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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

    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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    How might climate change affect our food supply?

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    How might climate change affect our food supply?It’s no easy question to answer, but prudence demands that we try. Thus, Microsoft and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have teamed up to tackle “food resilience,” one of several themes that make up the White House’s Climate Data Initiative.

    “Through his Climate Data Initiative, President Obama is calling for all hands on deck to unleash data and technology in ways that will make businesses and communities more resilient to climate change,” said John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor. “The commitments being announced today answer that call by empowering the U.S. and global agricultural sectors with the tools and information needed to keep food systems strong and secure in a changing climate.”

    The Climate Data Initiative has unleashed a torrent of climate-related data from NOAA, NASA, the US Geological Survey, US Department of Defense, and other federal agencies, including the USDA. These facts and figures, which reside on Data.gov's Climate website, pose a classic “big data” challenge: how to efficiently analyze enormous information sets and share the meaningful insights.

    The overarching goal is to discover the food supply's key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency to climate change.
    The overarching goal is to discover the food supply's key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency to climate change.

    Microsoft has posted the USDA datasets to the Microsoft Azure Marketplace (enter search term USDA), and, together with the USDA, we will be sponsoring workshops, webinars, and “appathons” to demonstrate the value of open access data and to promote the development of tools for understanding these datasets. The overarching goal is to encourage data providers, scientists, farmers, food producers and the public to discover the food supply’s key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency. This predictive information will inform a planning model built on the powerful business intelligence tools that are part of the Microsoft Azure cloud-computing platform, enabling federal agencies, along with the public, access and tools to promote data synthesis with other data sources.

    To advance this effort even further, Microsoft Research is announcing a special Climate Data RFP focused on food resilience in the face of climate change. This RFP offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014. Each award provides up to 180,000 hours of cloud-computing time and 20 terabytes of cloud storage.

    The award offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014.The award offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014.

    To qualify for the awards program, you must be affiliated with an academic institution or non-profit research laboratory. In addition to individual investigator projects, we are interested in projects that will support access to services and data of value to a collaboration or community.

    Your proposal should not exceed three pages in length. It should include resource requirement estimates (number of core, storage requirements, and so forth) for your project. Apply and learn more about the RFP at Food Resilience Climate Data Initiative.

    We encourage all investigators to join with the USDA and us in an effort to understand the impact of climate change on our food supply.

    Dan Fay, Director for Earth, Energy, and Environment, Microsoft Research

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