Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

September, 2007

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

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    It's been about a week now since Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon gave his last lecture. In high school and middle school computer science Randy is best known for being the person behind Alice - the graphical virtual reality programming environment. Alice is a very powerful and fun tool for teaching programming concepts.

    Randy is dying from pancreatic cancer which is why this was his last lecture. While a lot of people linked to his lecture (here) right away I have been holding off. I've been processing. There is a lot in this lecture. The hour and a half goes fast - in some ways too fast - and I've listened to parts of it a couple of times. As I was listening to some of it again yesterday I thought "if one was going to make an inspiring movie about the life of a computer scientist this would be the life to do it on."

    It's a story of someone with hopes and dreams and a sense of fun overcoming obstacles (Randy calls them "brick walls") to achieve their dreams. And it is about having fun. All to often we tend to think of university faculty as dry, stiff boring people. That is the media's fault I think. The faculty members I have met (and I've met a lot of them in the last  few years) all seem to have a sense of humor and wide ranging interests even beyond their field of study. One can see that in Randy's talk.

    Randy also talks about the influence of one of his teachers and mentors - Andries (Andy) van Dam of Brown University. Andy is one of the giants in the field of computer science. He can be awfully intimidating (trust me - I've seen that in person) but he is also a great teacher who inspires others, who pushes them the get the most of things and he has a great sense of fun. Good teachers are like that I think. The video at the CMU site includes some words from Andy Van Dam that the Google video site doesn't BTW.

    Anyway I highly recommend the video of Randy Pausch's last lecture to anyone. Randy shows how people in computer science can achieve lots of goals including some we don't normally associate with computer science - things like being weightless or becoming a Disney Imagineer. Really cool stuff.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Heavyweight or Lightweight User Interfaces

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    We're all pretty used to search engine interfaces being pretty simple and lightweight these days. A simple input box, a couple of buttons, and a simple list of output for results. But what else might a search engine interface look like? Well there are a couple of other, definitely non-traditional, interfaces out there to compare.

    One of them is Ms Dewey. Now Ms Dewey has been around for a couple of months but if you haven't seen the sight it is worth a look if only to talk about it. Ms Dewey is a search engine site that features an attractive and occasionally abrasive female avatar that takes your questions and provides answers. It's an interesting site but I find myself asking questions in part to see what her response will be. Ask about "guns" some time. Actually several times as she has different replies to that one. Searches for "Bill Gates" or "Microsoft" are also kind of interesting. But is it more than a novelty?

    Tafiti is another skin over a search engine.

    Tafiti, which means "do research" in Swahili, is an experimental search front-end from Microsoft, designed to help people use the Web for research projects that span multiple search queries and sessions by helping visualize, store, and share research results. Tafiti uses both Microsoft Silverlight and Live Search to explore the intersection of richer experiences on the Web and the increasing specialization of search.

    Currently it has a Halo 3 look because Halo 3 launched this week. (I've got my copy so I wrote this earlier in the week to make it look like I wasn't playing games today.) Tafiti lets you save searches and there are different icons to switch between searching the web, RSS feeds, images and the news. Its an interesting experiment.

    I see these sites as more tour de force than ideal user interfaces. Of course it is a common student failing to spend more time trying to impress the instructor with a fancy user interface than putting real results into the behind the scenes code. On the other hand once you have the behind the scenes stuff in place there can be a lot of value into finding new and interesting ways to provide the results.

    So I can see using these sites as a way to discuss the whole idea of what makes a good user interface and were are the lines between form and function.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Global Challenge - A STEM Competition

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    The Global Challenge is an interesting competition for high school students. From the website:

    In the Global Challenge, teams of US high school students collaborate with international counterparts from October to May to address global climate change and compete for prizes and scholarship awards!

    International teams of four high school students (2 U.S. and 2 from another country) work together over the Internet to identify a solution that addresses some aspect of climate change and the future of energy.

    This is a program that has been running for a number of years that works to get students to apply what they know (and encourage them to learn more) and science and technology by applying it to global problems. Besides the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math I love the international aspect of this. Creating and working with teams in different countries is a "real life" experience that can't help but contribute to future career success. And of course  to international understanding. A lot of great goals wrapped up into a fun and interesting change to win prizes.

    They have a poster - a PDF file you can print out and display - available here.

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