Monday, January 31, 2011

WISE Steps to Success a Big Success

Last Wednesday CU-WISE held a professional development event called WISE Steps to Success for a second year.  It's one of our flagship events, and was designed to give women in science and engineering the networking, negotiation, and confidence skills we aren't taught in class.

From the event description:
There's more to success than just passing your courses. There are a lot of skills to be learned outside of the classroom that greatly contribute to your future. And the earlier you start learning them, the earlier you can reach your goals.

Carleton's WISE, IEEE WIE, and Career Services have joined forces to give you the career building essentials and help you stand out. Whether you are actively looking for a job or not, this is an event you don't want to miss. This year we have also teamed up with local organization Dress for Success.

The event is free for Carleton's women in sciences and engineering, and will include a light dinner and dessert. You will hear from experts on networking, the importance of making a great first impression, dressing for success, confidence building, and negotiation skills. You will also have the opportunity to speak to mentors from academia and industry, to meet other students in your field, and to practice your skills.
This event was a huge success.  We had great attendance by both Carleton students and industry and academic mentors.  We saw a lot of networking happening during the breaks between talks, and the three speakers were amazing.

WISE Steps to Success 16

Best of all, I didn't even have to organize the event - four amazing Executives and Officers did it all! I got to play event photographer instead. ;)  You can see more photos from the event on Flickr.

The Speakers

Moyra McDill, a professor in engineering at Carleton, spoke about her experiences being the first woman to graduate with a degree from Mechanical Engineering at Carleton.  She told us about the "life rocks" philosophy.  She started with an empty measuring cup and added large rocks representing the most important things in her life, like family.  She then added smaller rocks into the spaces, sand in the remaining spaces, and water after all of that.  The point was that it's amazing how much you can fit into your life; just start with the big rocks, because you can't put those in after the sand/water/small stuff is already in there.

WISE Steps to Success 10 WISE Steps to Success 11 WISE Steps to Success 12

Next up was Andrew Moizer with an enthusiastic message about self-confidence and some tips on negotiation.  He encouraged everyone to step out of their comfort zone often.  I personally enjoyed his story very much, as he went from a big-wig in high tech to an entrepreneur with his own cattle farm. Talk about outside the comfort zone! What's really cool is his farm and cafe are in a small town my family and I visit frequently (it's on the other side of us from Ottawa).  I'm looking forward to visiting his and his wife's cafe soon.

WISE Steps to Success 18 WISE Steps to Success 19 WISE Steps to Success 20

Finally, by chance, a friend of mine was our last speaker.  Louise Grace came on behalf of Dress for Success Ottawa, whose mission is "to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life."  She told us about what Dress for Success does and then gave us tips on making the best first impression possible.  Her fashion advice was practical and reasonable, which I always appreciate, being someone who isn't all that into clothes.  I will always remember to check my shoes for salt stains before an important meeting or interview now thanks to Louise. ;)

WISE Steps to Success 22 WISE Steps to Success 23 WISE Steps to Success 24

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Powerpointless Workshops

Today I put on a workshop for my fellow TA Mentors on Powerpointless Workshops.  While I don't think that using slides is totally evil, it's definitely the case that many people abuse them.  As Matt Might recently said in the context of academic talks:
PowerPoint has kneecapped public speaking.  People no longer "deliver a speech"; they "present slides." 
To me this represents an unfortunate state of affairs.

powerpoint as a comic
powerpoint as a comic by Austin Kleon

To get the workshop started, I asked what the participants usually wanted to get out of workshops they attend.  The consensus (other than the potential for free food) was pretty similar to what I wrote down ahead of time: I want to figure out some new technique or strategy that I can apply in my own work, and I want to somehow experience concretely.  In other words, I don't want to just be told or shown.

Based on this, we discussed some of the interesting activities that we've seen in workshops that help accomplish this.  This point was to ask after brainstorming how many of these things actually needed PowerPoint to be done well.  I was expecting a mix, but to my delight all the examples given fit with my alterior motive.

From there, I talked about some workshops I had done in the past and how they went.  I passed out some of the handouts I has used, including for the workshop I did on Teaching CS Concepts.  Then I moved back into asking for ideas on activities we could do in our own workshops (this felt a little weird since the previous discussion already brought many ideas forward, but we did get more out of the second conversation, so it was worthwhile).

