Archive for October, 2011

Not all Arduino uses are created equal: Context and gender

The below article ran in the IEEE Spectrum Tech-Alert under the awful title, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  The IEEE Spectrum editor immediately sent out an email retraction of the title as being offensive.

But even with the retraction, I don’t think that the piece adequately explores how different the populations are of Arduino users.  The below picture is from Leah Buchele at this last May’s NCWIT Summit in NYC.

The graph on the left describes the gender makeup of the Arduino-using community.  The graph on the right describes the gender makeup of the LilyPad-using community. The IEEE article simply describes the LilyPad as “waterproof.”  Huh?  Don’t they know about e-textiles?  The red in the graphs are male, and the aqua are female.  In statistics, this is called “inter-occular occlusion” — you don’t need a t-test, this just hits you between the eyes.  Women like the LilyPad. The Arduino community has almost no women in it.  The context matters.

If you’re going to make some crack about mothers programming, then you’d better speak to the significant gender issues. And if you’re going to write about Arduino, you should really know about the different communities.  Arduino matters for women, because it led to LilyPad.  Arduino itself plays no role in being a technology environment for mothers or just about any women at all.  They’d better figure that out before they further explore “integrating it more deeply into the education system.”

To fuel greater adoption of Arduino, the team is exploring how to integrate it more deeply into the education system, from grade schools to colleges. Several universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, already use Arduino. Mellis has been studying how students and laypeople take to electronics in a series of workshops at the MIT Media Lab. Mellis invites 8 to 10 people to the lab, where they’re given a task to complete over the course of a day. The projects have included building iPod speakers, FM radios, and a computer mouse using some of the same components that Arduino uses.

But spreading the Arduino gospel is only part of the challenge. The team must also keep up with demand for the boards. In fact, the Arduino platform doesn’t consist of one type of board anymore—there’s now an entire family of boards. In addition to the original design, called the Arduino Uno, the new models include a more powerful board called the Arduino Mega, a compact board called the Arduino Nano, a waterproof board called the LilyPad Arduino, and a recently released, Net-enabled board called the Arduino Ethernet.

via The Making of Arduino – IEEE Spectrum.

October 31, 2011 at 8:22 am 6 comments

2011 McGRAW PRIZE IN EDUCATION to Mitchel Resnick for Scratch

I like the way the McGraw Prize in Education is framed, and congratulate Mitchel Resnick on receiving the award for his work on Scratch.

“Technology in education is a great catalyst for change — for creating, managing, and communicating a new conception of learning,” said Mr. McGraw. “This year’s Harold McGraw Prize winners are the embodiment of the transformative impact of technology on improving education. Their innovations are enabling students to learn at their own pace and empowering teachers to inspire and coach.”

Mr. McGraw said, “Digital learning is the opportunity of the century. For many students around the world, technology makes education more accessible, adaptable and affordable. We applaud these exceptional leaders for guiding the way and enriching the lives of so many students.”

via 2011 McGRAW PRIZE IN EDUCATION WINNERS NAMED | McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.

October 28, 2011 at 5:54 am 1 comment

An AP Exam in Engineering?

The College Board is increasingly using the Advanced Placement exams as a kind of intervention into high school STEM education, and even attempting to influence university education.  The new Biology AP course and exam is explicitly aimed at reforming biology education and is based on the latest education research.  Now, the College Board is thinking about moving into engineering, which supports multiple efforts to create more K-12 engineering education, e.g. Georgia Tech just won a grant to teach manufacturing principles in high school. I think it’s in this spirit that the College Board is working with NSF to create the new hope-to-be AP in CS:Principles.  Can we use AP CS as a lever to change undergraduate CS education?

At U.S. News’s Making Science Cool event last Tuesday, he said the organization was “exploring the potential of more AP courses in engineering, energy, environment, and anatomy.” Don’t look for the new subjects anytime soon. Development of a new AP course can take up to six years as teachers and professors develop class curricula and the AP exam before smaller groups pilot the new course, according to Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and college readiness for the College Board.

via College Board Explores New AP Exams in STEM Subjects – STEM Education (

October 27, 2011 at 9:35 am Leave a comment

There is No Profit in Education, No Competitive Advantage to Better Learning.

