Tuesday, October 29, 2013

So Close But Yet So Far Wired Magazine!

An article in this month's Wired magazine made me momentarily want to beat my head on the wall. The cover story, with the somewhat misleading title "The Next Steve Jobs", is about how a teacher in an incredibly poor school in Mexico took it upon himself to use a student centered pedagogical approach to teaching which resulted in many of his students leaping into the 99th percentile on national exams.

The story contrasts two extremes: mindless 19th Century inspired rote learning with dynamic engaging student-driven learning. The school doesn't have computers for the students. A roving ed tech instructor shows up holding placards with pictures of keyboards and 3.5" floppy disks. Not long after the teacher takes matters into his own hands, he has students figuring out how to solve complex math and science problems. Students that no one expected anything from proceed to blow away the competition. The plot line is rather predictable.

True, the story is engaging, as magazine articles need to be to maintain readership, and does a nice job of providing a glimpse of the innovative guts the teacher demonstrated. Without training or mentoring or any kind of outside assistance aside from the use of his home computer, he took a dive into turning conventional pedagogy on its head. It worked. One of his students in particular (whose photograph is on the cover of the issue) really excelled - she made the top score in the country on her standardized exams.

The article goes on to point out that the student's teacher received very little credit for his accomplishments. His students, in particular the girl who blew away the rest of the country academically, got the bulk of the attention. In fact, some of the region's administration dismissed the teacher's efforts entirely; one administrator is quoted as saying that teaching methods have little to do with how well students perform. Huh???? That in itself is incredibly annoying but by now the reader can see it coming.

At the end of the article (and here came the desire to whack my head on the nearest flat surface) I realized that the article missed a huge opportunity to rectify matters. It is a compelling story, but what are the take home messages? The casual reader could easily walk away with a variety of impressions about a brilliant girl, a lousy Mexican education system, a brave teacher, and the vague notion that student centered education sounds great. Or not great, depending upon your inclination.

But where are the take home messages that could take it to the next level for STEM education, and since this is Wired magazine, the messages about the digital economy and the need for innovative computing education? After all, they chose to put Steve Jobs name in the title. Then they did nothing with it.

I wish they had put the pieces together more clearly. What a lost opportunity to do more than tell a good story. Thud.

Monday, October 21, 2013

STEM, STEAM, Then What?

All the fields are here

The STEAM acronym has been nagging at me for some time. Just in case you aren't familiar with it, STEAM is short for Science Technology Engineering Arts Math. STEAM comes on the heels of STEM: Science Technology Engineering Math. Prior to STEM there was ST/M and other less linguistically smooth relatives.

These acronyms are everywhere in discussions of education. No doubt you have heard STEM a lot - it's hard not to have. You may or may not have heard of STEAM yet (you will) and perhaps you never heard of ST/M. ST/M isn't used much these days, having been supplanted by STEM.

Things (the acronyms) started when people were looking for easy ways to shorthand the content topics that needed greater emphasis in schools. Especially in the US, but in other countries as well. All sorts of wordy discussions were popping up about how to improve student learning in areas necessary for economically competitive citizenry living in highly competitive global economies. See what I mean? Wordy.

Most of you reading this know the ins and outs of these conversations and all the interesting directions they go. The Common Core State Standards, The Next Generation Science Standards, and hey, why is computer science not there anywhere? Because, just in case you didn't realize it, it's not. Computer Science is Noticeably Absent.

But back to those acronyms for a moment and some implications stemming out of how they are used in discussions of education reform. (yeah, ouch)

STEM : education reform with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. There has been increasing discussion of how to integrate these topics into all aspects of the curriculum. "Interdisciplinary" has taken on buzz-word status in some camps, but one can only hope that this means we are starting to recognize the need for more fluid boundaries in our exploration of the world. It is only in the past few hundred years that we have tried to isolate content matter so rigidly in order to perform controlled experimental studies. We have learned a lot (a LOT) from this approach, but we are often now crashing up against boundaries that require the addition of more holistic integrated perspectives.

STEAM - education reform that values the arts equally to the S T E and M and works to integrate them. Perhaps in part for purely practical reasons, advocates of STEAM appear to be working hard at integration as opposed to simply saying "hey we need Art too". Art is a harder sell in this day and age of economic imperatives and requests for "useful skills".

Pondering the seeming contrast of Art with the others, I realized there was just one more piece needed to find ourselves back to advocating a liberal arts educational foundation. Humanities. Right? In terms of providing a solid, critical thinking based, life long learning supportive education, we often include the need for broad distribution requirements that include Arts and Humanities. Wordy yet again. Hence the usefulness of an acronym. 

Funny how things might be coming full circle. If someone finds a way to effectively advocate for the Humanities, we will be acknowledging the need for a holistic, (hopefully) integrated education.

I'm wondering when someone is going to come up with an acronym that incorporates the H.

I've been playing with how to put in the H but so far I haven't found just the right fit.

