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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Enhancing learning through the cloud

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    Most parents want their children to have access to the best educational opportunities at schools with broad, enriching curricula. Students attending such schools may find themselves challenged with finding sufficient time to study any one subject adequately—in or out of the classroom. MyCloud, an innovative e-learning platform developed by Microsoft Research Asia, helps solve this problem by providing students and teachers with an interactive space for collaboration, exploration, and enrichment.

    Students from Singapore Nan Chiau primary school, which has been using the MyCloud e-learning platform since 2011 for Chinese language instruction.
    Students from Singapore Nan Chiau primary school, which has been using the MyCloud e-learning platform since 2011 for Chinese language instruction.

    Originally developed to assist in teaching Chinese to students in Singapore, MyCloud is a web-based, interactive platform that allows teachers and students to extend learning beyond the classroom. Students can use a tablet, smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer to access the platform and complete assignments. Having grown up with technology, today’s students are very comfortable with using it in an educational setting; in fact, the high-tech aspect of this innovative platform captures students’ attention and interest, promoting engagement and fueling an intrinsic motivation to excel academically.

    By using MyCloud, teachers can upload assigned lessons directly, knowing that their students can readily access their assignments and easily follow their instructions. It also enables teachers to upload supplemental activities and lessons, thereby complementing and expanding upon the material covered during limited classroom time. These supplemental activities not only broaden and enhance course content; they allow students to learn at their own pace, as the student controls MyCloud. Students can take uploaded tests on the e-learning platform to help them assess their progress with their studies. And the audio component is particularly valuable to students who are learning a foreign language, as they can practice their speaking and listening skills and readily learn new vocabulary. Video uploads will soon be added to promote students’ learning even further.

    The value of this e-learning platform is evident at Nan Chiau Primary School in Singapore, which has been using it since 2011 for Chinese language instruction. Teachers at Nan Chiau understand that students must complete time-consuming exercises to learn Chinese vocabulary and tonal inflections, but the time allotted for classroom instruction is limited. MyCloud has allowed the students to pursue their mastery of Chinese on their own time and at their own pace, reinforcing the significance of the rate at which individuals learn, while enhancing students’ enjoyment of learning. Students have shown increased proficiency in Chinese language as a result of using the e-learning platform, and Microsoft’s partnership with Nan Chiau Primary School demonstrates how schools can successfully use its technology to enhance learning and empower students.

    —Winnie Cui, Microsoft Research Asia, Senior UR Manager

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    FetchClimate—harnessing the cloud to find and share environmental data

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    Scientists around the world are striving tirelessly to monitor and model the environment—to understand the intricate workings of our ecosystem—so that policymakers can make informed decisions that lead to a sustainable future for “spaceship Earth.” This research involves using the thousands of available environmental datasets, on everything from agriculture and biodiversity to climate and the oceans. But finding, browsing, choosing, and downloading the right data can be ridiculously hard, even for the experts.

    What if finding environmental data were as simple as clicking on a map?

    Draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds
    Draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds

    Enter FetchClimate, a tool that makes locating environmental information as easy as searching for a hotel or coffee shop online. Just draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds. What used to take researchers hours, days, or even weeks can now be done very quickly—by anyone. When possible, FetchClimate calculates data uncertainty, so you know how reliable the information is, and the tool allows you to specify precisely the size of the area and the period of time for your query.

    FetchClimate runs in the cloud, on Microsoft Azure, meaning there is no physical limit on how much information can be added. You can not only look at historical climate data but also peer into the future, as we have included forecast data from the latest climate simulation experiments. For example, you can see what the predicted temperature or precipitation in your area will be in 2050.

    Visualization of year-to-year precipitation averages in southern Asia
    Visualization of year-to-year precipitation averages in southern Asia

    The Computational Ecology and Environmental Science group in Microsoft Research has spent several years developing FetchClimate, working with Moscow State University, which provided software development, and the DigiLab at the London College of Communication, which designed an interface that makes finding and understanding environmental information stress-free. So we’re excited to be releasing FetchClimate—in three different ways—for anyone to use for research, study, or just to satisfy their curiosity about our planet.

    • First, anyone can access our own FetchClimate service via a web explorer, which features a number of useful climatological layers, including temperature, precipitation, and sea depth. (If you would like to make your information and data easily available within our service, please contact us. We are interested in augmenting our current climate and environmental data with socio-economic and health information—or any other global information best viewed on a map.)
    • Second, you can access the same service via an API, from inside a program written in any of several languages, including .NET, R, and Python.
    • And third, we’re releasing a deployment package so that the more technically savvy of you can set up your own FetchClimate-powered service to make your data available to your colleagues, and to the wider world, via the same web explorer that runs over our own service. We’ll soon be open sourcing that explorer portion of the deployment, so you can customize or skin it how you like (all we ask is that you acknowledge that the service is powered by FetchClimate).