Some of the possibilities that came up:
  • Classics like think-pair-share and group discussions
  • Doing what you are teaching (such as actually grading something in a workshop about grading)
  • Microteaching (see Teaching CS Concepts link above for an example)
  • Starting with a pointed hook (we made up this term to mean that you can have an ice breaker activity or a hook into the talk, but it needs to pack a punch and have a clear point)
  • Write down scenarios or questions on a sheet of paper, cut them up, and give them to groups to discuss; later, present findings to group and discuss
  • Role playing, case studies
  • Games and simulations (especially good for seeing abstract ideas in action)
  • Scavenger hunt (suggested for a mentor who has to present resources available to lab TA's)
  • Creating lists of options, ranking them in terms of amount of effort required, and noting resulting benefit (you can often get good discussion as to why people chose different rankings)
  • Incorporating videos, interactive applets, etc
One of the key points was to find ways to guide the students into learning what you want them to learn, rather than just tell them.

A few general tips that came up:
  • Write an agenda on the board.
  • Use some kind of visual aid, be it a handout, writing on the board, or whatever.
  • Consider the introverts by providing them with opportunities to speak to others in smaller groups (i.e. avoid discussion-only workshops).
  • Determine your key points, then repeat them in your examples and discussions, and even be explicit at some point.
  • Be careful about inserting group activities for the sake of it - always know why you are doing it and why you are doing it at that point in time.
  • There's no need to spell everything out up front, but do try to tie activities back to the main point after they are done.
  • Walk around to groups as they work.  Be friendly so they see you as a peer instead of something checking up on them.
Have any other ideas for things to do during a Powerpointless workshop? Any other tips? I'm sure I missed some!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

QR Code Story Adventures

A QR code is 2D bar code that was standardized well enough that free decoders are readily available for computers and smart phones.  You can encode about 3 KB of data according to Wikipedia, and this data can simply be text.  The most common use seems to be to encode web site addresses that will be loaded in a browser automatically after the QR code is decoded.  Because it's so easy to generate your own codes, just about anyone can set up their own scavenger hunt by hiding a bunch of custom codes locally and simply requiring players to write down what the codes say.

giaLLLo QR CODE ?G!question
giaLLLo QR CODE ?G!question by giaLLLO!

By adding just a little more structure to this concept, you could orchestrate stories that enforce finding QR codes in a particular order.  The Hyperlab at Carleton has done a lot of research on writing narratives appropriate for this kind of scenario.  A GPS-based system called Whereigo facilitates the creation of stories and games that are tied to location.  Combining these two ideas would allow for finer grained placement of interesting story pieces than is possible with GPS alone.

I'm currently working on an iPhone app prototype for QR-based stories.  If it goes well, I am thinking about creating an authoring tool to make it easy for everyday users to create their stories, then polishing and marketing the app.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Teach Me How to Research

How many of you were formally taught how to research? I'm guessing that for many of you, like me, there was never a class or workshop available to show you how it's done.  I wish there was.

Who Knows What You'll Find When You Ask Questions
Who Knows What You'll Find When You Ask Questions by [F]oxymoron

If I had ever known I even might go to grad school, I would have tried to learn more about research before I even got here.  I could have done a summer research internship with a professor in our faculty.  I could have tried to make my honours project a little more research oriented.

When I started my Masters, I had no idea what "real" research was.  Some of my courses tried to show us, but I usually ended up doing implementation-based projects instead of attempting to answer any interesting questions.  I learned a bit from my supervisors, but we never explicitly talked about how things are done, so even then I was kind of just guessing.

Something I think would help me - and I'm sure many others - is an optional class or workshop series on how research is done in our field.  What exactly constitutes a 'contribution,' and how do you know if you've got one? What do theory-oriented researchers do? How are experiments usually run? What are the different kinds of papers that we could write, and how would an algorithms theory paper differ from, say, an experimental paper in graphics? It would be great to get specific to our areas, too, because even if I'm not an algorithms theorist, I think it would be very useful to see the big picture by knowing how various computer scientists work.

Does your school have a course or workshops on how to research? How well does it work? If you have a good model I'd love to hear about it, and maybe I can suggest doing something similar at Carleton.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sneaking Computer Science Into Physics

I have been trying to convince local participants in the Let's Talk Science program that I can connect almost any of their course material to computer science.  I would like more teachers to request computer science activities through the program.  It's not an easy task, because the assumption is that only computer science classes would benefit from computer science activities.

Yesterday, I did an activity for a grade ten science class that recently finished their physics unit on optics.  (I only had half a class this time, but could have easily spent an entire class on the activity by adding some more hands on stuff.)  I started things off by discussing the difference between a bitmap and a vector graphic.  Once the students understood this, I asked them what they thought 3D graphics would be made with, and they guessed vector.

We talked a bit about how objects would be described mathematically in 3D space, and how you could wrap a bitmap around vector-based objects to texture them.  We looked at how to take a 3D object and represent it as a 2D object by making shadows onto the projector's screen.  I explained that this was called projection.  I quickly reviewed the geometry rules they had learned for lenses, and showed how it worked for an even simpler case: the pinhole camera.

