Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Exciting New Year

2011 was special, particularly with the arrival of our daughter Molly.  But 2012 is looking pretty great, too!

Although I wasn't able to get an NSF grant application in for Gram's House as planned, one of the researchers I was working with and I have teamed up with another group doing something similar.  If that grant gets funded, it leaves us with an opportunity to extend it later with Gram's House.  At the same time, the Gram's House researcher is (hopefully) running a pilot project at her university this summer that will help us learn more about how to approach both projects in the most effective way.

I'll be off on maternity leave until September, but I'm looking forward to doing some reading and trying to nail down my thesis plan (I have gone through some iterations already, but am not quite there yet as it turns out).  I like knowing that everything I can get done (and feel like getting done) is a bonus, and that I don't have to put myself under a lot of pressure.  After all, I want to make sure I enjoy my time with Molly!

I'll be teaching my mini-course (Computer Science and Games: Just for Girls!) for the fifth year.  It's only a week long, but that will probably be the first time I'll be away from Molly for so long, so that will be interesting.  I'm also considering putting together a programming course for Girl Develop It Ottawa using Processing, which would be fun to teach in the summer.

And perhaps most exciting of all, I'm trying to make attending Grace Hopper 2012 in Baltimore with Andrew and Molly a possibility.  It's only a 9 hour drive from home, and if I can get my trip funded, the only cost would be Andrew's conference fee and food (and maybe we can even get him in as a volunteer?).  I've wanted Andrew to attend for years now both for the technical content and to get to see into my world of women in computing.  As an added bonus, the conference offers free daycare!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Welcome Molly, Future Girl Geek!

Andrew and I are delighted to announce the birth of our first child, Molly! She was born on December 16 at 5:47pm and weighed 7 lbs 3 oz.  We're all doing well and enjoying our time together as a new family.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Digital Media - New Learners of the 21st Century

PBS aired this program back in February this year.  It is almost an hour long and features many of the big names in 21st century learning, including James Paul Gee and Katie Salen.  If you're interested in game-based education, educational games, and digital media for learning in general, it's a good watch.  I quite enjoyed it.  (Note: It looks like you can't watch the whole thing in the embedded video, so if you have an hour, head to the full link.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Kudos to the New RCMP Commissioner

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our federal police force, recently had its 23rd commissioner formally installed.  There have been problems with the previous commissioners, but from what I'm hearing so far from Bob Paulson, things are looking up.


Paulson's take on women deserves kudos.  While the organization has nearly 38% of its ranks as women, not many are in the upper ranks.  In one article on TheSpec, he is quoted as saying:
“My view is, we bring more women into our decision-making process at the executive level; we have a much more representative decision-making body in the force.”
But he doesn't want to boost the numbers for the sake of equality.  As a CTV article reports:
"I recognize that most of our women are concerned that this increase in numbers in the senior ranks will be a measure that is just adding numbers," he said.

"I want to make sure that those employees and members that merit promotion get the promotion. I don't want people to think that we're moving women into the senior ranks just because we need more women." 
It seems that Paulson believes that there are many women who deserve to be in the higher ranks but are being overlooked.

Sounds an awful lot like what we need in tech companies and academic institutions, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

About to Get Nutty Around Here

Things are about to get really nutty, and I expect I won't be able to post to the blog too much in the next 6-8 weeks (though I will still try to get some content here!).  So here's a quick update to keep you going.

I've been trying to get as much done for school as possible before baby arrives, but there have been a few factors making this difficult.  The main thing is that baby is still in breech position, meaning its head is up instead of down where it should be.  Traditionally, this has meant an automatic c-section, which is something I desperately don't want for a number of complex reasons I can't fully articulate here.  Fortunately, safe, regular breech deliveries are starting to come back into fashion, and there is a chance that if baby doesn't turn in time I could still avoid the surgery.

But, of course, the best outcome of all would be to get baby to turn and not have to make the tough decision on what to do when labour hits.  We've been trying a few things, from the Webster technique to various inversions.  We even had an ECV yesterday, where the doctor tries to manually turn the baby from the outside.  That was unsuccessful, but we are planning to try again next week and continuing doing everything we can, no matter how silly it seems.

So that's going to be consuming my attention for the next little while.  I will still try to be optimistic about getting more done for school, but there may be a point I have to just throw in the towel.  I'd be disappointed, but ok with this.  You can only do what you can do, right?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Who Knew Science and Dance Could Be So Closely Related?

So often we think of the arts and science as opposites.  Many who are talented in one feel hopelessly lost in the other.  But the two are more related than it might seem, sometimes in the most unexpected ways...

Take last year's Dance Your PhD contest winners from the chemistry department of my own school, Carleton University.  Their dance explains a technique called Systematic Evolution of Ligands by Exponential Enrichment (SELEX).

Or how about the series of videos that explain how sorting algorithms work? I've used these with great effect in my own introductory CS courses, and recall showing it during a TA workshop I attended, where some participants suddenly understood how quick sort worked as a result.

John Bohannon is the man behind the aforementioned Dance Your PhD contest.  He recently gave a talk at TEDxBrussels with a modest proposal.  He thinks that "bad PowerPoint presentations are a serious threat against the global economy." (A man after my own heart!)  Instead of sitting around and wasting time being distracted by pretty pictures and too much data, we should use dance to explain challenging topics and issues.

I think dance is just the start.  Art and science are both important and they could be connected in so many meaningful ways.  Let's get our thinking and creative caps on and see what we can come up with.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gamifying College

Gamification is certainly a hot topic these days.  Jesse Schell opened Pandora's Box with his Visions of the Gamepocalypse talk.  Sebastian Deterding discussed the promises and pitfalls of gamification.  Ian Bogost came right out and said that Gamification is Bullshit.  And yet, there are many who believe that gamifying education could be a very good thing.

