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Birmingham 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
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
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.
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.
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
Summer Bridge students and their hosts at Microsoft
Experts agree that the next wave of innovation in computing requires diversity in the research and development teams who will create it. I believe that means expanding the pipeline of students entering computing. In particular, we need to get more girls into the pipeline, which is why I am so pleased to have had two amazing young women working with me as interns this summer: Veronica Catete, a third-year doctoral student at North Carolina State University, and Alka Pai, a senior at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington.
Veronica and Alka are enthusiastic about encouraging more young women to study and work in the computer sciences. To that end, they are developing a free, online computer science toolkit for middle-school girls as well as a course that teaches principles of computer science through game design. When they aren’t busy developing amazing tools, this dynamic duo is participating in events and activities that are designed to excite young people about the future of computer science.
I’d like to hand it over to Veronica and Alka, to discuss an event they hosted in July at Microsoft’s Redmond (Washington) campus. As you read their account, I encourage you to ask yourself how you, too, might help foster more diversity to computing. We all have an interest in promoting innovation in technology and computer science. Perhaps Veronica and Alka’s blog inspires some ideas—if so, I’d love to hear from you!
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research
On July 17, 13 students (10 girls and 3 boys) from the greater Seattle area came to Microsoft to explore the possibilities offered by careers in computing. These students are part of the Summer Bridge Program, an academic enrichment and college readiness project offered through the University of Washington Women’s Center. This program is designed for promising eighth-grade students who are interested in exploring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM fields.
We gave the students a tour of the Microsoft campus, highlighting several of the amazing projects underway here. The students started their day by exploring modeling and graphics by designing 3D models of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, which they were able to print in the Microsoft Research hardware lab.
Working together, students build a model of the Seattle Space Needle.
During lunch, our visitors enjoyed a panel discussion from three of our high-school interns, Alisha Meherally, Arjun Narayan, and me (Alka). We discussed how we got started in computer science and what it’s like to work at Microsoft. We also offered our tips for finding opportunities to work in and learn about computer science outside the classroom. I think we surprised the students by admitting that all three of us entered computer science studies reluctantly—kicking and screaming, so to speak. But we hastened to add that now, having experienced the thrill of resolving software bugs and seeing computing’s potential for creative disruption, we are avid enthusiasts, deeply passionate about our work in computer science.
The Summer Bridge students then participated in a TouchDevelop workshop, where they used Windows 8 phones to write actual software code. Then we headed off to tour Microsoft’s state-of-the-art Cybercrime Center, where the students got upclose and personal with the forensics lab and experienced, firsthand, the tools and techniques used to spot cyber crimes. For example, students Waltana Dewit, Yohannes Seghane, and Sarina Tran examined several supposed Microsoft products, working together to determine which were legitimate and which were counterfeit. “You have to look really hard to notice the differences,” said Yohannes. “If someone were to buy one of these from Amazon, I don’t think they would be able to tell.”
Looking for cyber crimes: students try to identify counterfeit software products.
Our visitors finished the day by touring Microsoft Research’s hardware lab. There they got to see the cool gadgets that the researchers use to prototype their ideas or fix a broken part.
The students were excited to see the potential of computer science careers to change the world, and they came away with a deeper understanding of why they should study STEM. They left with smiles on their faces, souveniors in their pockets, and a world of opportunity ahead. “This place is amazing,” observed Ngocmi Ngo. “I’ve already decided that I want to work here, now I just have to wait until I’m a junior.”
That’s the spirit, Ngocmi.
—Veronica Catete and Alka Pai, Microsoft Research Interns