Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 Is Looking Good For Interdisciplinary Computing

All signs are that 2012 is going to be a banner year for interdisciplinary computing. You don't  have to look far to see evidence that more and more people are actively engaging in and publicizing interdisciplinary computing work.

On the computing education front: At the upcoming SIGCSE 2012 conference there will be sessions on studio based learning (several), digital humanities, interdisciplinary database applications, knitting patterns and program tracing, science fiction in computer science education. There will be presentations on healthcare and computing (several), and interdisciplinary travel. There will also be a special session devoted to the role of interdisciplinary computing in academia, research and industry. This session will be run by Ursula Wolz and Boots Cassel, the same people who organized the interdisciplinary computing meetings I attended and wrote about this past year. Interdisciplinary is becoming a hot topic in computing education.

In the private sector: Volumes of online and print text are dissecting everything that might have led to Steve Jobs repeated successes. Analyses of Jobs and the innovations he drove have repeated his comments about how Apple existed at the intersection of liberal arts and technology.  A repercussion of these discussions is going to be (I predict) even greater corporate emphasis on how a meeting of minds between computing and traditionally non-technical fields can lead to innovation.

The term "social intelligence" is becoming more common as we look at what we can learn, intuit, predict, and know from analyzing social media. If we are to really understand what social media has to tell us about people, or, conversely, if we are to really use social media intelligently for business purposes (two sides of the same coin), we will have to do more to integrate our understandings from psychology, anthropology and sociology into our computing development work. There is huge potential here for intelligent forward thinking collaborations.

Most telling: If you pick up any computing / technology magazine off the supermarket rack and flip through it, you will find advertisements from organizations that tout their interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary achievements. Energy, water, biomedical, transportation, communication, disaster prediction and management, interactive literature.

One can focus on the exaggeration and hype inherent to much advertising, but that would be missing the bigger picture. The important thing to note is that the whole notion of promoting interdisciplinary computing has entered the mainstream. When large and small organizations jockey to convince potential customers and clients that *they* are on the forefront of interdisciplinary computing, then interdisciplinary computing is no longer on the fringe. Funding follows, and smart funding has the potential to nurture environments that drive technological innovation.

People will make the final decisions and determine the directions interdisciplinary computing takes. I am optimistic and excited about where we can go..

Happy Healthy Interdisciplinary New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Computers and Society: Computing For Good Arrives Without a Flourish

I am pleased to announce that my book "Computers and Society: Computing For Good" arrived on my doorstep yesterday, and is now officially out.

Many of the people I profiled in this book about computing and computers being used for social and environmental good, are both passionate about what they do and humble. As fate would have it, the arrival itself occurred in such a way as to reinforce the importance of being humble and remembering to value balance in life.

The guy from Fedex sprinted up the stairs and handed me a box while I was having a conversation with a guy trying to (at the very least) scam me for several hundred dollars. I suspect he was high on something as he kept hopping around and babbling. So busy trying to figure out what was going on with this guy that I set the box inside the door and forgot about it. Much later, after the growing evidence made me realize I had been dealing with a potentially dangerous criminal and I had called the police, I noticed the box from my publisher partially wedged behind a footstool. So much for the big moment of arrival!

I pried open the box and pulled out the book, not quite sure whether I was still upset with myself for having turned my back on the crazy guy when my computer chose the wrong moment to make a lot of noise. (This is how people get killed, I thought - don't turn your back on crazy people no matter what your computer does).

However, here it was in my hands - my first book. A book about people who are making the world a better place. Lots of people. The hundred or so people who shared their time and stories with me far outweigh the one crazy guy in my doorway. Whether working to save endangered sea turtles, helping kids in the neonatal intensive care unit, or modeling earthquakes, these people "rock" as they say. Life is short and precious and I'm honored beyond words to be able to share their work with you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Challenges to STEM Education: Is it About Sex?

I am disturbed by what I read today in the book "Nerds - How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies Can Save America* and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope". If you have a background in education, or simply opinions about the current state of STEM education (who doesn't?) the author's beliefs about where "reform" is needed are eye opening. (Hint: we need to pay attention to kids thinking about sex)

Anderegg (the author) builds a convincing argument that kids start learning at a very young age that "nerds" are social misfits, unattractive and bound to be sexual failures. Agreeing with this thesis leads to the conclusion that all the emphasis in the world on testing and assessment, all the attempts to show the economic benefits (good job, high pay) of a career in STEM will fall on mostly deaf ears, because: kids aren't making their decisions based on our adult logic. Kids make their decisions about what to study and feel proud of based upon social cues and a driving desire to fit in. By the time they are old enough to realize the innacurracies of the nerd stereotype it is too late.