Take Extra Credits (now hosted on Penny Arcade) and their view of how we might gamify education.  They envision rewards systems that count up from zero rather than down from a perfect grade.  Perhaps the most interesting example of gamifying education so far, though, has been the charter school Quest 2 Learn.  I was skeptical of how well the concept would be implemented at first, but the more I learn about it the more impressed and excited I am.

Enter the latest project I've encountered: Just Press Play.  I first learned about this initiative on the Microsoft Research Connections Blog (via Reddit, of all places), where Donald Brinkman posted an article called Unlocking Academic Success with Frame Games for Learning.  As he describes the project:
It began with a simple question: “Why can’t students earn digital rewards for being awesome?” A research group comprised of university faculty, staff, and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) decided to find out. The team delved into the everyday travails of college life—from academia to social activities—and developed a real-world game, Just Press Play, which helps students earn a digital reward for the ultimate achievement: collegiate success.

Get Microsoft Silverlight 

Again, at first glance, it's easy to worry that this is just another one of those gimmicky projects doomed to failure.  But to be honest, I don't think this is going to be the case.  Check out the slides for a presentation made at the 2011 Games in Education conference about the project (be sure to click on the Speaker Notes tab under the slides).  There are definitely hints in there that suggest a lot more thought has gone into this project than what a typical marketing team has probably done for their commercial gamification projects.  For instance, it's clear they recognize that intrinsic rewards are much more sustainable than extrinsic ones, and want to harness that.

This is something I'm definitely going to watch. I like the fact that it's for college students rather than the usual K-12 audience and am intrigued to see how much more the students engage with all aspects of college life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Event Idea: The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering

I recently came up with what I thought was interesting event idea.  Our Dean of Engineering had expressed some interest in CU-WISE coming up with an idea for a recruitment event that would attract the media and encourage high school girls to consider choosing Carleton in their upcoming university applications.  I haven't heard back from the Dean so I am not sure if this event will happen, but I thought I'd share the idea in case it helped any of you come up with your own.

The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering

The proposed premise is to be honest about what it’s like to be a woman in science or engineering. This begins as something that comes across as negative as we share the common challenges faced by students and others, but the idea is to show how a group like CU-WISE and all the other awesome things that Carleton does turns this all around. It is a risk to do anything negative at all (and it needs to be approached in just the right way), but there are two good reasons for this approach:
  1. It will build trust in the students we want to reach as well as their parents. All schools are trying to sell themselves as a product, but how many are willing to be honest about the situation? It’s the elephant in the room, and our audience should appreciate our ability to discuss it in the open.
  2. To attract the media, your approach has to be different. Sure, maybe you’d get a bit of air time for the usual outreach events, but they tend to be fairly similar to each other. Being willing to talk about these issues is not something that’s very common.
The proposed event would be a dessert reception held on the afternoon of a weekend. The reason for this is that a dinner would not only be more expensive, but require longer periods of sitting in one place (it will become clear why this isn’t desirable shortly). Choosing an afternoon on a weekend makes it easier for students and parents to attend since families need to get home from work and eat dinner before attending an event like this during the week. The great participation numbers at Go Eng Girl (held on a Saturday) proves that weekend events can be successful.

The dessert reception should include something to please both the parents (who are big influencers to their children’s choices) and the students. Offering beer and wine, if affordable, shows we are thinking of the former, and having cupcakes, cake pops, and milkshakes or smoothies for the girls should thrill the latter.

The main format of the event would be to have a short talk at the beginning to discuss the challenges faced by women in science and engineering and how CU-WISE and other Carleton initiatives help. This would be followed by a structured networking opportunity where parents and students would speak with current students, alumni, and faculty. Finally, hands-on demo and other info booths would be available during the last segment, when casual networking would take place. Dessert could be served in both of the last two segments or just at the end.

Possible Agenda

20 minutesTalk: The Truth About Women in Science and Engineering
(One or two guest speakers, depending on whether it will be joint between Engineering and Science)
As explained earlier, this is an opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room and build trust with both the parents and the students.  It is also an opportunity to showcase how CU-WISE helps by providing a support network and other great initiatives to Carleton students so they know they can expect to be able to overcome the challenges at Carleton.
40 minutesStructured Networking:
  • We will have a set of current female students, alumni, and faculty available to participate.
  • There will be at least one person from each of these groups at each numbered table.  They will see three different groups of parents and students and will be asked to talk about their experiences at Carleton, including challenges they faced and how they overcame them.
  • Each student/parent pair will draw three table numbers from separate bins, set up so that they get one table assigned to a current student, another to an alumnus, and another to a faculty member.
  • In each of the ten minutes, the student/parent pair will sit at their assigned table and have a discussion with the student/alumnus/faculty assigned to that table.
  • This will repeat twice so each pair talks to each type of person assigned to the tables.
  • Ten minutes in the schedule is allotted for time taken switching tables, etc.
Students appreciate the opportunity to see what life is like for current students, what kinds of jobs they can expect if they get through the program, and who will be teaching them.  This makes coming to university much less intimidating, and if they find themselves connecting with any of these people, they are more likely to remember Carleton favourably as a place they could see themselves studying at.

If possible, we may even be able to ask participants to tell us what programs they are applying for, and pre-match the tables they visit so they are able to speak to at least some people from that program or, at least, faculty.
60 minutesDemo and Info Booths
  • Demo booths should provide an opportunity to touch and try things as well as listen to someone from Carleton talk about the demo itself and how it relates to the kinds of things you study at Carleton.
    • Potential demos might include robotics, satellites, brain dissection, interesting interfaces from HCI students, water filtration, etc.
  • Info booths - such as one from Athletics - are important to emphasize the kind of balance you can have when you are a student at Carleton, and can show what other services are there to support students.
Besides the usual reasons for having hands-on demos (engagement, etc), they implicitly show the success of women at Carleton.  This continues to follow the theme on the Truth of Women in Science and Engineering in that we see what awesome things women here are really doing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

She Topped All the Men in Math and Kept Her Life in Balance

In an age where to be female was to be weak, there was one woman who would finally show the world that the fairer sex could beat the very best men academically, even in something so male dominated as mathematics. And she did it while still maintaining a rather balanced lifestyle.

