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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

    Try F#—Data Console to Big and Broad Data

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    Today, we are excited to announce the latest release of Try F#, a set of resources that makes it easy to learn and program with F# in your browser. It’s available over a wide range of platforms and doesn’t require a download of Microsoft Visual Studio. Try F# quickly reveals the value of the versatile F# programming language.

    Learn how to program in F#. Create and share code with the new release of Try F#

    Try F# enables users to learn F# through new tutorials that focus on solving real-world problems, including analytical programming quandaries of the sort that are encountered in finance and data science. But Try F# is much more than a set of tutorials. It lets users write code in the browser and share it with others on the web to help grow a community of F# developers.

    This latest release of Try F# is an evolution that keeps the tool in synch with the new experiences and information-rich programming features that are available in F# 3.0, the latest version of the language. The tutorials incorporate many domains, and help users understand F#’s new powerful “type providers” for data and service programming in the browser-based experience.

    F# has become an invaluable tool in accessing, integrating, visualizing, and sharing data analytics. Try F# thus has the potential to become the web-based data console for bringing “big and broad data,” including the associated metadata, from thousands of sources (eventually millions) to the fingertips of developers and data scientists. Try F# helps fill the need for robust tools and applications to browse, query, and analyze open and linked data. It promotes the use of open data to stimulate innovation and enable new forms of collaboration and knowledge creation.

    For example, to answer a straightforward question such as, “Is US healthcare cost-effective?” researchers now need to look at several datasets, going back and forth between an integrated development environment (IDE) and webpages to figure out if they’ve found what they need.

    With Try F#, a researcher can quickly and easily access thousands of schematized and strongly-typed datasets. This presents huge opportunities in today’s data-driven world, and we strongly encourage all developers and data scientists to use Try F# to seamlessly discover, access, analyze, and visualize big and broad data.

    Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Connections
    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect, Microsoft Research Connections

     
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    What if coding were a game?

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    Well, now it is. Today, we are pleased to announce the launch of Code Hunt, a browser-based game for anyone who is interested in coding. We built Code Hunt to take advantage of the fact that any task can be more effective and sustainable when it’s fun. And Code Hunt is fun! It uses puzzles, which players explore by means of clues presented as test cases. Players iteratively modify their code to match the functional behavior of secret solutions. Once their code matches, lights flash and sounds play, letting players know that they have “captured” the code. Players then get a score, which depends on how elegant their solution is, and are encouraged to move on to the next puzzle or level.

    Code Hunt is a browser-based game for anyone who is interested in coding.

    When we demoed Code Hunt a few months ago, we were amazed at the interest it elicited across groups at Microsoft, from those involved with K-12 education to those focused on college recruiting. However, today we want to talk about how Microsoft Research Asia used Code Hunt during their annual Beauty of Programming (BOP) event, a competition that attracts thousands of students in the Greater China Region (GCR).

    In the past, the BOP competition gave students specifications for problems and then checked their solutions automatically using a test suite. This is the traditional approach: students pit their wits against each other—and against the clock—to create a solution to a defined problem. While this kind of coding is similar to what they will encounter in courses or later in their careers, it isn’t necessarily fun.

    Code Hunt is different. Instead of giving students a problem and comparing their solutions to a set of fixed test cases, Code Hunt does the opposite: it presents an empty slate to the user and a set of constantly changing test cases. It thus teaches coding as a by-product of solving a problem that is presented as pattern matching inputs and outputs. The fun is in finding the pattern. Fun is seen as a vital ingredient in accelerating learning and retaining interest during what might be a long and sometimes boring journey towards obtaining a necessary skill—or in this case, winning a competition. The GCR team recognized that Code Hunt would not only make the BOP competition more fun, but it would also enable them to check the solutions more quickly and accurately.

    Once their code matches, lights flash and sounds play, letting players know that they have “captured” the code. With considerable optimism, we opened Code Hunt to BOP competitors in April. In three rounds, 2,353 students scored in the game, and the contestants solved an average of 55.7% of the puzzles. Since Code Hunt runs on Microsoft Azure, we have all the statistics. We could see that, on average, it took players 41 tries to capture the code for puzzles. However, we were really interested in the 350 top students who solved all of the puzzles—even the most difficult ones. These students needed only 7.6 tries on average to solve a puzzle, showing that Code Hunt can reliably surface the better coders. From these students, 13 were selected to proceed to the finals, and we wish them luck.

    Code Hunt was developed by a team in Microsoft Research led by Principal Development Lead Nikolai Tillmann and Principal Research Software Engineer Peli de Halleux. It is based on Pex, Microsoft Research’s state-of-the-art implementation of dynamic symbolic execution (analyzing a program to determine what inputs cause each part of a program to execute), which is available as a Power Tool in Microsoft Visual Studio.

    We look forward to Code Hunt’s further application and would be happy to receive inquiries regarding competitions or courses. But remember, anyone can play Code Hunt—for fun or to hone their coding skills. Just go to www.codehunt.com and start coding!

