Monthly Archives: June 2012

Google’s Luvvies and Boffins at the Science Museum

Google's Luvvies and Boffins

Last night I attended the second Google Luvvies and Boffins event at the Science Museum, after the inaugural event at Google’s UK HQ near Victoria in December.

The context for these events was Eric Schmidt‘s MacTaggart lecture last August, in which he spoke about the importance of bringing the worlds of art and science back together if Britain’s creative industries are to succeed in the digital era:

There’s been a drift towards the humanities –- engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other. To use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a ‘luvvie’ or a ‘boffin’…

Luvvies and Boffins badges

Luvvies and boffins, he said, need to work together, identifying the idea of STEAM (rather than just STEM) education: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. While the idea of a ‘digital luvvie’ may conjure up images of Nathan Barley, it is an interesting concept, especially in light of the Next Gen. report published in February 2011 (which, amongst other things, advocated the teaching of computer science in UK schools) and the wider importance of the digital and creative industries in the UK.

This event (which coincided with the monthly Science Museum Lates) was also celebrating the opening of the Science Museum’s new year-long Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy exhibition, with tours from the curator. There was also the opportunity to see a demonstration of the Babbage Engine (video), as well as some hands-on science with the Technology Will Save Us team, creating your very own Lumiphone from scratch:

Lumiphone kit

Overall, an excellent evening — where else could you solder and drink cocktails? — thank you to Google and the Science Museum for hosting.

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BCS Education Bursary projects announced

Today, the BCS Academy of Computing announced the successful applicants of the BCS Education Bursaries, which aim to promote computer science as an academic discipline, in celebration of Alan Turing’s centenary year.

Over 200 schools, colleges and universities applied for the £30,000 fund and I had the pleasure of being on the judging panel, an exceptionally difficult process with so many high quality applications. After several hours of debate, we were able to fund 31 projects across the UK that we believe will enthuse and engage the next generation of technologists about computer science. A brief description of the successful projects can be found here.

I’d like to say a massive congratulations to the successful projects; I’m looking forward to seeing what impact they have over the next year!

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Strategic Information Pack: teaching Computer Science in schools in Wales

In April, I sent a Strategic Information Pack (zipped) to all state-maintained secondary schools and colleges in Wales (following on from a similar exercise in England) in order to explain the opportunities they would have from September 2012 to develop Computer Science as a rigorous academic component within a reformed ICT curriculum. The supporting materials in the information pack provided comprehensive information that would help head teachers, principals and school governors make the right decisions:

Alongside the information pack was the announcement of the Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence, to create a network of schools and universities across Wales to advance teaching excellence in Computer Science. Schools that are members of the network would:

  • be offered enhanced and heavily subsidised CPD for a teacher in their school;
  • be part of a regional teaching hub (see CAS Hubs in Wales) for sharing good practice and offering grassroots organised CPD;
  • have regular contact with university Computer Science departments across Wales to support and inspire teaching material;
  • be expected to teach Computer Science at Key Stage 3 or 4 as a catalyst for a renewed Computing curriculum as recommended by the Royal Society, which is benchmarked against the CAS curriculum;
  • have opportunities for showcasing their teaching practices and experiences at national conferences;
  • be proactively consulted for their views and opinions for future campaigns related to education policy.

The centres of excellence in Wales would become part of a wider UK network for establishing best practice and spearheading innovative teaching in Computer Science, with ongoing support from CAS, the universities in the network and BCS; it has already generated a huge amount of interest, with over 500 schools across the UK applying.

It is not too late to join the Network of Excellence: we need leading schools from across the Wales to drive forward this initiative. Please contact me for further information.

(N.B. I would like to say a massive thanks to the Technocamps project for their financial and logistical support in getting the Strategic Information Pack sent out to school and colleges in the run up to our joint conference this week)

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Computational Thinking and Thinking About Computing

In the run up to the 2012 CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference, I wanted to draw attention to a concept that is increasingly praised for its wide utility across education, but rarely adequately explained: computational thinking. The phrase computational thinking was brought to the forefront of the computer science community as a result of a 2006 CACM article by Jeannette M. Wing. Wing is Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, where she leads the Microsoft Research-sponsored Centre for Computational Thinking.