Philippa Fawcett did the unimaginable: she beat every other man and woman who competed in the prestigious mathematical examinations held at Cambridge University.  This was in 1890, a time long before men and women were even allowed to study for degrees side by side.  Even the science of the time suggested that this probably couldn't happen:
Central to the 19th-century concept of human development was the idea that the adolescent body was a closed system; there was only so much energy available, and so a body in which resources were diverted to mental development was one in which physical development necessarily suffered. This was thought to be a particular problem for women, because their reproductive system was far more complicated than men’s and so consumed a greater proportion of the body’s resources. A young woman who studied hard during puberty was believed to be taking special risks since “the brain and ovary could not develop at the same time,” as historian Judith Walzer Leavitt points out.
The story of her triumph was detailed over at the Smithsonian blog and is worth the read on its own.  However, I happened to notice one very interesting aspect of the tale that has been rather relevant to me in the last couple of days: the fact that, unlike many of the previous male champions, Phillipa maintained a very good life balance while studying for the exams.

Just look at what the boys went through to become the top scorers, known as Wranglers:
The most serious candidates invariably hired tutors and worked more or less round the clock for months. The historian Alex Craik notes that C.T. Simpson, who ranked as Second Wrangler in 1841, topped off his efforts by studying for 20 hours a day in the week before the exams and “almost broke down from over-exertion… [he] found himself actually obliged to carry a supply of ether and other stimulants into the examinations in case of accidents.” James Wilson, who topped the rankings in 1859, had a nervous breakdown immediately after his exams; on his recovery he discovered he had forgotten all the math he ever knew except elementary algebra. And James Savage worked himself so hard that he was found dead of apoplexy in a ditch three months after being named Senior Wrangler of 1855.
In contrast, Phillipa "led 'a disciplined and orderly life,' rising at 8 a.m. and rarely going to bed later than 11 p.m. She studied six hours a day, but refused to yield to the then-popular practice among aspirant Wranglers of working through the night with a wet towel wrapped around her head."

Just yesterday I finally read a time management article that had been making the rounds.  Phillipa's routine reminded me of the advice in that article.  As someone who also strives for a regular working day (and sometimes feeling guilty about it!), I am glad to see how others are able to achieve success with similar working hours.  Definitely check out the article:

Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm

Do you have any time management secrets or have you read any other great articles on the subject?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Enjoying Grace Hopper 2011 From Afar

I've attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) every year since 2008, gradually increasing my participation from blogging to being on a conference committee.  This year I had to miss out because I am past my flight cut-off for my pregnancy.  For a long time I was so busy trying to get stuff done for school before I start my leave in January that I didn't even think about it, but once the conference got started this week I felt very sad to be missing out.

Fortunately, the very thing that I have worked so hard to make awesome when attending GHC in the past is allowing me to enjoy this year's edition from afar: the online communities.

I have a whole new appreciation for the many awesome posts on attendees' blogs and Twitter accounts.  While seeing conversations between all the people I am missing out on meeting up with makes me feel sad, I also find myself vibrating with excitement with all the amazing things happening in Portland.  From the wonderful keynote speakers to the fantastic panels to the neat e-textile workshop, this conference must be the best one yet.

If you'd like to enjoy GHC from afar as well, be sure to check out the relevant posts on these blogs (many of which are also aggregated on the conference website):
To follow posts on Twitter, search for the #ghc11 hash tag.

To read notes taken during specific conference sessions (and find links to associated blog posts), have a look at the official GHC wiki.

And, finally, be sure to watch the keynote video of Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), already available online! (The other keynotes will find their way online eventually as well, so stay tuned to the Grace Hopper and ABI news feeds.)

Hopefully I'll see you all at GHC 2012 in Baltimore next October with baby — and with any luck, husband — along for the ride!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Code Blocked

I love coding.  Once I get started, I get lost in the groove very easily.  I love thinking about the best way to organize objects and design my UI.  It feels good to find elegant ways to solve problems.  So the fact that I haven't done a lot of programming lately really frustrates me.


If I was working in industry right now, I'd be coding every day.  The nature of my current projects in grad school require a lot of preliminary non-coding work (especially reading).  But it would be wrong to blame grad school for my lack of coding.

In fact, there seem to be two larger problems at play here.  First, I have a hard time wanting to do much of anything work related in the evenings.  This is partly because my husband and I value balance in our lives, like to cook real food for dinner and keep the house in good working order (easier said than done when you own a 130+ year old place in the country).  My poor eyesight and need to wear hard contacts may also play a factor, making my eyes too tired to focus on a screen all evening.

But perhaps more frustrating is the second problem.  The amount of momentum I need to break the code block barrier has grown to be fairly immense.  I don't know why this is.  Once I get started I can't stop, but it seems really, really hard to make the first move.  To open Xcode or or Eclipse or Visual Studio and just start coding.  It may be related to my dislike of doing something for only a short period of time before having to put it away again (probably the same reason I still haven't finished playing the first Portal).  I'm not sure.

I have more than one project that I've very nearly finished.  I could easily be tinkering away on these projects when I need a break from reading or during a quiet evening at home.  I want to break this code block and be consistently programming throughout each semester.  How?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Two Months Before Mommyhood

It's hard to believe that our baby's due date is less than 8 weeks away.  It's even harder to believe I've written so little about it here! What with trying to get as much done as I can before going on leave after Christmas, I haven't really thought that much about the whole baby thing.

«I love you, mom!»

Nonetheless, there are still some things I've been looking forward to and others that I have been worried about.  Thought I'd share a few here.