I have come up today with an answer to several questions that have been vexing me for some time.  Here are three of those questions, and the answer that I’ve come up with for all three.

  • I tried to upgrade my desktop computer to the latest Mac OS X yesterday, but I couldn’t.  My 2006 Mini-Mac has a Core Duo processor, and Mac OS X Lion won’t run on such an old computer.  Georgia Tech, like most research-intensive universities, has no policy to upgrade computers for faculty.  Faculty are expected to bring in research funding to pay for their own computers.  All of my funding is from NSF which explicitly prohibits purchasing computers for faculty’s general use.  (Overhead, which is supposed to pay for infrastructure like computers, is instead used to pay for new initiatives in healthcare and for wine & cheese “networking receptions.”)  I complained to my Chair, who pointed out that other faculty don’t have this problem.  They get corporate funds or defense contracts to pay for their equipment. Why don’t I?  What’s wrong with computing education research that it doesn’t attract more corporate or DoD funds?
  • I’m going to be interviewed for a podcast Friday, and one of the questions I’m going to be posed is, “Why doesn’t computing education research get the same respect as other CS research areas?”
  • I’m not quite done yet with Abelard to Apple.  I’m really enjoying it, but I’m realizing that it has nothing to do with me.  Rich DeMillo talks about the three broad classes of universities: Elites, Middles, and the For-Profits.  Elites succeed, and Middles can succeed, because they offer a compelling “value proposition.”  That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with learning. DeMillo also talks quite a bit about faculty and University reluctance to measure anything.  Research is about measuring everything.  My research is about improving the quality of education. Does quality matter to the economics of universities?

There can be no profit in education in America.  There is no competitive advantage to better learning.  What’s the first question that anyone asks of a new learning or teaching method?  “Will it work with the disadvantaged, the poor, the urban student with little preparation?”  I agree with that sentiment, but that’s not how you make money.  There’s no profit to be made by making sure that your best work goes to people who can’t pay for it.  While I understand the arguments (and counter-arguments) about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, it’s still pretty clear that nobody knows how to do that well yet.

I expect someone to respond to this post with, “There can be profit in better education! You can find a competitive advantage if you just…”  Yeah? Show me, please. Show me just one replicable example.  Even the For-Profits aren’t saying that they get you better learning.  They just say that they’re cheaper or more flexible (i.e., in on-line classes).

What would happen if we could teach computing better?  First, how could you prove it?  What could you offer that students and employees would accept as evidence?  Second, who cares?  The Elites draw students because they offer far more than simply learning — they offer a network, prestige, great ROI.  There’s no advantage to teaching better.  Will people pay more for better education?  How would you know?  There are schools that say that they lead to better learning (like the liberal arts schools) — they’re drowning in debt, and far more kids are going to the research institutions and the Elites, or the For-Profits.  Better learning doesn’t buy you anything.

What if we could teach computing faster?  All of American education is time-locked.  Classes take 15 weeks, a semester (in most places — a quarter, 10 weeks in others).  What if you could teach the same content in 12?  Well, what would you do with those other three?  Schooling is 12 years, and even if you could achieve the same learning in less, you run into huge obstacles of culture and economics to finish earlier.  You can’t save time in schools, which means you can’t save money by doing better in less time.

Every other field in computer science offers a competitive advantage to somebody.  If you can make operating systems better, you give your funder something to sell, you save people time and money.  Security is all about protecting what you have.  A better visualization system gives your analysts a competitive advantage.  Better graphics get you more movie and video game sales.  Health systems and technologies flourish because people can and will pay more for better healthcare.   Why should Universities respect the field that brings no profit?

Education research can only succeed in non-profits.  It’s a form of social work, “Computing at the Margins” as my Chair likes to say.  But Universities aren’t non-profits — they’re totally in it to maximize profit, as DeMillo points out.  I’m in the wrong job.


