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As the saying goes: everything is bigger in Texas. And coming this weekend, March 8 to 10, there will be a couple of Texas-sized telescopes at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin. Housed in the mammoth NASA Experience Tent, a wall-sized display will show off Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), demonstrating the amazing capabilities of the world’s largest virtual telescope. Outside, on the lawn of the Long Center, there will be a full-scale model of the next generation of the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—a truly impressive piece of engineering that’s the size of a tennis court.
Microsoft Research is partnering with NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Telescope Science Institute to offer a truly interactive exhibit, with University of Texas, Austin, astronomy students on hand to show off details of the JWST model on Microsoft Surface devices. Meanwhile, WWT will provide festival goers with an immersive virtual experience as they fly through the universe and explore the planets and stars. As you may know, the WWT brings together imagery from the world’s best ground and space-based telescopes and combines it with 3-D navigation. It also includes guided tours of interesting places in the sky, created and narrated by astronomers and educators.
WorldWide Telescope Experience
In addition to the huge WorldWide Telescope display, Microsoft Perceptive Pixel stations will be accessible, enabling visitors to explore space, Earth, and history—all at their fingertips. By using Microsoft Research ChronoZoom, a candidate for a 2013 SXSW Interactive Award, visitors will be able to explore all of history—from the Big Bang to today—and see connections that cut across disciplines and cultures. Prominent participants at SXSW Interactive will include Microsoft researchers, such as Jonathan Fay, who will deliver daily talks on the WWT and participate in the panel session, “Beyond Hubble: NASA's Next Great Telescope (JWST).”
James Webb Space Telescope
Another of my Microsoft Researcher colleagues, Donald Brinkman, will take part in the “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvases” panel discussion on the use of applications to visualize works of cultural significance. Donald’s panel will feature demos of applications built on Microsoft Pixelsense and Surface devices that provide both scholars and the public with an intimate and interactive experience of cultural touchstones, such as AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest community-created piece of folk art in the world.
In addition to the schedule of great talks, we will also be using Skype to broadcast live daily from the NASA clean room at Goddard Space Center for audience Q&A.
We look forward to seeing you in Texas for truly unique and interactive experience. —Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment; Microsoft Research Connections
Engineers Week: it takes place every February, a celebration of accomplishments in mechanical, civil, chemical, and biomedical engineering. Why, I wonder, do we hear so little about the breakthroughs powered by computer and information sciences? And why do we almost never hear about the importance of growing more women in these vital fields, which touch almost every aspect of modern life?
Like many women in computing, I’ve known the discouragement that comes from being dismissed in a male-dominated field. I’m committed to changing this situation, which is why I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Engineering Week will feature the first annual International Women’s Hackathon, a worldwide competition sponsored by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women in Computing, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering, and Skype.
On February 22–24, at high schools and university campuses around the world, we will kick off this first-ever, women-only hackathon, in which teams choose to solve one of four challenges. Our primary goal is to help young women feel confident of their capabilities and excited by the opportunities to solve global problems. We will provide the event organizers with tools to help them successfully organize and lead their events the way they want. Some events will involve no more than eight women, while others will have more than 150 participants. We will connect all of the events live via Skype, which will allow participants at different locations to network with peers and discuss the challenges. I will be at the University of Southern California, and I can’t tell you how anxious I am to see the solutions that these amazing young women will create.
Bridging the Gap
I’m especially grateful to be part of this event when I think about my own past and how, unfortunately, many young women today are having similar experiences. When I was in high school, I was the only girl who took the technical and computer drafting class (even though it was offered in seven different periods!), which was the closest thing to computer science education back then.
As a mechanical engineering major in college, I was one of just a handful of women taking electrical engineering and computer engineering courses. It was here that I really learned, first-hand, the obstacles young women encounter when they to break into computer science—obstacles that continue to impede female computer science students around the world today. During team projects, I was not expected to do the hard technical work. Rather, my teammates wanted me to come up with the “big” idea, to keep the project on track, and later to present our finished work. While I enjoyed these roles, I still bristled at the assumption that “as a girl” I lacked the technical chops to shoulder the difficult computational challenges.