Things I'm Worried About
  • Will I finish everything I want to get done before I go on leave?!
  • My eyes have problems that require me to wear hard contacts (can't see any other way, even with glasses).  I worry about not being to see when I have to get up in the night for baby.  It's also potentially unfortunate that I wouldn't be able to mess around on my phone or read a magazine when I have to get up for longer periods of time (or will I be too tired to do that anyway?).
  • How long will it be before I am able to get back to doing useful things? I'd like to at least continue with reading books and papers related to my thesis after the first couple of months.  If I'm really lucky, I'd like to ramp things up a little bit in my second four months of leave (fingers crossed for a "good" baby!).
  • Once I'm back from leave, what is life going to be like? Am I going to be able to graduate in a reasonable amount of time, and for a reasonable amount of money as scholarships and funding start to run out?
Things I'm Looking Forward To 
  • Having a cute little baby to love and cuddle, obviously. ;)
  • I'm really excited to eventually make use of the really cool educational technology that's starting to come out these days.  It'll be a while, but I'm looking forward to introducing my kid to things like Project Columbia, which melds Kinect and Sesame Street together.  I hope I can eventually make some of my own apps that my kid can enjoy, too.
  • I'm also already wondering at what age I can teach my kid to program with Scratch.
  • We already try to lead a pretty balanced life (sometimes I feel bad about not being as hard-core as I used to be in undergrad).  I'm looking forward to having a quality family life at home, enjoying everything from Christmas to everyday life that much more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Course Blogs vs Wikis

If you're a professor or TA for a course and want to use online technology for the betterment of your students, which is superior: a course wiki or a course blog? I've been using the latter for the course I'm TA'ing this term, but think the real answer depends on exactly what you hope to get out of it.


The blog I've been running this term is for the third year graphics course offered to the game development stream students.  One of the reasons I started it is that the only other ways to communicate with students would be to ask the professor to post things to his course website (which would limit me in what I could actually say), or to hope that students actually checked WebCT once in a while (computer science students don't much like WebCT).

Some of the things I post about include:
  • Updates on my progress grading various assignments and tests.
  • General summarized feedback on assignments.
  • Numbered comments for tests that I can refer to when marking so I don't have to write the same explanations over and over again on paper.
  • Detailed explanations of topics students seem to be struggling with.
  • Links to applets on fundamental topics I've made in the past that might help students.
  • Links to other resources that might be helpful.
So far the blog has been very much a one-way form of communication, even though students could be posting questions or comments on the posts if they wanted to.  It's not totally clear how many students look at the blog, but I do know that those who come see me for help use it.

A course wiki would look a lot different from the blog.  For instance, instead of a stream of posts that capture what happened during a particular term chronologically, a wiki would likely end up being a more structured documentation of the course that could evolve over time.  It is more of a living document that students, TA's, and professors could contribute to.  It might even be able to combine the ideas of the traditional course webpage with some of what I put on my blog (some of the resources on my blog might be better suited to a wiki).  A wiki might be more difficult to use as a form of feedback to students in a particular term since it's not as obvious when new content is posted.

So, if choosing between a wiki or a blog, I would consider whether I want to develop a resource that will evolve each time the course is taught (wiki), or if communication and feedback to students is my priority (blog).  I don't think one is superior to the other, and the ambitious might even be able to effectively offer both.

Have you used either for your own course? What type of content did you include, and how successful was your approach?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Help Wanted: Examples of Nonlinear Stories and Less Successful AR Projects

I'm working on two projects where I need to come up with as long a list of examples as I can.  I've got some in mind, but what better way to make sure I don't miss the important ones than to ask all of you for your ideas? I hope you'll share your thoughts. Yay, crowd sourcing! :)

Crowd Sourcing 

Nonlinear Stories in Traditional Media

The first set of examples I'm working on is a list of movies and books that have nonlinear plots.  I'm not necessarily talking about interactive stories here; instead, I want to know about any story that presents itself in a non-chronological order of some kind.  For instance, the plot in Memento is shown in reverse order, and events are told by various narrators in Hero.

In addition to the actual example, it would be great to hear your thoughts on how the creators have explained the use of a nonlinear plot in the context of their stories, or what technique they used to present it.  In Memento, the backwards plot fits in with the brain damage of the main character, and in Hero the technique is the use of different framing devices (in this case, an unreliable narrator).

This list is going to be used in thinking about nonlinear narrative in games.  I will let you know more closer to the end of the term.

Less Successful Augmented Reality Projects

Do you know of an augmented reality project from academia or industry that seemed really good but never really caught on to be a big success? Or a project that wasn't actually very good in the first place? This includes projects that have been important in terms of the technology they have moved forward, but that didn't seem to have a lasting use to real people, as well as commercial flops.

I'm going to be using these examples in a discussion of how less successful augmented reality projects could be improved.  It's related to my work on using cognitive theories to uncover the value of AR.  The current version of our paper is probably going to a journal or magazine, and I am very much looking forward to sharing it with you all - hopefully soon!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Computer Science is Everywhere! (Even Photography)

Last week I did a couple of workshops at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology for National Science and Technology Week.  I managed to improve the usual 'computer science connects to everything' theme to be more interactive, and judging by the apparent engagement of the students, it was a success.  Below is an outline of what I presented - feel free to adapt it for your own presentation (with some credit to me if you don't mind).
I'm here from Carleton University to tell you about one of the biggest reasons that I love computer science: it connects to everything! No matter what your interests are, or your passions, there is a problem waiting to be solved and a way to make life easier or better with computing.  Even something as creative as photography has a lot to do with computer science, as we'll see later.
My name is Gail Carmichael, and I'm a computer scientist. Of course, that's not all I am.  I'm also a PhD student (which means I've been in school for almost ten years since high school!). I do Taekwondo (anyone else into martial arts?) and like to go backpack hiking and work on my garden.  And, as you can see, I'm also going to be a mom soon!

(I always make an effort to show the students that just because you are into computers doesn't mean you can't also be into lots of other fun things as well.  This time I was also able to talk about becoming a mom, which I think it really important for both the males and females to see.  In fact, one of the boys came up to me after the workshop to wish me luck with the baby - how awesome is that??)