October 26, 2011 at 8:56 am 39 comments

Helping with the OO learning curve: How to connect two objects

A significant problem of all object-oriented programming systems has been the learning curve of getting to know the object system.  I’ve seen little work on helping the programmer to understand the object system.  I had just these kinds of problems when I was trying to figure out the sound classes in Java, and suddenly had to deal with all these Consumer and Producer classes that I’d never heard of. The below is an interesting step in helping the programmer fill in that knowledge.  An interesting follow-on question: What does the programmer remember after using Matchmaker about the object system?  Does the programmer learn anything?  Does knowledge accrue and transfer?

In the Eclipse framework, the window that displays code written in the new language is called an Editor; a function that searches the code for symbols or keywords is called a Scanner. That much a seasoned developer could probably glean by looking over the Eclipse source code. But say you want to add a new Scanner to Eclipse, one that allows you to highlight particular symbols. It turns out that, in addition to your Editor and Scanner objects, you would need to invoke a couple of objects with the unintuitive names of DamageRepairer and PresentationReconciler and then overwrite a function called getPresentationReconciler in yet a third object called a SourceViewerConfiguration.

With Matchmaker, the developer would simply type the words “editor” and “scanner” into the query fields, and the program would return the names of the objects that link them and a description of the modifications required to any existing functions.

via An oracle for object-oriented programmers – MIT News Office.

October 25, 2011 at 9:11 am Leave a comment

There is gender in software, and there’s empirical evidence of influence on problem-solving

I hope to get to PPIG someday, the Psychology of Programming Interest Group. PPIG dates back to the golden age of computing education research, back when the Empirical Studies of Programmers workshops were going strong.  While I haven’t made it to the UK yet to attend one of their conferences, I remain on their mailing list and enjoy reading the reports.

The keynote from last August’s meeting had quite an interesting idea — that software can be gendered or gender-neutral.  I’m surprised that they can find significant evidence of these differences, that the differences aren’t more subtle.  I wonder what is the role of the genders of the developers in defining the gender of the software?

Margaret Burnett opened the conference with a keynote on Gender HCI and Programming. She reported on a series of investigations conducted by her and her students. They found that purportedly gender-neutral software tools do interact with gender differences, resulting in lower problem-solving effectiveness for female users. In particular, males were more prone to explore and attempt problem-solving by trial and error, while females did not explore as much and stayed with familiar functions. Female end-user effectiveness in programming environments like Excel could be improved by taking gender differences into account. This would not necessarily mean the tool would be less usable by males; in fact, many groups of people could benefit from the improvements.

via August 2011 Newsletter – Psychology of Programming Interest Group.

October 24, 2011 at 8:24 am 1 comment

CS Education Act aims to boost K-12 computer science education: It’s about time

The increased interest in CS education is terrific — computing is critical to our society and our infrastructure, and there are more jobs than graduates. Understanding computing is critical for innovation in every domain. It’s a shame that it has to come as an add-on.  Computer science should be part of every discussion about science or mathematics education, or STEM education generally. Creating more and better educated computer scientists (and computing literate citizenry, across professions) is as important as having more and better educated scientists and engineers (and having a science and mathematics literate citizenry).

The Computer Science Education Act, according to Polis, would help train American students for the more than 1.5 million high-paying computing jobs expected to be created in the United States by 2018. The bill, he said, aims at helping states increase and strengthen their computer science offerings.

If passed, states will receive at least $250,000 in planning grants, according to Polis’ office.

At the University of Colorado, school leaders are proposing a second undergraduate degree program in computer science to increase the number of students in the field, and the Boulder Valley School District has several advanced computer classes available for students.

Polis’ legislation would require that states develop computer science standards and curriculum and form a commission to bring states together to address the shortage in computer science teachers.

via Polis legislation aims to boost K-12 computer science education – Boulder Daily Camera.

October 20, 2011 at 9:34 am 4 comments

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