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

July 5, 2019

Are Liverpool and Manchester still in Lancashire?

Red_Rose_Badge_of_Lancaster.svg

The Red Rose of Lancaster is the county flower of Lancashire. 🌹Image by Sodacan, created with Inkscape. [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time, there were two football teams, a Northern one (Liverpool F.C.) and a one, (Tottenham Hotspur F.C.). They were due to meet each other in a historic and lucrative match: the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final in Madrid. The biggest prize in European club football would be awarded to whichever team triumphed on the 1st June 2019. As with all zero-sum games, only one team could be crowned champions of Europe.

This particular match posed a cruel dilemma for football supporters across the North of England. Which team to support? The local Northern team or the Southern London one, on the other side of the North-South divide?

Scousers or Cockneys?

For football supporters in Manchester, this dilemma had an added dimension. Both of the Mancunian teams: United and City had been knocked out shortly beforehand. A woeful United were humiliated by superior spaniards from FC Barcelona (4-0) while City lost to Spurs during a dramatic game. The video assistant referee (VAR) judged that Raheem Sterling hadn’t scored the winning goal in the dying minutes of the game because he was offside. Ouch. With both Mancunian teams out of the running, the Champions League final was simply a question of which team you hated less, the scousers from Liverpool or the cockneys from London? A difficult choice, especially for Mancunians.

Mancs and Scousers: Sibling rivalry

Now Manchester and Liverpool have a long rivalry, not just in sport, arts and science but in commerce too. For example, when Mancunian traders got fed up with paying the duties charged by Liverpool for using their docks to export goods, they decided to bypass them by building the Manchester Ship Canal. This transformed Manchester into a port – even though it is more than 30 miles from the sea. The new ship canal gave the Port of Liverpool the finger: sibling rivalry on an industrial scale. You want to rip us off? We’ll just route around you bro!

Liverpool, Lancashire: Manchester, Mancashire

Like many siblings, the twin cities of Manchester and Liverpool have much in common. They are both joined by the River Mersey and share a common commercial and cultural rival: the megacity of London. As well as being on the same river, both Manchester and Liverpool are in the same county too; Lancashire. Symbolised since the Wars of the Roses by the Red Rose of Lancaster.🌹 Historically, there’s a strong argument for Mancunian supporters to back Liverpool over London. We are brothers in arms, sisters in arms, siblings from the House of Lancaster, two red roses from the very same rootstock.🌹

Lancashire_1610_Speed_Hondius_-_Restoration

John Speed’s map of the County Palatine of Lancaster (Lancashire) in 1610. The River Mersey joins Manchester to Liverpool along the bottom of the map and separates Lancashire in the North from Cheshire in the South. The Pennines separate Lancashire in the West from Yorkshire in the East. Picture by Jodocus Hondius, engraved by John Speed, and restored by Adam Cuerden. This is a retouched picture, digitally altered from its original version. Public domain picture from Wikimedia Commons.

An organisation called the Friends of Real Lancashire (FORL) @FORLancashire puts it another way on their website forl.co.uk (emphasis mine):

“Friends of Real Lancashire are concerned to promote the true identity of our county which has been extremely confused in the minds of some people, especially those working in the broadcasting and newspaper industries, since the local government reorganisation of 1974.

The Government at that time stated that the “new counties” were administrative areas only, and that the boundaries of traditional counties such as Lancashire had not been changed. Unfortunately, the media refer to these administrative areas all too frequently and ignore the fact that places such as Barrow-in-Furness, Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington, etc. are still in Lancashire.

If administrative areas had not been called counties much of this confusion would have been avoided. The Royal Mail has at last dropped the use of administrative county names in postal addresses, and names such as Cumbria and Merseyside do not appear in the current Royal Mail Postal Address Book.”

Lucifer over Lancashire

As a follower of Manchester United, I backed our Lancastrian siblings from Liverpool. As someone with Lancashire roots, it is red roses all the way, any day and I was happy when Liverpool got the victory they deserved. Like Andy Burnham, we’re not anti-London, just pro-North. Come on Lancashire, ‘AVE IT!

My fellow United supporters didn’t see it that way. They looked at me like I was the devil incarnate, or Lucifer over Lancashire, as Mark E. Smith used to sing. How could I support Liverpool, a scouse football team? They called me a traitor, a scally and lots of other names that can’t be repeated here. Such is the sibling rivalry between LFC and MUFC. When Alex Ferguson arrived as a new manager of United in 1986 he said:

 “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f****ng perch. And you can print that.