I'm also part of a group at Carleton called Women in Science and Engineering.  In fact, I helped start this group a few years ago.  I don't know if you all know, but we still have far too few women in computer science, and we want to fix that.  So, ladies in the audience, I encourage you to look into computer science as a possible career if you see anything today that interests you! (Guys, too - we want all the smart people!)

Ok, so let's talk about computer science.  Anyone have any ideas of what computer science might be? Or maybe what kinds of things computer scientists do?

(You usually get answers more related to using computers, but you can also often get some good insight into what the field's really about.)

I'll tell you exactly was computer science is about in one second.  But first, I want you to all take a minute to brainstorm as long a list as you can of areas of your life where computing is involved.  Think of the obvious, like cell phones, to the less obvious, like toasters (yup, even your toaster might have a little computer inside!).

Here are some of the areas I thought of.  Some of these are more obvious, like the iPhone and video games.  What about some of the others?

(I find the students love giving more ideas on these topics or asking questions about them.  Invite interaction here as much as possible.)
  • Music: You could write software that analyzes music and automatically creates a playing list that would suit our current mood.  Or you can try to teach the computer how to create good music from scratch.
  • Medicine: You can use computers to simulate chemical reactions and help us narrow down what sorts of things might be effective in treating particular illnesses.  You can also use computers to crunch the huge amounts of data in our DNA, helping us find genetic issues in a person.  (Bet you didn't think you'd be able to save lives as a computer scientist, did you?)
  • Video Games: Sometimes we want to provide good entertainment as computer scientists, and making games is one way to do this.  You can even study game development as a whole concentration in our computer science program at Carleton!
  • Geography: When's the last time you used Google Maps or a GPS device? There's a lot of computer science happening there, such as when you are finding the most efficient route to your destination.
  • Psychology: If you're interested in the way people think, you can help design technology that makes sense to humans.
  • Math: Computer science can be a very mathematical way of thinking.  (But don't worry, you don't have to be a math whiz to do well in this field!)
  • Robotics: We have to program robots to get around without running into things and much more.
  • Education: I want to make games that are both fun and educational.  School looks very similar to what our great-great-grandparents experienced, but I think that technology can help change that and make learning more fun and effective!

In the end, computer science is really all about solving problems.  It's not about programming or software or any of that stuff on its own - these are all just means to the end of making the world better.

(Try to relate the students' answers from earlier into the above discussion.)

What problems are there to solve in photography? How can we improve such a creative practice with technology?
Some of you might remember taking photos with film before digital cameras became standard. Film worked by having an actual chemical reaction to the light that hits it.  How do we take a picture digitally?

(If there's time, it's fun to get them guessing how we get from a scene in the world to an image on the computer.)

Instead of using chemicals that react to light, we can create what's called a digital sensor that can sense what light is hitting it.  But how does this translate into what the computer can understand?

Do you know how data on your computer is stored? What everything ends up being in the end? (Answer: numbers! Binary numbers in particular.) Even an image is going to end up as numbers.  So we need to translate the light hitting the sensor into numbers somehow.
Let's say I took this photo with my digital camera and I'm looking at it on the computer.  What happens if I zoom in really close? (Answer: it gets pixelated, blocky, blurry, etc.)

Our digital sensors are made of grids of pixels as well, and each of these pixels captures the amount of light that hits it.  Then we can store this as a number for each pixel on the computer, representing the image.

(At this point, I use images from the CS Unplugged Image Representation activity to demonstrate how this can work with black and white images, and I give them some time to try recreating the pictures on the handout on pg 4 of the PDF.  We discuss the pros and cons of the two ways of representing the image - each pixel as its own number or writing out the number of black or white pixels that come in a row - and I emphasize that we often have to consider tradeoffs when solving problems in computer science.)

To conclude, let me say again that computer science is everywhere.  In photography, there are many more problems that computer science helps solve, from organizing and searching through our photos to applying interesting effects to them.  Computing touches every part of our lives, from keeping us healthy to keeping us entertained.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What if you want a PhD but don't plan to do research after?

I was thinking the other day about the different reasons a person might want to get a PhD, and I wondered if those who weren't necessarily intending to be researchers when they were done would be valued as highly during their grad school years as those who did.


I suppose the most common reason to get a PhD is because you want to do research, either as a professor in an academic setting or at a research lab (industry or otherwise).  After all, this is what the actual PhD work teaches you more than anything else: how to do research.  Sure, there are opportunities to improve and practice your teaching as well, but it's certainly not required.  Some people don't even want to be TA's because of the time it takes away from their main task.

But is it not also perfectly legitimate to get a PhD because you simply want to learn more about something? To have the opportunity for academic and other experiences that you'd never have otherwise? Or maybe you want to work on a particular problem not because you love the world of research in and of itself, but because that problem is something you are passionate about solving.

Perhaps you want to just teach when you are done.  Sure, you might not need more than a Masters to do that in a university setting, but the reasons above may be enough to take it that step further.  Or maybe you want to continue working on solving that problem you started working on as a business venture or within another company.  Maybe you see the solution as something that can make the world a better place.

Are students whose primary post-grad goals do not include research less valued during their PhD, assuming they have fairly good (but not top) research ability combined with other excellent qualities (such as leadership, etc)? Do they get less scholarships and recognition? Do they suffer more because of the Publish or Perish mantra?

I don't know the answers, but while I would like to think this wouldn't be the case I suspect that it could easily be.  Does it matter? What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 14, 2011

'Publish or Perish' Should Perish

I hate the 'publish or perish' mantra of academia.  I really do.  To me, it takes the focus away from doing great work and waiting until it's truly ready for public consumption and instead stresses us out as we try to ensure our publication record is up to snuff.

