Tuesday, September 1, 2015

HLF2015 / Sir Antony Hoare — Theory and Practice

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place August 23-28, 2015. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

As with my interview with John Hopcroft, I was most interested in what Sir Antony Hoare had to say about computer science education. He was, after all, knighted for his work in education in addition to research. I was also particularly fascinated with his effort to tie academia and industry together, for example by setting up an external Masters degree for software engineers.

©HLF/ / C. Flemming­ - All rights reserved 2015

My first question for Sir Hoare was about whether we should be concerned that undergraduate degrees try to address both theory and practice. Most graduates will go on to work in industry, but many academics seem to believe that they are training students primarily for academia. Sir Hoare's belief (and I happen to agree) is that theory is valuable to learn for all students regardless of their future paths. Learning theory helps you better understand what you're doing by noticing analogies to what you've done before, thus increasing your competence. Once you get into the workplace, theory can make your job less boring: it is fun to see real-life examples of the theory you learned in school! It can also help you understand when the code you write is 'good.'

Next, I was curious what Sir Hoare thought of active learning techniques in the classroom. Though he wasn't particularly familiar with recent approaches, he wouldn't say no to the possibility that they can improve learning. As with anything, if it's done well and in moderation, it can be a good thing. Then again, we can also talk about what makes a lecturer effective on their own: a good lecturer, he says, has charisma and motivates students with rhetoric. Further, the lecturer has many existing tools available, such as textbooks, tutorials, exercises, practical projects, and even discussions (sadly, we never had any of these in our undergrad CS classes). I would love to say that I believe all this is enough, but I have seen firsthand that, for far too many students, it isn't. It will be interesting to see what a typical undergraduate lecture hall will look like in a decade or two.

Finally, I told Sir Hoare that I couldn't not ask him a question about quicksort, but that I'd try to put a different spin on it. (This elicited a large smile.) I have used quicksort as a first introduction to recursion for my students in the past, including for my arts and social science students as they learn the basics of computational thinking. I wondered how he felt about its efficacy as a first example. It turns out that not only does he think it's great for teaching recursion, but he even had some fun ideas for how to do it. One is a wonderful video that explains the algorithm via a Hungarian folk dance. I've used the same set of videos in my lectures, and highly recommend them. Another idea is based on the card game Patience (also known as Solitaire).

It's interesting that Sir Hoare began our conversation with an admittance that he hasn't been working on education the last 15 years, so he thought he wouldn't have much to say about it. As you can see, I once again had a wonderful conversation on the topic, and am very glad to have gained some insight into Sir Hoare's thoughts on theory and practice in computer science education.


Friday, August 28, 2015

HLF2015 / John Hopcroft, Diversity, and One of the First Computer Science Courses

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place August 23-28, 2015. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

I've long had a special interest in computer science education. I recently worked as a full time lecturer for two years, and I have been designing and delivering outreach initiatives for more than seven. So when it came time to request interviews with this year's HLF Laureates, John Hopcroft, who created one of the world's first computer science courses, caught my attention.

I began our conversation by introducing my interests in education, and right away Hopcroft pointed out that there is so much talent distributed around the world, but that educational opportunities are not so widely available. This has been in the case in China, for example, where Hopcroft has been working; he says their educational system needs help, and they know it. Of course, improving education everywhere is important. Hopcroft points out that as we move more and more into an intellectual economy, we need to better prepare our workforce.

John Hopcroft during his lecture at #hlf13 ©HLFF // C.Flemming - All rights reserved 2013

For me, this means ensuring that we educate everyone with at least the basics of computing. Right now, the field of computer science is not very diverse. For example, in the United States, according to the National Centre for Women & Information Technology, only 18% of computer and information science bachelor degrees went to women in 2013, and women made up only 26% of the computing workforce. Hopcroft suggests that one factor in a rather complicated issue is that women seem to want to help people, while men are satisfied by learning more abstract things. This idea validates my own theory that many men are often happy to primarily learn about the tools of computing (code, hardware, etc) for the sake of it, while women tend to want to know what you can do with these tools.

