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April 29 2013

White House Science Fair praises future scientists and makers

There are few ways to better judge a nation’s character than to look at how its children are educated. What values do their parents, teachers and mentors demonstrate? What accomplishments are celebrated? In a world where championship sports teams are idolized and superstar athletes are feted by the media, it was gratifying to see science, students and teachers get their moment in the sun at the White House last week.

“…one of the things that I’m concerned about is that, as a culture, we’re great consumers of technology, but we’re not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted,” said President Barack Obama, “and we’ve got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”

President Obama at White House Science FairPresident Obama at White House Science Fair

President Barack Obama talks with Evan Jackson, 10, Alec Jackson, 8, and Caleb Robinson, 8, from McDonough, Ga., at the 2013 White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

An increasingly fierce global competition for talent and natural resources has put a premium on developing scientists and engineers in the nation’s schools. (On that count, last week, the President announced a plan to promote careers in the sciences and expand federal and private-sector initiatives to encourage students to study STEM.

“America has always been about discovery, and invention, and engineering, and science and evidence,” said the President, last week. “That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA. That’s how this country became the greatest economic power in the history of the world. That’s how we’re able to provide so many contributions to people all around the world with our scientific and medical and technological discoveries.”

Unfortunately, the role models that far too much of the media hold up for young people are all too frequently pulled from the stage, screen and playing fields, as opposed to laboratories, universities and schools.

In recent years, the success of technology entrepreneurs has shifted that dynamic, but in the American academy, big time sports have been eating college life, with huge stadiums and rallies for stars and comparatively little notice given to National Merit awards or fellowship winners. When the President said in 2012 that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and young people’s scientific achievements don’t belong in the back pages of newspapers, his media criticism was quietly scathing: a culture of celebrity is not geared to the more quiet, sustained achievement required to attain a graduate degree or patent, though both may have more enduring value to society than a pop album.

This is a dynamic that clearly troubles President Obama, and one that he has used the bully pulpit and the platform of the White House to drawn national attention towards over the past five years.

“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House,” said the President, in 2009. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example.”

In the years since, the White House has tried to carry through on that pledge, hosting three science fairs and involving national leaders in science education, including Bill Nye,”The Science Guy,” Reading Rainbow host Levar Burton, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

neil tysonneil tyson

“The White House Science Fair is a way of showing everyone that science is cool,” said Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in an interview. Engaging the public about the wonders of the universe and encouraging kids to be curious about how our world works has been a core part of his career, driven by his infectious good humor.

Making science and technology education more fun

As Greg Ferenstein noted at TechCrunch, there were some pretty awesome inventions at the White House science fair, from mind-controlled prosthetics to improved cancer detection methodologies to a bicycle-powered water purification system. You can see a list of the White House science fair projects at and watch President Obama tour the exhibits on YouTube.

One of the notable components of the science fairs has been the involvement of kids from the maker movement. In the summer of 2013, the Maker Education Initiative will host a season-long Maker Party where students can learn, design and create.

“We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow,” said President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair, recognizing the long-history of creative innovation in American garages, basements and barns.

In 2012, President Obama famously helped young maker Joey Hudy to fire his “extreme marshmallow cannon.” 14-year old Ben Hylack, the maker of a telepresence robot, said that Makerfaire changed his life. In 2013, “Super Awesome Sylvia” represented Maker Faire at the White House Science Fair, showing the President her watercolor drawbot.

Experimenting with more independent projects that let kids tinker are important but only part of a puzzle that includes parents, teachers and libraries.


“We should be focused on getting kids ‘making’, yes, but that misses a tacit recognition that kids are by nature scientists,” said Tyson. “What we should be talking about is how to keep kids interested and get out of their way as they learn.”

For that to happen, we’ll need to encourage children to keep asking questions, teach them how to learn to answer them, and praise inquisitive students.

“Acts of curiosity are what make up acts of science,” he said. “Adult scientists are just kids who never grew up.”

February 08 2013

Distributed resilience with functional programming

Functional programming has a long and distinguished heritage of great work — that was only used by a small group of programmers. In a world dominated by individual computers running single processors, the extra cost of thinking functionally limited its appeal. Lately, as more projects require distributed systems that must always be available, functional programming approaches suddenly look a lot more appealing.

Steve Vinoski, an architect at Basho Technologies, has been working with distributed systems and complex projects for a long time, first as a tentative explorer and then leaping across to Erlang when it seemed right. Seventeen years as a columnist on C, C++, and functional languages have given him a unique viewpoint on how developers and companies are deciding whether and how to take the plunge.

Highlights from our recent interview include:

  • From CORBA/C++ to Erlang — “Every time I looked at it, it seemed to have an answer.” [Discussed at the 3:14 mark]
  • Everything old is new again — “Seeing people accidentally or by having to work through the problems, stumbling upon these old research papers and old ideas.” [7:20]
  • Erlang is not hugely fast — “It’s more for control, not for data streaming.” [16:58]
  • Webmachine — “[It's what you would get] If you took HTTP and made a flowchart of it … and then implement that flowchart.” [23:50]

  • Is Erlang syntax a barrier? [28:39]

Even if functional programming isn’t something you want to do now, keep an eye on it: there’s a lot more coming. There are many options besides Erlang, too!