I told them how film cameras worked (only a few even remembered having one!). I asked them what they thought was different for digital cameras.  What was the equivalent of the film? They guessed the screen, the memory card, and so on, but didn't guess that there was a sensor that acted like film.

After discussing the sensor, we did the CS Unplugged activity on image representation to get a feel for how computers can store image information.

And just like that, I got to teach them computer science in the disguise of learning physics. Hurrah! :D

When I do get the opportunity to do computer science activities (either for Let's Talk Science or other outreach), I generally find that the students have a real sense of accomplishment after they (inevitably) grasp the concepts.  Add that to the overall benefit of understanding even a bit about how computers - such an integral part of our lives today - work, and I think you have a compelling reason to invite a computer scientist to any high school classroom.

If you're interested in how you might be able to connect computer science activities to other high school subject areas, check out this document I put together a few years ago for ideas.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Taking Advantage of Emotion with Augmented Reality

I've been thinking about how augmented reality can take advantage of emotion to help people complete their tasks more efficiently. These musings were originally for a potential paper, but since this particular paper concept is going to be shelved for a while, I thought I'd share some ideas for applications I had.

Aster d'automne...!!! by Denis Collette...!!!

Many augmented reality researchers choose to define AR rather strictly, focusing on visual digital content registered to the real world in 3D.  This content could be shown with a heads-up display, a web cam as a magic mirror, or through a portable device as a magic lens.  Content can also be projected onto surfaces.

But by expanding our idea of what augmented reality is, we can be looser in thinking about the kinds of devices and technology that could be created to augment a user's perception of the world around her.  Some definitions of AR simply require that content aligns to the world in some meaningful way, but unlike the strong tie that visual augmentations often strive for, this could be as simple as location-based sounds and information.  Thinking this way takes away the distraction of not having good enough technology for the types of augmentations envisioned.

Emotion can be a “key source of motivation for driving thinking, learning, and problem solving” (Gee, Learning and Games, Ecology of Games). As Norman says in Emotional Design, “[w]hen you are in a state of positive affect, … neurotransmitters broaden the brain processing, the muscles can relax, and the brain attends to the opportunities provided by positive affect. … Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism.” The fact that AR allows us to provide content or information in the real world alongside real situations and tasks means we might be able to affect user’s emotions - and thus their activities - in their daily lives in a new way.

For example, consider someone learning to run. From experience, I can say that this can be a very unpleasant task (yet many of us still try because the rewards are great). What if we used AR to create an emotional sound scape that both distracts from the painful shin splints you might be developing, and takes you to various locations with a particular pace, effectively guiding you to run properly without even realizing it? Could a story be told that causes changes in the way you run, slowing you down as you look for the location of the next part, or run faster as the story intensifies?

Another type of system might use affect to keep your attention on a particular task (unlike the running example, which aimed to take your attention away from it). Warning lights in cars today might be loosely considered a form of augmented reality since they react automatically to the context of the car they are situated in. Could (or should) affect be used to build more effective warning mechanisms? How might we consider additional context beyond the car, such as weather conditions or other vehicles, and use affect to guide the driver’s attention or support his ability to problem solve very quickly in potentially dangerous situations? Could it help our driving calmness if pleasant imagery (or even sounds, for that matter) surrounded us in regular driving conditions? Could a visceral reaction to traditionally dangerous colours (possibly sharply pointing in the direction of trouble) alert us to danger sooner if there was a sudden change in the car’s surroundings?

A last example might take advantage of Norman’s reflective level of emotional design. Many have considered tourism systems that give historical or cultural information about one’s surroundings. Suppose we designed a system that took into account theory from affect to help users capture their memories in such a way that when they return to particular locations they are able to recall them vividly and fondly. In a sense, users would create a memory-scape set in real locations with sounds, images, and videos (or perhaps even haptic feedback, given the right device) that they can revisit anytime. The real trick is to not concentrate on the technology itself (which often happens in augmented reality research), but on the emotions, and how to help users capture their memories effectively.

There are several existing examples of augmented reality systems that read and react to a user's emotional state, so I've been concentrating here on systems that affect the user's emotions instead.  Have you seen any great examples of this? Could you see emotion being useful or enjoyable when used with augmented reality?

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Surprising Power of the Hive Mind

Have you ever heard of the alternate reality game I Love Bees? It was designed as a game to be played by a very large number of people who would form a collective intelligence (also known in popular culture as a hive mind).  Alone, it would be impossible for anyone to solve the puzzles and perform the tasks put forth, but together, the thousands of people who played not only met the designers' expectations but exceeded them, causing the game's design to change as it progressed.

I read about I Love Bees in a book I've been working through called The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and LearningJane McGonigal wrote a case study on the game for her chapter Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming. (I wrote about Jane and bringing epic wins to real life in the past.)

While reading about the hive mind via Jane, I couldn't help but think about two recent cases of the hive mind being used for good and maybe not-so-good (perhaps depending on your perspective).

