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February, 2011

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.

February, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Robots Invade Upstate New York

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    On a chilly autumn day, robots descended on Altamont Elementary School in Altamont, New York. Were the students terrified? Far from it: they were enchanted and energized, as they explored the realm of social robotics under the guidance of Jennifer Goodall and Katy DeCorah of the University at Albany-State University of New York (UAlbany). Goodall and DeCorah presented UAlbany's Social Robotics Workshop, an innovative program designed to introduce K-12 students to the roles that robots might play in the future and to excite young people about technology in general.

    The brainchild of Goodall, assistant dean of the Department of Informatics, and Nick Webb, senior research scientist at the university's Institute for Informatics, Logics Security Studies, the Social Robotics Workshop introduces students to the core concepts of robotics and enables them to experiment with robots and to program simple interactive behaviors. Built around the "sense, plan, act" paradigm-an approach that dates from the earliest days of robotics-the workshop challenges the students to program robots with personalities. For example, students might program their robots to politely say "Excuse me!" when they bump into someone, or they might have their robots convey annoyance through an angry expression on the "face" screen.

    "Exercises using these software platforms allow students ... to try simple social robotic experiments, such as talking, indicating primitive emotions and simple vision exercises," said Goodall. The program clicks with students in large part because they can see a real connection between their simple experiments and future robotics applications. Moreover, working with the robots inspires the students to learn more about computer science and engineering, which is the key goal of the workshop. 

    NCWIT Seed Fund AwardFunding for the Social Robotics Workshop comes from the National Center for Women & Information Technology Academic Alliance Seed Fund, which is sponsored by Microsoft Research Connections, the division of Microsoft Research that collaborates with academia to help shape the future of computing. The Seed Fund provides grants "to develop and implement initiatives for recruiting and retaining women in computer science and information technology fields of study."  

    The Social Robotics Workshop is one of 19 projects that have received grants since the inception of the Seed Fund in 2007. To date, grants totaling more than $315,000 have been awarded. The UAlbany initiative was one of three to receive grants in round six of the Seed Fund. In the recently completed round seven of the competition, five projects won grants of $10,000 each. The winning initiatives range from programs to encourage women undergrads to major in computer science to a two-week summer outreach program aimed at high schoolers. 

    Back at Altamont, the success of the Social Robotics Workshop is confirmed in the thank-you notes from the students. "Dear Jen," wrote one of the young experimenters, "Thank you for helping us program our robots. It was much easier with your help. I like the way you broke it down into steps. It made it much easier. It was exciting to work with robots. It felt like we were real scientists! When I go to collage [sic] I want to do robots. THANK YOU!"

    —Jane Prey, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    WorldWide Telescope: The Interactive Sky on Your Desktop

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    A free, interactive virtual learning environment, WorldWide Telescope enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope. Through its interactive dashboard, you can browse high-resolution imagery from the best ground and space-based telescopes, giving you a visually powerful perspective of the size, scale, and features of the universe. Curtis Wong, principal researcher for Microsoft Research eScience and co-creator of WorldWide Telescope, demonstrated some of the capabilities of this versatile technology at TEDxCaltech on January 14, 2011.

    —Curtis Wong, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research eScience

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    Registration Now Open for Microsoft Biology Foundation Workshop

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    Microsoft Biology FoundationWe recently posted a preview of the Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF) for development evaluation purposes. Now, we're following up with a special, free, one-day MBF workshop on March 11, 2011, in Redmond, Washington, hosted by the Microsoft Biology Initiative. The workshop includes a quick introduction to Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, the Microsoft .NET Framework, C#, and the MBF Object Model. Plus, our hands-on lab will give you the opportunity to write a sample application that employs the file parsers, algorithms, and web connectors in MBF.

    We will also cover some MBF training modules throughout the day, including:

    • Module 1: Introduction to Visual Studio 2010 and C#. This comprehensive introduction to the Microsoft Visual Studio programming environment and Microsoft .NET will teach you how to create a project, how to get started with C#, and how to perform runtime debugging. Also, you will get hands-on lab experience by building applications in Visual Studio 2010.
    • Module 2: Introduction to the Microsoft Biology Foundation. This overview will introduce you to the MBF basics through discussions of its scenarios and architectures and includes a starter project. The starter project is a hands-on lab that will help you get the experience you need to work with sequences, parsers, formatters, and the transcription algorithm that is supplied in MBF.
    • Module 3: Working with Sequences. In this module, you'll learn more about the Sequence data type in MBF, including how to load sequences into memory and save them, the different sequence types available, how to use sequence metadata, and how data virtualization support enables support for large data sets in a hands-on lab setting.
    • Module 4: Parsers and Formatters. In Parsers and Formatters, you'll explore MBF's built-in sequence parsers, formatters, alphabets, and encoders. This module will also introduce the method of expanding MBF with custom alphabets, parsers, and formatters. The hands-on lab will walk you through the steps that are required to build a simple custom parser and formatter for a fabricated biology data format.
    • Module 5: Algorithms. In this module, you will examine the algorithms that are defined in MBF for sequence alignment, multi-sequence alignment, sequence fragment assembly, transcription, translation, and pattern matching against sequences; you'll also learn how to create custom algorithms. The hands-on lab will walk you through the steps that are required to build an application to run algorithms against sequences loaded with MBF and will teach you how to perform sequence alignment, assembly, and transformations.
    • Module 6: Web Services. This module will introduce Microsoft .NET web services, the web service architecture in MBF, the built-in web service support in MBF for BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool), and ClustalW. You will also learn how to call these services asynchronously and will watch a detailed example of how to build custom service wrappers. In the hands-on lab, you'll build an application that executes the BLAST algorithm by using web services against handlers for BLAST, pass sequences and sequence fragments to BLAST, change the BLAST parameters, and display the results from a BLAST run.

    We hope you will join us for this free one-day event. Whether your goal is to get trained on MBF or simply to evaluate MBF and its Microsoft .NET model, you can expect to get a tremendous return on your time investment.

    For complete details about the day, or to register, please see the MBF Workshop website. We look forward to meeting you on March 11 in Redmond.

    —Beatriz Diaz Acosta, Senior Research Program Manager, Health and Wellbeing, Microsoft Research Connections

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