You can view the entire conversation in the following video:


Sponsored post

June 08 2012

In defense of frivolities and open-ended experiments

My first child was born just about nine months ago. From the hospital window on that memorable day, I could see that it was surprisingly sunny for a Berkeley autumn afternoon. At the time, I'd only slept about three of the last 38 hours. My mind was making up for the missing haze that usually fills the Berkeley sky. Despite my cloudy state, I can easily recall those moments following my first afternoon laying with my newborn son. In those minutes, he cleared my mind better than the sun had cleared the Berkeley skies.

While my wife slept and recovered, I talked to my boy, welcoming him into this strange world and his newfound existence. I told him how excited I was for him to learn about it all: the sky, planets, stars, galaxies, animals, happiness, sadness, laughter. As I talked, I came to realize how many concepts I understand that he lacked. For every new thing I mentioned, I realized there were 10 more that he would need to learn just to understand that one.

Of course, he need not know specific facts to appreciate the sun's warmth, but to understand what the sun is, he must first learn the pyramid of knowledge that encapsulates our understanding of it: He must learn to distinguish self from other; he must learn about time, scale and distance and proportion, light and energy, motion, vision, sensation, and so on.

Anatomy of a sunset

I mentioned time. Ultimately, I regressed to talking about language, mathematics, history, ancient Egypt, and the Pyramids. It was the verbal equivalent of "wiki walking," wherein I go to Wikipedia to look up an innocuous fact, such as the density of gold, and find myself reading about Mesopotamian religious practices an hour later.

It struck me then how incredible human culture, science, and technology truly are. For billions of years, life was restricted to a nearly memoryless existence, at most relying upon brief changes in chemical gradients to move closer to nutrient sources or farther from toxins.

With time, these basic chemo- and photo-sensory apparatuses evolved; creatures with longer memories — perhaps long enough to remember where food sources were richest — possessed an evolutionary advantage. Eventually, the time scales on which memory operates extended longer; short-term memory became long-term memory, and brains evolved the ability to maintain a memory across an entire biological lifetime. (In fact, how the brain coordinates such memories is a core question of my neuroscientific research.)


However, memory did not stop there. Language permitted interpersonal communication, and primates finally overcame the memory limitations of a single lifespan. Writing and culture imbued an increased permanence to memory, impervious to the requirement for knowledge to pass verbally, thus improving the fidelity of memory and minimizing the costs of the "telephone game effect."

We are now in the digital age, where we are freed from the confines of needing to remember a phone number or other arbitrary facts. While I'd like to think that we're using this "extra storage" for useful purposes, sadly I can tell you more about minutiae of the Marvel Universe and "Star Wars" canon than will ever be useful (short of an alien invasion in which our survival as a species is predicated on my ability to tell you that Nightcrawler doesn't, strictly speaking, teleport, but rather he travels through another dimension, and when he reappears in our dimension the "BAMF" sound results from some sulfuric gasses entering our dimension upon his return).

But I wiki-walk digress.

So what does all of this extra memory gain us?

Accelerated innovation.

As a scientist my (hopefully) novel research is built upon the unfathomable number of failures and successes dedicated by those who came before me. The common refrain is that we scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. It is for this reason that I've previously argued that research funding is so critical, even for apparently "frivolous" projects. I've got a Google Doc noting impressive breakthroughs that emerged from research that, on the surface, has no "practical" value:

Although you can't legislate innovation or democratize a breakthrough, you can encourage a system that maximizes the probability that a breakthrough can occur. This is what science should be doing and this is, to a certain extent, what Silicon Valley is already doing.

The more data, information, software, tools, and knowledge available, the more we as a society can build upon previous work. (That said, even though I'm a huge proponent for more data, the most transformational theory from biology came about from solid critical thinking, logical, and sparse data collection.)

Of course, I'm biased, but I'm going to talk about two projects in which I'm involved: one business and one scientific. The first is Uber, an on-demand car service that allows users to request a private car via their smartphone or SMS. Uber is built using a variety of open software and tools such as Python, MySQL, node.js, and others. These systems helped make Uber possible.

Uber screenshot

As a non-engineer, it's staggering to think of the complexity of the systems that make Uber work: GPS, accurate mapping tools, a reliable cellular/SMS system, automated dispatching system, and so on. But we as a culture become so quickly accustomed to certain advances that, should our system ever experience a service disruption, Louis C.K. would almost certainly be prophetic about the response:

The other project in which I'm involved is brainSCANr. My wife and I recently published a paper on this, but the basic idea is that we mined the text of more than three million peer-reviewed neuroscience research articles to find associations between topics and search for potentially missing links (which we called "semi-automated hypothesis generation").