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research, and Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Presenting the History of Everything

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    ChronoZoom: an infinite canvas in time

    Today, March 14—Einstein’s birthday no less—marks the release of the beta version of an incredible new tool for the study of history: ChronoZoom. This powerful open-source tool, a joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, will be unveiled at the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) Conference and is available for download.

    What, you might ask, is so wonderful about ChronoZoom? After all, history resources abound. There are thousands of digital repositories, collections, libraries, and websites full of images, videos, documents, facts, and figures—not to mention the wealth of content squirreled away in private offices, personal computers, and university servers. But the sheer volume and disparate locations of these resources confound researchers, educators, and students, who spend untold hours searching this information, seeking to better understand history and its lessons for our future. What if we had a tool that could bring all these resources together?

    Moreover, despite increasing collaboration, the sciences and humanities are still largely taught and researched in silos. For example, when I took an East Asian Studies course in college, I learned what was happening in China in the 1400s, but not what was going on in the Middle East or Africa or Latin America, or what was taking place in the scientific realms of physics and chemistry. If we brought these worlds together, would we ask different questions? Would we arrive at new understandings of the past, resulting in different innovations and insights today?

    Such are the questions we hope to answer with ChronoZoom, which makes time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources, including videos, text, charts, schematics, images, articles, and other multimedia content. ChronoZoom thus serves as a "master timeline," tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and it aspires to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. In the spirit of “make no small plans,” ChronoZoom seeks to unify all knowledge of the past and to make this information easy to understand.

    In so doing, ChronoZoom emerges as a potentially vital tool in the evolving field of Big History, which attempts to unify the past—all of the past, from the beginning of time, some 13.7 billion years ago, to the present—through the four major regimes: cosmic history, Earth history, life history, and human history. Big History offers a broad understanding of how the past has unfolded, and it lets us explore the unifying characteristics that can bridge the intellectual chasm between the humanities and the sciences.

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    Today’s release of ChronoZoom is especially exciting for me because this tool was made by the academic community for the academic community. There’s no other timeline tool today that is supported by such a vast number of experts in different disciplines around the world. ChronoZoom has two communities that are led by two outstanding universities:

    • The content community, which provided the digital content to populate and share on ChronoZoom, led by Professor Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow at the University of California, Berkeley
    • The development community, which built the feature set to bring ChronoZoom to life, led by Dr. Sergey Berezin at Moscow State University.

    In addition, significant student involvement sets ChronoZoom apart. On the dev side, more than 80 percent of ChronoZoom is the work of undergraduate and graduate computer science students at Moscow State. The amazing application you can explore today was developed in three months by these students with support from Microsoft Research engineers. Similarly, 90 percent of the content in ChronoZoom was organized and developed by students at Cal Berkeley. 

    Today’s release is a call to action to the academic community to try ChronoZoom in their classrooms and then vote on its features and let us know what could make the tool even more useful. For academic experts and digital collection owners, it’s an opportunity to help determine the content that should be in ChronoZoom. For computer science institutions and developers around the world, it’s a call to join our open-source community and help us build the next set of features.

    ChronoZoom has a long history and has gone through different phases of development. In the spring of 2009, Roland Saekow had the good fortune of taking Professor Alvarez's Big History course. During the course, Professor Alvarez used a variety of tools, from log scales to multi-sheet paper timelines, to convey the vast time scales of Big History.

    Luckily, Saekow remembered a TED talk about a new computer zoom technology called Seadragon. He approached Professor Alvarez after class, and they started brainstorming about how a zoomable timeline would function. With the help of the Industry Alliances group on campus, they got in touch with Microsoft Research and Microsoft Live Labs, which helped produce the first prototype version of ChronoZoom.

    Today, with feedback from other Big History, humanities, and science professors around the world, we are focused on creating an all-new ChronoZoom that is a great educational tool for the classroom and research tool for academics. After creating the first version of ChronoZoom, we worked in collaboration with universities, professors, and students to make this tool easier to use in the classroom, but we definitely encourage feedback. This is why we are making the ChronoZoom beta version available to the community—hoping for significant feedback and collaboration to create a great tool that helps students, educators, and researchers really understand the history of everything.

    We’re pleased to announce that the ChronoZoom project is now part of the Outercurve Foundation’s Research Accelerators Gallery. The Outercurve Foundation, a non-profit, open-source foundation, provides software IP management and project development governance to 22 open-source projects. The foundation’s four galleries—the Research Accelerators, ASP.NET Open Source, Data, Languages and Systems Interoperability, and Innovators Galleries—support the collaborative development of software in open-source communities, yielding faster results and improved community development for organizations and research groups worldwide

    If you’re attending the NCCE Conference, I hope you’ll visit me today as I launch ChronoZoom beta in a training workshop for educators. And wherever you are, please try out the ChronoZoom beta in the weeks ahead, as we hope to get more than 500,000 users providing feedback over the next six months. If you want to help with content or development, please email us at chronozoomproject@outercurve.org.

    Zoom away!

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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