unlike many other BBC programmes, ISIHAC is mysteriously unavailable as a podcast, which makes it difficult to listen to offline. Why is this? Professor Google doesn’t give a definitive answer and the BBC aren’t saying much about it either. So in the spirit of public broadcasting, this post poses the question, where’s the podcast? Currently there are a two theories floating around on the interwebs:

  • The podcast was destroyed by the lovely Samantha when she exceeded her bandwidth after … [insert smutty innuendo here]
  • There is no podcast because Random Entertainment Ltd, the company behind ISIHAC, make a tidy profit from ISIHAC merchandise (mostly CDs, audiobooks, Uxbridge English Dictionary etc). This makes enough money for Graeme Garden and Jon Naismith to have a lifetime supply of Swanee whistles and Kazoos funded by tax-payers money. Consequently, the BBC don’t have the rights to podcast it or something, probably…

If all you want is an ISIHAC MP3 of the broadcast that can be listened to offline at your leisure, then the lack of a podcast is frustrating. Of course, there various workarounds and hacks to roll your own using using get_iplayer, a digital recorderXBMC or similar but this will be a lot of unnecessary hassle for most listeners. None of this seems to be in the spirit of public  broadcasting and there’s a bigger (unanswered?) question about how the BBC decides what to podcast (and what not to).

So Jon Naismith, Graeme Garden and anyone at the BBC, if you’re reading this, please can ISIHAC be made available as an MP3 via a podcast? Much obliged.

[Update July 2015: the BBC iPlayer Radio app now supports downloads – the next best thing in the absence of podcasts. Hooray!]

July 1, 2013

New music? No thanks, we’re stuck in the fifties / sixties / seventies / eighties / nineties / noughties

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass by bhikku

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass via bhikku on Flickr.

If you’ve filled your boots with the wall-to-wall glastonbury festival coverage, you might find it curious that many people have little or no interest in new music, choosing instead to listen to the artists they liked in their formative years and loyally sticking with them for life. John Peel put it another way:

People do find it curious that a chap of my age* likes the things that I like but I do honestly feel that it’s one of those situations where everyone’s out of step except our John, because in any other area of human activity – theatre, literature or something like that, you’re not supposed to live eternally in the past, you know, you’re supposed to take an interest in what’s happening now and what’s going happening next and this really all that I do, it seems to be a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.

*John Peel was a spritely 50 years of age at the time of the interview where he said that in 1990 [1]. Isn’t it curious that, as Peel said, new music is largely considered to be the exclusive domain of “younger people”, while new theatre, new technology, new art, new science and new anything-else is not? Wonder why that is?

References

  1. Desert Island Discs Archive, Find a castaway (1940 – date)

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.

References

  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

August 3, 2012

July 13, 2012

Animation 2012: Computer Science for Schools

Animation 2012 at the University of Manchester

Computer Science as a subject in mainstream UK secondary education is in a pretty sorry state [1,2,3] but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many long suffering school children are being force-fed a nauseating diet of Excel, PowerPoint and Access others are enjoying a nutritious platter of Raspberry Pi, Hack to the Future and Animated fun.

Here’s a brief report on one of these tasty appetisers: Animation 2012, a UK schools animation competition now in its fifth year.

The day kicked off with prizes being awarded for the animation competition. To get a flavour of the creativity and skill involved, you can see winning examples online.

Following the prize giving there was a carousel of activities which included:

Animation 2012 was great fun for all involved, congratulations to all this years winners, hope to see you again next year. There were 526 Schools involved from across the UK, with 914 entries. 58 students were involved in the 35 winning entries from 31 different schools. Thanks to Toby Howard, all the organisers, supporters (Google, Electronic Arts and NESTA) and associates (Computing at School, CS4FN and BAFTA young game designers) for putting on an impressive show.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
  2. James Robinson (2011). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system: criticising division between science and arts, The Guardian
  3. Keith Stuart (2011). Michael Gove admits schools should teach computer science: education secretary recognises the failings of ICT courses, The Guardian

May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.

References

  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a
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