We built the first version of the site in a week, using nothing but open data and tools. The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, provides an API to search all of these manuscripts in their massive, 20-million-paper-plus database. We used Python to process the associations, the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit to plot the data, and Google App Engine to host it all. I'm positive when the NIH funded the creation of PubMed and its API, they didn't have this kind of project in mind.

That's the great thing about making more tools available; it's arrogant to think that we can anticipate the best ways to make use of our own creations. My hope is that brainSCANr is the weakest incarnation of this kind of scientific text mining, and that bigger and better things will come of it.

Twenty years ago, these projects would have been practically impossible, meaning that the amount of labor involved to make them would have been impractical. Now they can be built by a handful of people (or a guy and his pregnant wife) in a week.

Just as research into black holes can lead to a breakthrough in wireless communication, so too can seemingly benign software technologies open amazing and unpredictable frontiers. Who would have guessed that what began with a simple online bookstore would grow into Amazon Web Services, a tool that is playing an ever-important role in innovation and scientific computing such as genetic sequencing?

So, before you scoff at the "pointlessness" of social networks or the wastefulness of "another web service," remember that we don't always do the research that will lead to the best immediate applications or build the company that is immediately useful or profitable. Nor can we always anticipate how our products will be used. It's easy to mock Twitter because you don't care to hear about who ate what for lunch, but I guarantee that the people whose lives were saved after the Haiti earthquake or who coordinated the spark of the Arab Spring are happy Twitter exists.

While we might have to justify ourselves to granting agencies, or venture capitalists, or our shareholders in order to do the work we want to do, sometimes the "real" reason we spend so much of our time working is the same reason people climb mountains: because it's awesome that we can. That said, it's nice to know that what we're building now will be improved upon by our children in ways we can't even conceive.

I can't wait to have this conversation with my son when — after learning how to talk, of course — he's had a chance to build on the frivolities of my generation.


September 08 2011

Master a new skill? Here's your badge

Open Badges ProjectEarning badges for learning new things is an entrenched idea. Legions of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have decorated their sashes with badges, demonstrating their mastery of various skills. A badge is a symbol of personal achievement that's acknowledged by others.

The Mozilla Foundation and Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), among others, are working to create an alternative — and recognized — form of certification that combines merit-earned badges with an open framework. The Open Badges Project will allow skills and competencies to be tracked, assessed, and showcased.

In the interview below, I talk with the project director, Mozilla's Erin Knight (@eknight), about the genesis and goals of the Open Badges initiative.

How did the Open Badges project come about?

Erin Knight: At the core, it's really just a general acknowledgement that learning looks very different today than traditionally imagined. Legitimate and interest-driven learning is occurring through a multitude of channels outside of formal education, and yet much of that learning does not "count" in today's world. There is no real way to demonstrate that learning and transfer it across contexts or use it for real results.

We feel this is where badges can come in — they can provide evidence of learning, regardless of where it occurs or what it involves, and give learners tangible recognition for their skills, achievements, interests and affiliations that they can carry with them and share with key stakeholders, such as potential employers, formal institutions or peer communities.

This problem space is particularly interesting and important to Mozilla for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is our mission to promote the open web, get more people involved in making it and help people capitalize on the benefits and affordances of it. There is so much learning that is occurring, or could occur, through the web — through open education opportunities like P2PU, information hubs like Wikipedia, and even social media. We want to help people capitalize on these opportunities and make this learning count and get them real results.
  2. We also care about supporting and encouraging more people to become open web developers, and much of this learning is typically based on social, informal and personal experiences and work. For example, you may look at someone else's code on github to figure out how to solve a specific problem or tinker on your own to develop a deeper mastery. None of this is taught through a formal curriculum, and in fact, the space moves so quickly that formal curricula are often outdated by the time they can put a syllabus together. We want a way to acknowledge the work and skills of web developers at all stages of their careers, both to motivate them to learn new skills and become better as well as to connect them with jobs and opportunities.

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Tell me about the technology infrastructure behind the Open Badges system. How do you validate a badge?

Erin Knight: One piece of the Open Badges initiative is the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI). This came out of early conversations. We spent a lot of time talking about core aspects of an individual badge system: What are the badges? What does assessment look like? How do we ensure validity? We realized quite quickly that to truly solve the problems we are trying to solve and to support learners wherever they are learning, we were not just talking about a badge system, but a badge ecosystem.

In this ecosystem, there would be many badge issuers offering different types of badges for different learning experiences, and each learner could earn badges across issuers and experiences. This requires that badge systems work together and are interoperable for the learner.

The big missing piece was a core infrastructure that could support a multitude of issuers, allow a learner to collect badges into a single collection tied to his or her identity, and then connect to many display sites or consumers to extend the value of the badges. This middle "plumbing" needs to be open and decentralized because if this is as successful as we all think it can be, we are talking about critical identity information here. It's important that the user remain in complete control.

We're building this to be as open and decentralized as possible. All elements, including the Hub, or main badge manifest repository, and the Backpack(s) — the user interface on the Hub (users will have their own Backpacks showing them all of their badges and allowing them to manage, control and share out badges) — are being built open source and extensible so that anyone can create their own instance. Mozilla will build and host the reference implementations, but we want to support decentralization as much as possible.

