Archive for April, 2011

The UK’s Register on new MIT Media Lab Director

The announcement of MIT’s new Media Lab Director is a big deal, and is relevant for computer science.  What I found most fascinating about this piece was the blatant contempt that The Register obviously holds for the Media Lab, e.g., referring to Nicholas Negroponte as “The PT Barnum of Science.”  They say, “While real research is about finding new ways of thinking and finding new ways to tackle difficult problems, the Media Lab is really an incubator for media stunts, debasing the idea of research.”  (The MIT Media Lab is the home of Scratch and other great computing education innovations.)

Is this just The Register, or is this a common perception of the Media Lab outside the United States?  Do they see the value of things like Scratch, or do they see the education work as similarly “debasing,” or do they not see the education work at all?

MIT has appointed a new director of its Media Lab: a blogger and networker who found computer science boring, and dropped out of higher education completely after discovering that he couldn’t learn physics “intuitively”. But since it’s actually MIT’s Media Lab we’re talking about, the appointment of dot com socialite and self-confessed dilettante Joicho Ito is really the perfect, perfect choice. A happier marriage could not be imagined.

Ito has dabbled as an entrepreneur, running Japan’s first ISP for a year, and in the last few years helped inflate the Web 2.0 bubble. He has been CEO of Creative Commons, set up a Guild in World of Warcraft, and served three years on the board of domain name quango ICANN. More recently he’s been in Dubai, the lowest tax regime in the world.

via MIT Media Lab appoints college drop-out, socialite • The Register.

April 29, 2011 at 7:01 am 7 comments

Do the Chemistry Profs care about teaching more than the Computer Science Profs?

A couple of weeks ago, Barb and I were awarded Georgia Tech’s Service Award for our work with Georgia Computes!. At the same awards ceremony, across the table, was David Collard of Chemistry who was getting the Professional education award.  He’s been part of an effort (described below) called cCWCS which teaches chemistry faculty how to teach better — and the program has taught over a thousand faculty!

A thousand faculty?!?  I’ve blogged about how hard it is to get CS faculty to come to our workshops, either Media Computation or Georgia Computes.  I’ve talked to other folks who offer workshops to CS faculty, and they say that they have to invite high school teachers, too, or they won’t have enough people to run the workshop.  Why do so many Chemistry professors show up, when we struggle to get CS professors to show up at teaching workshops?

Barb had an interesting insight: Maybe it’s because Chemistry is taught to everyone.  When you teach something to everyone, you have to teach it better, or at least differently than what you’d just teach to your majors who are more motivated to learn it.  If you don’t change your practice, you end up flunking all the students, and that becomes a political problem on campus.  CS faculty, for the most part, teach to our own.  Maybe as we teach CS to more (as Eric Roberts’ post suggests), we too will have to increase our focus on teaching.

What cCWCS does

cCWCS provides support for STEM education dissemination efforts efforts. This takes the form of sponsorship of workshops and symposia, assistance with advertising and webpage development, and formation fo partnerships and networks. Please see our What cCWCS can do for YOU! webpage for more details.

Origins of cCWCS

The Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Communities of Scholars (cCWCS) program is the successor to the Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences (CWCS).   CWCS was supported for 2000-2010 by a series of grants from NSF Division of Undergraduate Education Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program. Over a ten-year period, CWCS offered over 100 hands-on, intentive and immersive five-day workshops for over 1800 participants. These workshops were designed for individuals engaged in undergraduate teaching. They incorporated lots of hands-on experiential learning and provided extensive sets of high quality tested curriculum materials.

Looking ahead

As cCWCS, funded by the NSF TUES program, the schedule of workshops will continue but a much broader set of activities will further engage members of the professoriate networking opportunities. These include both week-long workshops, shorter workshops and symposia at conferences, support of regional initiatives, and dissemination and implementation grants. The development of new web-based communities provides further opportunities to engage the professoriate in professional development activities.

via About cCWCS | Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops & Communities of Scholars.

April 28, 2011 at 9:54 am 20 comments

PyCon 2011: Python and Robots

An interesting video on using the IPRE approach to teaching high school robotics.

Combining Python with inexpensive robots is a very effective way of teaching programming at the middle and high school levels. Since Python is easy to understand a constructivist approach is possible – students learn by creating and running simple programs, observing the results, and then modifying their code to fix bugs and add functionality.

via PyCon 2011: Python and Robots: Teaching Programming in High School – PyCon US Videos – 2009, 2010, 2011 –

April 28, 2011 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

The PhD factory

This article from Nature has been leading to a lot of discussions where I’m at.  It relates to the CRA’s call for more discussion about post-docs.  Are we producing too many PhDs?  Or should we preparing more PhD’s for non-academic jobs?

In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher. In other countries, such as China and India, the economies are developing fast enough to use all the PhDs they can crank out, and more — but the quality of the graduates is not consistent. Only a few nations, including Germany, are successfully tackling the problem by redefining the PhD as training for high-level positions in careers outside academia.

via Education: The PhD factory : Nature News.

April 27, 2011 at 8:03 am 5 comments

Mark visits with the CSTA Sock Monkey

Chris Stephenson took my picture at the meeting to launch the new Partnership to Advance Computing Education:

Today, CS Sock Monkey launched an important initiative to support and promote computer science education in K-12.

