Announcing the Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance « Computing Education Blog

Announcing the Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance « Computing Education Blog

The future of education requires Computer Science. This is an important acknowledgement by the NSF in the US. Hopefully we can get a similar buy-in at some point in Canada. In many schools Computer Science enrollment is going down at the same time that more and more fields require some form of programming skills. I think Computer Science education needs to be transformed into a broader service approach as with Mathematics where everyone is required to take some basic programming in university and college. But this will only work if courses are tailored to non-majors and to different fields who have different needs for how they use computers. It’s an exciting time for CS education.

The Science of Solving Problems vs Football

You should read this great article by PhD student Joon Chuah at the University of Florida about the baffling plan to save money at UF by taking the Computer Science department apart while increasing the budget for sports. He explains the place of computer science in a university and society wonderfully. I’m reminded of a great line from a commercial (for BASF apparently) that relates to what he’s trying to say about why Computer Science is important, the tagline goes:

We don’t make the products you use everyday; we make the products you use everyday better.

Computer science is sort of like that. We don’t work out how the universe works, or how genes cause disease, or how to build stronger materials or how to manage the economy; we work out how to turn questions into computations, how to solve huge, complex problems efficiently, we invent the tools that scientists, engineers, economists and anyone else can use to solve their problems.

Sometimes in CS we assume everyone else knows this, that everyone understands the deal we have. I think of CS as a kind of meta-science, like mathematics that investigates common patterns that underlie every other field of inquiry.  We look at the problem of how to solve problems, the answers we find usually turn out to be quite useful to someone, even if it’s not always clear at the beginning quite how they will be useful.  But sometimes I wonder if maybe everyone doesn’t really get it. Maybe the reason people ask you to fix your computer is they don’t think about the difference between engineering, information technology and computer science. Maybe, this is something the field of computer science needs to work on making more clear to everyone who doesn’t know us that well as a field.

But that’s a big problem to solve, one step at a time.

If you want to help reverse this move at UF support this student protest site and let people know how crazy you think this is.

Turing Centennial Year

For my Science Sunday post this week I’d like to point out that June 23, 2012 marks 100 years since the birth of one of the most important scientists or mathematicians of the last or any other century. Alan Turing is the father of Computer Science, was pivotal to the defeat of the Nazis in WWII and was tragically persecuted and punished for his homosexuality. This year has been declared Alan Turing year in commemoration and Computer Science conferences and around the world will be running special sessions to honour Turing and Computer Science departments everywhere will also be holding events. The museum at Bletchley Park where Turing worked in WWII to break Nazi codes has received special funding from software companies and others to build up the museum and run events.

Some of the core ideas that Turing considered were: What does it mean to compute something? Can computation ever be used to mimic or reproduce intelligence, and would be able to tell the difference?

You can find out about all the events on at

If you want to go one step further and learn more about what CS is about and how Turing’s ideas changed the world you may still be able to sign up for one of the courses being offered free and online by Stanford University.  The Computer Science 101 course is a good way to start understanding how the computers that make our modern world possible function, a world Alan Turing contributed so pivotally to making possible. For a bit more of a challenge the course on cryptography should address the same issues Turing and his team at Bletchley Park worried about trying break Nazi codes. Turing’s other popularly known contribution was about the relation between computation and intelligence. This would have been best addressed by the course on AI offerred last term which thousands of people registered for. That course is not offered this term, but some related courses this term are offered on machine learning and graphical models which are at the forefront of modern research into artificial intelligence.

Happy  ScienceSunday

Some Thoughts on Teaching Math and Computer Science

Two unrelated thoughts about teaching math and computer science that I came across today.

Tau the line

First, today is π day, celebrate mathematics and the beautiful wonder of nature!  But could π be…wrong? π of course, is the ratio of the diameter of a circle to this circumference and a snazzy number to throw out in Divinci Code-esque thriller novels.  It has an air of magic and mysticism which mathematics is actually full of.  But only a few such numbers and equations break through the collective consciousness to the general non mathematical public: π, E=MC²,  imaginary numbers

So that’s why tau manifesto is so interesting. It’s a very well written and entertaining piece about geometry, history and π. It lays out the case that π is actually not the most natural number to use for circles. It’s not that π i

s wrong, its that its awkward and that in fact τ, pronounce ‘tau’, is actually more natural.  τ is simply π times two.  This simple change actually simplifies a lot of what was tricky about advanced geometry in highschool and it has implication for how formulas are written in many fields of science given that π shows up in a lot of equations about the working of the universe.  So, after reading the whole thing, I’m a believer, if only for how it might make teaching geometry a little less painful for students. So while Pi Day is nice, on June 28 I’ll be celebrating Tau Day too. And like the author says, if you enjoyed the baked pie on Pi Day, you’ll love Tau Day, it has twice as much pie!

Big-O No!

The other teaching topic I thought of today is probably one someone has already done.  If you are a computer/physics/math nerd you owe it to yourself to be addicted to the great XKCD webcomic. It’s really got some great stuff and almost all the jokes or comments require some significant knowledge of math, programming, statistics or science.  When teaching computer science it is very easy to get separated from the reason we are teaching various theoretical concepts, algorithms and analysis techniques. It usually can be grounded down to preparing students to be better programmers or modellers or to give them the grounding needed to understand other courses later on where they can get computers to do truly cool things.  However, it’s often difficult to make that connection for students before they actually know how those cool things work

But how about these learning goals? They are fun, easy to evaluate and provide clear goals to students in that they are total gibberish before the course and funny jokes afterwards.

1) After successfully completing this course on optimization you will…understand why this is funny.

And be able to explain why its funny, or at least supposed to be funny.  We won’t deduct marks if you don’t laugh, but we will judge you 🙂

2) After this course on complexity theory you will understand why the following comics are funny:

3) Unix Tools:

I’m there are lots more. If you can think of one put it in the comments <XKCDNumber> : <Course Topic>

History of People in Science

In response to Nicholas’ waxing on about the history of science. I can’t resist that:

Given Google’s ambitious goals to organize all the worlds information, all of it!, I’m sure much more of your correspondence will be hanging around than you’d like for years to come. One crazy futuristic benefit of really saving (more…)

%d bloggers like this: