Archive for July, 2010

A Future Role for the US: Teach the Teachers, Worldwide

Interesting piece from the Computing Community Consortium on the role that STEM researchers in the US could provide the international community.  A major role was to help grow the teaching pool.  There’s a separate section in the report on the growing importance of “deeply digital materials” — the connection between the two pieces here reminds me of our discussion with Dave Patterson here in this blog.

A prevailing sentiment was the urgent need for a “focus on capacity building.” Instead of taking technologies to foreign nations, we need to teach these nations to teach themselves, the envoys reported. Further, they commented that, while STEM education is lacking in the U.S., it is even worse in developing nations. The world currently has an estimated shortage of 10 million teachers, and the science education per capita continues to decrease each year.

via Computing Community Consortium.

July 19, 2010 at 9:41 pm 1 comment

APCS Students can do Media Comp (and Alice) and Succeed

In the five workshops (which feels like a larger number than it sounds) that I ran this summer, I included some of the Exploring Wonderland book that Wanda Dann, Steve Cooper, and Barb Ericson wrote about learning AP CS through Alice and Media Computation.  Over half of the attendees from my workshops this summer were high school computer science teachers.  Overwhelmingly, the response that I got from those teachers was, “This is nice stuff.  Maybe I could use it in my earlier class (like Computing in the Modern World).  But I wouldn’t use it in AP.  That would take too much time away from the important stuff in AP.”

Of course, this infuriated Barb.  They designed the book to motivate students to dig into the AP content!  It just so happened that she got her chance to try out her design this last year. A local high school asked the College of Computing for last-minute help with their AP CS course.  A teacher who didn’t know AP (or CS, or even Java) was tasked with running the course, and he was smart enough to know that he needed help.  The school called the College, and the College asked Barb. Barb came in twice a week, wrote the lessons, and generally oversaw the content of the course.  Since she had just finished Wonderland, that was the easiest thing for her to teach.

She just sent me her scores.

7 get a 5 (4 males and 3 females)
4 get a 4 (3 males and 1 female)
2 get a 3 (1 male and 1 female) (a 3, 4, or 5 is passing)
4 get a 2 (3 males and 1 female)
and 13 get a 1 (9 males and 4 females)

While the gender scores were quite strong (e.g., more girls passed than failed), the under-represented minority minorities weren’t quite as strong.  All of her African-American students got 1’s.  However, one of her Hispanic students took one of those 5’s.

Those are really good scores.  Yes, most kids who took the test didn’t pass — the AP is hard, and that is the way it goes. What it shows is that students can succeed at the AP, even if you “waste” time with all that Alice, and Media, and motivation stuff.  This isn’t a study, much less publishable. It’s only the results from one course.  But it’s an existence proof.

July 18, 2010 at 4:54 pm 6 comments

There is no shortage of STEM students or graduates

Beki Grinter sent me a link to this fascinating article which argues that there is no shortage of quality STEM students or even STEM graduates.  The problem is that our system of graduate students and post-docs has turned the adolescent stage of becoming a permanent researcher in the US into a long, torturous, low-paying ordeal.  I laughed out loud (from the perspective of “So sad and true that it has to be funny or you’d cry”) at the quote: “The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit.”  As one of the interviewees says of the declining numbers of US students becoming STEM faculty: “It’s not an education story, it’s a labor market story.”

“There is no scientist shortage,” declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman, a pre-eminent authority on the scientific work force. Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a leading demographer who is also a national authority on science training, cites the “profound irony” of crying shortage — as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates — while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation’s university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that will never exist.

via The Real Science Gap | Miller-McCune Online.

The analysis of why there is no problem with our current output of K-12 STEM students was particularly interesting.  They claim that our top students are among the very best in the world, and that that’s where we draw our STEM workers from.  The problem is one of equity, not numbers.

White Americans on average substantially outscored Europeans in math and science and came in second to the Japanese, but American black and Hispanic students on average significantly trailed all other groups. Raising America’s average scores therefore doesn’t require repairing an educational system that performs poorly overall, but boosting the performance of the students at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families.

This piece is relevant for this blog, not just because we’ve talked often here about the state of STEM hiring, and about the mixed messages that we get about whether or not there is a shortage of CS/IT jobs or not.  Read the comments after the article.  A great many of them are from CS graduate students or PhD’s.  While the article focuses predominantly on the life sciences (which sound even worse off than in computing), it’s pretty clear that a lot of people from our side of the STEM town see themselves in this article.

July 18, 2010 at 4:34 pm Leave a comment

Future of Tablet Textbooks

I attended an Apple-offered seminar this last week at Georgia Tech on the future of mobile media and higher education.  Most of it was show-and-tell about cool books and apps available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad platforms.  What I found most interesting (and what I went to hear about) is where Apple sees textbooks on this platform.

Apple really doesn’t know, but they have a direction that they’d like to see.  They think that the first iPad-based textbooks are going to come out as apps available through the App Store.  There are some pretty stunning ones like the Elements book-as-app.