In this role, Sock Monkey will have the opportunity to meet with many leaders in our community and to provide key insights on CS K-12 issues.

Here, sock monkey is congratulating Dr. Mark Guzdial, Professor, College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology on winning (along with his wife Barbara Ericson) the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award from ACM.

via Computer Science Teachers Association.

April 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm 1 comment

The best-researched CS textbook ever

When I visited Carnegie Mellon University a few weeks ago, I got to spend some time talking with Ken Koedinger and Albert Corbett about the early cognitive tutors research on Lisp, Pascal, and Prolog.  Albert told me that, at one point, they tried to teach Lisp, Pascal, and Prolog, all in one class.  At first, they taught it for maximal transfer, i.e., teach the same/similar production rules close to one another.  So they’d teach assignment in Lisp, Pascal, and Prolog; then conditionals in Lisp, Pascal, then Prolog, then…you get the idea.  It was, as you might imagine, a disaster.  Then they taught the three languages in sequence, and it really worked!  Albert said that that’s when he realized how much programming novices bind their knowledge to surface-level features.

Ken told me that the way that they taught Lisp (which mirrored the order of material when taught Pascal and Prolog, to get the most possible transfer) was then put in the book Essential Lisp by John R. Anderson, Albert T. Corbett, and Brian J. Reiser.  I had to get myself a copy (less than $6 used, including shipping).

Cover of Essential Lisp

The introduction includes references to the six, now famous and often-cited, journal articles that describe the research that informs this book.  I realized that I was holding probably the best-researched CS textbook ever — not in the sense of evaluating it afterward, but in the sense of having a lot of really good evidence at the design stage that this was a good way to teach computer science.

Some of my immediate observations from flipping through the book.

Start out slow, and progress slowly.  Here is the first exercise in the book, from page 5. “Write a LISP function call that adds the numbers 3 and 2. You should call a particular LISP function with the arguments 3 and 2.” Second exercise: “Write a function call that will divide 6 by 2. Do this just as you did in the previous problem, but use the function that divides numbers.”  If you can’t do this, please re-read the first five pages of the book, which contains all these answers.

Mutable variables are no big deal.  I know that people worry a lot about mutable variables in functional languages these days.  I am told that that’s why Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs avoids them for so long.  I know of no evidence that shows that mutable variables really are a problem for anyone. Setq is introduced on page 13 of Essential Lisp.  Parameters to functions are introduced on page 23.  That may be an accident — I don’t see any references to studies that show that that’s the best way to do it.

Iteration before Recursion.  Essential Lisp teaches iteration (with loop) on page 94. Recursion starts in the next chapter.  This is very purposeful.  The introduction references a 1986 paper by Kessler and Anderson (“Learning flow of control: Recursive and iterative procedures” from Human-Computer Interaction) where they explored recursion first, then iteration first.  I looked up and read that paper, then the follow-up paper by Susan Wiedenbeck (1989, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies).  Bottomline: If you are going to teach both, always start with iteration.   The explanation from the Kessler and Anderson was supported in Wiedenbeck’s studies.  It’s not that recursion is harder, it’s that iteration syntax is so complicated.  If you learn iteration well, the pieces of that syntax that you use in recursion are pretty obvious.  If you learn recursion first, it doesn’t really help in dealing with the more complex syntax of iteration structures, and knowing one way to repeat seems to conflict with learning a new way to repeat.

I’m having fun reading through the book, and then using that as a guide into the research literature.  I don’t believe that this is the best and only way to teach computer science.  But here’s a great example of using research to inform the design of education.

April 26, 2011 at 7:39 am 4 comments

Supporting Creativity but maybe not Creation

The cited blog post is critiquing Apple for having wonderfully creative technology but not well supporting software creation — and what does that mean for the future of computing, as Apple becomes the copied model.  Apple’s tools are used often by professionals in the creativity profession, but too often, those professionals aren’t also involved in creating new technology, even if just for themselves, and Apple isn’t really helping them make that move.  We saw a form of that in Brian Dorn’s dissertation work, where graphics artists had wonderful tools for creating digital media, but fended for themselves in learning to create software.

The concern voiced in this blog is that so-goes-Apple then so-goes-the-industry. This does seem to be a problem in our industry (is it true for all industries?) that ,when one company pulls ahead into a virtual monopoloy, everyone else adopts the approaches and strengths of the front-runner.  How many “next Microsofts” or “next Googles” or “next Facebooks” have you heard about?  The strengths and weaknesses of that company’s approach becomes the model that everyone copies.

Apple’s abysmally, disastrously worst ideas will be mindlessly copied along with their best.  To some extent this is already happening.  And if current trends continue, there will come a time when nothing resembling a programmable personal computer will be within the financial (or perhaps even legal!) reach of ordinary people.

The user-programmer dichotomy will be permanently cemented in place – even now, most computer owners don’t think of the expensive space heater on their desks as something programmable.  But in the future it won’t even occur to a curious child that the behavior of his, let’s say, schoolpad can be altered in ways unforeseen by its makers – the essence of the creative act we call programming.  We will be stuck with computers – machines which, within certain limits, are capable of literally anything – which have been deliberately – artfully! – crippled into being far less meaningfully-modifiable than our cars and houses.

via Loper OS » On the Still-Undefeated Tyranny of Apple..

April 25, 2011 at 8:17 am 8 comments

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