Monday, October 28, 2013

Video Games and Learning: My First MOOC Experience

Way back in the springtime I signed up for a Coursera offering on video games and learning.  I had no idea when the course would actually be offered, and forgot about it until they finally, around the end of September, announced that the course would be beginning shortly.  Right in the middle of my first term of full-time teaching.  A term in which I have 700 students.  Talk about timing!

Despite the possibility that I couldn't give this course as much attention as I'd like, I decided to give it a try anyway.  It's an area I'm interested on a personal and research level, and if nothing else, I figured the videos should be interesting.

So far, so good in that regard.  I was excited to see so many familiar faces in the lectures and concept videos.  They aren't people I know personally, but whose work I've been following for some time.  The topics have been interesting, and I really enjoyed seeing the Games Learning Society lab space (totally a place I could see myself working).

I've consistently been about a week behind the lecture and assignment schedule, so I often miss out on the more timely discussion in the forums.   I'm not sure it matters much in my case, though, since I don't have a huge amount of time to dedicate to interacting with other students anyway.

One question that's fair to ask is whether I've actually learned anything from the course so far.  Honestly... I'm not sure.  Because it's an area I've been watching for a while now, I probably know most of the basics already.  I also can't remember many of the specifics of what was covered in the lecture-style videos (they are very, very hard to focus on, unlike the animation-supported concept videos).  That said, it is nice to have the review and to think about new things via the assignments.

My experience with this, my first MOOC, has been good enough that I signed up for another one that's more directly related to my thesis project: The Future of Storytelling.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review the First Sample Chapters For Our CS Book For Beginners

You may remember hearing about a project I've been involved with for the last couple of years.  We're working on a book about computer science designed for beginners; something that could be used, for example, in my "introduction to computers for arts and social sciences" class.  Well, we've finally got two chapters ready for review, and would love to get your feedback on how we're doing so far.

Note: If you're a beginner in the world of computer science, even better!

The first sample chapter is on Data Representation. This is the first chapter from Part I of the book, which covers computing fundamentals.  The second chapter is on Artificial Intelligence. This is one of our in-depth subject areas and builds on concepts introduced in basic chapters.  It will appear in Part II of the book, which surveys some of the major fields found within computer science.

If you're interested in helping out, you can review either one of the chapters, or both.  There is a short survey to fill in about the chapters.  We also intend to publish a list of our reviewers, should you wish to have your name included.

If you're interested, please contact me, and I'll send you all the information and links you need.  (If you've left your email with us in the past, and haven't heard from us yet about this review opportunity, you probably will.  Please still feel free to contact me directly now.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slides from 'Coherent Emergent Stories in Video Games' / GHC13

I gave a talk at this year's Grace Hopper on what I've been working on for my thesis project:
Coherent Emergent Stories in Video Games
Crafting satisfying narratives while preserving player freedom is a longstanding challenge for computer games.  Many games use a quest structure, allowing players to experience content nonlinearly.  However, this risks creating disjointed stories when side quests only minimally integrate with the main story.  This talk introduces the problem of nonlinear storytelling in games and discusses our flexible, scene-based story system that reacts dynamically to the player’s actions.

My slides are embedded below and you can learn more on my website.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why are we still geeks? Correcting media images of Computer Science / GHC13

Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd College, far left), Brenda Laurel (Purple Moon, far right), and Kim Surkan (MIT) gave an insightful panel about the images of geeks in the media.  In some ways, I didn't learn much new, but I liked hearing about their personal experiences and getting new language to talk about the problem with.

For this post, I'd like to share some of my (mostly raw) notes from the session.

Maria's Part
  • no progress made in changing the image of professionals in the media
  • is a believer of failure
  • "people listen to you more" when you have gray hair
  • remembers a time when there were very few female doctors and lawyers
  • in the 70's shows depicted both male and female doctors and laywers (though not in the same show), and this caused flood of women into these professions.
  • more recently: forensic crime shows caused influx of women studying the field, even though job opportunities for forensic science and CS are at opposite ends of the spectrum
  • it's not just about tech women (problem with portrayal of all women, and of tech guys as well)
  • in the mid-90's, she was seated at dinner beside NBC exec responsible for Sat night movie series; said we needed shows about scientists and engineers; he said nobody knew any engineers in real life so wouldn't relate!
  • tried to write a pilot episode but saw halfway through it was going nowhere (too unrealistic)
  • someone wrote a pilot for a show called Rush about Silicon Valley start-up trying to win the DARPA challenge; she sent it out to 20 people with connections in the media; everyone loved it; but it went nowhere!
  • optimistic but doesn't know what else to personally try
Brenda's Part
  • looking at the GHC poster from last year: not geeks, wearing nail polish; white woman in the middle giving advice to the black woman, asian woman starting into space (did a photoshop to fix this)
  • Numbers proves it's possible
  • we are responsible for our own representations ("I like the way we look!") 
  • "put out our own self-representations"
  • "deny power to the spectacle"
  • "do good work and get noticed for it"
  • check out and Wikipedia storming
Kim's Part
  • media consumption is growing (2010: average 7 hours and 38 minutes) 
  • stereotypes of women being bad at math, as STEM fields being boring and unfulfilling
  • it's hard to notice what's not there, but when it isn't, you begin to associate the idea, for example, that all doctors are men, white, etc...
  • only computer science is declining in females, not other STEM fields
  • was not always this way; women were active in programming (e.g. ENIAC)
  • nerd stereotype most common explanation for low female participation
  • sexism in CS culture (especially gaming): recruitment, hackathons, sexual harassment/rape culture, lack of role models

