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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Engineering Education: Fact and Fiction

Photo: Wilton Helm
Wilton Helm, Hardware & Software Developer reports, "Education has always been an interesting subject for me.  When I entered college, my goal was to be a high-school teacher.  Later, I decided teaching college might be more to my liking, but that didn’t pan out the way I had intended.  I did do some teaching at various levels from elementary to college, and actually hold a community-college credential in California, which does me little good living in Colorado."

Photo: Electronic Design (blog)

Another reason for my interest is that my work has often led to roles of mentoring and supervising electronic engineers and software developers, even sometimes in the recruiting and screening, and yes, occasionally firing of them. I have taken a keen interest in the dialogue (that has been going on for many years) about the quality of engineering education in the U.S.

My degree is in computer science. I was fortunate enough to take most of my classes from a very intelligent and practical instructor.  He just completed his undergraduate degree in physics, but he had a good grasp of concepts and taught us programming languages as tools to implement concepts, not as an end in and of themselves.  For example, we needed to learn recursion.  But we lacked access to any languages that supported recursion. Rather than throw up his hands, he showed us how to use a variable as a stack pointer and an array as the stack, and subsequently implement recursion in BASIC.

By the time I graduated, he had moved on to industry and was replaced by an instructor who had a master’s in CS. The latter faced the same issue; however, he told his students that they would not be able to try recursion because we didn’t have a language that could do it. One of my classmates who took classes under the former instructor, and happened to be in this class, proceeded to show the instructor how to do it.  So much for a master’s degree in CS!  Your mileage may vary.

I recently read an article questioning the need for a college education. I have told people over the years that the degree you get in college is less important than the fact that you have a degree. There is still some truth to that, particularly when it comes to salary level and preference in hiring. However, in the computer field, the trend is to snap up bright applicants regardless of their (lack of) formal training.  Sometimes this works well, but it often leads to sloppy practices and poor documentation.  The CS degree may not be necessary to get the job done, but it may be valuable for writing quality code with minimal bugs that can be read by someone later on.

We all come into life with different strengths and different temperaments. One of my early dissolutions was the rigorousness of college-level math. I never cared much for the proofs of geometry in high school, and my initial goal of a math/physics double major in college rapidly vaporized in calculus class.  Fortunately, the college was putting together a CS degree about that time, and I found it much more interesting. 


Source: Electronic Design (blog) 

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Professor Joins Major New Robotics Initiative

UC Merced Professor Stefano Carpin will serve on the executive board of a new multidisciplinary research enterprise called the People and Robots Initiative, by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). according to UC Merced University News.

Professor Stefano Carpin, second from left, and his students show off their new robot.

The initiative will support efforts by faculty members and students working on robotics from the four CITRIS campuses: UC Merced, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. Building on 40 years of robotics research, a network of alumni, and many active labs and projects, the initiative will draw on innovations in sensors, devices, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), networks, optimization and machine learning to improve human experience in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, safety and a broad range of other applications that can benefit society.

“Robotics is experiencing major growth right now,” Carpin said. “There are so many opportunities. This is the right moment to create the critical mass that goes beyond any single campus.”

UC Merced’s robotics research Opens a New Window. dates back nearly to the campus’s opening, even winning the 2009 world championship at the RoboCup Rescue Virtual Robots Competition.

“Even for a small campus, we have a long history of accomplishments,” Carpin said.

“The People and Robots Initiative will catalyze new research in engineering, computer science and the humanities that focuses on the central role of humans,” initiative Faculty Director Ken Goldberg, of UC Berkeley, said.

Source: UC Merced University News

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Good Math, book review: Challenging concepts, well explained by Mary Branscombe

Follow on Twitter as @marypcbuk
Mary Branscombe, freelance tech journalist summarizes,  "More accessible than Hofstadter or Martin Gardner's classic mathematical columns, Good Math is a fun, if demanding, introduction to the strange, fascinating fundamental concepts of mathematics that underpin programming."

Good Math: A Geek's Guide to the Beauty of Numbers, Logic, and Computation (Pragmatic Programmers).

Understanding maths, logic and computation is becoming increasingly important in business -- especially if you need to evaluate new technology. Can your wi-fi router or your smartphone really make you money by mining Bitcoin in the background? To find out, you need to know something about cryptography, something about hardware design and something about how to calculate power usage so you can figure out whether that crowd-funded device you're thinking of investing in will cost you more in electricity than it will make you in virtual currency. Even if you just want to avoid being fooled by infographics, it's a good idea to think a bit more rigorously about mathematics.

