Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Help Design a Book for Computer Science Beginners

Bringing computer science to the masses is my passion, through education and outreach.  I've run mini-courses for girls, designed a video game, lead workshops for professional women, taught arts and social science students, and TA'ed for computer science students.  Now I have a chance to broaden my impact thanks to a professor named Binto George, who contacted me about a book he wanted to write.

Our book is all about exploring what computer science is, and finding the beauty in it.  We're going to look at a variety of CS topics in everyday contexts.  We are taking extra care to make the content appealing to a wider audience, women included.  Our main targeted use is for non-major CS courses like the one I taught for arts and social science students, though we hope that many more people than that will enjoy it.

We recently put together a really short survey to help determine the best topics to focus on.  We would very much like to have your input on what you'd like to see.  We would very much appreciate the two or three minutes it would take for you to fill it in.

Thank you so much, and watch this space for periodic updates as the project progresses!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Celebrate HER

Serena and I were nominated for Celebrate HER.
Celebrate HER is an Ottawa-based gender inclusive non-profit organization. Our vision is to facilitate greater social responsibility within our community. Our goal is to raise funds for charities and programs supporting women in the Ottawa area. Our mission is to raise awareness of women’s issues, support local programming, and honour amazing woman making a difference in our community, locally and globally.

I'm quite pleased about this given the good company Serena and I are in.  For instance, right beside our profiles is that of Jennifer Flanagan, co-founder, president, and CEO of Actua, an awesome Canadian outreach organization.  Virtual Ventures at Carleton is part of Actua, which I've been volunteering with for a while.  Each year, I give a workshop on computer science to the girls' camps.

We were nominated thanks to our work on Girl Develop It Ottawa, but as you can see on my profile, my teaching and outreach in general are being celebrated.

This seems like a great opportunity to highlight the best of Ottawa, and I'm honoured to be a part of it!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Updated Teaching Philosophy

I've recently updated my teaching philosophy.  I tried to make it to-the-point and backed by research.  I could have written a lot more, but think I captured the key aspects of how I teach.  Would love any feedback you might have!

Though standard, the term ‘lecture’ does not reflect what I try to do when I teach. I aim not to tell, but to guide students in their own learning. From the simplest group discussions to the most complex in-class mini-assignments, I am always looking for new ways to help students construct a deeper understanding of a course’s key topics.

In his book ‘What the Best College Teachers Do’ [1], Ken Bain describes four key concepts that the group of professors studied exhibit in their own teaching. I believe that these concepts not only reflect my own philosophy for teaching, but provide inspiration for new ideas when preparing to teach.

The first is that knowledge is constructed, not received. Reflecting on my own experiences as a student, I can recall more instances of being given information than I can of having an opportunity to construct my understanding. I succeeded because I moved beyond my good memory to seek out understanding on my own, but I realize that not all students are as able or motivated to do so. In computer science, there is an abundance of technical information to know, and it is not always obvious how to guide students in learning the concepts behind it. Aside from thoughtfully crafted assignments, interactive activities for small groups or at the front of the classroom are one strategy I have used successfully. For example, instead of describing how binary numbers work, I have guided students in exploring their nature using physical cards representing binary digits.

The second concept states that mental models change slowly: students must have their preconceptions challenged and care enough that their mental models are incorrect to want to update them. I believe carefully constructing a program in class is one way to accomplish this. In real time, students can predict what they believe will happen, only to find that, in many cases, they were wrong. Discussion on why should be followed by the opportunity to try again. Just-in-time teaching is another option I would like to try. With this technique, just enough information to start a task is given. Further information is provided only when the students realize they need it.

Next is that questions are crucial. I always strive to make myself available during and after class to answer questions, and ensure that students feel comfortable asking what they think are trivial inquiries. When class sizes allow for it, I incorporate group discussions that involve questioning in both directions. I try to design a line of questioning that will help students construct their knowledge, and this is something I hope to continue improving.

Finally, caring is crucial. I find it is very important to ensure that in-class examples and assignment topics actually reflect what the students care about. When I teach non-majors, this means connecting concepts to their fields of study. For all students, I try to design assignments that give them the freedom to incorporate what interests them. I also believe there is potential in designing learning experiences that reflect how video games engage players, such as James Paul Gee suggests [2]. I would like to try this approach soon, and a game design course would be the perfect place to do it.

Whether a guide for what happens in the classroom or for the design of assignments to be completed later, these four concepts help describe how I see myself as an effective instructor. There are many more opportunities to incorporate the wisdom contained within them, and I often look back to them when embarking on a new teaching endeavour.

[1] Bain, K. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2004.
[2] Gee, J. P. Good Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies). Peter Lang Pub Inc, 2007.

[Also available on my website.]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Simple Storytelling in The Legend of Zelda

I love the Legend of Zelda games.  They are similar enough to make me feel nostalgic, yet always offer something new.  We've been playing the latest, Skyward Sword, over the last few months and it has been no exception.  The funny thing is, I'm actually not the one playing it.  Yet I am still enthralled despite the fact that the story is highly linear and non-interactive.

