Monday, September 22, 2014

How Beyond the Code Attendees Found Their Spark with Anita's Quilt

Recently, Shopify put on a super cool conference called Beyond the Code.  Hosted at the Ottawa Convention Centre, the event's main goal was to highlight the role of women in technology.  All types of folks were there,  from devs to designers and the audience was more than half female!



I was lucky enough to run a lunchtime workshop called Find Your Spark with Anita's Quilt.  Some of my fellow Quilters developed this workshop, so I had a good base to start from.  The general layout we used was to sort people into tables as they came in (we used chocolates!), then have them introduce themselves to their table mates, pick and read a story from the Find Your Spark! page, and  talk about the stories using the discussion questions we provided them (now also on the Find Your Spark! page).  After the discussion, we had a few tables share their biggest takeaways (there wasn't enough time to go through all tables let alone all questions).

It was an enjoyable way to spend lunch and meet some new people, but the thing I was most excited for was to hear what the participants actually got out of reading the stories.  I have been working hard to curate a lot of the great content on Anita's Quilt, so of course I wanted to know whether it has been meaningful and even useful to readers.

I was really impressed with the insights that came out of the discussion.  A few key issues were brought up:
  • One group noticed the prevalence of the imposter syndrome, that feeling you get that makes you think you don't deserve to be where you are and that everybody's going to find out any day now.
  • Another group pointed out that a lot of the stories are about how somebody corrected course when their life got back on track.  Realizing this allows the reader to see how others did in case they ever face the same situation.
  • The fear of failure was a big theme.  That lead to discussion on the importance of a support network of friends, family, and mentors/sponsors that can help you lose the fear of failing.
  • The last group brought up the issue of the kind of language women tend to use, and how it often portrays less confidence, or attributes success to factors outside of their own good work.
It's almost as though we went through a checklist of common issues facing women in tech!

If all this sounds intriguing to you, or you could just use a really good story to get inspired, be sure to check out the Anita's Quilt Story Campaigns archive,  or follow the Find Your Spark! model to choose a story and think about the discussion questions.  Let me know what you get out of the stories you read!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cool New Science Show for Kids on TVO

I recently checked out the pilot episode for a new science show that premiered on TVO called Annedroids.  Although I found one of the characters overly annoying, I was definitely a fan of the android creator Anne.  The show nicely integrated topics like the scientific method and discussion of electricity, even if their specific use of lightning to power up an android seemed a bit far fetched.  The animated androids were quite well done.  Overall, I'd say this is worth checking out, especially if you have kids you want to introduce to science!


Here's some info from the press kit:
“Annedroids” features photo-real CGI android characters in a gritty live action world. It's a series that celebrates science, technology, engineering and math and does it all through the lens of an 11-year old girl. There's nothing Anne likes more than getting her hands dirty to make things, breaking things apart to see how they work, and mixing things together to see that happens. Anne takes the stereotype of a typical tween girl and busts it right open.

Anne likes to push the boundaries of what’s scientifically possible. This is a girl who’s built three androids on her own: PAL, who is fascinated by everything and loves asking questions; EYES, whose ability to see things from all angles can get him into trouble; and HAND, who’s strong and dependable but a little bit clumsy. Anne’s experiments always lead to unforeseen complications, hijinks and misadventures. And that’s where Anne’s assistants Nick and Shania come in – Nick and Shania have an uncanny way of figuring out the real life solutions to Anne’s scientific problems. Needless to say, when Anne, Nick, Shania and the androids work together, the results are far from predictable.

“ANNEDROIDS” premieres August 25th at 5:30 p.m. ET on TVO, and July 25th on Amazon Prime Instant Video (US and UK). The series will also air in 2014 on The Knowledge Network in BC, and in French on Société Radio-Canada SRC. Internationally, “ANNEDROIDS” will air on KiKA in Germany, NRK Norway, SVT in Sweden, Horizonte Conteudos and Globostat in Brazil, and Discovery Asia. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Be a GHC Community Volunteer and Change Your Life

You should sign up to be a volunteer community note-taker or blogger by our new deadline of September 8.  It could change your life! Seriously!


I started attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2008, and have only missed a single year since (I was too pregnant to fly).  I started off as a volunteer blogger, like you might be considering doing now.  My good work opened the door to becoming lead blogger and eventually co-chair of the Communities Committee.  It opened up a lot of opportunities, including joining the Advisory Board for the Anita Borg Institute, who puts on the conference.