It's been a long time since computing was taught by the maths teacher at school; these days, you can jump straight into programming without knowing much more than algebra. However, a more comprehensive understanding of mathematics will become increasingly useful. If you want to make sense of the principle of machine learning, you need to understand basic statistics and probability. To understand functional programming, you need to know the basics of lambda calculus. And if you're looking at actor frameworks, like the new programming models in the Azure Service Fabric, an understanding of state and Turing Machines will come in handy.

Mark Chu-Carroll's Good Math: A Geek's Guide to the Beauty of Numbers, Logic, and Computation is a good introduction to the appreciation and understanding of maths -- as long as you're already comfortable with mathematical notation and are prepared to pay attention. Chu-Carroll has an engaging style that's easy to read and he makes mathematical discoveries and principles interesting. However, you'll definitely need an aptitude for maths in order to grasp the details. He starts at the beginning, with numbers -- basics like cardinal numbers tell you how many things there are and ordinal numbers tell you what order they're in -- and explains that axioms are sets of rules that define how numbers behave. But in just a few pages you're into Peano arithmetic and induction, with subsequent chapters covering irrational and transcendental numbers, plus 'funny numbers' like zero, Euler's constant, i (the square root of -1) and the golden ratio.


Source: ZDNet

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Compulsory science and maths is great but there’s more to be done by Ragbir Bhathal

Photo: Ragbir Bhathal
"Compulsory maths and science in years 11 and 12 will have a lasting benefit, but we need to boost the skills of teachers and start teaching science even earlier." reports Ragbir Bhathal, Lecturer in physics at University of Western Sydney.
Photo: The Conversation AU

Federal Education and Training Minister Christopher Pyne today met with his state counterparts to confirm his proposal to make science and maths compulsory for year 11 and 12 students. This is to be applauded by the scientific community as a step in the right direction, as it will produce a more scientifically literate society at a time of rapid technological change.

It will enable Australia to remain highly competitive in the areas of science and technology in an environment where rapid technological change and development is taking place in the East Asian nations, who are our competitors in the international high technology markets.

Steady decline
Australian policy makers and governments have to be worried since the picture that has emerged in the international comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies are not very flattering. The Benchmarking Australian Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics report, released by Chief Scientist Ian Chubb in November 2014, revealed a decline in the participation rates of Australian year 12 students in the major scientific disciplines: physics, chemistry and biology.

What is even more worrying is the decline in Advanced and Intermediate Mathematics, which underpins university studies in the physical sciences, engineering and medicine...

Teaching the teachers
The issue facing Pyne at the moment is not the question of making mathematics compulsory for years 11 and 12 but ensuring that 100% of the teachers have the necessary qualifications and expertise in mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Unless the issue is solved we will be on a perpetual merry-go-round for the next ten years. 

Depending on the university, there is between 20 to 30% of HSC students enrolling in science and engineering programs without proper mathematics, physics and chemistry backgrounds.

This places a tremendous strain on university resources to get these students up to speed so that they can continue their studies and thus allow the universities to keep their retention rates high.

However, it is a job that can be done more cheaply in schools and thus save taxpayers' money.

Source: The Conversation AU

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Complimentary White Paper - Microlearning: When Less is More

This white paper is written for Human Resources and Training departments, who are now central to the digital transformation of their organizations.

Download this White Paper

Challenged by the rapid developments in technology and the dramatic change in employees' habits and behaviors, HR and training managers must understand that they play a critical role in guiding and supporting their staff through the sociotechnological revolution facing their companies.

Clearly, the key to that is training. But what kind of training?

Corporate MOOCs, e-learning solutions... the "digitalization" of training is here to stay. But how this new "Connected Learner" behaves has yet to be fully understood - the one who wants to learn while he surfs online, who wants to find immediate answers to a Google search, who wants to have access to software and social networks on his PC, smartphone, and tablet... all without spending hours doing it.

Microlearning might be just the right answer.

Download this White Paper   


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Household Robots Are Here, but Where Are They Going? by Dan Mitchell

Dan Mitchell, Guest Contributor writes, "Social robots like Amazon’s Echo can play music and tell you the weather today, but their real promise is potentially decades away."

