Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Touch-screen interface that lets you "feel" objects

Topographic maps could really let you feel their topography. Image: Disney Research
We perceive variations in an object’s surface by detecting changes in friction on our fingertips. The interface simulates these variations through a series of low voltage electric currents that cause vibrations in your fingertips. In its most basic form, the system involves an insulated electrode paired with an electronic driver to create the voltage patterns.

Researchers at Disney are working on a touchscreen interface that lets user "feel" objects. The interface allows you to feel properties of objects, for example bumps, ridges, textures, and protrusions.

Additionally, Disney research is also working on using air cannons to simulate touching digital objects: http://www.wired.com/design/2013/07/disneys-tiny-amazing-air-cannons-will-let-you-feel-the-digital-world/

Brain-stimulation headset to improve learning?

Foc.us headset
The headset from foc.us promises to "overclock your brain using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation" (basically a light electroshock that supposedly increases your focus). The cost of the headset is $249 (and sold out).

They are currently targeting pro-computer gamers. Could that headset also be used in education?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Animated maps of US Civil War battles

Animated US Civil War maps
The US Civil War Trust presents a collection of animated maps that bring battles of the American Civil War to life, complete with troop movement animations, narratives, video, and more. There are animated maps of the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chickamauga.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Can Scientists be Atheists?

Prominent scientists, for example Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, promote the idea that atheism and science are inherently linked and in support of one another (Wikipedia list of atheist scientists). However, this essay questions the validity of using science to support atheist viewpoints.

There are three different questions that need to be answered. First, do you believe that a higher being (deity, God) exists? Second, if yes, what is the nature of that higher being? Third, do you believe that you can gain knowledge (revelation) about the nature of a higher being? See figure 1.

Figure 1: Nature of God decision diagram
The first question (nature of a higher being) can be answered in three different ways:

  • Theism: Belief in the existence of a higher being who is responsible for the initial formation of the universe and continues to causally interact (personal God). As a theist deity continues to interfere with the world, the actions of a theist deity can be experienced (Religion with revelation).
  • Deism: Belief in the existence of a higher being who is responsible for the initial formation of the universe only, but does no longer interfere (impersonal God). As a deist deity no longer interacts with the world, the deity itself cannot be experienced (Religion without revelation).
  • Atheist: An atheist is a person who is certain that no deities exist (strong/hard atheist). An atheist rejects the existence of deities and holds the position that there are no deities.

The second question can be answered in two different ways:

  • Gnostic: Belief that one can gain knowledge of the nature and existence of a higher being.
  • Agnostic: Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the word “agnostic” in 1869, defined it as: “Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.“ An agnostic believes that nothing can be known of the existence or nature of deities (or of anything beyond material phenomena). An agnostic is a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Answering the two basic questions allows for several combinations (See diagram). For example, Christians are (typically) gnostic-theists (belief that there exists a personal higher being that interacts with the world and that one can learn about the nature of this deity).

Many prominent scientists label themselves as atheists, but does science provide a basis to for atheism? Can a person, in his or her role as a scientist, know about the nature of deities (that are transcended = above natural principles) based on scientific evidence?

The answer must clearly be no. From a (simplified) epistemological point of view, science constructs falsifiable models that aim to explain repeated observations of phenomena in the natural world. 
By definition, science does not and cannot make statements about “super”-natural phenomena (phenomena that are outside of the laws of nature). The method of science only deals with the natural world. Statements about the existence and nature of deities lay outside the realm of science and scientists. Science does not provide the tools for gnosis (revelation). A theistic view would be in conflict with scientists' understanding of natural processes, as a theist deity could causally interfere and therefore alter natural processes at will, which could be empirically observed and tested. As science cannot make statement about supernatural deities, it does not support atheist viewpoints. I think the only possible position for a scientist is agnostic. Only agnostics hold the view that we cannot know about deities - because it is a question outside of the realm of science.
The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza asked an important fourth question: What do we mean by “God”? Spinoza disagreed with Descartes about the duality between mind and body and concluded that everything that exists in Nature (=everything in the universe) is one and the same reality. Therefore, as everything is subject to the same set of rules,  “God” is no longer an entity outside of the system. “God” and “Nature” become synonymous terms. Spinoza viewed “God” not as an entity outside of nature (super-natural) but as an emergent property of the complex system of nature itself. Spinoza’s God is the embodiment of all intricately connected laws of nature. From this viewpoint, scientists could be considered religious knowledge seekers as they study the patterns of nature (aka “God”) (See figure 2). Not surprisingly, many scientists since the enlightenment shared Spinoza’s views of God, including Albert Einstein. Einstein said “I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” (New York Times, April 25, 1929).