Unless we are heaping criticism on a public figure, we don't like talking publicly about things like sex. (Does the idea of discussing sex and computing education bother you at all?) 

American cultural anti-intellectualism  is looking very guilty right now with regard to our problem attracting students into, and into doing well in, STEM classes. 

If you buy this argument, it is no wonder we have such difficulty making computing careers attractive. Worse, because computing is everywhere we have a looming national crisis when large numbers of students turn away from computing education.

Although Anderegg does not (so far; I am still reading) separate computing out from science and math, I think we should do so for purposes of problem solving. For example,  he writes that biology is as shunned as other sciences. He bases his arguments in great part on his clinicial practice as a developmental psychologist. 

Computing educators and researchers see another set of data. Computing educators have amassed significant evidence that certain populations of students (e.g. women) are frequently drawn to biology. Showcasing the role of computer science in biological  careers can put CS in a better light (from a student's perspective).  I have written in the past about educators who are making connections between computing and the arts, music, social sciences (and other sciences) too. Students like these connections and revise their perceptions of computing because of them.

So on the one hand I am incredibly disturbed to see the evidence pile-up in "Nerds" telling us that we are approaching STEM education with blinders on.

On the other hand, and you really should read the book "Nerds" yourself to decide, I am incredibly relieved to read something that not only sheds new light on how serious the computing education challenge is, but provides a way forward.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rainbow Simulation - Water Droplets

Researchers at UC San Diego have been working on creating simulations that accurately model the formation of rainbows. In their news releases and presentations they talk about the physics behind rainbow creation and in particular the new discoveries that have been made about rainbows as a result of their work. Here is a quote from a press release:

"Computer scientists at UC San Diego, who set out to simulate all rainbows found in nature, wound up answering  questions about the physics of rainbows as well. The scientists recreated a wide variety of rainbows – primary rainbows, secondary rainbows, redbows that form at sunset and cloudbows that form on foggy days – by using an improved method for simulating how light interacts with water drops of various shapes and sizes. Their new approach even yielded realistic simulations of difficult-to-replicate “twinned” rainbows that split their primary bow in two."


"Until now, most simulations of rainbows had assumed that water drops are spherical, which isn’t true for large rain drops, ... researchers have  adopted a completely different approach and developed a more realistic model to recreate rainbows...offer the prospect of a better understanding of real rainbows,”

Stemming from a study of rainbow formation, there is an almost infinite set of topics we can learn more about from looking closely at the  behavior of variously shaped water droplets. Here are a few ideas:

  • Weather modeling and forecasting
  • Animations in feature films
  • Atmospheric behavior on other planets that are found to contain water
  • Inspiration for new forms of studio art
  • Educational STEM software development
  • Frozen food storage behaviors over time

I could go further with my imagination but I'd like to know: What other ideas do you have?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts - you can comment here.

(UCSD Press release)

Friday, December 9, 2011

User Experience is ...

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of people who all work in some way in the realm of user experience (UX). The word "realm" is so very appropriate. What is UX anyway? There are ongoing discussions on LinkedIn groups about what UX means, what is means to work in UX, what one needs to work in UX... Does one need to have a degree in HCI? In graphic arts? In Cognitive Science? Does one need to be able to program? Does one have to have a visual portfolio? etc.

Yes. No. It depends.

From what I could tell everyone at this meeting had a background and experience that ranged into the technical. Notice how I used another one of those broad words: "ranged". At least one person, I would call a "developer" - he talked a lot about the latest advances in HTML5 and the pros and cons of creating Native applications. Not so much about how users felt (affect) and what that means. There were several people with a graphic design background, who, I intuit, came out of the arts. They could probably create some very slick looking designs. There was a bit of eye glazing at that end of the table when CSS and HTML came up. There was someone who said that computer science and software engineering were the same thing (ouch); there were people who work in hardware-driven companies.

We were discussing the book "Mobile First" by Luke Wroblewski. Very nice little book (about 75 pages, I was able to read it in one sitting) that focuses on principles of design and their effect on the user experience in the world of mobile technology.  Wroblewski made some very good points about how useful it can be to pare down online features to those that are most important to the end user and lose the rest. At least that was my take on it. I am all about finding out what the user's needs and goals are and what is and isn't working for them (and why!).

In addition, when I talk in a broader sense about "users" I include the organization that creates the page or app. After all, there are end users and there are the people who have something in mind when they develop an online presence. If there isn't a bridge between both groups, however different their worlds may be, then no one will be productive or happy. From my point of view trying to bridge that gap, everyone who has a stake in the success of a digital experience is a user.