Introducing Amazon Echo 

Social robots like the quasi-anthropomorphic Jibo and Amazon’s far more utilitarian Echo are beginning to find their places in our living rooms. The consensus seems to be that they are pretty cool but leave a lot to be desired. These robots perform a lot of the functions that smartphones and tablets do—which is to say, they’re fun but superfluous. They also need to get better at recognizing speech or reliably calling up requested information.

But focusing on what home robots can do now might be the wrong way to look at it. The more interesting question is, what will they be able to do in five years, or 10, or 50? All we know for sure is: a lot more than they do now.

“We have to remember that we’re in the very early stages,” says Maja Mataric, the founding director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center at the University of Southern California. “But it’s only a matter of time until they’ll be capable of a whole spectrum of things”—for example, making dinner or tidying up a room.

We’re at such an early stage, in fact, that there’s not even agreement on what a “social robot” is, exactly. Jibo and Echo are both commonly referred to that way, but there are big differences between them. Jibo (which has so far been available only to “early adopters,” and will start shipping to consumers next year) is much more like what most people think of when they think of a robot—it’s animated and highly interactive. Echo is a monolith—a simple, sleek cylinder that mostly responds to commands. Jibo is cute, Echo is austere. Jibo is video-enabled, Echo is not. Jibo costs $749, Echo costs $199.

Jibo: The World's First Social Robot for the Home

But while Jibo can move, neither device is mobile, partly because there’s not yet any reason for them to be mobile. They can’t wash windows or make an omelet. “When they can do physical work, that will be much more compelling,” Mataric says. Roboticists hesitate to guess when that will happen. “Eventually, they’ll be able to make gumbo,” says Cynthia Matuszek, a robotics researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But “multiple decades” is her closest guess to when that will be. In the meantime, social robots can perform fairly simple tasks, with varying degrees of success, in response to voice commands. Echo goes by the name “Alexa,” So you can say “Alexa, play the new Mumford & Sons album,” and it will do so. Or you can ask it for the weather forecast. Jibo, meanwhile, can engage in simple conversations, as it swivels and wriggles about and displays video images. It can teach kids languages, or, sitting on the kitchen counter, teach adults recipes.

Source: MIT Technology Review, amazon Channel (YouTube) and Jibo The World's First Social Robot for the Home Channel (YouTube)

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3 Things To Remember When Creating On-Demand E-Learning

Follow on Twitter as @sameer_bhatia
"Learners want e-learning on their terms. Here’s how to make sure the results are on yours." reports Sameer Bhatia, founder and CEO of ProProfs, an e-learning company.

Photo: Chief Learning Officer

The e-learning market is growing apace, thanks to new technologies and trends like massive open online courses and mobile learning, as well as a desire for organizations — both educational institutions and companies — to get more for their money.

While most of the initial online courses and MOOCs were scheduled and moderated similar to a face-to-face course, today learners get more self-paced, on-demand e-learning options. 

A variety of factors are driving this trend, including:
  • A general move toward bite-sized learning activities 
  • An increased focus on just-in-time training and performance support 
  • A growing BYOD, or bring your own device, culture 
  • A need for people to learn more quickly 
  • An emphasis on personalized, rather than standardized, learning processes 
  • A consumer mindset that favors instant access
Many organizations today use e-learning for more than education and employee development. Colleges are producing MOOCs to boost awareness of their academic programs, and companies are using online courses for brand awareness and recruitment, improving customer relationships and more.

The overall effect of these forces combined is creating a system that provides learning opportunities for people where, when and how they want them. This movement is happening quickly: According to Docebo in March 2014, the worldwide market for self-paced e-learning is expected to increase 7.6 percent per year, hitting $51.5 billion by 2016.

While e-learning best practices apply whether the course is scheduled or self-paced and moderated or not, the new tools and technologies used today require more thought to the learning environment and the user experience. Below are three essential things to consider when designing modern, self-paced and on-demand e-learning.

Source: Chief Learning Officer

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Music in Philosophy by Ralph Blumenau

"What great thinkers said about great music." according to Ralph Blumenau lectures on the History of Philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London, and the author of  Philosophy and Living.

Today some universities have courses in the Philosophy of Music. They study such questions as: What is the definition of music? What makes us say that a particular set of sounds is music while another set of sounds is not? What is the relationship of music to the mind? How does music affect (a) our emotions, (b) our intellect? How can we evaluate the value of any given piece of music? What is the relationship between a piece of music and its performance? What do we mean when we say a piece of music is sad? Where does the ‘sadness’ reside? and so on. Such questions are treated in a highly technical way in, for example, the article ‘Philosophy of Music’ in the on-line Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. There we can see what issues about music are being debated by the current academic establishment.