The first example I thought of was Internet-based group Anonymous, and in particular their response to the Wikileaks backlash.  Tech Crunch reported in December that "[t]hus far Operation Payback has orchestrated DDoS attacks on the corporate sites of companies deemed enemies of WikiLeaks after it started releasing thousands of diplomatic cables over Thanksgiving weekend."  It's amazing and, I have to admit, a little thrilling to see that an unnamed group of online citizens can organize themselves into taking such large and noticed actions so quickly and easily.  It certainly seems more effective than many traditional protests.

Not everyone sees the actions of Anonymous as noble.  The example from just this past week, however, is undeniably so.  I first heard about the 'homeless man with a golden voice' on Reddit.  A video of Ted Williams, taken a mere five days ago on the streets, appeared on YouTube, and Reddit community seemed determined to help the guy out.  While it's not clear whether the offers for multiple jobs and even a house were the direct result of Reddit alone, it is certainly true that once again that the Internet has accomplished something really big.

So we've had examples of organized collective intelligence through carefully (but flexibly) designed games, and we've seen large groups of people coordinate themselves online to do some pretty incredible things, for better or for worse.  Is there really any reason we couldn't be tackling some of the world's toughest problems in a similar way? What will we accomplish next?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pseudocontext in Computer Science

Can you imagine a programming assignment or example where "common sense and real-world knowledge are not needed"?  Math teacher (and now PhD student in education) Dan Meyer proposed that many math problems fit into this category, exhibiting what he calls pseudocontext.

Dan settles on the following definition of pseudocontext:
  1. context that is flatly untrue: "a basketball team scores two points every minute for the duration of the game."
  2. operations that have nothing to do with the given context: "the age of Mark's dad is three more than four times Mark's age." 
 And in an earlier post on the topic, describes why it's a problem:
We need to call pseudocontext out when we see it, call it out by name. If we invite pseudocontext in our classrooms without condition, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the real and the unreal. It becomes easier to excuse all kinds of bizarre unreality because, well, I mean, this is math class and in math class it's possible to know that "in January of the year 2000, I was one more than eleven times as old as my son William while in January of 2009, I was seven more than three times as old as him" and yet not know how old your own son is.
I've been thinking about some of the assignments we can see in computer science classes and how far from reality they can seem, and wondered whether we suffer from the same issues.  While it's true that you can rarely make totally realistic assignments in undergrad courses due to limited time and a wide variety of issues involved from security to scalability, I do think that the context of some assignments and examples ends up off the mark.

It's certainly not as clear as with math problems, however.  In some cases, questions seem boring and pointless, but may not exhibit pseudocontext (in fact, many may just lack any context).  For instance, upon looking at some of my first-year C-programming assignments, I found a lot of utterly useless stuff.  The first coding task involved asking for someone to input a number, checking if it was a valid integer, then outputting it again.  Is this a complete lack of context? Or is it pseudocontext since nobody would ever do it in that form, even if we do occasionally ask for input in larger programs?

The last assignment from the same class makes use of a text file containing a list of dictionary words.  The story is that we're implementing a simple spell checker, but even someone who had never programmed before university (like me) could tell that you'd never check spelling by linearly searching a giant linked list of words.  I mean, it's possible, but nobody would actually ever do that.  I'd put this one under part two of the above definition, and knowing how much of a toy example the assignment is could be really demotivating for those who aren't passionate about code itself (and the assignment is far too easy for those who are!).  At least if we had to implement something we can tell is a toy example, it could be more interesting than a spell checker.

I have to consider assignments from my favourite first year class and professor, though I don't think these are the worst offenders (at least they tend to be more interesting topics).  The second one has us build up a few classes representing aspects of a movie theatre: the patron, the theatre, and the box office.  This seems reasonable and is certainly more fun than the spell checker, but the context of it is strange.  Why would the patron be represented in code? In a real ticketing system, wouldn't the patron simply be the user (assuming an automated system)? There doesn't seem to be a need to store his/her name, age, and tickets in the actual program.  Are we just trying to create a simulation for testing purposes? If so, why isn't that explained? I'm guessing the same level of complexity and learning objectives could have been achieved with an assignment that felt a bit more like a real theatre system.  Or, perhaps it's better to stay away from trying to create a system that you can't possibly do justice in a small assignment?

While searching for more examples, I ran into the issue of deciding whether they had pseudocontext or not over and over again.  Many assignments have boring context or none at all, which I think is a big issue in computer science itself.  There's no doubt that many assignments during my undergrad felt unrealistic.  However, there are collections of great assignments that do feel real (example), so it is possible!

This is something that needs more deep thought, and I'm hoping you'll share any examples you might come across! If you blog about it, leave a link to your post in the comments so I can check it out.