Around our table, depending upon who was talking, we agreed or disagreed with the premise of "Mobile First", and our supporting evidence came with very different foci. Was it all about what the latest HTML would let you do? Was it about graphics on itty bitty screens? Was it about research methodologies such as Heuristic Evaluation? Was the whole idea of bottom up (mobile and then laptop and desktop) analysis and design the way to go? Wait a minute...wasn't it first about the user? (that was me).

I think, had anyone asked, that everyone around the table would have agreed that "it" was ultimately all about the end user and their experience with an application or web site. Occasionally I felt like we were all over the place in our discussions - and in fact we were. At first unsettling, I then became really excited, because I was experiencing, in a new setting, the broad nature of this field! 

For example, in my own work I place a lot of focus on figuring out how to get at and experience a digital situation (web page, application, classroom situation) from the user's perspective - and backing that understanding up with rigorous research data. That reflects my background in cognitive science and educational research as well as in computer science. I am not likely to talk about HTML (5 or any other version) until after a lot of other leg work has been done.

Conversely, others in the room started from the technical constraints and worked up from there. If new technology permits new creative innovations, explore them. My geeky side appreciates this perspective. Sitting there, it was fascinating to be a bit schizophrenic by both taking part in the conversation and acting as a fly on the wall watching and listening to what everyone was saying and observing how it reflects their prior experience. No question about it, user experience work is not only an evolving discipline but one that has no fixed definition, no matter how much it might be nice to have one.

In fact I prefer a flexible definition of user experience. After all, the very words "user experience" tell you that the "experience" with a web app or software program is going to vary from user to user. There will be floating technical issues, front end and back end issues, psychological issues, sociological issues, software and hardware issues. People can be unpredictable and their interactions with technology can be revealing of so many things! The perspective viewed from each of these is different. That is what makes UX work so interesting. You have the opportunity to draw upon many different fields when you take on a UX project. And it is all about people - helping people.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Considering Collaboration with the Social Sciences?

Psychology and computing have an interesting historical relationship. With the onslaught of All Things Digital, that relationship is becoming more complex. It should go without saying (although experience indicates periodic reminders are needed) that computing's relationship with psychology and other social sciences are as important as with any "hard" science - or should be. There are exciting questions to be considered and challenges to pounce on.

Historically, we tended to think of psychology as intersecting  with computing via Human Computer Interaction (HCI), or in Artificial Intelligence. Yet, in both fields the emphasis has almost always been on the cognitive - efficiency and effectiveness in the former, data discover and interpretation in the latter.

But psychology is also about affect.  As related in a recent article in UX Magazine about "Understanding Social Computing", the whole online user experience is more and more about personal interaction. Online educators know this. Marketing professionals know this - what marketing these days is not heavily digital? But there is so much more to talk about.

There is enormous opportunity for computing professionals who have a background in psychology (cognitive and affective). In the affective domain, we have opportunities well beyond the arena of sales and marketing. We have opportunities with educational software development to really maximize learning through sophisticated understanding of the interplay between the emotional and cognitive self. No doubt computer science can contribute to a greater ability to put that understanding into action. I wonder how often computer scientists work directly with educational psychologists?

Then there is anthropology and sociology. A friend, who is interested in the intersection of physics and anthropology got me thinking about this as we were joking around about her ideal future career in the search for extra-terrestrials. Where do computing and anthropology/sociology weave together?

Throwing a few thoughts out for your consideration: consider the context in which globally divergent groups perceive and interact with computing as cultural artifacts. Books and articles have been written by non-computing professionals on this topic. But how much has been written from within the computing disciplines?  How do different ethnic, religious, urban, agrarian groups perceive and appreciate the potential of computing? If you think this isn't something for a computing professional to focus on, think again.

Or... ponder the different, surprisingly different, cultures that exist between traditional institutions of higher learning and non-traditional computing education organizations (private for-profits for example). Before you dismiss this subject for whatever reason (e.g. media reports of all the problems with for-profits) remember that just because something may not be palatable doesn't mean ignoring it is a good idea.

The more we think about it, the more I think we'll realize that culture is huge in terms of how computing "works" or "doesn't work"; collaboration with anthropologists and sociologists has enormous potential for benefiting the users, clients, customers, the public in general and for the field of computer science. And I'm talking about computer science here - the science of computation. Something to percolate on: What is the contribution that computer science can make to the study of culture?

So, I put these out there as questions: computing professionals, do you have working relationships with professionals in psychology - beyond the somewhat already trodden cognitive domain?

Computing professionals out there, do you have a working relationship with someone coming from anthropology? Sociology? 

If this sounds at all appealing, and you don't have such a relationship, how could you form one?