When I watched L.A. Noire, I really enjoyed it as well, despite it also having a linear story.  But in that case, the story pretty much was the game.  It played more like a movie.  In Zelda, I don't feel like this is the case.  The stories are fun in Zelda games, but usually fairly simple and formulaic.  And when a few dialog options are thrown in? It seems that no matter what you choose, the result is the same other than a very short response.  Even L.A. Noire offered more variety in that regard.

It was when we were working through the Lanayru Mines that I realized why I enjoyed this Zelda game so much.  It wasn't about the embedded narrative but the atmosphere of the story world that had me hooked.

In this area of the game, Link is able to flip back and forth between the past and present.  The present has slower, more desolate music, while the past's tunes are more jovial and upbeat.  The scenery changes similarly, and several gameplay mechanics are only available in the past.  Many characters that are piles of abandoned scrap today spring to life when the land they occupy is switched to the past.  The attention to detail and the interesting surroundings convinced me there was a rich story world without more than a few sentences of dialog.

My enjoyment of this game has really proven to me how little it takes to provide a compelling storytelling experience.  It reinforces my earlier thoughts on our field needing creative breakthroughs in the near term rather than technical ones.  It is also making me ponder how important or useful simple storytelling might be in educational games, and how an effective story world might look.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life as a Professor

Systers just started a 'best of' blog that highlights useful conversations that have happened on the popular mailing list for technical women.  The first post, Life as a Professor, is all about what being a professor is like, particularly in the work-life balance sense.

Balancing lady 

I find the responses either depressing or encouraging. One thing's for sure: it's not a 9-5 job. As one person said,"It’s a huge part of your life even when you aren’t in the classroom or lab." Whether that's good or bad depends on the individual (after all, I'm always thinking about teaching, learning, and outreach, so if you love what you do you may not want to leave it completely at work).

For me, the words of wisdom in that post solidify that I would be much happier as an instructor without the added pressure of running a research lab.  Plus, if I don't want to be a professor, I can skip that whole post-doc phase, which suits me just fine.

Do check out the post if you are at all considering an academic career.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Research as Exploration

Check out this talk that asks the question 'What would it take to create a moonshot factory?' It's given by Michael Crow of Arizona State University as part of the new initiative We Solve for X, "a forum to encourage and amplify technology-based moonshot thinking and teamwork."


I think there are a lot of interesting things in there, but one thought caught my attention.  Crow talks about research as exploration, and the university as a place "dedicated not to publications or patents or profits but directly to the idea of radical thinking, radical problem solving, and driving radical levels of positive impact."

This reminded me of my post on wanting 'publish or perish' to go away.  I think this is one of the biggest reasons I felt (and still feel) that way, though I'm not sure if I articulated it sufficiently.  What Crow is trying to turn ASU into excites me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The New Science of Teaching and Learning

What do you get when you mix psychology, education, and neuroscience? For Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, you get MBE (Mind, Brain, and Education) Science.  I recently looked at her book The New Science of Learning: Using the Best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom.  It described what so-called facts about learning are definitely true (i.e. proven by all three areas), probably true, intelligent speculation, and definitely not true, followed by lists of tenets and principles of learning.

Some of the facts that have been well established include:
  • human brains are as unique as faces
  • all brains are not equal: context and ability influence learning
  • the brain is changed by experience
  • the brain connects new information to old
 Some of the things that are very likely true include:
  • emotions have a big impact on learning, from what students think their teachers think of them to getting good support from others
  • good nutrition, water, and sleep are all important for learning
  • we notice novelty and look for patterns
  • humans are innately curious and driven to learn
  • active construction of meaning should be encouraged
  • memory + attention = learning
These are the tenets of individual learning, each of which is supported by the facts above and/or those not listed:
  1. Motivation impacts how teachers teach and how students learn
  2. Stress impacts learning
  3. Anxiety blocks learning opportunities
  4. Depressive states can impede learning
  5. Other peoples’ tones of voices are quickly judged in the brain
  6. Peoples’ faces are judged nearly instantaneously in the brain
  7. Movement can enhance learning
  8. Humour can enhance learning opportunities through laughter
  9. Nutrition impacts learning
  10. Sleep is important for memory consolidation
  11. Learning styles (cognitive preferences) are due to the unique structure of individual brains
  12. Teaching students individually enhances learning

When thinking about these tenets (and the universal learning principles I did not list), something really jumped out at me: I noticed that digital games could support them all rather well.  For example, games are motivating; that one's easy.  Affectively designed games could help reduce the anxiety, depression, and bad kinds of stress, while introducing the good kind of stress (eustress) through challenge.  Health related tenets, like nutrition and sleep, could potentially be supported through persuasive games that are designed to encourage healthy behaviour.  I think that a lot of what James Paul Gee has to say about games is also supported nicely by MBE Science, though he does not explicitly connect to that research.

Another thing I noticed about the known truths of learning is that they coincide nicely with Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do. I previously wrote about this book in relation to computer science education in a short series of posts here, here, and here.  I'll leave it to those interested to consider the connections, and recommend both books to learn more.