Monday, July 28, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Great movies for science geeks and science teachers

Mad Scientist
Many movies portrait scientists (see a list here), but only few try to give realistic depiction of science and scientists (sometimes in a historical context). Scientists are often either portrayed as mad loners (see image above) or a wizard-technicians (e.g. forensic scientists or computer hackers in almost every crime TV show).

Here is a short list of movies that do a better job at representing science (and show the scientist as a positive hero):

Name of the movie
Longitude (2000)
Technology: A clockmaker needs to collect convincing evidence to support the reliability of his method to measure the position of ships out in the ocean.
Astronomy. An astronomer strives to collect convincing evidence that the royal calendar is inaccurate.
Scientists run experiments to explore an alien virus.
Architecture. The challenges of building a Japanese castle.
Agora (2009)
Astronomy. Conflict between religion and science.

What is vocational education? What are current challenges of VET in Switzerland?

Vocational Education in different contexts
Vocational education (also called  career and technical education (CTE), technical and vocational education and training (TVET), or vocational education and training (VET)), can be described as education that prepares people for a specific trade, craft, or career.

Traditionally, vocational education refers to classic trades such as carpenter, mason, plumber, electrician, blacksmith, etc. However, the lines can get blurred when one includes programs such as engineering, accountancy, nursing, medicine, architecture, pharmacy, and law.

At the upper-secondary level in Switzerland, over 60-70% of young people enter a VET program while 30-40% go to university (OECD report). Given the above definition of VET, many university students could also be considered part of VET (such as engineers, medical doctors, architects, lawyers, psychologists, teachers, etc.).

Following this line of thought, education could (roughly) be divided into two strands:
  • Occupation-specific education: Education programs that prepare students for a specific profession (which often includes practical experiences through internships and apprenticeships).
  • General education: Education programs that teach knowledge and skills independent of specific careers, particularly the liberal arts (for example literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history).
Graduates from occupation-specific programs find it often easier to find a job after their program as they have a clear(er) career path, practical experience on the job, and relevant skills. However, university education is still perceived as more desirable. In 2014, over 13,000 Swiss VET apprenticeship positions could not be filled (Newspaper article July 16 2014). In the UK, studio schools try to combine schools with VET. In the US, forming a vocational education system could improve the overall education system (see article here).

Like Germany and Austria, Switzerland has a long history for vocational education going back to apprenticeship programs in the middle ages. Today, Switzerland builds on the 'dual system' approach for VET. Students learn practical skills and procedural knowledge at the workplace (under the supervision of a vocational trainer) 3-4 days/week) and theoretical (declarative) knowledge in vocational school (under the supervision of vocational teachers) (1-2 days/week). Additionally, students also attend yearly inter-company courses (organized by their professional unions) in industry training centers to complement their skill sets (under the supervision of vocational instructors). Some professions, particularly commercial employees, attend vocational school full time. Swiss VET program can take between two and four years and lead to a Federal VET Diploma (full 3- or 4-year program) or a Federal VET Certificate (less demanding 2-year VET program). Graduates from a university of applied sciences receive a 'professional bachelor' or a 'professional master' (Newspaper article June 18 2014). Currently, PhDs can only be granted by the regular universities.

Switzerland draws a distinction between vocational education and training (VET) programs (which take place at the upper-secondary level) and professional education and training (PET) programs (which take place at tertiary level). Beyond PET, universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) offer vocational education at higher tertiary levels. Pathways enable people to shift from one part of the education system to another. The line between PET and university education (particularly of the occupation-specific programs) becomes increasingly blurred.

A big difference between the two strands is the cost factor. While the state heavily subsidizes university education (students only pay about $700/ semester), higher degrees in professional education need to paid fully by the student (often around $3000-4000/ semester). A professional diploma can cost as much as $30,000 to 40,000.

The question for a society (and economy) is to find the right balance between the two education strands. A society that focuses solely on occupation-specific education might have a highly skilled workforce but lack people who see pattern across narrow contexts, think critically about bigger issues, and find innovative out-of-the-box problem solving approaches.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gender stereotypes and the lack of women in STEM careers

Role models and encouragement can make a big difference when it comes to education program and career choices. Currently, less than 25% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the US are held by women.

Recent research (*) suggests that boys and girls have similar psychological traits and cognitive abilities, thus gender is not the determining factor for careers in STEM.

One contributor could be repeated (but often concealed) encouragements that reinforce gender stereotypes (see video below). Women need more role models, opportunities to experience, and encouragement towards careers in STEM.

(*) Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (2006). Gender similarities in mathematics and science. Science, 314(5799), 599-600

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Spatial storytelling using tablets and Oculus rift

Interactive spatial storytelling with iDNA app
[Picture by Apelab]
Swiss startup company Apelab focuses on innovative ways of using digital media for storytelling. One particularly interesting project is iDNA.

Using an tablet or Oculus Rift, the user sees an interactive animation movie. The user can explore 360 degrees of each scene by moving the device around. Depending on which element in the scene the user focuses on, the story seamlessly takes a different path. The viewer gets the illusion of being right in the middle of each scene.

The paper book might be on the decline, but storytelling will find interesting new ways.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Kidzania - a vocation education theme park

KidZania firemen roleplay
[Picture source:]

KidZania model city
[Picture source:]

KidZania is a Mexican owned company who runs a series of vocation-based theme parks around the world.

