If You Know How to Program…

In the past week, I have come across a slightly different view of programming, from two different sources.

The premise of this book, and the other books in the Think X series, is that if you know how to program, you can use that skill to learn other topics.

from “Think Bayes” by Allen B. Downey.

I see programming as a way of learning Mathematics

from Coding the Matrix: Linear Algebra through Computer Science Applications, a free Coursera course.

This is something worth thinking about. This gives programming a slightly different twist – as a tool for learning. It is also a good tool for thinking.

 

How Much should You Know About Computing?

How much should you know about computing, if you are not a software developer? In his podcast titled To Code or Not to Code, Grady discusses how much a functioning member of society today should know about computing.

A couple of my favorite snippets from the podcast:

Knowledge and understanding have a funny way of expanding.

Creating to code is a gateway to thinking computationally

Thinking computationally? What does that mean? Why is that important?

Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving method that uses computer science techniques. The term computational thinking was first used by Seymour Papert in 1996.

Jeannette Wing, Head of the Department of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been one of the most eloquent Computer Scientists to argue the case. Computational Thinking isthe skill of the 21st century

So what is Computational Thinking? Well it is a collection of diverse skills to do with problem solving that result from studying the nature of computation. It includes some obviously important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain and team work. It also consists of some very specific problem solving skills such as the ability to think logically, algorithmically and recursively. It is also about understanding people. Computer Science is unique in the way it brings all these diverse skills together.

So back to the original question – how much should you know about computing? It depends.

  • Everyone should have a  high level understanding of what computers are capable of, how they work and where they exist (in desktops, laptops, mobile devices, tablets, cloud and even in cars, smart devices)
  • Engineers/Scientists should know how to use them as tools to improve their work. They may need to learn simple scripting language like Python
  • Students should know “computational thinking” since it will help them build problem solving skills.
  • Not every one needs to be a programmer but learning a simple language will give them a chance to appreciate thinking like a programmer. The essential skill one need to acquire is to take a complex problem, break it into simpler/manageable problems and apply existing knowledge to solve the simple problems.
  • To find patterns (some level of abstract thinking) to apply solutions from one domain to an entirely different domain.

What do you think? Do you think Computational Thinking is an essential basic skill?

 

Promoting Self Organized Learning

XPrize is offering $15 million to build tablet apps that help kids teach themselves.

The goal is to help the 250 million school-age children in the world who can’t read or write. Contestants will build apps that kids can use on their own — because many of these kids don’t have access to the “unscalable” resources of teachers and schools.

The prize all ties into a philosophy known as self-organized learning — where kids learn autonomously by figuring out technology for themselves — that’s popular with the TED crowd. And of course, the other big idea is that contests are a peculiarly effective way of motivating people.

Keller said he anticipated that the winning app would use an artificial intelligence approach to figure out what an individual kid knows and does not know.

A few thoughts:

  1. The kids (targeted by this effort) cannot read or write. So you need to starting points may be different (speech, images).
  2. Kids should use these apps on their own. This means the apps need to be engaging and evoke curiosity constantly (the game community can contribute a lot).
  3. Since there will be no teachers involved, this would encourage peer based learning (and students playing the role as teachers)
  4. You cannot make any assumptions about what they know or what language they speak.
  5. The app is supposed to use AI approach. So you need to use AI to mimic a teacher or a self learner or a combination of both.
  6. To come up with a reasonable solution, you need to understand how kids learn.  That, in itself, is a fascinating area of exploration.
  7. Kids don’t have access to “unscalable” resources (like teachers and schools). That points to tablets with long battery life, solar chargeable or something that requires hand cranked power. This is not actually the app quality but the need of the underlying platform. This also means, schools cannot the platform for distribution of apps or devices. Hopefully that will be a different challenge.

Rural India and countries in Asia and Africa will certainly benefit from the outcomes. No matter which app wins, we will get a lot of great ideas for self-organized learning. That is bound to change education as we know it.

Cognitive Computing: Software That Mines Research Papers

This is amazing. An article from  MIT Technology Review:

Software that read tens of thousands of research papers and then predicted new discoveries about the workings of a protein that’s key to cancer could herald a faster approach to developing new drugs.

The software, developed in a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine, was set loose on more than 60,000 research papers that focused on p53, a protein involved in cell growth, which is implicated in most cancers. By parsing sentences in the documents, the software could build an understanding of what is known about enzymes called kinases that act on p53 and regulate its behavior; these enzymes are common targets for cancer treatments. It then generated a list of other proteins mentioned in the literature that were probably undiscovered kinases, based on what it knew about those already identified. Most of its predictions tested so far have turned out to be correct.

 

Just think about what is involved in doing this:

  1. Text-analysis
  2. Mining  publications
  3. Mining patents
  4. Searching domain specific (in this case molecular) databases

And think about the impact.

software like this could change the way scientists conduct and assess new research findings. Scientists currently rely in part on the reputation of the people, institutions, and journals involved, and the number of times a paper is cited by others.

Meta

This is higher order computing. It goes beyond cognitive computing  which is simulating certain types of brain like operations.

Family Engineering

A few days ago, our daughter-in-law shared a couple of videos. It had our grand daughter (barely 2 years old) showing a screw driver to our son and when asked what it was, replied “scoo diver”.  And she knew where to use it, as well. I watched those videos more than a dozen times. Every time I see something like this, I am amazed at how quickly children pick up stuff.  Right from age one she had fascination for wires, plugs.

I read once that Seymour Papert learned Math, playing with gears  in his younger days. The things kids play with influence their thoughts and perhaps their interests, later in life.

This essay was published as the foreword to Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1980).