We're also working with a large advisory group with representation that spans informal education providers, academia, federal agencies, and development communities to make sure that all of our assumptions and approaches are fully vetted and thought through from multiple perspectives and interests. And finally, we're building this to be as lightweight as possible, especially at this point so early in the game, and pushing the innovation to the edge. This means that issuers completely control and decide what their badges are, how they are earned, and so forth. And on the other end, displayers control how badges are displayed, such as with filters or visualizations, etc. We want the OBI to support innovation, not constrain it in any way.

How do badges benefit learners and badge issuers?

Erin Knight: The OBI supports an open and decentralized badge ecosystem where the value of learning experiences can be extended to very real results very easily. It gives the learners the ability to earn lots of different badges across lots of different experiences and not only combine them into one big collection, but remix them into subgroups to share with specific audiences. This allows learners to tell complete stories about themselves, backed by the badges and the evidence they are linked to.

For the issuers, the platform allows them to support the learners further, extend the value of the opportunities they provide, and promote themselves through the badges. For the displayers, they can pull more information backed by evidence into profiles, job opportunities, etc., as well as discover people based on badges.

Is there a connection between the Open Badges project and gamification?

Erin Knight: There is an element of gamification in all of this in that we've all experienced badges or levels in games, and we know that they can be motivating. That's important. Badges will range from smaller motivational badges, to larger certification-type badges, but as people are designing badge systems, many of the principles of game design do and should apply. Badges from game providers will be important for the ecosystem because they represent reputation, identity and achievement that will be valuable for some users in various contexts.

Where does the Open Badges project go from here?

Erin Knight: We're working on developing a number of badge systems for Mozilla projects, including the School of Webcraft; a partnership with P2PU offering free, open opportunities for web developer training; and Hackasaurus, a program to get youth involved in hacking and building the open web.

On the Open Badge Infrastructure front, the goal is for this to be completely open and accessible to anyone who wants to be an issuer (push badges in) or a displayer/consumer (pull badges out). We are developing and releasing a set of APIs and a badge metadata spec, and we're launching the beta version of the OBI by mid September. It will be a critical feature-complete infrastructure with a number of initial issuers.

Anyone interested in participating in that beta can contact me via Twitter @eknight. We plan to publicly release the OBI, the metadata spec and APIs in early January 2012. At that point, all the documentation and code samples will be there so anyone can plug in. For more information, people can check out MozillaWiki and "An Open Badge System Framework."

This interview was edited and condensed.


May 06 2011

Publishing News: Week in Review

Here are a few highlights from the publishing world. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

Does electronic text disrupt learning techniques?

Kindle DX Pilot Project montage.jpgEreaders are changing the face of reading across the board, and experiments in creating more economic-friendly textbooks for students are increasing. The results, however, are not all positive.

As students attempt to incorporate electronic text into their studies, issues with e-textbooks are starting to emerge — and the problems go beyond poor annotation and sharing tools.

A study at the University of Washington and six other universities in the US involving the use of the larger-format Kindle DX indicated a disconnect between digital text and the way students learn. In a post for Fast Company, Ariel Schwartz cited from the study results:

The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

  • This story continues here. Be sure to check out the interesting discussion in the comments.

Pete Meyers on issues and solutions for browsing digital content

The iPad and other touchscreen devices seem perfect for replicating the page flip. After all, one of the first gestures users "get" is the swipe: it's intuitive, it's quick, it's fun. And despite the power packed into today's tablets, virtual page flipping isn't as useful as its print counterpart. For starters, paging speed is noticeably slower than what you get with a wet pointer finger and the latest issue of, say, People.

A bigger problem lies with a common digital publishing culprit: trying to faithfully replicate all the "features" of print. A regular magazine has pages, the thinking goes, so by golly we're gonna reproduce pages in the digital edition. Lotsa problems with that approach, but for this post let's tackle the "filmstrip"-style page-browser found in many e-magazines. Consider Fortune's, for example:

The "Page Viewer" icons are too small to deliver useful info.

What the average eye can easily decipher in each of these thumbnails is close to, approximately, zero. And once you decide you don't want to read, say, the article about Twitter, why the heck do you have to page through each of the article's other unhelpful icons? The system, in other words, replicates the act of browsing without delivering its essential benefit. You get none of the come-hither signals that are easy to spot on a print page: headlines, pull quotes, pictures, sidebars, and so on.

App designers, my suggestion: don't throw the browser out with the bath water. Instead, a little redesign can satisfy the reader's desire to skim quickly and dive in when something looks worthwhile.

  • This story continues here.

Publishers, it's time to realize Amazon is a competitor

AmazonLogo.pngAmazon has launched is fourth imprint, Montlake Romance, to compete in the romance publishing sector. It's Amazon's first foray into genre-specific publishing, and it looks like that might just be the tip of the iceberg. In a post for the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Trachtenberg interviewed Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing, who said "the online retailer will eventually publish books in other genres, including thrillers, mysteries and science fiction."