P is for Produce, "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

I particularly dislike the mantra these days because it's so easy to document what we're up to online.  If committees for scholarships, tenure, etc want to see whether we are doing good research, they could in theory find out in other ways, for example from our discussions, blogs, websites, and more online (assuming of course that we researchers got better at taking advantage of such media).  The full process, including the failures, could be captured.  Granted, it's not as official as a peer reviewed paper and false information could be spread, but in some ways it's a more full and genuine glimpse into someone's research ability, while the published papers come to represent the most polished work possible.  Perhaps if we wanted this to become a standard, we could find ways to ensure the information available outside of published work is useful and trustworthy.

I certainly hear of many others who dislike the current way of things as well.  But, as they point out, it's the way you have to play the game in academia.  True, but is generating knowledge for the purpose of playing the game really going to result in the best outcome? And is the length of someone's publication list really a good indication of the value they are bringing to the world?

I'd love to see a fundamental shift in our thinking when it comes to publishing.  I do believe that the process of peer review and the ability to share the outcome of our research is important, but I wish the emphasis was more on high quality results than the insatiable need to just get something out there.

Do you feel the same way? How would you change the system if you could change anything?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Research Plan: The Role of Story in Educational Games

I've (finally!) been working on a concrete thesis research plan and wanted to share a general idea of what I'm intending to do.  The short version is that I want to experimentally determine how different types of stories actually affect learning outcome in educational games, and make it easier for others to incorporate story into future games.

Stray Souls Dollhouse Story game screenshot  

These are the main questions I'm hoping to answer in three phases:
  1. As shown through experimentation, does the use of story in educational games offer
    players an opportunity for deep learning beyond simply providing motivation or engagement?
  2. Does the use of nonlinear narrative or interactive storytelling improve engagement and/or learning?
  3. How can narrative best be incorporated into educational games? What set of metrics could
    be developed to help game designers ensure that they are able to effectively tie together their story, educational content, and gameplay mechanics?
  4. Using this knowledge, what would a tool to support the authoring of stories for educational games look like?
The idea is to first choose a set of games with which to conduct experiments that test learning outcome.  Some of these games will be already established works with clear learning objectives and stories that can be removed without severely affecting the educational content. We will also use some of our own designs.  The selection of games will be made with the second research question in mind; that is, we wish to find games that use both linear and nonlinear storytelling techniques.  The results of these experiments will heavily influence the rest of the research.

In the second phase the set of metrics mentioned in the third research question will be developed.  Established games and games of our own design will be used to iterate on the metrics until a reasonable set can be settled on.

Finally, the third phase involves writing a tool that will both help enhance an author's creativity when writing stories for educational games and help ensure the story is consistent with the educational content.  How it will look depends, of course, on the results of the first two phases, but I am imagining using some AI techniques to help check consistency and make story suggestions.  There may also be an opportunity to use some graph analysis, for example to take advantage of connections between content topics present on sites like Wikipedia.

One of the coolest things that's happening with respect to this plan is hearing excitement from writers who want to be able to write better interactive stories for educational games.  I'm thrilled to have people I can speak with directly to ensure that what I do ends up being useful, and I may even have some professional writing help when designing our own games for our experiments.  Hopefully it'll be win-win for all of us!

Did reading this raise any red flags to you? Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Please leave a comment and let me know! The more feedback, the better.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day: Natalia

I participate in Ada Lovelace Day every year by blogging about my tech heroines.  This year, I had a really hard time deciding who to honour because there are so many worthy candidates! After some thought about what stage of life I'm at and what's happening today for her, I finally settled on Natalia Villanueva-Rosales.


Natalia just defended her computer science PhD thesis earlier today at Carleton.  As far as I can tell by her Facebook status, it went well! I'm so proud of this accomplishment, not only because getting your PhD is totally awesome in itself, but because of the twists and turns in the journey she took to get there.

You see, in addition to a grad student, she's also now a mom.  Her adorable little guy is now more than a year old, but getting him into this world sure wasn't easy.  Her pregnancy was complicated, and to make sure her son could be born healthy and happy, she had to unexpectedly delay her studies for quite some time.  It was a difficult decision that not everyone understood, but she knew what was important to her; the PhD would come later.

I admire this so much.  It's hard for me to know what it took to put aside everything for your baby because I've been fortunate enough so have an easy pregnancy so far.  But if that ever changes, or if (perhaps when) I find myself struggling to keep up with motherhood after my baby is born, I'll be able to look to Natalia and know that it's possible.  I'll know that you can be a mom and get your PhD, too.

Thanks Natalia, and know we're all proud of you today!!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Notes on 'Experiencing Stories with/in Digital Games' Colloquium

You've probably heard it before: we've got a long way to go in finding artful ways to meld great storytelling with the traditional mechanics of digital games.  Being a computer scientist, I usually see the attempts of improving the state of the art from the technical perspective, but this past weekend I got to learn more about what the humanities researchers in academia and the writers, artists, and designers from industry have been doing at the Experiencing Stories with/in Digital Games colloquium held in Montreal.

 Screenshot from The Graveyard, one of the indie games discussed by panellists.

Saturday's events were open to the public and consisted of four panels, each focusing on a different game, followed by a keynote by David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain. On each panel, two academics presented their work surrounding analysis of the game from a range of perspectives, from utopias to infinitude to fear as the story.  Then the academics and someone who worked on each game got a chance to discuss the work presented or the game in general, followed by audience Q&A.

Personally, I found the industry perspective the most interesting.  This has to do, in part, by the style of the presentations made by the academics.  Apparently the norm for this field is to read an elaborate prose (with no apparent pauses for a chance to digest) during a presentation.  While the words they were speaking sounded like they would be a pleasure to read on my own, there was no way I could possibly keep up with the complexity as they read them aloud.  It seem that computer scientists are not the only ones who don't understand that written and oral forms of communication are not at all the same thing.

In any case, I took live notes as best I could during the talks (please excuse any poor spelling and grammar!) and have made them available online for you to check out.  Despite not immediately understanding a lot of what I heard during the day, I could tell there were some really interesting topics to think about further.