Now, your path will likely be different than mine, but I hope you are convinced that good things can happen.  Here are some other benefits to becoming a volunteer:
  • Provided you contribute three session blog posts or notes on the wiki, you will get a ribbon to wear on your badge.  Ribbons are coveted at the conference, and the more you have the better!
  • You were probably going to blog, tweet, and pin anyway, so why not get recognized for your efforts?
  • Blogging or note-taking is a great way to give back to the community if you've been funded to attend the conference.
  • You will make some wonderful new contacts.  Some will be very useful professionally, and some will become great friends.  It's quite fun having someone to visit no matter where you travel in North America!
  • You can feel good about bringing the conference to those who can't make the sessions they want to, and those who can't make it to the conference at all.
Ready to sign up? Here's the official info:
Every year, GHC has a vibrant and active community of bloggers and note-takers. With an amazing schedule this year, we do our best to cover as many sessions as possible. How about taking notes or blogging about a session? Join other GHC community volunteers to capture presentations, workshops, poster sessions and more.

Friday, August 29, 2014

This Year's Design for 'Computers for Arts and Social Science Students'

I've been working on our non-majors computing course for a while now.  Last year was the first time I got to try it with a large group (440 students!), and also the first time I tried using Python.  I have since refined it to the following design.  I will report how it went at the end of the semester, but I have a great set of TAs and am optimistic about using turtle in assignments to make programming a bit less daunting.

 We're not using the robot turtle, but wouldn't it be fun? Image from Wikipedia

This course design lives on my portfolio site, and will be updated there as time goes on.

Introduction

This course is currently undergoing a transformation.  It has traditionally taught basic office software usage in a step-by-step workshop style.  The new version focuses on computational thinking skills by teaching basic programming concepts in Python and then applying them to understanding more advanced functions of the same software previously covered in detail.  Instead of learning a laundry list of programming concepts, however, the concepts are embedded in four relatable general contexts (see topic list below).

A new calendar course name and description, which I developed, is up for approval Fall 2014.

Learning Objectives

By the end of the course, students will:
  1. Develop an appreciation of computer science.
    1. Understand what computer science is.
    2. See how computer science can help solve problems in arts and social sciences
    3. Learn how computer science can help you by automating boring, repetitive, or error-prone tasks.    
  2. Develop computational thinking skills.
    1. Learn how information is stored on a computer.
    2. Learn basic programming concepts (variables, if statements, loops, and functions) and write simple programs using these concepts.
    3. Learn how to formulate searching and sorting problems in a way a computer can solve them, and understand the efficiency of the solutions.
  3. Develop an advanced understanding of useful software packages by applying computational thinking skills.
    1. Apply an understanding of variables to effective use of word processing software.
    2. Apply an understanding of variables, if statements, and functions to effective use of spreadsheet software.
    3. Apply an understanding of variables and references to database software.
Topics

Many topics have a context in which the concepts are placed.  For example, for conditionals and repetition, we discuss how the logic would look for a robot that can find its own way out of a maze.  We start with just the ideas, such as how to break the right-hand rule down into its constituent parts, then see how to implement if statements and while loops in snippets of Python later on.
  1. Introduction
    1. Course intro
    2. What is computer science?
    3. What is computational thinking?
  2. Binary Numbers and Data Representation: How Photography Went Digital
    1. Image representation
    2. Binary numbers
    3. Bits and bytes in memory
    4. Using the Python interactive shell
  3. Conditionals and Repetition: Helping a Robot Find Its Way
    1. Boolean expressions
    2. If, else, elif
    3. while loops
  4. Data Structures: Making Stories Interactive
    1. Data types and variables
    2. Lists
    3. Dictionaries
    4. References and simple graphs
  5. Searching and Sorting Algorithms: Managing a Bookstore More Efficiently
    1. Searching: linear, binary, hash
    2. Sorting: insertion, selection, quick
  6. Applying Computational Thinking to Word, Excel, and Access
  7. Miscellaneous applications of computational thinking / Python
    1. E.g. PyschoPy, RenPy, etc
Assignment Topics
  1. Computer science, computational thinking, binary numbers
  2. Image and text representation, first Python turtle program
  3. Python turtle programs with if statements, loops, and variables
  4. Searching and sorting (conceptual), Python turtle program with a user-defined function
  5. Word, Excel, Access

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gram's House Project Team Receives Two NSF Pathways Grants!

Gram's House is a research project I started several years ago with a prototype originally designed for Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition.  Since then, a core research team has formed around the project: me (Carleton University), Elisabeth Gee (Arizona State University), Carolee Stewart-Gardiner (Kean University), Gillian Smith (Northeastern University) and Casper Harteveld (Northeastern University).

