One Pathway for Future Engineers and Computer Scientists

Amazon is committing $50 million to computer science education in the United States with new programs supporting high school and early undergraduate students. Part of this includes financial aid to help schools bring AP computer science courses to their students. They have recently expanded this initiative into K-8.

The program has begun offering free online lessons and funding summer camps to help students discover the "fun" of computer science. Amazon critics might say this a just a kind of farm system for training new employees. Their efforts may benefit the company, but those students are probably more likely to work for other companies. And yes, I would agree that $50 million dollars is a lot of money, but not a lot of money when spread across the country's schools.

Students who start computer science early (and this seems to especially be true for females) are more likely to say they like computer science and have confidence in their computer science abilities.

I'm sure many people would write about this as another STEM or STEAM effort, but their materials talk about how positive it is for everyone to understand how computers (and that word means so many things besides the traditional laptop or desktop computer we talked about just 20 years ago) work and how they are programed.

Most students will not end up working as programmers or computer scientists, but that technology will touch the lives in and out of the workplace.

The program promotes how programming will aid not only the understanding of computers, but other technology and also a student's understanding of logic, precision and creativity.

Amazon Future Engineer Pathway is a partnership with organizations such as Code.org and Coding with Kids.

The Amazon Future Engineer Pathway program aims to support 100,000 high schoolers in taking Advanced Placement courses in computer science. It also is set to award four-year scholarships and internships to a sizable group of students from under-represented populations who participate in those courses.

Amazon is accepting scholarship applications for the 2019 campus and classes.
Schools and districts may also apply on behalf of families

https://www.amazonfutureengineer.com/

https://code.org/

https://www.codingwithkids.com/amazon/

 

On Internships

Science Fiction, Technology and Maybe Education

2001 tablet
2001 tablet

If you watch the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, you will see some technology that seemed to predict technology of today, such as the iPad and other tablets. 

I was watching "Design is [Sci-Fi] – How Design in Sci-Fi and the Real World Influence Each Other," which is a talk given at Google by Christopher Noessel, a veteran in the UX world. He is the author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. 

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design is the update to Make It So that addresses the shift to smartphones and tablets, mobile apps and touch interfaces.

communicator
Star Trek Communicator replica (Wikimedia)

Designers sometimes use interfaces first described in in science fiction or shown in films and television shows. Film production designers working in the sci-fi genre are often free of the conventions of current technology. They can develop what are known as "blue-sky" designs. And then, fictional devices and interfaces might give designers inspiration for their real-world designs.

One example often used is the communicator used on Star Trek which seems to predict the early flip-phone mobile devices. On scifiinterfaces.com, you will find examples of how sci-fi and real-world interface design influence each other.

Films like Blade Runner tried to portray the future and give ideas in their predictions to designers in UX and technology. But does sci-fi have an influence on other fields? For example, what have educators learned from science-fiction? How has science-fiction portrayed education?

Generally, science-fiction writers and filmmakers have not really given schools of the future very much attention. Many schools and students portrayed are at the K-12 levels. Higher education is less likely to appear. Are they predicting an end to post-secondary learning in institutions? 

I remember watching the 1960s TV show and young Elroy Jetson having a robot teacher. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 1990s, there is a school for the space station's youngsters that is not very different from our current earthbound schools.

Certainly, online learning has made deep inroads into education at all levels, but especially in higher education. We don't have robot teachers yet, but AI, machine learning and predictive analytics have certainly started to make their way into education.

When I was teaching young adult novels, some students read Robert A Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky. This 1955 novel presented things like high school students being teleported for their final exam in a survival class to a distant planet. My students found these schools better than their own classrooms.

I found that my students often wished they could go to these futuristic sci-fi and fantasy schools.

I'll admit that when I read the Harry Potter books, I sometimes wished to be in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or be a teacher there, or just have Harry, Hermoine and a few of their mates as students. 

One of the few higher education depictions I have read is Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy found in the The Magicians books by Lev Grossman and the TV adaptations. 

Are there any things that most of these future schools have in common? You would be quick to note that students have much more choice. Their curriculum seems to be all directly related to what they want to do. Yes, some of Harry Potter's classmate may not like a course on magical plants, but they realize that it is an important part of the magical world.

Obviously, these future students have amazing technology to use. Paper notebooks and books and pens and pencils generally don't exist. Everything is digital. 

But there are also things that seem very much the same. Typically, there are still classrooms, labs, rows of desks and a teacher in the front of the room. I suppose even blue-sky writers and designers haven't come up with any good alternatives to those. 

Isaac Asimov made many predictions, including some about 2019, often they were based on current scientific research. Education was something he predicted “will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.” He wrote a short story that I used to teach called "The Fun They Had." It is about future students that were completely educated at home via teching machines. When the system breaks down one day, they have to read a book and find out that kids once went to a school building and had classes with other kids their age. The children are in awe of the fun those kids must have had.