Computational thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be effectively carried out by an information-processing agent.

Computational thinking is a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science. Computational thinking includes a range of mental tools that reflect the breadth of the field of computer science. Computational thinking means creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively; it means thinking algorithmically and with the ability to apply mathematical concepts such as induction to develop more efficient, fair, and secure solutions; it means understanding the consequences of scale, not only for reasons of efficiency but also for economic and social reasons. And this is one of the reasons why we are espousing the teaching of computer science in UK schools to every child; there is a quote that is commonly misattributed to Dijkstra: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” — this is where computational thinking fits in. Many people equate computer science with computer programming, with some parents seeing only a narrow range of job opportunities for their children who study computer science. Computational thinking is a grand vision to guide computer science educators, researchers and practitioners as we act to change society’s perception of the field. There are two key message from Wing’s 2006 article:

  • Intellectually challenging and engaging scientific problems remain to be understood and solved. The problem domain and solution domain are limited only by our own curiosity and creativity;
  • One can study computer science and do anything. One can study English or mathematics and go on to a multitude of different careers. Ditto computer science. One can study computer science and go on to a career in medicine, law, business, politics, any type of science or engineering and even the arts.

We should look to inspire the public’s interest in the intellectual adventure of the field. We’ll thus spread the joy, awe and power of computer science, aiming to make computational thinking (truly a 21st century skill) commonplace.

Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.


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The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

Further to The Geek Manifesto Pledge by Dave Watts, which has successfully pledged to put a copy of The Geek Manifesto on the desks of all 650 Members of Parliament, Chris Chambers and I have made the following pledge for science in Wales:

I will personally deliver 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly for Wales, but only if 59 other people will help buy the books.

Chris, a psychologist/neuroscientist at Cardiff University, had already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott. We met up for a beer a few weeks ago and resolved to send a copy of the book to all of the 60 Assembly Members in the National Assembly for Wales. We think this is an eminently achievable task and would present a great opportunity to reiterate the importance of science in the formulation of policy in Wales, especially in light of the publication of the Science for Wales strategy in March 2012.

Please sign the pledge and spread the word across Wales! We are currently planning how to maximise the impact of delivering 60 copies of the book to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay.

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Times Good University Guide 2013: Computer Science

Yesterday saw the publication of The Times Good University Guide 2013 (£), one of the many university ranking guides in the UK.

As with last year’s Guide (£), as well as the Guardian University Guide 2013 published in May, there are some familiar institutions in the top 10 for Computer Science:

Ranking 2012
1. University of Cambridge (1st)
2. Imperial College London (3rd)
3. University of Oxford (2nd)
4. University of Bristol (4th)
5. University of St Andrews (6th)
6. University College London (7th)
7. University of Glasgow (10th)
8. University of Southampton (5th)
9. University of York (8th)
10. University of Edinburgh (9th)


Of particular interest to me were the rankings for Computer Science in Wales:

Ranking 2012
26. Aberystwyth University (26th)
33. Swansea University (30th)
34. Cardiff University (31st)
41. Bangor University (56th)
60. Glyndŵr University (51st)
69. University of Glamorgan (61st)
72. Cardiff Metropolitan University (103rd)
91. University of Wales, Newport (89th)

(N.B. no data was available for Swansea Metropolitan University or University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

The Times’ methodology differs somewhat from the Guardian’s methodology, especially regarding research. While four Welsh institutions in the top 50 highlights the strength of Computer Science in Wales, we should be aiming to break into the top 20 over the next two years.

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Computer Terror! (from 1988)

The students were safe, their computers weren’t…

A scaremongering US news report from 1988 on a computer virus outbreak (in fact, it was the Morris worm, one of the first well-known programs exploiting buffer overflow vulnerabilities):

Has a Daily Mail feel to it…

(HT Retronaut)

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2012 CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference

As Chair of Computing At School (CAS) in Wales, I am pleased to announce the 2012 CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference, to be held at Swansea University on Friday 22nd June. The tagline for this year’s conference is: “Delivering Computer Science for Wales“.

