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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.

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    Looking skyward: WWT Digital Dome project brings planetariums to Chinese schools

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    WorldWide Telescope | Digital Dome: Stargazing goes high tech for schools in China

    About 10 months ago, China’s first planetarium driven by the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) was launched at the Shixinlu primary school. Powered by six high-resolution projectors, the 8-meter dome installation has enabled students not only to see and study the stars and the universe in an immersive planetarium setting, but it also has allowed them to create their own tours of the heavens and have them displayed on the dome.

    That installation marked the beginning of the WWT Digital Dome project in China, a project that aims to add WWT-driven planetariums to schools at every level—from primary through university. Currently, three primary schools and three universities are constructing or are committed to building a WWT Digital Dome, and three additional universities and the Beijing Planetarium have expressed strong interest in hosting a Digital Dome installation.

    The WWT Digital Dome installation at Shixinlu primary school
    The WWT Digital Dome installation at Shixinlu primary school

    Recognizing the teaching potential of this growing network of WWT Digital Dome installations, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), Central China Normal University (CCNU), and Chongqing Wutai Technology Co. Ltd are working to form an alliance among the WWT planetariums. This alliance will enable the various schools to share their experiences with the WWT Digital Dome—including tricks and tips for using the hardware and software.

    More importantly, the alliance will allow participating schools to exchange key takeaways about developing curriculum and tours based on Digital Dome content. This pedagogical cross-fertilization is already taking shape with the design of WWT curricula for primary and secondary schools. There are now 16 WWT courses for primary and secondary schools, including 22 modules for primary schools, 33 modules for middle schools, and 26 modules for high schools. More than 2,000 students have been taught by using these courses.

    In addition, dozens of guided tours have been completed at the primary school and secondary school level, covering such basic astronomical concepts as “Exploring our Family—the Earth,” “Understanding the Galaxy and the Universe,” and “Viewing the Seasonal Stars.” Meanwhile, advanced tours—which take advantage of the Layerscape (a WWT add-in for Excel that enables users to visualize spatial data)—are being prepared for high schools and colleges. And a community of WWT users in Beijing has begun integrating traditional Chinese constellation images into the WWT astronomical data sets, providing a unique cultural link between the past and present.

    Seeking to build on these educational efforts, from July 29 to 30, Microsoft Research, NAOC, and CCNU sponsored a WWT training workshop in Chongqing, our fourth such collaborative workshop. The event, which took place at the Shixinlu primary school, drew more than 30 faculty members from every level of schooling—primary, secondary, and higher education.

    Dr. Cuilan Qiao's talk covered basic and advanced features of the WorldWide Telescope.
    Dr. Cuilan Qiao's talk covered basic and advanced features of the WorldWide Telescope.

    During the first day of this intense, tightly focused event, I gave a talk on the history of WWT in China and introduced one of Microsoft Research’s latest teaching tools: Office Mix, a tool for creating compelling online lessons. Then Dr. Chenzhou Cui of NAOC gave an overview of the Chinese Virtual Observatory—a project that aims to create a data-intensive, online astronomical research and education platform—and WWT’s potential role in this national effort. This was followed by a presentation from Dr. Cuilan Qiao and her team from CCNU, who introduced the attendees to WWT’s basic and advanced features.

    On day two, we focused on the WWT Digital Dome, showing how it can be an invaluable teaching tool. The day’s events included a WWT video designed by students and faculty from the Shixinlu school, as well as talks by the WWT engineering team on the construction and operation of the Digital Dome.

    Faculty from every level—primary, secondary, and higher education—anxiously awaited a tour highlighting the WWT's teaching potential.
    Faculty from every level—primary, secondary, and higher education—anxiously awaited a tour highlighting the WWT's teaching potential.

    This workshop was just the latest example of our continued collaborative efforts to develop a WWT curriculum and construct Digital Dome planetariums in China. With the planned addition of WWT Digital Dome installations described earlier, the body of WWT teaching materials will undoubtedly grow even faster. Microsoft Research is pleased to be part of this educational program, which is increasing scientific literacy and sparking intellectual curiosity among Chinese students.

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Computing at School: rethinking how computing is taught

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    Birmingham UniversityBirmingham University in the United Kingdom is in the green and leafy suburb of Edgbaston—and opposite King Edward’s School, which I attended for seven years as a boy. I was back in Birmingham recently to give the keynote address at the sixth annual Computing at School conference, an event designed for schoolteachers. And so on a sunny June Saturday, I stood before some 300 educators who had given up their weekend to prepare for a revolution: a major transformation in teaching computing that is scheduled to begin this September.

    The UK government has taken the advice of a group of computer scientists and teachers and decreed that computer science will now be taught with the same priority as the other sciences: physics, chemistry, and biology. Simon Peyton-Jones of Microsoft Research Cambridge has been one of the key leaders of this change, and he helped build Computing at School (CAS), the vibrant, grassroots organization that is taking on this challenge. Instead of a computing course under the banner ICT (information communication technology), which taught digital literacy—how to use word processors, manipulate spreadsheets, create presentations, and write programs—the new syllabus will teach the fundamentals of computing as a science. Moreover, beginning this fall, this new approach will be implanted at state-funded primary and secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom, exposing all their students to computer science.