Which sums it up. Forget Lancashire, forget The North, forget George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. United and City fans should support Spurs, the Southern Powerhouse team, because they’re not Liverpool. Support anyone you like, absolutely anyone, apart from Liverpool. Or so they told me…

Conclusion

So are Manchester and Liverpool still in Lancashire? It depends who you ask:

  • If you consult a map, the answer you’ll get will depend on who made the map and when it was made.
  • If you type a Mancunian or Scouse postcode into the Royal Mail postcode & address finder it won’t mention Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside or even Cheshire so you’ll be none the wiser.
  • If you ask a football fan, they will probably be too blinded by bitter sporting rivalry to give you a sensible answer.
  • If you ask the government, they are preoccupied at the moment, and have more important international borders to think about.
  • If you ask the Friends of Real Lancashire they’ll tell you absolutely YES without question, Manchester and Liverpool are still in Lancashire, because they never left. Our county is called LANCASHIRE, not “Cumbria”, “Greater Manchester”, “Merseyside” or “part of Cheshire”. I’m inclined to agree with them. 🌹

 References

NOTE: Here’s a good related pub quiz question which will sort the wheat from the chaff: Which football team plays closest the River Mersey? (Google it.)

June 29, 2019

The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine aka “Manchester Beerby”

beerby

The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine (aka Manchester Beerby) has its name in neon lights and was switched on on the 21st June 2019.

A new pub has opened opposite where I work. Set up by some enterprising scotsmen from Aberdeenshire (🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 och aye laddie!), it has its very own microbrewery. They have called the microbrewery the The Small Scale Experimental Beer Machine (SSEBM).

As I work in a Computer Science department, this pleased me no end, because it is an appropriate nod to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) aka the Manchester Baby: the world’s first computer with random access memory (RAM).

Both of these machines were switched on on the 21st June (memory day), one in 1948 the other 71 years later in 2019. Unlike the Manchester Baby, you will actually be able to drink the output of the “Manchester Beerby” 🍺 and it is going to be a lot more quaffable than anything you might find in a cathode ray tube. [1]

The pub is in the heart of a new Bruntwood development called University Green, a pleasant leafy space with retail and restaurants centred around the Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS). Like most things in the green, its a bit pricey but the beer is good, the food is tasty and the staff are friendly. Brewdog Outpost Manchester is a relaxing place to hang out.

I wonder what the engineers of the Manchester Baby, Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams, would make of the Manchester Beerby? 🍻

References

  1. Williams, Frederic Kilburn, Tom (1948). Electronic Digital Computers. Nature162(4117): 487. DOI:10.1038/162487a0

 

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.

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

October 23, 2014

Two big challenges facing the technology & digital industries (IMHO)

Digital Turing

Alan Turing Binary code, Shoreditch High Street, London by Chris Beckett on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND license)

Over at democracy corner, Manchester Digital is interviewing all of its elected council members. Somehow, I got volunteered to be first interviewee. Here’s my two pence on one of the questions asked: “What do you think is biggest challenge we face as an industry?” (with some extra links)

  • Firstly, coding and “computational thinking” [1], needs to be understood as something that isn’t just for developers, geeks, coders, techies, boffins or “whizz kids” – as the Manchester Evening News likes to call them. Computational thinking, the ability to understand problems and provide innovative solutions in software and hardware, is a fundamental skill that everyone can learn, starting in primary school. As well as being fun to learn and practice, it is a crucial skill in a wide range of organisations in digital and beyond. Thankfully, the new computing curriculum in UK schools has recognised and addressed this, but it remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the changes in primary & secondary education will be on employers.
  • Secondly, as an industry, both the digital and technology sectors are seriously hindered by gender imbalance. If only 10-20% of employees are female, then large numbers of talented people are being excluded from the sector – bad news for everyone.

Is that reasonable –  or have I missed the point? Are there more pressing issues facing the technology sector? Either way, you can read the rest of the interview at manchesterdigital.com/democracy-corner which will be supplemented with more interviews of council members every week over the next few months.

References

  1. Wing, J. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 366 (1881), 3717-3725 DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2008.0118

December 10, 2013

Manchester or Mamchester? You’re twistin’ my melon mam!

Filed under: tom-foolery — Duncan Hull @ 6:14 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Manchester Town Hall

Manchester Town Hall by Richard Hopkins, creative commons licensed picture via Flickr

The term Manchester is a misnomer, mutated from it’s original form. The name Mamchester might be more appropriate, but only if the pedants get their way.

The Man in Manchester is misleading and has little to do with Manhood or Masculinity. Instead, the word is thought to come from the name given to city by the romans of “Mamucium”, meaning breast-shaped hill. Somewhere down the line Mamucium morphed into Manchester and the Mam became a Man. That’s mam, not man, as in Mammary or as the Miserable Mancunian Morrissey put it,

Let me get my hands on your mammary glands.”

So don’t be a boob, remember the Man in Manchester is a Mam. Mamchester, you talk so hip, you’re twistin my melon man

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…

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
Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.