I wouldn’t use “fun” as my main adjective for education today, but through MOOCs, alternate degrees, customized programs and other DIY educational paths there is more education “bubbling up” than ever before.

Christopher Noessel is a veteran in the UX world: designing products, services, and strategy
for the health, financial, and consumer domains, among many others. In this talk,
he investigates how the depiction of technologies evolve over time, how fictional interfaces
influence those in the real world, and what lessons interface designers can learn
through this process, with many examples of good and awful designs.

 

Ethical Tech

Reading the latest newsletter from Amber Mac a topic that caught my education eye is ethical tech. Hope educational use of tech is always stressing ethical use, but is this also a topic that is being taught? 

At the end of 2018, The New York Times posted an article titled, "Yes, You Can Be an Ethical Tech Consumer. Here’s How" by Brian Chen, which notes that products that we enjoy continue to create privacy, misinformation and workplace issues. That article makes some recommendations, ranging from Boycott and Shame (not so radical if you consider the 2018 #DeleteFacebook campaign that I don't think was all that successful) to paths that mean we Give Up Convenience for Independence - something that is as easy as fulfilling that resolution to diet and exercise.

Of course, I am on the side of educating the public and our students at all grade levels about the ethical use and applications of technology. Students are largely consumers of the tech, but they will be the creators. Did Mark Zuckerberg ever have an courses or lesson on the ethical use of technology?

I know that at NJIT where I taught, there were a number of courses that touch on ethical issues. In the management area, "Legal and Ethical Issues: Explores the legal and ethical responsibilities of managers. Analyzes extent to which shareholders should be allowed to exercise their legitimate economic, legal, and ethical claims on corporate managers; extent of regulation of a particular industry, individual rights of the employee and various corporate interests, and corporate responsibility to consumers, society, and conservation of natural resources and the environment." Of course, you have to get to the graduate level for that course.

In my own humanities area of Professional and Technical Communication, we started in the foundation courses in addressing ethics in communications - but it is only one topic in a busy curriculum along with usability analysis, visual information; global diversity and communication concerns and communicating with new technologies.

In computer science, "Computers, Society and Ethics" is a 300 level course that examines the historical evolution of computer and information systems and explores their implications in the home, business, government, medicine and education. The course includes discussions of automation and job impact, privacy, and legal and ethical issues. Obviously, ethical use needs to be a part of many courses at a science and technology school, as well as being the subject matter of entire courses.

AmberAmber says in her newsletter, that looking ahead "We will also continue to see social responsibility expand beyond the consumer. For example, let's think about investment dollars into new technologies. In the US alone, according to PitchBook, venture capital investment in US companies hit $100B in 2018. If we dig into these dollars, there are very few memorable headlines about ethical investments, but that is bound to change - especially as executives at large tech companies set new standards.

Engineers, designers, technical communicators and managers need to be better prepared for the world they are entering professionally. I proposed a course at NJIT on Social Media Ethics and Law that has yet to be approved or offered.

Amber continues that in terms of momentum on this ethical use  in companies, she points to software giant Salesforce as a leader. CNBC reported, the company will have its first Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer in 2019. And she points to a company that prides itself on being ethical and sustainable, Patagonia, as being "the north star of ethical business practices" and suggests that tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg should take a long look at Patagonia's many years of dedicated corporate responsibility. Patagonia announced they will donate the $10M the company saved via GOP tax cuts to environmental groups. Amber points out that Patagonia has a long history of providing consumers with access to their supply chain footprint and she asks if that might be the kind of thing that Gen Z may demand from the companies from whom they purchase. They might - if they are properly educated on the ethical use of technology.

I'm Not a Bot

captcha
This early version of a CAPTCHA uses a nonsense word "smwm" and obscures it from computer interpretation by making it an image, twisting the letters and adding slight background color gradient.


CAPTCHA (/kæp.t??/ is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart"). It is the general name for a type of challenge–response test used in computing to determine whether or not the user is human. 

You have encountered them when logging into sites. The early versions were scrambled words as images. But they have become more complex. 

I suspect that the acronym was formed with the idea of capture+gotcha. That is especially true of a newer form known as an image identification captcha which may be better at fooling robots, but is also better at fooling and frustrating me.

For example, you may encounter ones asking you to "select all the images with a fire hydrant" in them.  (It could also be automobiles or road signs or...)

capcha

The problem with this type is that the images are small and low quality. On the example shown here I can't tell if there is a fire hydrant hiding in the image. And the captcha will keep giving me new ones if I'm not correct. The result? I give up at trying to use the service.

This user identification procedure has received criticism since it was first introduced in 2003. It certainly has accessibility issues for disabled people. But everyday users also balk at having to use it.

We use a simple version on this blog to try to prevent bots from posting spamming comments. That didn't work very well and we had to shut down commenting. We'll never know how many legitimate comments never were posted because the captcha stopped the commenter.