Monday, October 7, 2013

Computational Art Using Processing for CS0 / GHC13

I love the curriculum that Zoe Wood and Julie Workman created for their school's CS0 course and that they spoke about at GHC13.  It uses Processing, like the CS1 course that I'm currently teaching for non-majors, but focuses solely on the idea of computational art for its context.  My course has a bigger variety of problems to introduce concepts, but that's not necessarily a better thing. I do like their course's focus.

Although the hope is that some of these students continue on in CS, this course is not as in-depth as a full-fledged CS course.  Some of the outcomes include students understanding that computers process commands one at a time, commands must be precise, variables allow for flexibility, functions allow simple concepts to be combined into complex programs, and playing is ok! (I hope my students walk away with that last one especially.) The curriculum embodies basic computational thinking, basic programming skills, working in teams, learning basic college skills, and enjoying computer science.  It covers shapes and 2D coordinates, colours, interactivity, animation basics, geometric shapes (implicit and parametric), images (arrays and pixels), and particle systems (classes).

The five course projects really inspired me.  I loved how flexible they are, and how interesting the demoed results were.  These are the project topics:
  • Chuck Close, up close (each student makes one pixel, group puts them all together)
  • self portrait of social interaction (every mouse click shows visually how student feels)
  • self portrait (get a photo of themselves, do image manipulation, and implement hot spots that have different responses) 
  • tell a story (computational animation)
  • interactive montage with a 'journey home' theme (done in teams)
Zoe and Julie emphasized just how fun the course is to teach, but also shared its success in terms of increasing female participation.  In four years, they went from 9% to 21% women!

I've already been leaning toward Processing as a better choice for a first language as compared to Python.  The experience shared in this talk along with my own comparison of teaching both languages this semester is solidifying my view on this.  Python is a great early language, but I still prefer Processing first, especially for its potential to engage non-traditional students.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

CS Principles and the CS 10k Initiative / GHC13

As the opening keynote here at GHC reminded us, computer science has a supply problem.  The number of people we need to create technology is increasing at a much faster rate than students taking computer science in schools.  The Exploring Computer Science and Computer Science Principles projects are aiming to help fix that.

At a panel discussing the two projects, we learned why they matter and how they work.  CS Principles is an advanced placement (AP) course for high schools that is currently in pilot mode.  (AP classes, for the non-Americans like myself, are like college level classes taught to high school students in exchange for college credit later on.)  On the other hand, Exploring CS is intended as a high school level class taught to high school students.

Both take an approach to teaching computer science that is dear to my heart.  They want to show why computer science is interesting and relevant; students should "learn how computer science is used as a lever to move the world."  They do it not through typical lecture-based styles of teaching, but through inquiry, offering interesting problems that engage students.  Exploring Computer Science is described as student centred, collaborative, and inquiry based — a very powerful combination!

The goal is not to teach coding, but computational thinking.  For example, CS Principles centres around several big ideas including creativity, global impact, abstraction, the Internet, and more.  It does make use of fixed-response questions as assessment, but it also has performance tasks that give much more flexibility to students. This really gives some insight into the kind of "content" delivered.

It's this kind of philosophy that I was inspired by when creating my version of our "Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Students" course.  Of course, with 440 students in a huge lecture hall, the kinds of in-class activities and assessments is somewhat limited.  Even still, I could take this course's design so much further than I have so far, and hope I get the chance to in the future.

I'd also like to push my outreach teaching and curriculum to the next level.  As I do, I should take heed of the advice given by the panel in response to an audience question: If you are a non-profit (like Girls Who Code, for example), and you are considering using these curricula, start by talking with teachers.  They know how to engage a group of high school students and teach them effectively.

An Exciting First Day at GHC13

Today was our first full day in Minneapolis for this year's edition of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  It's so nice to live the conference through the eyes of the students I organized to get here, seeing as it's their first time at GHC.  It's also nice to meet up again with all my women-in-computing friends that I rarely get to see outside of the conference.

Things got started with a nice welcome session that happened to include me going on stage with my co-chair for the Communities Committee, Charna, to get recognized for our efforts.  The opening speakers (including student members of the ABI boards!) also gave some great advice for newcomers.

Then came a highlight of our day: the keynote / plenary session that featured Telle Whitney (CEO of the Anita Borg Institute), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), and Maria Klawe (President of Harvey Mudd College).  There was a lot of really good, frank talk about gender issues and facing them head on.  Karla, a GHC Communities Volunteer, blogged about this session - check it out!

There were a bunch of sessions in the afternoon, but I couldn't pay full attention to them because they were either full or I worked on my class's assignment to be released on Friday instead.  I did have fun presenting my Gram's House poster at the poster fair, making some really great connections with potential collaborators.

I'm really pumped to see everyone again tomorrow (for longer!), the sessions, my own talk, and most of all, the dancing!