As I visit campuses in the United States, Korea, and various European countries, and Skype with young women from the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Australia, I get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. Regrettably, I hear these themes again and again:
After 20 years, it’s surprising that the challenges have not changed much for women in computing, especially since the opportunities today are so plentiful. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2018 there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the United States, but we will graduate only enough female computer and information science majors to fill about 29 percent of them. These predictions are all the more dispiriting when you realize that the latest advances in improving healthcare, protecting the environment, and upgrading manufacturing have come from technological innovations.
I believe that no other field offers as many opportunities for students computer science does. It is to the benefit of both women and society as a whole to have a wide diversity of professionals working in a field like computer science, which has the potential to influence so many aspects of our lives.
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections
I WANT YOU…. Anyone who grew up in the United States, as I did, is familiar with the famous World War II recruiting poster of Uncle Sam exhorting young Americans to enlist in the armed forces. (No, I wasn’t alive then, but the poster is an icon.)
Well, Uncle Sam is calling again, not for men and women under arms, but for recent graduates, top researchers, and great innovators—in short, for creative young people who want to be agents of change in the digital world. On February 5, the White House announced round 2 of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program, a unique effort that brings incredibly talented go-getters from the private sector to work for 6 to 12 months with top government innovators to solve challenges of national importance. PIF projects are selected based on their potential to save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job growth.
I am pleased to be working with the Office of Science and Technology Policy Team (OSTP) in helping to announce this second round of Presidential Innovation Fellowships, especially since the program complements my passion—familiar to regular readers of this blog—to grow the number of women and minorities in computing. The inaugural round of 18 Presidential Innovation Fellows worked on five projects and did a fantastic job, but, astonishingly, the group lacked diversity, even though the United States is renowned as a “melting pot” of cultural and ethnic diversity. For round 2, the OSTP wants to do a better job of reaching a diverse audience.
This second round of the PIF program include nine projects:
Disaster Response and Recovery: Collaboratively building and “pre-positioning" needed tech tools ahead of future emergencies or natural disasters, in order to mitigate economic damage and save lives.
MyUSA: Simplifying the process of finding and accessing information and government services that are right for you. Helping US businesses access the information and services that will help them grow, hire US workers, and export to foreign markets.
RFP-EZ and Innovative Contracting Tools: Making it easier for the US government to do business with small, high-growth tech companies, and enabling the government to buy better, lower-cost tech solutions from the full range of US businesses.
Cyber-Physical Systems: Working with government and industry to create standards for a new generation of interoperable, dynamic, and efficient “smart systems”—an “industrial Internet”—that combines distributed sensing, control, and data analytics to help grow new high-value US jobs and the economy.
Open Data Initiatives: Accelerating and expanding efforts to make government information resources more publicly accessible in “computer-readable” form and spurring the use of those data by entrepreneurs as fuel for the creation of new products, services, and jobs.
MyData Initiatives: Empowering the people of the United States with secure access to their own personal health, energy, and education data.
Innovation Toolkit: Developing an innovation toolkit that empowers the US federal workforce to respond to national priorities more quickly and more efficiently.
21st Century Financial Systems: Moving financial accounting systems of US federal agencies out of the era of unwieldy agency-specific implementations to one that favors more nimble, modular, scalable, and cost-effective approaches.
Development Innovation Ventures: Enabling the US government to identify, test, and scale breakthrough solutions to the world’s toughest problems.
If you are looking for an opportunity to make a difference, here is a chance to influence millions of lives by thinking outside of the box and building truly innovative solutions. Presidential Innovation Fellows have a unique chance to serve their country and influence change on a truly massive scale. The White House will be accepting applications from February 5 through March 17, looking to put together dynamic, diverse, and innovative project teams that will produce tremendous results for the residents of the United States.
PIF applicants need not have deep technical programming skills; rather, they require an ability to think creatively, be an agent for change, and to recognize opportunities where technology can solve problems. I am asking all of you in the academic community to reach out to recent graduates and alumni that you believe can influence positive change and envision innovative solutions. And don’t count yourself out, as this could be the sabbatical of a lifetime. If you are interested in learning more and applying, please visit Presidential Innovation Fellows.