    Simon’s groundbreaking work in this area—his co-founding of CAS and his effective advocacy on behalf of teaching computer science in British schools—is well documented. Without his leadership in this area, it is doubtful that this educational transformation would have occurred. And make no mistake: this change in approach is essential to preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs and their role as informed citizens in an increasingly digital world.

    It can be summarized as a move towards teaching “computational thinking,” and this theme was evident throughout the conference. Computational thinking has been defined by my colleague Jeannette Wing at Microsoft Research in Redmond as the ability to use the fundamental concepts of computer science to solve difficult problems, design complex systems, and understand human behavior. Computational thinking includes the techniques of abstraction and decomposition that assist in the development of algorithms to attack complex tasks or to design complex systems. It also gives new insights on system concepts, such as prevention, protection, and recovery, by thinking in terms of corresponding computer science concepts, such as redundancy, damage containment, and error correction. Jeannette believes that education in computational thinking will be as essential in the twenty-first century as learning the “three Rs” has been in all previous centuries.

    My keynote discussed the origins of computer science and computational thinking, beginning with the insights of Alan Turing (after whom the prestigious A.M. Turing Award was named) and John von Neumann (after whom the John von Neumann Medal was named), through the invention of the integrated circuit and the microprocessor, to the development of the World Wide Web, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

    Above all, I tried to convey that the essence of computer science is the management of complexity—how computational thinking makes it possible to manufacture and program microprocessors containing more than a billion transistors. My keynote also provided me with the opportunity, and stimulus, to create a talk based on material in my new book, The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution, a general introduction to computer science that will be published by Cambridge University Press this fall.

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research

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    PhD Summer School explores cutting-edge computing

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    Call it the invasion of the computer literati: on the last day of June, 78 PhD students converged on Cambridge, England, to begin five days of networking and knowledge exchanges during the Microsoft Research Cambridge 2014 PhD Summer School, our ninth edition of this annual event. The invited attendees included PhD candidates from universities and research institutions with which Microsoft Research partners—for example, through the Microsoft Azure for Research program—as well as recipients of Microsoft Research PhD Scholarships.

    Attendees of the ninth annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, England, gathered for a group photo at the University of Cambridge.
    Attendees of the ninth annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, England, gathered for a group photo at Jesus College Cambridge.

    As always, the topics were timely and the atmosphere electric, as the students interacted with Microsoft researchers, academic experts, and one another. One of the PhD students summed it up nicely, noting that the Summer School is “a fantastic opportunity to meet other researchers and listen to a wealth of experience from many speakers.”

    The Summer School featured more than 20 talks and workshops, including an enchanting keynote from Professor Jon Crowcroft of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, who used T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a metaphor for exploring the history and anticipated future of the Internet. Another highlight was the keynote presented by clinical oncologist Raj Jena of the Cambridge Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who delved into the challenges of deciphering complex imaging data in order to deliver effective radiation therapy to cancer patients. An additional crowd-pleaser was the presentation by Dave Yewman, a strategic communications expert with Dash Consulting, who demonstrated how to deliver a fabulous research talk—one that engages the audience and presents even complex topics in a clear, concise, and compelling manner.

    Poster sessions were held during the lunch breaks on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, giving the PhD students an opportunity to exhibit their research and get input from their peers and computer scientists from Microsoft Research and the University of Cambridge. Thursday afternoon’s DemoFest displayed 14 projects that spanned all research groups at the Microsoft Research Cambridge lab. Lending a practical note to the agenda, hands-on sessions coached the students on using .NET Gadgeteer to build small electronic devices and showed them how to employ Microsoft Azure to harness the power of cloud computing for research.

    PhD student Dylan Hutchison of Stevens Institute of Technology presented his poster to AMC Turing Award winner Tony Hoare of Microsoft Research Cambridge.
    PhD student Dylan Hutchison of Stevens Institute of Technology presented his poster to ACM Turing Award winner Tony Hoare of Microsoft Research Cambridge.

    Those who appreciate the finer things surely enjoyed the opening day’s high tea at Selwyn College and the formal dinner at Jesus College, which honored the tenth anniversary of the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) program. Noting the occasion, Andrew Blake, the director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, observed, “This year’s School marks the tenth anniversary of our PhD Scholarship program and underlines our long-term commitment to foster academic relationships in computer science and related fields in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.”

    From lectures, to workshops, to demos, to high tea, the variety of experiences makes the annual Summer School a unique event—as eagerly anticipated by Microsoft researchers as it is by the PhD students. Simon Peyton Jones, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and long-standing speaker at the Summer School, captured this symbiotic essence of the program: “Over the years, I’ve seen the PhD Summer School develop into an important annual event at the Cambridge lab. Students appreciate the exposure to our research, the training, and especially the networking opportunities. For us, the PhD Summer School is an important networking opportunity with PhD students from across Europe and the Middle East, some of whom stay for internships over the summer.”

    Principal Researcher Simon Peyton Jones addressing the students at the ninth PhD Summer School
    Principal Researcher Simon Peyton Jones addressing the students at the ninth PhD
    Summer School

    Many thanks to all the attendees and presenters, who made this year’s Summer School truly memorable.

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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