    The deployment package will be attractive to individuals, research teams, national laboratories, and international collaborations who are used to dealing with geographical data and are keen to share it with colleagues and the outside world in a more dynamic way. For example, Ireland’s Marine Institute has created the Irish Digital Ocean–SMART Marine Research Platform to stimulate collaborative research across the marine sector. As Eoin O’Grady, Information Services & Development Manager at the Marine Institute, explains, “FetchClimate greatly simplifies access to scientific data, promoting reuse. We see it as an excellent way to share Irish marine research data, part of the Irish Digital Ocean, with a broad range of users in the marine community, to support research and innovation and as input into public information services."

    In addition, we are currently sponsoring a special Climate Data Initiative that offers grants of Microsoft Azure resources to help early adopters set up their own FetchClimate-powered services. Using the deployment package, you will be able to implement your own instance of FetchClimate, including your datasets and a web front end that is customized for your own site—and we’ll provide the space on Azure! If you would like to pursue this, please submit a proposal by June 15, 2014. We will be selecting 40 awardees from among these proposals.

    We created FetchClimate as a way to turn data into actionable information, and to make that information easily available to the world. There are some exciting features that we haven’t discussed here (hint: what if you could upload a model, not just data?), and FetchClimate is just one of several exciting tools for environmental science that we are developing. All of these tools illustrate how, with a bit of imagination, we can begin to deliver research-as-a-service on Microsoft Azure. We hope these tools will help scientists, policymakers, and the public become more informed and better equipped to take care of our planet.

    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research

    Kristin Tolle, Director of Environmental Science Infrastructure Development, Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Inspiring female hackers in Brazil

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    Some people find the push to excel from within themselves—no external motivators necessary. Professor Rosiane de Freitas is one such woman, constantly looking for a challenge, continually pushing herself to the limit. After earning her PhD in systems engineering and computing from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, she joined the Institute of Computing of the Federal University of Amazonas (ICOMP/UFAM), where she teaches and conducts research in combinatorial optimization and graph theory.

    On top of the rigors of her academic life, Rosiane is an avid diver, hiker, and, mountaineer, as adept with an ice axe as she is with an algorithm.On top of the rigors of her academic life, Rosiane is an avid diver, hiker, and, mountaineer, as adept with an ice axe as she is with an algorithm. In fact, she is an active member of Women on the Mountain, an organization of female Brazilian mountain climbers, and the mountains she has scaled include Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas!

    When she isn’t climbing Andean mountains, Rosiane is busy conquering virtual ones. She is passionate about the potential of computer science and technology to empower results that cut across disciplines and can have an immense, beneficial impact on society. Wanting her students to understand the endless possibilities and opportunities of technology, Rosiane leads both the Amazon State Informatics Olympics and Programming Marathon. Because of her desire to increase the number of women in computer science programs, she made sure that UFAM was the first Brazilian university to take part in last year’s inaugural International Women’s Hackathon, mentoring a group of girls who participated in the event. It was great for the girls—and even better for the school, since it sparked discussions about the importance of gender diversity in technology careers. This year, Rosiane has inspired other female students to participate in the International Women’s Hackathon 2014.

    Please read on for a firsthand account of Rosiane’s experience.

    —Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

     

    Mommy's BeneFITIt was an interesting and inspiring experience to participate in the First International Women’s Hackathon in 2013. We were the only site in Brazil to field a team of young female university students. Ludymila, Mariane, Bruna, and Ingrid, undergraduate students in computer science and computer engineering at the Institute of Computing of the Federal University of Amazonas (ICOMP/UFAM), developed Mommy's BeneFIT: a mobile application aimed at keeping women physically fit during pregnancy.

    Although it wasn’t easy to organize a competition of this magnitude, the assistance of people from Microsoft Research—especially Rane Johnson and Juliana Salles—and the support of colleagues at ICOMP/UFAM and such partner institutions as INdT-Manaus simplified the task. As did the strong interest and high motivation of the young women, who had to dedicate time to the competition amidst the demands of exams, other science projects, and a heavy class load. In addition, they had only limited experience with the development platform used in the competition.

    Computer science and computer engineering undergrads at ICOMP/UFAM—Ingrid, Ludymila, Bruna, and Mariane—developed a mobile application to help women stay physically fit during pregnancy

    Computer science and computer engineering undergrads at ICOMP/UFAM—Ingrid, Ludymila, Bruna, and Mariane—developed a mobile application to help women stay physically fit during pregnancy.

    These intrepid young women shrugged off the obstacles, learning to manage their time and develop mobile apps for Windows Phone, identifying a suitable target app (one that was either unavailable on the market or whose current solution could be improved), learning about the target market, developing a functional app and testing it with users, and creating a promotional video that highlighted the best features of their solution. Thus, they played the roles of software engineers, software analysts, user experience designers, graphics designers, programmers, and marketing designers.

    ICOMP/UFAM team members work on developing their mobile app.As Ludymila observed, "It was a lot of work for three months, but it really helped us grow as professionals and gave us a wider view of our field of work. It was useful in making some personal decisions about which field to specialize in for the future." The example of these four women has inspired other female students to sign up for this year’s event, hoping to repeat the success of their pioneering colleagues. We teachers have also been motivated, gaining an even deeper commitment to participation in the upcoming International Women’s Hackathon 2014!

    —Rosiane de Freitas, Professor of Computer Science, UFAM

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