That is not what I want to do in this article. This is historical, describing what some individual philosophers have said about music. I could not find any website that gives an account of how significant philosophical ideas about music have developed over time. That time seems to me to end with Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900. Since then, it seems to me, no great name in philosophy has given music a significant place in his philosophy – although there are of course many lesser philosophers who are not (relatively) household names who are referred to in the Encyclopedia.

The other thing that struck me is the enormous time gap between, on the one hand, the two philosophers of antiquity, Pythagoras and Plato, who said something about the philosophy of music, and the topic being taken up again in the Eighteenth Century by Leibniz. So the bulk of this article will deal with a relatively short period, from about 1714 to about 1889, during which time famous names in philosophy – Leibniz, Kant, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche – concerned themselves with ideas about music.

But to begin with the ancients:

Read more... 

Additional resources

In this book Ralph Blumenau brings out for the non-specialist the bearing that thinkers of the past have on the way we live now...

Source: Philosophy Now 

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Hong Kong students need inspiration, not more tests, to excel by Professor Sun Kwok

Photo: Sun Kwok
Professor Sun Kwok, dean of science of the University of Hong Kong looks at how HKU's science curriculum has been reformed to shift education away from rote and abstract learning, to instead create a passion for problem-solving and a wider world view. 

These reforms are based on the philosophy that university education is more than vocational training. Our goal is to provide a whole-person education. 
Photo: South China Morning Post

It is widely reported in the media that Hong Kong students excel in standard science and mathematics tests. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests 15-year-olds in many places, and Hong Kong students - along with those in Singapore, mainland China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - always rank near the top.

It is widely reported in the media that Hong Kong students excel in standard science and mathematics tests. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests 15-year-olds in many places, and Hong Kong students - along with those in Singapore, mainland China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - always rank near the top.
When I arrived in Hong Kong to become dean of science at the University of Hong Kong in 2006, I had high hopes, as HKU takes the top students in the city. I thought it would be a pleasant change from the university students I had been teaching in Canada for the previous 20-some years, as 
Canadian students usually performed less well in these standard tests.
Indeed, I have found that some Hong Kong students are the smartest and hardest-working students I have ever met. Some are highly motivated to succeed.
At the same time, I can't help noticing that they have been let down by the system. While Hong Kong students can calculate mathematical problems very quickly and accurately, they have no idea what maths is for.
To them, mathematics is just an abstract exercise unrelated to the real world. Their idea of maths is to mechanically and repeatedly grind through formulas. When asked what mathematics can do to solve problems around us, few can give any answers.
Similarly, science in secondary schools is taught in a segregated manner, and students cannot relate physics to chemistry to biology. Even fewer can relate these subjects to nature, our environment or our everyday lives. Students are very good at learning the abstract knowledge in books, but many fail to see the science present all around them.

Source: South China Morning Post 

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5 Ancient Public Relations Secrets by Bryan Evans

Bryan Evans, PR practice area leader at Trellist Marketing and Technology writes, "The practice of public relations is not what it used to be, but history can teach us some important lessons."

Khafre's Pyramid (4th dynasty) and Great Sphinx of Giza (c. 2500 BC or perhaps earlier). 
Photo: Wikipedia

In the past, great care and effort went into crafting messages and pitch development. For example, when Julius Caesar wrote his compelling pitch in 50 B.C., his vivid portrayal of military exploits convinced the people of Rome that he was the best candidate to be head of state. When Cleopatra combined her fluent command of the Egyptian language and mathematics as a communications tactic, she improved relationships and restored economic instability in ancient Egypt. Today, the tides have changed as digital public relations professionals attempt to recreate this dynamic.

In 2015, news can be spread farther, faster, and more directly than any other time in history. The digital revolution—even over the past decade alone—has forever altered the practice of public relations. While some have yet to embrace the new rules of digital outreach, others have lost sight of the time-tested art of engagement that has been on display since antiquity. Perhaps the ability to strum the chords of human emotion through words and execution has gotten lost in the tombs of digital technology.

If you dig deep enough, you’ll find some interesting clues from the past that mirror what an effective public relations strategy should look like today. Want proof? Below are five essentials to successful public relations efforts that began in ancient times:


Source: Entrepreneur

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