David Cage's keynote was quite well done.  He certainly missed the opportunity to discuss what was wrong with Heavy Rain and only focused on what he thought was good, but his overall introduction to the world of interactive storytelling was well crafted and enjoyable.  Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, he did offer much to mull over.

On Sunday, a set of round table discussions were held so that students could discuss their work with feedback from the presenters of the previous day.  After lunch, we all sat in a circle and had a general open discussion about storytelling in games.  I found this part of the event to be incredibly valuable for both what I'm working on and for thinking about story in games in general.  In particular I got some amazing feedback and new ideas about my taxonomy of techniques in non-linear fiction (which I'm now thinking of changing to a set of spectra on storytelling thanks to all the new ways I have to look at the topic).

Attending this event has really made me feel good about choosing story and educational games as my main research area, and I'm feeling really energized to dive into this field even deeper.  And who knows... maybe I'll be able to play a small role in bringing us closer to that elusive goal of having great stories and great games be one and the same.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vulnerability in Teaching

The status quo in university lecturing is comfortable.  You capture what you know on a set of slides (often using many words - kind of a brain dump, really), and tell students that 'this is the way it is' during class.  You normally don't have to open yourself up to potentially embarrassing situations where you realize you don't actually know some of the details you thought you did.  This is especially useful the first time you teach a topic and/or when it's not your area of expertise.

But I'm just not into the status quo.  Alas, I also felt a little embarrassed during my last class.

I filled in yesterday for the prof I'm TA'ing for.  The class is a third year course on 3D computer graphics for the game development students.  I decided to make my own slides and build up a really good understanding of how camera viewing worked by going from the canonical view volume to orthographic projection, and from arbitrary view points to transforming a perspective projection into an orthographic projection.  This is the approach shown in Fundamentals of Computer Graphics by Peter Shirley, and as an added bonus, the author provides the book's diagrams for free on his website.

(If you're curious, you can check out the slides for my lecture in PowerPoint format - be sure to look at the notes section of the file since that's where the explanations are.  I don't like putting lots of words up while I talk.)

The class was going well.  I had a few places I wanted the students to try something out for themselves because it's all too easy to look at the numbers on the slide and just accept them as seeming reasonable.  I know, because I do that all the time, either in talks or when reading.  Even if they couldn't figure out what I was asking them to do, the act of trying would force them to really think about what I just showed them.

At one point, however, I asked them to do something that I hadn't had a chance to do myself.  (I didn't find out what I would be lecturing on until fairly last minute and, unfortunately, made my slides the day of the class.)  I had done exactly what I was trying to help them avoid: I took for granted what the book was saying and didn't realize that I never tried to understand the details.  Not until a specific question came up, that is.

Although I readily admit when I don't know something, I did even more this time: I tried to logically figure it out in front of the class.  Dangerous! Especially dangerous because I'm generally not that good at figuring stuff out in front of others.  Well, as expected, that didn't go so well.  So I said that for some reason my brain appears to be incapable to sorting this out at the moment, but if anyone in the class thought they could see it more clearly, they could try to explain.

A couple of students actually did! I really commend them because as I later confirmed, they were basically right.  They are going to understand this topic so much deeper now than they would have if I had just shown them the answer and moved on rather than tried to understand it with them.

Granted, I probably wasted a bit more time on figuring this particular thing out than I should have, leaving some students bored.  I suppose finding the right balance comes with experience.  This was a small class, making it more reasonable to have spent some time on it, but I don't think it would have made sense to do it in, say, a huge auditorium.

In any case, I promised that I would post a clear explanation on the blog once I had a chance to think about it on my own.  I followed through with a post within a couple of hours of class ending since, just as I expected, the answer was clear and obvious once I could think about it away from staring eyes.  (Hopefully I got it right - if anyone notices any issues let me know!)

All in all, despite the fact that it was easy to feel embarrassed from my fumbling around, I conclude that it was worth it.  Putting yourself out there is uncomfortable, but it generally means that you are going to give students a better learning experience.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Research Snapshot for Fall 2011

For those of you wondering what the heck I've been up to lately research-wise, wonder no longer! Here's a snapshot of what I've been working on lately and plan to work on before Christmas (when, as you may know, I will be going on maternity leave for a while).
Cognitive Advantages of Augmented Reality

This is something I've been working on for well over a year now.  It started in a class I took extra to my degree called Computers and Cognition.  For my term project, I looked at a couple of key cognitive theories and how they related to what I thought was so great about augmented reality.  Since that class, the prof and my own supervisor have been expanding and refining that work into publishable form.

So far, we've run into some trouble getting our paper accepted to a conference.  In our last attempt, we received quite good reviews, but still weren't accepted.  Apparently the paper caused much discussion at the conference committee meeting, but in the end they decided that they needed to hold it to a higher standard since it was both new and more on the theoretical side of things.  They (and the reviewers for our previous attempt) suggested a journal might be a better venue.

So that's where we are now.  We are working on the latest rewrite and will hopefully submit it soon.  You can follow the progress of this work on this page if you are so inclined.

Gram's House

I've written about this project a few times on this blog.  Originally a project we submitted to Microsoft's Imagine Cup, it has evolved nicely into becoming an international collaboration between industry and academia.

At this point, I have a wonderful team of academics from the States who are on board with applying for a National Science Foundation grant in January to help fund the development and evaluation of this project.  Filament Games is interested in professionally developing the game.  There are several other academics and CS education community members who are interested in helping evaluate the game with their classes or outreach initiatives.

NSF grants are competitive, so I realize that we may not be successful in our first attempt.  Nevertheless, I'm excited that, no matter how long it takes, Gram's House may become the full-fledged game I am dreaming of, allowing it to make a widespread impact in many girls' lives.

You can follow this project here (it has not yet been updated with the latest grant goings-on, but will be once things are more solidified).