Building on last year’s successful inaugural conference, CAS Wales are continuing to work in partnership with the Technocamps project to drive forward the computer science education agenda and provide an opportunity for teachers, practitioners, academics, local government and industry representatives across Wales to come together to discuss the latest policy issues and share best practice.

I am pleased to confirm the keynote speakers for the conference:

There will also be a full workshop schedule featuring: Programming with Greenfoot (Dr Neil Brown, University of Kent), Kodu (Stuart Ball, Microsoft Partners in Learning), cs4fn (Professor Peter McOwan, QMUL), Wearable Arduinos (Sophie McDonald), Aber Robots (Technocamps, Aberystwyth University), OCR GCSE Computing forum (David Pearce, Brynteg Comprehensive School), Interactive Fiction (Kristian Still, Hamble Community Sports College), Algorithmic Problem Solving (Dr João Ferreira, Teeside University) and Computational Modelling (Professor Faron Moller, Technocamps/Swansea University).

Registration for this free event is online; there is also a TeachMeet-style “Bring & Brag” event the evening before the conference for teachers and practitioners to network and connect with the wider CAS and Technocamps community and showcase some of the innovative and engaging ways in which they are teaching computer science at school. You can also follow the event on Twitter: @CASWales and @Technocamps on the hashtag #caswales12.

With the recent attention on computer science education in the UK, this conference is a prime opportunity for the Welsh Government to recognise its importance and invest in its delivery in Wales. In doing so, it would take a massive leap ahead of the rest of the UK.

I look forward to welcoming you to Swansea University at the end of June.

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Academia vs. Industry

Whenever I hear politicians demanding that our education system has to change to better meet the needs of industry, I am reminded of this xkcd comic:

Academia v Business

While this might be facetious, I am not being naive nor pontificating from an “ivory tower” — I think there is an important point to be made about reconciling the traditional aims of education and the modern needs of industry. I understand that there is an imperative to equip our graduates (or school leavers) to be useful members of the nation’s workforce. However, higher education should not be conflated with training — the onus should be on industry to train their workforce, especially if they require specific skillsets. Clearly we have to be aware of the requirements of industry in a more general sense, but I would much prefer to develop a graduate who is capable of applying their existing knowledge and learning new skills (e.g. Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.“), rather than one who only has specific (and perhaps increasingly transient) skills and understanding. Furthermore, trying to meet the immediate needs of industry can be problematic without taking into account the latency of the graduate “pipeline”; this is especially relevant to the ongoing debate regarding computer science education and fulfilling the needs of the IT industry.

But overall, I would like to ensure that as a nation we continue to promote education as being important in its own right — for enjoyment and self-betterment (as well as lasting for longer than the time spent in formal education) — rather than primarily as a means to determining a career path.

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The Geek Manifesto Pledge

I highly recommend Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters; it is a remarkable book (see reviews here). The use of the sometimes pejorative term “geek” in the title should not trivialise the overriding message of the book: a compelling call for the scientific method to become intimately embedded into the political process (see a useful summary of this in Henderson’s recent CaSE blog post). As Stephen Curry succinctly puts it in his excellent review, while many of its themes are not new, it is difficult to imagine such a book being published as recently as five years ago.

Following an example described in the book, Dave Watts is using the PledgeBank website to send a copy of the book to all 650 MPs. Last week, Henderson confirmed that the publisher of The Geek Manifesto, Transworld Books, will match every individual pledge made. As of today, 242 people (including myself and many other geeks you may have heard of) have already signed up.

The book is currently selling on Amazon for £9.87, so by agreeing to spend a tenner — and spreading the word — you will ensure that a copy lands on the desk of two MPs once enough pledges have been collected. You can pledge to send a book here.

UPDATE: it appears that Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University, has already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott (Lib Dem). Perhaps we should consider doing the same thing for the 60 AMs in the National Assembly for Wales?

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