So what was the diversity like in Hopcroft's very first computer science class? Understandably, he wasn't really aware of diversity at the time. After all, there was enough to worry about, like figuring out how to teach one of the world's first courses on computer science despite having a background in electrical engineering. Ed McCluskey asked Hopcroft to teach the course, and in doing so, Hopcroft found himself becoming one of the world's first computer scientists. This lead him to be at the top of the list whenever anyone needed a computer scientist for, say, an important committee, thus giving him opportunities that for most disciplines wouldn't be possible until close to retirement. Hopcroft admitted he feels lucky for the way things worked out, and credits Ed for making it possible.

After learning that Hopcroft's first courses covered automata theory, I wanted to know what he thought the best computer science teachers do more generally. He told me he went into teaching because of the impact his many world-class teachers had on him at every stage of his education – he wanted to do the same. To be a great educator, he told me, it is not about the content, which anyone can specify. The single most important thing is to make sure your students know you care.

I was curious what Hopcroft thought of recently proposed active learning techniques like peer instruction and flipped classrooms. He said he didn't have any experience with them, so couldn't really comment. However, he did reveal that he still uses the blackboard during lectures – that way, he can change his lecture on the fly according to student needs. I pointed out that this could be considered a form of active learning, as there would be a feedback loop in the classroom. He did point out that techniques like the flipped classroom have some hidden concerns. For example, one must consider the credit hours a course is worth. If you are shifting what was done during lecture into videos or reading ahead of time, are you adding more pressure to the students' time?

I quite enjoyed my conversation with Hopcroft, and will leave you with some advice that he gives his students. Don't focus on what your advisors have done in their careers; their work was done in an era where the focus was on making computer systems useful. Look instead to the future, when we will be focussing on doing useful things with computers.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

HLF2015 / Foghor Tanshi – This Year’s Women In Technology Pass-It-On Award Winner and HLF Attendee

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place August 23-28, 2015. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

The Anita Borg Institute is a non-profit organization "on a quest to accelerate the pace of global innovation by working to ensure that the creators of technology mirror the people and societies who use it." For many years, ABI has supported women in technology through programs like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and through research.

One of ABI's initiatives is called Systers, originally a mailing list for women in systems computing and now a community for all women in technology. Today, Systers donate money to help supportPass-It-On Awards, "intended as means for women established in technological fields to support women seeking their place in the fields of technology." Each award winner has a moral obligation to somehow pass the benefits of the award on, broadening the its impact.

One of this year's Pass-It-On winners is Foghor Tanshi, a Nigerian researcher currently teaching at the Federal University of Petroleum Resources. Tanshi received financial support for travel to this year's Heidelberg Laureate Forum, where she hopes to launch her research career.

I asked Tanshi a few questions about her involvement with computer science, and would like to share some of her answers here.

Image courtesy of Foghor Tanshi

Gail Carmichael: Why did you get interested in computer science?

Foghor Tanshi: Because it is a field that easily finds application in a variety of other fields of endeavour. This particularly appeals to me because I enjoy applying my knowledge to new challenges.

GC: What is your research area? What made you interested in it?

FT: I have broad interests in machine learning applications in natural language processing and robotic motion and vision. This was inspired by the most basic need for machines – they make work easier. I am therefore interested in these interconnected research areas because they enable the development of collaborative and assistive technologies for humanity, e.g language-based teaching aids, human-robots collaborative manufacturing systems, etc.

GC: You also have an interest in computer science education. Can you tell me more about that?

FT: I am presently a computer science educator and plan to continue for most of my life because I am interested in inspiring – by any available means – more students (especially female Nigerian students) to use its techniques to solve problems. This is because of the fact that computer science tends to play an important role in the achievement of flexible solutions.

GC: What made you want to come to HLF?

FT: As one pursuing a career in research, it promises an opportunity to network and acquire vital information from Laureates in computer science and mathematics that would launch the next stage of my career. It would also provide an opportunity to share my research and meet potential collaborators, partners, mentors and friends.

GC: What was the role of the Systers Pass-It-On award in your ability to attend HLF?