Each KidZania location features an indoor scaled-down (2/3 of full size) model city in which children can experience different professions through role-play (following the instructions of animators). Around 60 different establishments (including a hospital, fire station, beauty salon, bank, radio station, supermarket, television station, pizzeria, and theater) offer nearly 100 different role-playing activities.

To simulate the real world, KizdZania teaches capitalist-consumerist values of earning and spending money. The role-play gets rewarded with KidZania's own currency, kidZos, which can be spent within KidZania for goods and services provided by other children working in that profession.

Each Kidzania role-play activity is heavily and directly sponsored by multi-national or local brands (what they call "integrated marketing partnership"). For example, aviation professions are sponsored by American Airlines, bank professions are sponsored by HSBC, hospitality professions are sponsored by Coca Cola, Domino's pizza, Nestle, Kellogg's and Danone, Engineering professions are sponsored by Mitsubishi Motors and Honda, and so on.

Currently, the Kidzania franchise has locations in Mexico City, Monterrey (Mexico), Tokyo, Jakarta, Osaka, Lisbon, Dubai, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Santiago, Bangkok, Kuwait, Mumbai, Cairo, and Istanbul (with several new locations in planning).

Read another blog entry on KidZania here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is the difference between a toy, a game, a puzzle, and a sport?

There is no strict lines in between toys, puzzles, games, and sports - but they differ from each other in key features.

The main difference between toys, games and puzzles is the amount of constraint and authorship the player has over the experience. The more authorship the player has over a puzzle, the more it becomes like a toy. The more the player is the actor following the strict guides of the toy, the more the toy becomes like a puzzle. (In my view, it is unfortunate that Lego moved from offering toys (by providing generic bricks that you could turn into anything you could imagine) to selling puzzles (pre-made movie merchandise kits that come with a construction manual). 
Changing the role of the player changes the experience: When you add a goal to toys it will become a game. For instance, when you say "create the highest tower using these Lego bricks", it becomes a game. When you say, "build an exact duplicate of this tower using these Lego bricks it becomes a puzzle".

Game designer Tj'ièn elaborates:
  • With puzzles, there is usually only one answer, one solution. The player’s role is confined to finding the answer to the puzzle. Like a riddle, the puzzle challenges the player to find the answer. The player is limited. Examples, jigsaw, Sudoku, Rubik's cube, Tower of Hanoi.
  • With toys on the other hand the player is completely free in the way it handles them. There are no hard rules that tell the player what to do or how to do it. The player creates its own experience.
  • Games fit snugly in the middle between toys and puzzles. They allow for more freedom then puzzles and are more confined then toys. In a way, games are puzzle-toys.
    • Definition: There are many definitions for 'game', for example 'A competitive activity or sport in which players contend with each other according to a set of rules'; 'A period of competition or challenge' (
Illustration by Tj'ièn 
Another distinction between toy, game, and puzzle by computer game designer Chris Crawford (Source):
  • Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money.
  • A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment.
  • If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. (Crawford notes that by his definition, (a) a toy can become a game element if the player makes up rules, and (b) The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games, or alternatively, simulations (read about the difference between simulations and models here) or toys (no given goals.) If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.
  • If a challenge has no "active agent against whom you compete," it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (Crawford admits that this is a subjective test. Video games with noticeably algorithmic artificial intelligence can be played as puzzles; these include the patterns used to evade ghosts in Pac-Man.)
  • Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.

Definition of game (by Chris Crawford)
Crawford's definition can be summarized of games as an interactive, goal-oriented activities, with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other.

To extend on the above distinctions, different types of games can be distinguished:
Different types of games (by skill): Physical, mental, or luck
What is the difference between a game and a sport? Again, this is another difficult distinction because of overlapping definitions and multiple meanings (Source).

Sports can be defined as a specific form of physical skill game (requiring physical skills and governed by a set of rules) that usually includes physical exertion (and the possibility of injury) and competition in front of spectators ( (which distinguishes them from other skill games such as dart or lawn bowling).

A bit confusingly, you can play a game of sports, but you can't sport a game; You can play a game of basketball and you can pursue basketball as a sport; Football is a sport, and when you watch it (a particular match), it's a game of football.
In this context, the word 'game' can have several meanings. For example:
-Game as a reference to a specific type of game, e.g. the game of chess (chess in general)
-Game as a reference to a specific match, e.g. a game of chess between friends

Also confusingly, it is called the Olympic 'Games' instead of Olympic 'Sports'. In this case, the 'Games' is the overall event that consists of competitions in specific sports.

In computer games, a 'sports game' is a video game that simulates the practice of traditional sports.

Interestingly, the games 'chess' and 'bridge' are recognized as 'sports' (or sometimes called a 'mind sport') by the Olympic Games Committee. However, an UK court decided that Bridge is actually a game and not a sport (Is chess a sport or a game? Is bridge a game or a sport?) (following the distinction of game and sport above). Chess is competitive but does not require physical skills, so it is a game.

AddendumStamp collecting or knitting do not fall into any category described above and are considered 'hobbies'. There is no physical exertion, no game aspect, it can be done 'at your leisure'.