Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Unusual Computational Science Educator

Sometimes crisis propels an existing passion to the forefront of someone's life. This is the one line explanation of how Shodor was founded 15 years ago to advance science education via computational modeling and simulation.

When I first posted about the Interdisciplinary Computing meeting I attended last week, I made a point of mentioning Bob Panoff. Bob is not only a truly interdisciplinary individual but a great person to talk to. So as soon as I could I pried him away from others so that he could speak to me for this report.

If you haven't already looked at his company web site, before you do so, think about what his company name might mean and why he chose it. Don't peek. We'll come back to that. It says a lot about Bob's attitude towards life and work.

You never know where a conversation with Bob will go. It starts at point X and the next thing you know you are somewhere else entirely. But it all makes sense.

It often starts with some interesting comment or question.  He asked me: Do you know what "Quantitative Emotion" is? Given my background, I started thinking about AI. But that was not what he had in mind. He teaches the answer this way: by sending 8th grade students (approx age 13) out into shopping malls to ask people one of two questions.

"is 40% large or small?" Most people respond "it is large".

"is 2/5 large or small?" Most people respond "it is small".

Hmm.... Changing the representation of data makes people feel differently about what something means. Quantitative Emotion. Interesting....

A post-mall conversation with the students (and me!) leads to discussion of multiple representations, and how to present data in different ways - generally through computation and simulation of that data. Bob is all about computational simulation.

One of Bob's very favorite questions, which he also sprung on me, is: "How do I know that it is true?" 

What? Know what is true? Answer: most anything. How do you know that it is true?

This question underpins much of Shodor's work in developing science education materials. "How do you know?" Computation and simulation provide the means to analyse and answer the question. How did Bob arrive at this central question? While in graduate school he taught himself how to use computational simulations to analyse the interactions between pieces of physics problems and to measure the validity of calculations.

Although not a computer science student, he read as many numerical methods books as he could find, most of which had been written in the pre-computer era. (Part of me wondered just where he found these ancient dusty texts, but we were racing the clock against lunch break so I didn't ask). He taught himself to use computing to apply those numerical methods and solve the physics problems.

Pattern recognition and pattern characterization then fueled his interest in simulations. The more he created simulations the more convinced he became that science education in general could be improved through creating effective simulations. How to choose between different approaches in the lab for example, how to compute the properties of materials such as liquid helium, deuterium and solids with impurities. He refers to himself at that period of his life, when he worked in academia, as a computational physicist. Along the way he worked in a supercomputing center. He spent time looking for commonalities between disciplines and how they did use or could use computing, and he worked to share those ideas with other disciplines. In his spare time he started a group  to improve science education. He started by delivering workshops.

Crisis struck in 1994 when he was told he had a kidney tumor and 6 months to live. At this point he decided to follow his true passion with what time he had left. Abandoning formal academia, he incorporated Shodor and went full steam ahead with computational science simulation with the mission of improving science education at all levels.

Short and Dorky. Bob was once called "SHOrt and DORky" by a student, hence the company name. Of course. Creative and humorous and ready to use whatever comes his way.

15 years later Bob Panoff and Shodor are still at it and highly successful. Bob works full time following his passion for computation in the service of science education. As important, his desire to share his work and ideas land him in places like our meeting. Go Bob.

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