FT: The Systers PIO enabled me make pre-travel and travel arrangements towards attending the forum.

GC: What are you most looking forward to at HLF?

FT: To re-live several years of knowledge and experience through the laureates. This would mean learning as much as possible within a short period of time; wisdom (for navigating a research career) that they acquired in a lifetime.



Tuesday, August 25, 2015

HLF2015 / Stefan Hell and the Difficult Task of Communicating Science

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place August 23-28, 2015. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

It turns out that the idea behind the Heidelberg Laureate Forum isn't exactly new. In fact, Nobel laureates and young scientists have been meeting in Lindau for more than 50 years, and it is these events that HLF is modelled on. For the first time, to show the strong affiliation between the events, we have a Nobel laureate speaking at HLF, and a laureate from HLF will speak at the next Lindau meeting.

This year, we were honoured to hear from Stefan Hell, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2014. His talk was part life story, and part description of the breakthrough that lead to the Nobel Prize. I personally found both aspects equally compelling, but the thing that Hell succeeded at most was managing to communicate his scientific work in a way we, decidedly not chemists, could understand.

@HLFF/ C. Flemming­ - All rights reserved 2015

Some of my friends and colleagues know that I am very picky about presentations. I find that many talks, especially research talks in conferences, could be so much better. Slides are best used as a prop, not notes. The talk should tell a story of sorts, and not be structured the same way as a paper (written and oral forms of communication just don't work the same way). The content should be clear for audiences outside the direct field of the speaker, yet detailed enough for those who are part of it. And, of course, the speaker should be personable and engaging.

Stefan Hell succeeded on all counts with his excellent lecture.

Hell's work makes it possible to view molecules at a much higher resolution than previously possible. The key insight that made this possible was the realization that you can never get better resolution by focusing light – there is no way to focus a lens to a point small enough. Instead, his work showed that you can put molecules into two different states and show only a small number of them in one of those states. I was thrilled to understand as he walked us through the key ideas, despite the fact that I haven't done chemistry or physics since my first year of undergrad.

If you want to see for yourself, you can watch Hell's Lindau lecture online. See also the HLF Blog post on whether Hell should be considered a role model for mathematicians, and read about STED microscopy on Wikipedia.



HLF2015 / Pomp and Circumstance at the Opening Ceremony

This blog post originates from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog. The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum is dedicated to mathematics and computer sciences, and takes place August 23-28, 2015. Abel, Fields, Turing and Nevanlinna Laureates will join the forum and meet 200 selected international young researchers.

The importance of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum really hit home for me when I saw how much effort was being put into making the event special for both the laureates and young researchers. From the smallest details, like the quality of the conference bags, to the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony, the organizers sure are doing things right.

The opening ceremony felt a bit like a wedding at first. We were asked to stand, the music started courtesy of a very talented saxophone quartet, and then we stared at an open door for a good few minutes before the laureates proceeded in. Cue the huge round of applause to honour the 26 laureates, winners of the ACM Turing Award, Abel Prize, Fields Medal, and Nevanlinna Prize. I'm sure each and every of the 200 young researchers present were honoured to be in their presence, and eventually even meet them personally.

@HLFF/ B. Kreutzer - All rights reserved 2015

There was a touching moment of silence for those we have lost since last year's forum, including the founder of HLF, Klaus Tschira. The rest of the ceremony featured welcome speeches, including two from politicians: Sigmar Gabriel, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, and Vice Chancellor of Germany; Dr. Eckart W├╝rzner, Lord Mayor of the City of Heidelberg. I found it quite refreshing that not only did these politicians seem to understand the importance of science and technology, but genuinely cared about it.

Saxophone Quartet Balanced Action @HLFF/ B. Kreutzer - All rights reserved 2015

We were treated to some more sweet sounds of the saxophones at several interludes, and lead by the quartet Balanced Action out of the building and along the historic cobblestone streets to the opening reception nearby. Hard to make a group of mathematicians and computer scientists feel any more special than that (that is, until dinner at the castle, but that's a story for another time).

The video of the opening ceremony is available online.