HSTEAM     MEATSH    EATSHM    ATSEHM     I see a thematic basis in food (time of day?)
SHTEAM     MEATHS    EATHSM    ATHESM     throat clearing (reaction to allergens?)
STHEAM     MEAHTS    EAHMST    AHMEST     and lisping (sorry code buffs, not LISP)
STEAMH     HMAETS    MAEHTS    AEHMTS    Things (acronyms) are not looking promising.

What we need is to integrate computing into our acronym.


Rome wasn't built in a day; the Hoover Dam was built in 3 years. I think we're getting somewhere.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Global Tech Women: "Voices" Speaks Again

Have you heard about the "Voices" conference? Voices is presented by Global Tech Women and is unique in several ways. For starters, the conference is virtual - you can participate from anywhere on the planet if you have access to an internet connection. Second, the conference is global. It takes place not from one location but from many locations. Third, Voices will circumnavigate the globe for 35 hours. The first session will come from Australia and subsequent sessions will follow the rising sun. The final session will take place in Silicon Valley.

It's high quality stuff and it isn't going to break the bank.

Voices debuted earlier this year on International Women's Day and no one quite knew how it would all go. It turned out to be an incredible grassroots community building and empowerment event. Technical women who had never had the opportunity to participate in a gathering of their peers were able to do so. It was a great way to meet technical women from different cultures, to compare and share ideas and experiences, and to learn from the expertise and perspective of others. People participated and presented from every continent; the topics ranged from the technically nitty gritty to balancing the personal and professional. In my own opinion, the greatest result of the conference was the many lasting relationships that were established.

Therefore, Global Tech Women is putting together the Voices conference again for 2014.

Although International Women's Day is a long way off (March 8th), conference content planning is well under way and the call for participation closes November 1st. This is where you come in and the reason I'm whipping up this post now.

You don't have to be "someone important" to present - in fact, toss that silly phrase right out the window.

Curious? Interested? Have something to share with other technical women? Hopefully, I got your attention and you want more detail about the Voices conference and how to be part of it. Go Here to find out.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Art, UX, Computer Science (happy campers)

Happy Indeed!

Feeling very pleased, and perhaps amazed, with their luck at finding easy parking in Little Italy, many of the San Diego UX Speakeasy crowd at first walked right past the entrance to Sosolimited, the host for this month's amazing blend of art, design and computer science. Snugly fit into a funky building that looked non descript on the outside but was full of interesting odds and ends on the inside, 70 or so of us gathered for our monthly meeting of food, beverage, and socializing. Oh, and for a really cool presentation.

I was stumbling around in a corner doing something or other when Justin Manor, our host, explained the origin of the company name, but I believe it had something to do with he and his friends originally being in a band. or DJs perhaps? Something musical anyway. Many years later, the expanded team has morphed into working with clients such as The Denver Public Library, the Museum of Science in Raleigh North Carolina, the Center For Strategic and International Studies (in DC) and oh, I almost forgot, the 2012 London Olympics.

The projects Justin showed us snippets of were eclectic and it's hard to succinctly say what they all had in common. Lots of data, interactivity, live processing, .... urg it's hard to describe (fortunately it is all on their web page in lovely visual form). There was genetic patterning and sequencing in there, patterns of natures that flowed and swooped, streaming bits that looked like something out of The Matrix, physical animations of various natural processes, linguistic analysis -

wait. When Justin showed us linguistic analysis of political speeches and pronouncements from the US and UK the crowd got a good laugh while being educated. We watched a clip from the US presidential debates, and various political speeches from both countries. Streamed live at the time, various word clouds formed and rearranged as the politicians spoke, zeroing in on buzzwards, or egotistical references to themselves and a variety of other interesting things. There was one politician who said almost nothing intelligible in a very long winded way and it was quite interesting to see the analytical structures forming around his blathering. So if you sometimes think that some of these guys aren't saying anything, now you could know for a fact when that was the case.

I would love to see some live analysis of the current morass going on in Washington DC over the government shutdown.

You see, it's pretty serious stuff as well as fun - if you think about all the ways that live data analysis, pattern identification and matching in nature, micro to macro, can help us learn new things and understand the world around us. It's research, it's user experience, it's art, it's science. It's dynamic and it's cooooooooooooool!

For those of you who want to get your hands a dirty you know what is equally cool? (Aside from the fact that Justin talked about code and algorithms on more than one occasion.) Sosolimited has put an open source project on GitHub that you can use to do some things with YouTube videos. Again I refer you to their web page for the full scoop.

I realize this has been a somewhat sedate post about a UX Speakeasy meetup compared to some of those in the past. Perhaps it was the contentment I felt with the presence of vegetarian spring rolls. Yummy and healthy. Or a general friendly blurring and purring of memories from the evening. I would be remiss however, if I did not mention one small oddity. The bathroom. I didn't manage to locate it myself, but I was told by several people that to get there one had to go outside (out of doors), take a left, go left again, then left again, up a ramp, perhaps another left I'm not sure, and then one would find the Facilities. These directions involve some interaction with a loading dock (?), and a parking lot (?).

I didn't think to ask the building owner, a very nice guy named Marc Hedges about the Facilities Location. I'm sure he would have had an interesting explanation.