In a post for the Guardian, Alison Flood noted a growing wariness in the publishing industry:

Publishers, however, will be eying the retailer's [Amazon's] increased publishing presence uneasily. "Publishers will be concerned Amazon is increasingly encroaching on what they see as 'their' business," said [Graeme Neill, editor at The Bookseller].

Taking a look at Amazon's other three imprints makes traditional publishers' unease understandable. Amazon launched its AmazonEncore imprint in May 2009. The press release described it:

AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon will use information such as customer reviews on to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors with more potential than their sales may indicate. Amazon will then partner with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store,, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.

This is like an indie handselling program on steroids. It gives self-published authors who garner good reviews an opportunity to be represented by a publishing house with millions of customers worldwide.

  • This story continues here.

Photo: From the University of Washington Kindle DX pilot website.

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Keep up with Radar's latest publishing news and interviews with our publishing RSS feed.

May 04 2011

Does digital text create a cognitive gap?

Kindle DX Pilot Project montage.jpgEreaders are changing the face of reading across the board, and experiments in creating more economic-friendly textbooks for students are increasing. The results, however, are not all positive.

As students attempt to incorporate electronic text into their studies, issues with e-textbooks are starting to emerge — and the problems go beyond poor annotation and sharing tools.

A study at the University of Washington and six other universities in the US involving the use of the larger-format Kindle DX indicated a disconnect between digital text and the way students learn. In a post for Fast Company, Ariel Schwartz cited from the study results:

The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

More results from the study are discussed here and here. All seem to point to an opportunity to create different kinds of ebooks and ereaders for use in academia that better accommodate cognition. If the study results hold, companies creating smartphone apps for e-textbooks may want to rethink their efforts.

Photo: From the University of Washington Kindle DX pilot website.


April 11 2011

Play fullscreen
Inclusive Education | Education | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Inclusive Education

Street children in cambodia

Street children in Cambodia

Inclusive education is based on the right of all learners to a quality education that meets basic learning needs and enriches lives. Focusing particularly on vulnerable and marginalized groups, it seeks to develop the full potential of every individual.

The ultimate goal of inclusive quality education is to end all forms of discrimination and foster social cohesion.

Vulnerable and Marginalized Groups

Today, 75 million children are excluded from education. Seven out of ten live in sub-Saharan Africa or South and West Asia. Sixty per cent of them are girls living in Arab States and sixty-six per cent in South and West Asia. The main reasons for exclusion are poverty, gender inequity, disability, child labour, speaking a minority language, belonging to an indigenous people, and living a nomadic or rural lifestyle.

'Vulnerable' and 'marginalised' are loose terms encompassing many different individuals and groups deprived of their right to education. Below is a small selection of groups as well as interventions and publications that identify solutions to their integration.

February 02 2011

Four Short Links: 2 February 2011

  1. Seven Foundational Visualization Papers -- seven classics in the field that are cited and useful again and again.
  2. Git Immersion -- a "walking tour" of Git inspired by the premise that to know a thing is to do it. Cf Learn Python the Hard Way or even NASA's Planet Makeover. We'll see more and more tutorials that require participation because you don't get muscle memory by reading. (NASA link via BoingBoing
  3. Readability -- strips out ads and sends money to the publishers you like. I'd never thought of a business model as something that's imposed from the outside quite like this, but there you go.
  4. Quora's Technology Examined (Phil Whelan) -- In this blog post I will delve into the snippets of information available on Quora and look at Quora from a technical perspective. What technical decisions have they made? What does their architecture look like? What languages and frameworks do they use? How do they make that search bar respond so quickly? Lots of Python. (via Joshua Schachter on Delicious)

November 15 2010

Education's real superheroes assemble

On Monday, November 15, 2010, Steve Hargadon and I are bringing together real superheroes. We've joined forces via our respective education social networks, Classroom 2.0 and the Global Education Collaborative, to showcase best practices in global education using the videoconferencing platform, Elluminate. With more than 350 general sessions and 60 keynote sessions, our colleagues in our personal learning networks will ponder the future of education globally in this completely free and virtual conference.

We've chosen to organize an event that we believe will re-inspire educators in this age of school reform. Never before has it been easier to connect classrooms around the world using technology, and we believe that the cornerstone of our success as a global community lies in students and teachers learning how to connect, communicate and collaborate. The next generation faces increasingly complex problems with world-wide implications, and in order to tackle these challenges, students today must learn to work effectively in our knowledge-based, global economy. These are not simply concerns for education in the United States, but global issues that require open and collaborative engagement that reaches beyond borders.

But what is global education exactly? The term seems to have varying connotations for people. For some, global education relates to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for the world's children. To others, it might mean educating about global social justice issues such as human trafficking and disease prevention. In schools, global education generally has been addressed by providing multicultural experiences to students so that they develop a better understanding of geography and cultures.