Before I was two years old I had developed an intense involvement with automobiles. The names of car parts made up a very substantial portion of my vocabulary: I was particularly proud of knowing about the parts of the transmission system, the gearbox, and most especially the differential. It was, of course, many years later before I understood how gears work; but once I did, playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first “erector set” project was a crude gear system.

How can we help children learn things by encouraging them to play with things  like automobiles, gears and tools?

There seems to be an answer  – Family Engineering.

Family Engineering invites educators, engineers, university science and engineering students, community youth leaders, and parents to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers and problem solvers with exciting, hands-on activities and events for elementary-aged children and adults.

Please take a few minutes to look at an Opener Activity and read up on  how to get involved with Family Engineering.

Disfluency – Leads You To Think More Deeply?

One of the better talks I have had the pleasure to watch recently.  I was familiar with the term Fluency but was not aware of Fluency Research and Disfluency

The basic idea here is that when you have a thought, any thought, it falls along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. A fluent thought is one that feels subjectively easy to have. When you speak English and you come across a common English name, like John, or Tom, or Ted, it’s very, very easy to process that name. There’s no difficulty in reading the name and in making sense of the name. At the other end of the spectrum you might come across a foreign name or a novel name that you’ve never seen before or perhaps a name that you’ve seen before, but spelled very differently. In that case it’s going to be much more difficult to process the name. Then it will be disfluent or subjectively difficult to process. It will feel more difficult to process.

Adam walks through different examples about the impact of fluency on our thinking and even decision making.

“We’ve shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you’re at now. ..”

The concept of cognitive blocks and their effect on your thinking is  worth exploring. It impacts learning, teaching and working.

In this talk Adam covers:

  • Cognition and meta-cognition
  • Fluency research
  • Cognitive Reflection
  • Superficial Cues (due to fluency)
  • Illusion of Explanatory Gap
  • Social Disfluency (and prejudices)
  • Disfluency and it impact on communication
  • Sarcasm in Email (and why it does not work)
  • Over Sharing (a Social Problem)
  • Familiarity and Fluency
  • Fluency and Society

I particularly liked the notion that persevering through difficulty helps you to deal with different types of difficult problems and your ability to reason through different tasks.

Design for How People Learn – Book Log

From (foreward of) Design For How People Learn

The challenges of creating highly effective learning experiences are numerous. We’re fortunate that humans are, in many ways, learning creatures. We are generally eager to learn. We intuitively know that knowledge is power. Skills turn knowledge into actionable advantages. We want skills and enjoy having them. But even with all these advantages, it isn’t easy to transmit knowledge and build skills. …

This is a fascinating book (just started reading it). You can learn more about the  book and the author.

 

 

Teaching Kids

I have been thinking about a new initiative on Teaching Kids. It is driven by several (self) discoveries.

  • I am slowly discovering that I love teaching. But I constantly fight for student’s attention and keeping my teaching interesting and useful.
  • A few experiments with a Social Causes Club at KCGTech convinced me that we can help kids a lot.
  • I have always been interested in how people learn and how people think It is a fascinating area of research and exploration.
  • Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence and Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms had deep influence on my thinking about Intelligence, Learning and the role of Play.
  • As a parent I was clueless about the best way to help my kids learn. I just did whatever my parents did to encourage me. Now thanks to the World Wide Web and enormous resources available, we can all learn a lot more about learning to learn.
  • Kids need help. So do parents, grandparents, extended families and teachers.
  • Technology innovation in Tablets, Speech, Cloud Computing, Natural Language Processing enable phenomenal access. We need to find ways of leveraging technologies to make learning fun.
  • I strongly resonate with Tim O’Reilly’s Work on Stuff That Matters. I think helping people learn better will help make the world a better place.

So hear is what I am doing.

  • Invested a few dollars in getting some domain names (always my first step) – Moms as Teacher, Dads as Teachers and Family As Teachers. I started with Moms as teachers first and then decided that I need to get the entire family in.
  • Created a Facebook group Resources for Teaching Kids and invited a couple of parents.
  • Doing some research on Learning Apps for Kids. Here is a good starting point on a list of free learning apps.
  • Checking out MIT Scratch and App Inventor
  • Started a couple of student projects on learning apps
  • Initiated some research on understanding the marketplace

There is a lot more to do. I think I will first start with gathering and sharing information about learning tools for students, families and teachers that are available freely.

If you are interested in this area and are a parent, grandparent or a teacher, consider joining the Facebook group Resources for Teaching Kids and share your knowledge and opinions.

New Computing Revolution, 25 Small Steps to Innovation, Skilled Observation

A few great recent links from Cognitive Design

Will baby Watson Create a Cognitive Revolution?

IBM believes success with Watson in multiple domains will trigger a new computing revolution, one focused on cognitive computing systems. Such systems will do for knowledge work what the early data oriented systems did for transactional work.  The goal is not to replace human experts but to vastly amplify their reach and effectiveness.

25 Small Steps to Innovation Calling

Finding or creating an  innovation calling takes time. And you need certain skills and habits of mind to do it.   While you most likely won’t find it by reading a book you can cultivate the skills and habits needed to eventually develop one.

The work is guided by a set of 25 knowledge cards. The knowledge cards describe a proven practice for getting in touch with your innovation calling. The idea is to build these practices into your daily routine until they form habits.

Are you a skilled Observer?

How often do you really pay attention to what you see, touch, smell, taste and hear? And when you do pay attention how do you do it? Do you use specific tools and techniques?   If you want to be an effective designer or innovator you need to be an active observer. Indeed, good observation skills are important for all professions and everyday life.