Narrative and Educational Games

Finally, a newer thread of research has been related to narrative and interactive storytelling.  In an effort to solidify a specific direction for my PhD thesis, I have chosen this thread as my main topic and started outlining a research plan.

Right now, I'm working on putting together a taxonomy of techniques in nonlinear fiction.  There is a balance between categorizing approaches by their creative intentions and the technology behind them.  In October I am leading a round table discussion on this work with the goal of looking at why games have used certain techniques but not others (is it because it's too difficult creatively or technically, or because we just need someone to try?).

During the rest of this term, I'll be delving into this taxonomy deeper and working on a paper for a game studies/design journal.

As for my thesis, I will be narrowing in on what the role of narrative is in educational games.  Does story simply engage a game's learners, or is there something more going on there? What are the best ways to incorporate story effectively into an educational game? Can we create a tool that supports writers and designers in properly crafting stories for these sorts of games? Though I'm keeping it general for now, I'd like to ultimately focus on reality-based educational games (including augmented reality) and make use of the cognitive advantages research mentioned above.

The taxonomy work can be followed here, and future pages on my portfolio will be created as my journey continues.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken

Jane McGonigal thinks reality is broken.  Why else would so many of us escape it to play hours and hours of video games? But among all the media hype about the bad things games supposedly to do us, have you ever considered that games might actually make us better? (I bet readers here are on board with that idea!)

I finally got the chance to read Jane's wonderfully written book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.  The whole way through I felt excited and inspired.  If you've seen Jane's TED Talk, you'll have seen a summary of the main ideas behind this book.  However, the twenty minutes she has just doesn't do her ideas justice (it's easy to misunderstand the main point and pass it off as a bit kooky).  The book is (obviously) able to explain everything in much more detail, and provides many supporting research results and in-depth examples.

The first part of the book sets up how games make us happy.  Jane's take on the four defining traits of a game — goals, rules, feedback systems, and voluntary participation — show up throughout the rest of the book, as do the four intrinsic rewards available to us in games: satisfying work, the experience or hope of being successful, social connection, and meaning in the sense of becoming part of something bigger than ourselves.

Part two suggests that alternate reality games are a good way to use what we love about gaming to make our real lives better.  All the themes from the first part are applied again and again here, seemingly to great effect if you look at the success of the games outlined in these chapters.  Although it's not quite the same thing, my interest in augmented reality made this section particularly meaningful to me.  The work I've been doing lately on the cognitive benefits of AR has some overlap with the ideas here.

Finally, in part three, things get epic.  Jane talks about the kinds of things that gamers are well prepared for, like collaborating with huge numbers of people and voluntarily tackling seemingly impossible tasks. She points out that gamers can and do use these abilities to make a difference in the real world, often through reality-based gaming contexts.  In a sense, this part is about gamification, but not in the badge-adding way that Ian Bogost often laments about.  It's about truly making life more gameful to improve our own lives and the lives of everyone around us.

By the end of the book, I found myself wondering if Jane and James Paul Gee have had a chance to collaborate yet.  The latter talks about how we can apply what is good in games to learning and education.  I would love to see what these two could come up with together (perhaps along with Ian Bogost, whom Jane mentions is a good friend in the book).

In the meantime, I need to go check up on the Gameful website Jane set up and see how all the others in my areas of interest (education! augmented reality!) are doing.  If you are into games for good, you should go sign up, too!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

On our vacation to Canada's maritime provinces, my husband and I embarked on a four day journey which has since become known as The Hardest Thing We've Ever Done™.  We hiked the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, complete with all our gear on our backs.  There were no marked trails and the terrain was difficult.  Many people thought we were crazy to do it, and that's before they realized I was pregnant!

But let's face it. If I was able to get through this, then getting my PhD shouldn't be so bad.  I even learned a few tricks along the way to help me get past feeling my lowest.

The first day of the hike is by far the most gruelling.  In the picture above, we are at the top of a gorge.  In the far distance you can see water - that's the Western Brook Pond and where we started our journey.  Getting up here takes a lot of persistence and strength, particularly near the end.  The last upward bit takes you up the side of a waterfall where you basically have to climb rocks almost straight up.  One wrong move and I'm pretty sure you'd be seriously injured as you fell backwards.

I was very tired in this last stretch, but I was able to find it in me to keep going.  Perhaps it's because I knew I had to - it's not like I was going to walk back to the beginning (assuming I even could)! So I kept going.  Slowly, granted, but never giving up.  I even had a Radiohead song playing in my head over and over: "Try the best you can... the best you can is good enough..."

When we finally made it to the top, I wanted to collapse and cry.  We sat down for a minute but then had to go find a decent water source.  After deciding we were going to keep going to find a good campsite (we knew we wouldn't make it to the one we had intended to stay at), I looked back and saw the view everyone comes here for:

Despite utter exhaustion, I knew it would be worth snapping a quick photo before dragging myself away.  I'm really glad I did.

I figure that just like getting out of the gorge, if I have to go a little slower to make it to the end of grad school, I've learned that not only is it ok, it's totally going to be worth it.

The rest of the trip was tough, but I never had a low point again.  I knew if I could make it this far, I could do the rest as well.  I may have also been a bit more mentally prepared for the difficulty of the journey than Andrew was - I think he found it more difficult than he expected.  (Which isn't to say he did awesome - he could have finished even sooner if it wasn't for me slowing us down.  But there were times he was getting pretty worried and I was able to keep our spirits up.)

Accepting the fact that the challenge will be great seems to be a really good way to set yourself up for success.

When we finally got back in the three nights we had hoped to do the hike in (though we were prepared for four just in case), we showered and then collapsed.  The next morning, Andrew's parents, also visiting the area, presented us with these awesome t-shirts commemorating our accomplishment.

Whether it's a shirt, a degree, or just a really good story to tell, doing something difficult in your life makes it feel like you've really lived.

If you'd like to see the rest of our photos along with commentary, you can do so on this public Facebook album.