The other day I came across some well articulated thoughts on the subject that broaden traditional interpretations of global education. In 2004, Fairleigh Dickinson University President J. Michael Adams reflected on his attempt to define global education in his inaugural address:

Global education can be summarized by connections and perspectives. It's about understanding the nature of the connections that link people from all corners of the globe, and it's about expanding those connections for the betterment of all. It means considering the world as a whole, with a rich (and sometimes unpleasant) interplay of nations and cultures. And it's about introducing ourselves and our students to multiple viewpoints, so we might develop the ability to understand the world through the eyes of others and to work alongside others from different backgrounds.

During the 2010 Global Education Conference, we'll be encouraging our colleagues to ponder their own definitions of global education and to think about how to practically weave global awareness into their teaching as recommended by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills' Framework for 21st Learning. According to the Partnership, academic content is still important in today's classrooms, but teachers need to artfully integrate content with 21st-century themes of global awareness, civic literacy, environmental literacy, health literacy, and financial literacy.

Thought leaders from innovative education-related organizations such as iEARN, ePals, and the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning will be joining us to generously share their work, in addition to more than 300 classroom practitioners and students. This conference offers something for everyone, and it is our hope that participants will be empowered by discovering and exploring a multitude of resources. Technology makes this global online gathering possible, and it's time to start leveraging its power to improve education.

For more information and the full schedule of sessions and keynotes, visit

June 23 2010

Four short links: 23 June 2010

  1. Ira Glass on Being Wrong (Slate) -- fascinating interview with Ira Glass on the fundamental act of learning: being wrong. I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion. Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that's why it's good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17. (via Hacker News)
  2. Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research (PLoSBiology) -- very clear presentation of the problems with the current funding models of scientific research, where the acknowledged best scientists spend most of their time writing funding proposals. K.'s plight (an authentic one) illustrates how the present funding system in science eats its own seed corn. To expect a young scientist to recruit and train students and postdocs as well as producing and publishing new and original work within two years (in order to fuel the next grant application) is preposterous.
  3. jQTouch Roadmap -- interesting to me is the primary distinction between Sencha and jQTouch, namely that jQT is for small devices (phones) only, while Sencha handles small and large (tablet) touch-screen devices. (via Simon St Laurent)
  4. Travel Itineraries from Flickr Photo Trails (Greg Linden) -- clever idea, to use metadata extracted from Flickr photos (location, time, etc.) to construct itineraries for travellers, saying where to go, how long to spend there, and how long to expect to spend getting from place to place. Another story of the surprise value that can be extracted from overlooked data.

April 21 2010


Man kommt in den vollen Hörsaal. Man kann sein eigenes Wort kaum verstehen, weil alle miteinander reden und voller Energie sind. Aber plötzlich hat man absolutes Schweigen. In dem Moment, an dem ich ans Pult trete, ist es absolut still.

Das ist doch beeindruckend.

Ja, aber ich frage mich in dem Moment auch: Was hat ihre Seelen geholt? Was diszipliniert sie derart, dass ein kleines Männlein wie ich sie verstummen lässt? Wer hat ihnen das angetan?

Anthropologe des Web 2.0 über das Lernen: "Wissen vermitteln ist primitiv" -
Reposted fromhenteaser henteaser viasofias sofias

February 17 2010

Augmented reality and the ultimate user manual

Most user manuals are worthless. They're chock full of poorly written text and confusing diagrams. Worse still, the gap between problem and solution is vast because we're forced to apply a linear format (a guide) to a specific question. Where's a search box when you need it?

But here's an idea: What if instead of leafing through pages or scrolling through an online manual, you could simply see your way through a task? Just slide on a headset and work your way through a bit of customized, augmented-reality education.

That's what Columbia University computer science professor Steve Feiner and Ph.D. candidate Steve Henderson are trying to do with their Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair (ARMAR) project. They're combining sensors, head-worn displays, and instruction to address the military's maintenance needs. Take a look at this project video and you'll quickly see how the same application could extend to all sorts of use cases:

In the following Q&A, Feiner and Henderson discuss the genesis of ARMAR and its practical applications. They also offer a few tips for anyone who wants to develop their own AR-based instructional project.

Mac Slocum: What inspired ARMAR?

Steve Feiner: ARMAR was inspired in part by earlier research projects that we have done in Columbia's Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab, investigating how augmented reality could be used for maintenance and assembly tasks.

This work dates back to 1991, when we began work on KARMA (Knowledge-Based Augmented Reality for Maintenance Assistance). The earliest work on ARMAR itself began in 2006, with initial funding from the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, when Steve Henderson began his Ph.D. studies at Columbia.

Our application domain of the LAV-25 light armored vehicle turret was the result of funding from the U.S. Marine Corps Logistics Base, beginning in 2007, to investigate how AR might be applied to future field maintenance of military vehicles.

MS: Is ARMAR in active use?

Steve Feiner: ARMAR is a research project and has not been deployed.

MS: Can you walk me through the ARMAR user experience?