Do they work? I don't know their effectiveness score, but there approaches to defeating CAPTCHAs. The simplest is to use cheap human labor to recognize them. There are many algorithms and types out there now and some have bugs that have been exploited to allow the attacker to completely bypass the CAPTCHA. Good old AI and machine learning has allowed people to build automated solvers.

Is there a need for this technology? Yes. Anyone with a blog knows that spam comments are a problem. 

no captcha
           The NoCAPTCHA reCAPTCHA

And then there is the "No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA." In 2013, the updated reCAPTCHA began implementing behavioral analysis of the browser's interactions with the CAPTCHA to predict whether the user was a human or a bot before displaying the captcha, and presenting a "considerably more difficult" captcha in cases where it had reason to think the user might be a bot.

Public Google services started using it the following year. The first issue with its use was that because NoCAPTCHA relies on the use of Google cookies that are at least a few weeks old, reCAPTCHA has become nearly impossible to complete for people who frequently clear their cookies. An improved version introduced in 2017 by Google is called "invisible reCAPTCHA".

We will continue to make ways to block bots and people will continue to make ways to defeat them. A new project, Mailhide, is being developed to protect email addresses on web pages from being harvested by spammers. It converts the address that doesn't allow the bot to see the full email address, so "captcha@gmail.com" becomes "cap...@gmail.com". A human would have to click on it, and solve a CAPTCHA to see the full email address.

Can this be defeated by cheap human labor too? Yes. It's like putting a strong lock on your door. Someone can bust it if they are determined to get in, but you hope to discourage others.

Revisiting the One Laptop Per Child Movement

students using
XOs being used at a primary school in Kigali, Rwanda using the Scratch programming language (Photo: Wikimedia)

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) is a non-profit initiative established in 2005 with the goal of transforming education for children around the world. The plan was to achieve this goal by creating and distributing educational devices for the developing world, and by creating software and content for those devices.

In 2005, the typical retail price for a laptop was considerably in excess of $1,000 (US). Prices have actually decreased since then and laptops have become far more powerful, but the OPLC objective to create a $100 laptop is still an ambitious one.

The OLPC project was started by Nicholas Negroponte at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a core of MIT Media Lab personnel. The organization has grown to include passionate people creating software and hardware and sustainable community involvement to fulfill the educational mission of OLPC. 

What they created was the OLPC XO Laptop, a low-cost and low-power laptop computer. The project was originally funded by member organizations such as AMD, eBay, Google, Marvell Technology Group, News Corporation, Nortel. Chi Mei Corporation, Red Hat, and Quanta provided in-kind support.

The OLPC project has been the subject of extensive praise and criticism. It was praised for pioneering low-cost, low-power laptops.

It can be given some credit for inspiring later variants such as Eee PCs and Chromebooks.

It certainly generated interest at high levels of government and educational leadership in computer literacy as a mainstream part of education in many poorer countries.

The OLPC group and others have created interfaces that work without literacy in any language, and particularly without literacy in English. And it has increased the attention and production of free and open source software.  

My partner on Serendipity35, Tim Kellers, bought an XO laptop. At the time, your purchase funded a second XO going out free into the world. When Tim left NJIT where we had both worked, he passed the XO on to me. I can't say that I find the device to be much more than a museum piece for my purposes. Then again, it was not designed for me or my purposes or my situation.

laptops
                       via Twitter 

I was reminded of the OLPC movement by a post by Allie Cooper on the topic. She wrote:

According to One Laptop Per Child’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Hacker, the most important thing about having these laptops is the capability to access the Internet. “When we think about the causes of poverty, access to information is essential,” said Hacker. “That opens up a huge resource for learning.”

The laptops being given to students are uniformly designed all over the world. The signature mint green color is used by almost two and a half million impoverished children spanning over 40 countries. Called XO Laptops or the Children’s Machine, these low-cost devices function both as traditional notepads or tablets. It has an open-source operating system which is compatible with a plethora of educational apps included in the Sugar software suite. Sugar is designed to be a tool to help students even without the aid of a teacher.

 

By 2015, OLPC reported that more than 3 million laptops had been shipped. That is a success, but the project also met with criticism. My initial criticism of the laptop was that it was not intuitive to use, and the organization has been criticized for its lack of troubleshooting support. 

Back in 2005 OLPC received concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the hazardous materials found in most computers. OLPC said that it aimed to use as many environmentally friendly materials as it could. The laptop and all OLPC-supplied accessories would be compliant with the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS). The unit would also far less power than the typical consumer netbooks available. The XO-1 is the first laptop to have been awarded an EPEAT Gold level rating

Over 2 million children and teachers in 42 countries are learning with XO laptops today.

You can learn more about OLPC at:
laptop.org
wiki.laptop.org/go/The_OLPC_Wiki