But that’s not Apple’s preferred path.  Apple would prefer to have textbooks come out as EPUB books, read through their iBook reader.  (Having used Kindle reader for over a year now, I find the iBook reader flakey and annoying, but I trust that there will be more stable versions than 1.1.)  Apple is hindered by the fact that EPUB is an international standard that they don’t control, and current EPUB books can’t do everything that one would want a Tablet-based textbook to do.  The current EPUB standard allows for embedding of some HTML links to audio and video (for example), but doesn’t allow for the rich simulations that we’d like to see embedded in future digital textbooks.  Apple is pushing to have the EPUB standard extended.

Now, why would Apple care?  This is the part that gets interesting.  EPUB books can be distributed through Apple’s iTunesU channel in the iTunes store — that’s the established higher education distribution channel for them.  Apps are much more tightly controlled, e.g., they have to be checked for memory leaks and proper behavior (expensive!), and they have to be signed and distributed carefully to make sure that what the customer gets is what the publisher delivered (and what Apple vetted).  Apple doesn’t want to have to vet textbooks — very explicitly.  Vetting textbooks starts to cross the line from technology into content.  Who makes sure the content is right.

I think Apple doesn’t see the problem as I do. When textbooks have the capability of rich textbooks, what makes them different from an App anyway?  Couldn’t they misbehave in the same ways as errant apps?  And don’t you want someone to do some of that content vetting?  Isn’t that what publishers do for you, when the customer-publisher relationship is working well?

It’s interesting how the distribution, cost, standards, and technology issues are overlapping here.  No clear answer, but it was interesting to see some of the possibilities laid out.

July 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm 2 comments

“Rough Cut” version of “Making Software” now available

Greg Wilson and Andy Oram’s new book Making Software is now available in a “rough cuts” version:  It’s in “pre-final” stage, and I understand that not all the chapters are there yet.  But the chapter I wrote on why programming is hard to learn is there, as well as some other chapters on topics related to this blog like on impacts of expertise and personality on software development, pair programming, comparisons of programming languages, and variations in programmer productivity.

July 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm 2 comments

UC must put emphasis on education, not brand

Op-Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle chooses one side of a hard problem.  When economic times are bad, it seems like a great time to explore ways of improving access to learning for a broader range of students.  On the other hand, the points in the piece are well-taken.  Our track record in on-line higher education in the US is poor.  Why should California pay to educate non-Californian students?  Where goes the teaching and research synergy (if it exists) in on-line learning?

The UC Board of Regents will discuss this week a proposal by the University of California president’s office for an ambitious plan to market UC online. The proposal entertains the vision of an eventual online bachelor’s degree that could tap new students throughout the world, from “Sheboygan to Shanghai.”

In fact, the track record for online higher education is very uneven. It requires enormous up-front investments and continual investments for upgrades. Given these high stakes and the financial pressures on UC in the current economic climate, it is crucial for California’s public university to move prudently.

via UC must put emphasis on education, not brand.

July 15, 2010 at 2:24 pm 3 comments

CMU launches robot-based CS-STEM Program

CMU won the DARPA award to address the “geek shortage” that was discussed in Wired magazine a few months ago.  I had heard that they were going to use their RobotC language, but instead it sounds like they’re going to extend Alice. That’s promising!  Looking forward to see what they produce!

A new four-year, $7 million educational initiative by Carnegie Mellon University will leverage students’ innate interest in robots and other forms of “hard fun” to increase U.S. enrollments in computer science and steer more young people into scientific and technological careers.

The initiative, called Fostering Innovation through Robotics Exploration (FIRE), is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and designed to reverse a significant national decline in the number of college students majoring in computer science, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (CS-STEM).

via July 13: Carnegie Mellon Launches $7 Million Initiative Using Robots To Boost Science, Technology Majors – Carnegie Mellon University.

July 15, 2010 at 10:38 am 2 comments

The Molecular Workbench™ Platform

The most interesting software that my educational technology class discovered this last Spring was the Molecular Workbench from the Concord Consortium.  The enormous range of material and the power of their modeling package (used in teaching chemistry, biology, and physics) is impressive.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the iPad, and there’s not really much there for mathematics or computer science learning.  It does serve as an interesting standard for what these kinds of tools might look like.  The Molecular Workbench aims to be a medium for science learning.

MW is not just a collection of simulations–do not be deceived by first glance. While it presents many existing simulations that are ready to use in classroom, it is, however, also a modeling tool for teachers and students to create their own simulations and share them with collaborators. There are very sophisticated modeling capacities hidden behind its simple user interface that empower you to create new simulations and even explore the unknowns.

via The Home Page of the Molecular Workbench™ Software.

July 14, 2010 at 10:16 am 6 comments

Google as champion of user-as-creator

Google’s App Inventor for Android has now been released, and they’re using the opportunity to emphasize how Google is champion of the user as creator, not just consumer, of digital media and software applications.  The NY Times highlights the contrast with Apple’s approach to the iPhone platform.

The thinking behind the initiative, Google said, is that as cellphones increasingly become the computers that people rely on most, users should be able to make applications themselves.

“The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world,” said Harold Abelson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is on sabbatical at Google and led the project.

The project is a further sign that Google is betting that its strategy of opening up its technology to all kinds of developers will eventually give it the upper hand in the smartphone software market. Its leading rival, Apple, takes a more tightly managed approach to application development for the iPhone, controlling the software and vetting the programs available.

via Google’s Do-It-Yourself App Tool –

July 14, 2010 at 10:06 am 3 comments

Georgia State succeeding with women and robots

Stefanie Markham and Kim King had an ITICSE 2010 paper on Using personal robots in CS1 that speaks to their experience using the IPRE approach.  The robot did add an additional complication, as it has for most schools, but they also found that students spent extra time on assignments just because they were fun — an outcome that we see regularly in all the contextualized computing approaches, from Media Computation through Engineering problem-solving (where we have found that students start using MATLAB to visualize their multivariate calculus, unprompted.  It solves a problem for them).

Stefanie is also one of the leaders of the Grace Hopper 2010 conference to be held here in Atlanta, and she’s interviewed at the Georgia State website about her efforts to draw women into computing.

“It is so critical now that more women enter the field,” Markham said. “Technology is everywhere. We’d like to help more women realize their natural aptitude for computing and as they do so, it will change the face of technology.”

via Getting Women Into Computing — Georgia State University.

July 14, 2010 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

What are we? Chopped liver? CS left out of National Academy STEM standards

A committee from the National Academies has released a new draft set of science education standards, the first in over 10 years.  While there is discussion in the draft about the use of computers for modeling and simulation, and the definition of “science” is broad enough to include “Engineering design,” the phrase “computer science” doesn’t appear anywhere in the standards.  Science students don’t really need to know anything about computation.

Comments are sought.  I think we should ask them how they can include “technology” but leave out all of computer science, an entire discipline of science and technology.

A panel of the U.S. National Academies today released its initial description of what U.S. elementary and high school students should learn in science. The goal of the conceptual framework for science education standards (pdf of draft) is to “identify and articulate the core ideas in science in the disciplines of life sciences, physical sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering and technology, cross cutting ideas and scientific practices.”

via Comments Sought on How to Teach Science in U.S. Schools – ScienceInsider.

July 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm 26 comments

What AI can do for you

I gave the opening, invited talk at the first Educational Applications of Artificial Intelligence conference this morning.  I was a bit nervous, since I am not an AI researcher or teacher.  Rather than pretend to be and be exposed as an imposter, I instead focused on challenges in CS Education that I thought AI could help with.

Here were the three I identified (slides in PPT and PDF at

  • Matching context to student. The evidence of the value of context at engaging students and improving success rates is pretty strong.  But there is also evidence that the same context doesn’t work for everyone.  If there were a bunch of contextualized courses available (robotics, media computation, video games, Engineering problem-solving), how would you match students to the context that would work best for them?  I don’t know what variables are most important to use there.  Interest? Future career choices?  Previous computing background? Previous mathematics background?
  • Helping students find the help that they need with understanding programs. Brian Dorn has just completed his study of end-user programmers using his case library to solve programming tasks.  One of his stories was about how these programmers sought out information on the Web without background knowledge about computing.  They did searches on the programs that they were trying to understand — on things like variable names and function (not API) names.  Is it surprising that searching for “javascript foo” didn’t get them much help?  Given a program, there are things that we could do to help these end-user programmers find the right kinds of information at a higher level than just the variable name.  We could note “This program seems to be using the Java-2D API — I’d look for that” or “This program is using exception-handling — that would be a good phrase to search for.”
  • Teach computing concepts without requiring programming. The new APCS course has some challenging objectives, like having students understand issues of data and knowledge representation in terms of abstraction and about what makes for a usable user interface.  A goal in this course is to minimize learning programming, at least, traditional programming languages.  Some of these learning objectives (like knowledge representation) belong to AI.  Others could use AI help, like maybe creating a simple agent that could “test the usability” of user interfaces that the students might design.  We’re going to need a lot of content generated to help teach these objectives, with minimal programming, and without resorting to boring, rote memorization.  (“Here, go memorize the Apple Human Interface Guidelines…”)

Thanks to Mehran Sahami and the rest of the EAAI organizing committee for inviting me!

July 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm Leave a comment

Media Computation Teachers’ Wiki

At SIGCSE 2010 this year, we had a preconference Media Computation Workshop where some of the “old-timers” (veterans? MIPs — Media Informed Professionals?) started a Wiki with materials for teachers: Assignments, exam problems, etc.  This is located at

If you want to peruse (or better yet, contribute material!), please drop me a note and I’ll give you the keyword to get into the repository.  It’s (somewhat) protected so that we can share materials that we don’t want students to stumble upon.

July 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm Leave a comment

New vs News: The Medium Is the Medium

David Brooks’ most recent op-ed piece for the NYTimes reminded me of Alan Kay’s comment about what’s truly New vs. what’s News.  Brooks is arguing that books are more powerful than the Internet for real educational gains.  Of course, empirical studies of the Internet today can only measure the Internet as it is today.  The potential (as I’m suggesting in my mini-post today about the iPad) is much greater.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium –

July 12, 2010 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

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