Steve Henderson: The user can see five kinds of augmented content presented on the see-through head-worn display:

  1. Attention-directing information in the form of 3D and 2D arrows, explaining the location of the next task to perform.
  2. Text instructions describing the task and accompanying notes and warnings.
  3. Registered labels showing the location of each target component and surrounding context.
  4. A close-up view depicting a 3D virtual scene centered on the target at close range and rendered on a 2D screen-fixed panel.
  5. 3D models of tools (e.g. a screwdriver) and task domain components (e.g. fasteners or larger components), if applicable, registered at their current or target locations in the environment.

MS: What tools and technologies does it employ?

ARMAR being used by a MarineSteve Henderson: The initial implementation of ARMAR was built as a game engine mod using the Valve Source Software Development Kit. Over the past semester, ARMAR has been reimplemented using Goblin XNA, our lab's open-source platform for developing augmented reality applications.

Steve Feiner: We also take advantage of a wide range of head-worn displays and tracking systems available in Columbia's Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab. These include a custom video see-through head-worn display that Steve Henderson built specifically for use in the project (using a Headplay display and two Point Grey Firefly MV cameras), a Vuzix iWear VR920 with CamAR video see-through head-worn display, and an NVIS nVisor ST 60 optical see-through head-worn display. The tracking technologies that we use include InterSense IS900 and IS1200 hybrid trackers, NaturalPoint OptiTrack IR optical tracking, and the VTT ALVAR optical marker tracking package.

We typically run the application and head-worn display on a desktop PC with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 graphics card. When applicable, we run the NaturalPoint OptiTrack on a separate laptop. But, there's no reason why the application itself couldn't run on a high-end laptop.

In addition, there are now wireless HDMI solutions that could be used to effectively cut the cable from the computer to the head-worn display, eliminating the physical connection to the computers.

ARMAR is a research testbed, and not a ready-to-deploy production system. Therefore, we are free to explore different combinations of technologies, without having to commit to them as part of a turnkey solution.

MS: The video shows what appears to be the G1 mobile phone. Is that an input device?

Steve Henderson: The Android G1 phone is used as a wrist-worn controller that displays a simple set of 2D controls and detects user gestures made on the touch screen. Gestures are streamed to the computer running ARMAR through Wi-Fi. The G1 allows the user to move between maintenance steps, and control the explanatory animations that the system can present -- starting and stopping them, and changing the speed at which they play.

MS: How small can you make ARMAR?

Steve Feiner: Our emphasis has been on developing a research testbed in which we can design and formally evaluate the effectiveness of new ways to assist mechanics in learning and performing maintenance tasks. Therefore, we haven't had to worry about choosing specific hardware on which a production-quality implementation could be fielded right now, let alone making it really small.

That said, Moore's Law, in concert with competitive hardware development and strong consumer demand for ever smaller and more powerful devices that can support 3D games, is driving down the size and cost of the mobile devices on which ARMAR and its descendants will be able to run. And, the capability for transmitting wireless high-resolution video could also help eliminate the need for cables to/from the head-worn display, eventually allowing the system to use eyewear that looks much like current glasses. These could be connected wirelessly to a small smartphone-sized waist-worn computer, or even to a nearby stationary computer whose size then becomes much less important.

MS: Could something like ARMAR be ported to mobile phones? Could it exist as an app?

Steve Henderson: Yes. But, note that an app that used a current mobile phone's built-in camera and display, held in the user's hand, won't accommodate many tasks in which the maintainer needs to devote both hands to the task itself. As mobile phones mature, however, we believe they will soon be designed to interface with -- or even be built into -- tracked eyewear, making them an ideal platform for ARMAR.

MS: What's been the most challenging aspect of development?

Steve Henderson: It's been challenging to track the user's head within the cramped confines of the turret. We do not have a full replica of the turret in our lab, and were not able to permanently install any tracking infrastructure in the actual turrets where we did our studies.

Using stereo video see-through head-worn displays under Direct3D has also been challenging. There are no explicit provisions for stereo in Direct3D and the formal support for stereo displays provided by graphics card vendors does not address merging rendered graphics with separate left-eye and right-eye video. We were lucky to have NVIDIA provide us with an unsupported software development kit for handling this on their graphics cards.

MS: Has anything gone smoother than you anticipated?

Steve Henderson: Our recent reimplementation of ARMAR using the GoblinXNA framework has gone very smoothly. Our initial prototype design, which leveraged the Valve Source software development kit, required custom implementations of several core functions required for augmented reality applications (e.g., tracking and camera control). GoblinXNA provides these functions implicitly, which has allowed us to spend more time on the design of the actual augmented reality interface. Additionally, implementation of the wrist-worn controller was very straight forward using the Android Software Development Kit and Eclipse Integrated Development Environment.

MS: Do you see applications in other industries?

Steve Feiner: There are many potential applications of AR to explaining industrial tasks, in both training and production. Essentially, it could be used in any domain in which personnel use conventional documentation, ranging from paper manuals to computer-based electronic manuals.

MS: How about consumer use?