We just got awarded two NSF Pathways grants for the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program!


The Role of Story in Games to Teach Computer Science Concepts to Middle School Girls

This project is being co-lead by Elisabeth Gee and Carolee Stewart-Gardiner.  Since I'm not a research faculty member, I am participating as a contractor.  We are going to dive deeper into determining the effect of story in educational games that teach computer science to middle school girls.  This will extend previous work I did with a study during my mini-course a couple of years back.
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative resources for use in a variety of settings. Nationally, the US has a shortage of computer scientists; a big part of this problem is that girls are discouraged from learning computer science at a very young age. This project tries to address this problem by creating a videogame specifically oriented towards getting middle school girls interested in learning computer science concepts outside traditional programming classes. Based on evidence that stories provide a compelling way to present complicated technical subjects and that girls in particular respond to technology careers as a way to help others, the project is building a videogame called "Gram's House" in which social workers intend to move a fictional grandmother to a retirement home unless the player can outfit her home with sufficient technology for her to remain independent. Solving puzzles in the game requires learning core computer science concepts. Research studies will be conducted to determine whether the videogame is effective at getting girls interested in computer science, at teaching computer science concepts, and whether using stories makes videogames more effective for learning.
This project based on an earlier successful prototype uses an iterative research-based design process including paper prototyping, playtesting, and focus groups (N=20) to create age appropriate activities, based on the CS Unplugged series, that support learning concepts from the Data, Internet, Algorithms, and Abstraction sections of the high-school level CS Principles curriculum. A quantitative, quasi-experimental design will be used to determine the overall effectiveness of teaching CS concepts under three types of game conditions: (a) games alone, (b) games with fictional settings, and (c) games with stories. A novel assessment instrument will be developed to assess content learning and qualitative observation using a standard observation protocol will be used to gauge interest and engagement. 70-80 middle school girls will be recruited for afterschool participation in the study in two states. As part of the dissemination efforts, a facilitator's guide, rule book, and materials such as maps and storyboards will be created and shared with the game. In addition, a workshop for computer science and other teachers who are interested in using games to teach CS concepts will be conducted.
(Project link on NSF website.)

GrACE: A Procedurally Generated Puzzle Game to Stimulate Mindful and Collaborative Informal Learning to Transform Computer Science Education

The PCG project, as I like to call it (where PCG stands for procedurally generated content), is being lead by Gillian Smith and Casper Harteveld.  They want to learn more about how best to generate puzzles that teach high level computer science concepts, and whether players will learn more about the concepts when discussing how puzzles are generated in an attempt to help one another solve them.
Northeastern University will design, test, and study GrACE, a procedurally generated puzzle game for teaching computer science to middle school students, in partnership with the Northeastern Center for STEM Education and the South End Technology Center. The Principal Investigators will study the effect of computer generated games on students' development of algorithmic and computational thinking skills and their change of perception about computer science through the game's gender-inclusive, minds-on, and collaborative learning environment. The teaching method has potential to significantly advance the state of the art in both game-based learning design and yield insights for gender-inclusive teaching and learning that could have broad impact on advancing the field of computer science education.

Development and evaluation of GrACE will consist of two, year-long research phases, each with its own research question. The first, design and development, phase will focus on how to design a gender-inclusive, educational puzzle game that fosters algorithmic thinking and positive attitude change towards computer science. The content generator will be created using Answer Set Programming, a powerful approach that involves the declarative specification of the design space of the puzzles. The second phase will be an evaluation that studies, by means of a mixed-methods experimental design, the effectiveness of incorporating procedural content generation into an educational game, and specifically whether such a game strategy stimulates and improves minds-on, collaborative learning. Additionally, the project will explore two core issues in developing multiplayer, collaborative educational games targeted at middle school students: what typical face-to-face interactions foster collaborative learning, and what gender differences exist in how students play and learn from the game. The project will reach approximately 100 students in the Boston area, with long-term goals of reaching students worldwide, once the game has been tested with a local audience. Results of the project will yield a new educational puzzle game that can teach algorithmic thinking and effect attitude change regarding computer science. Through the process of creating a gender-inclusive game to teach computer science, it will provide guidelines for future educational game projects. Beyond these individual project deliverables, it will improve our understanding of the potential for procedural content generation to transform education, through its development of a new technique for generating game content based on supplying educational objectives.
(Project link on NSF website.)