Steve Henderson: There are many day-to-day tasks in which consumers currently need to consult written or computer-based instructions. Think of assembling a bicycle or a piece of furniture, making a complex recipe, wiring a home entertainment center, or fixing a balky lawnmower. These are just some examples of tasks in which systems like ARMAR could make the task easier and faster to perform, and make it more likely that it's performed correctly.

MS: If someone wants to pursue a similar project, what guidance would you give them? What should they watch out for? Where should they start?

Steve Feiner: It's important to be aware of, learn from, and build on relevant ongoing and past work. Researchers have been exploring AR and publishing their work for over 40 years, beginning with Ivan Sutherland's research on head-tracked see-through head-worn displays.

The leading conference in this field -- the IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality, and its direct predecessors -- dates back to 1998. So, we would strongly recommend that someone who wanted to develop a similar project (or, for that matter, any AR project) become familiar with what others have done before, to find out what worked and what didn't.

It's also important to have a close working relationship with subject-matter experts in the field in which the application will be developed and to be able to run user tests with the members of the population for whom the system is being designed.

MS: What's the next step in making this technology more widely available?

Steve Feiner: In the work we reported on at IEEE ISMAR 2009, we showed how AR made it possible to locate maintenance tasks to perform more quickly than state-of-the-art electronic documentation. And, we're now concentrating on improving users' speed and accuracy in performing tasks that involve orienting and positioning parts during assembly and disassembly. Making the technologies on which we're working available to others will involve additional funding to address other domains and to make robust production implementations of the software.

January 04 2010

Working Together to Create a National Learning Community

When Jack Hidary told me about National Lab Day, I got chills. The tag line for National Lab Day is: A National Barn-Raising for Hands-On Learning. Using the internet and social computing technologies, with the support of the White House and the business and scientific communities, National Lab Day reaches out to the education community, providing a tool set that brings context, community, and passion to education, and that has the potential to transform our educational system into a true learning community.

How does this work exactly?

1. Teachers, scientists, organizations, and individual volunteers are invited to go to: National Lab Day
2. From there, follow the track that best identifies how you would like to contribute. Or, you can simply browse existing projects.

As you browse, you might come across the teacher in Couer D’Alene, Idaho, wanting to build a working model of a river watershed. Or, the Levittown, New York, teacher wanting help with a project on Superconductivity. You’ll find a teacher in Chicago, Illinois, working with students to design, build and test bridges, and seeking engineers and Department of Transportation contacts.

On the National Lab Day website, educators enter hands-on learning projects, listing the resources needed, both human and otherwise, that can bring these projects to life. Matchmaking services are available on the site to support these hands-on learning projects. The Radar and Make communities are a match made in heaven.

As National Lab Day scales, a national hands-on learning curriculum will begin to take shape.

Research shows that hands-on learning is powerful and effective. In the well-meaning efforts to create standards in education, context, creativity, and our natural inclinations to explore and play, have been replaced with mountains of homework and a curriculum that is unlikely to effectively prepare youth for the 21st century.

In schools, failure is stigmatized, emotionally disabling, and has become a label and a measure rather than part of a feedback system supporting iteration and exploration. The most productive scientists and inventors will tell you that they fail constantly, all day long. Each failure informs them, guides them toward a new direction, a new hunch, a new possibility. With hands-on learning, failure is iteration, in the spirit of how the most accomplished scientists and inventors work.

In the somewhat misguided efforts to “teacher proof” the educational system, we have lost what good teachers bring to the system: passion, curiosity, love of learning, and an ability to create a learning ecosystem in a classroom, a school and a community. Think about what touched you most in school. At a dinner discussing education with a number of Silicon Valley CEO’s, to a person, the most significant memories were those of passionate teachers as role models.

We don’t find our passions. They find us. Not through hours of homework and standardized tests; rather, through engagement, exploration and in context learning. According to Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, highly successful people have a rich play life. Brown further suggests that play is a “biological necessity, contributing to the learning of emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and continuing curiosity….(many) other life benefits accrue largely through rich developmentally appropriate play experiences.

An adult who has “lost” what was a playful youth and doesn’t play will demonstrate social, emotional and cognitive narrowing, be less able to handle stress, and often experience a smoldering depression.”

Brown talks about the value of recalling your play history. You can take time to do that here.

National Lab Day has the potential to revitalize a national learning community by offering an infrastructure to facilitate the spirit of play and exploration in our classrooms, schools and communities.

While there have been efforts in the past to encourage hands-on learning, the sheer scale of the consortium gathering around National Lab Day gives it the potential to have a profound transformational impact on education and learning. Respected scientific communities and organizations, including: ACS, IEEE, AAAS and 100+ other scientific societies will be promoting this effort to their members.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have kicked in the capital to get the project going.

In addition to the White House, other key federal agencies have joined in, including: NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Teachers Association and the National Education Association are supporting this effort as are a growing number of companies, including Microsoft and Texas Instruments. O’Reilly and Make have contributed project guides to National Lab Day.

Please join in! Click on the links, join the movement, and lend your energy, skills, or resources to renew education and learning for the 21st century.

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