Figure 2: Spinoza's God
Spinoza’s view of God even aligns with hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins argued that he is an “atheist” because in his work as a scientist he (so far) never needed to add “God” as a variable to explain a natural phenomenon. In Spinoza’s view, “God” is not an external variable but all variables combined. It can be assumed that most self-proclaimed atheists would not have an issue with Spinoza’s view of God but only with the idea of a personal God (theism) (who can meddle with humans and natural laws at will). Most “atheists” would therefore be more accurately described as “anti-theists”.

This essay concludes with two statements. First, whenever you make a statement about “God” you should disclose in which role you are making this statement: As an individual you are (and always should be) free to believe whatever you like. However, if you make a statement in your role as a scientist, then you are bound to falsifiable statements and evidence. Science, by its very definition, does not provide the tools to prove or disprove the existence or non-existence of supernatural deities. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson describes himself as an “agnostic”. E.O. Wilson stated "I would even say I’m agnostic because I’m a scientist. Being an agnostic means saying, dogmatically, that we will never be able to know, so give it up." (Source). Even Richard Dawkins doesn't describe himself as a strong atheist but as a "de-facto atheist" (which refers to the belief that while god(s) cannot be absolutely proven not to exist, their existence could be provisionally described as extremely improbable) [which aligns with the view of science]. When talking about supernatural deities, the only position a scientist can take is agnostic. An agnostic answers the question “Is there a God?” with “I don’t know because I cannot know”. Second, when talking about God you should always clarify what you mean by “God”: Do you consider God a personal or impersonal entity? Do you consider God to be outside of nature or an emergent property of nature itself? Applying some philosophical rigor (and tolerance) to religious discussions could avoid many misunderstandings and unproductive arguments.

Also, see this video on the discussion an atheism.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson describes himself as "agnostic":

Pablo Stanley's comic sums up the four different position on the gnostic/agnostic vs theist/deist axis:

Friday, June 28, 2013

Using superheroes to teach science

Superpowers have their limits too
[Image source: http://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/]
Science educator Joy Lin developed five interesting physics lessons that use different superhero powers as case studies. What about super-speed and friction? Does super-strength help you save a person falling from a tall building? Is immortality desirable?

Find all the super-power lessons and videos here.

As an example, below is the video about super-speed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Collaboratively generating or critiquing Knowledge Integration Maps to learn about human evolution

My CSCL 2013 conference presentation discusses findings from a design-based research study that compared generating or critiquing discipline-specific concept maps (Knowledge Integration Maps (KIM) to facilitate integration of ideas about human evolution.

Empirical study of design for learning

How do interdisciplinary teams of educational designers collaboratively design blended learning environments? My short presentation includes first observations from an empirical study of educational designers working on revising an university-level course.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Video about the history and art of data visualization

Visualizing data is an ancient human activity that dates back to stone age drawings and, later on, cartography. This informative PBS video discusses the history and range of the art of knowledge visualization. The video features Edward Tufte, Julie Steele, Josh Smith, and Jer Thorp.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Inspirational future of learning video

What will the future of learning look like? GOOD magazine created a video that discusses technology-oriented visions from Whole-in-the-Wall and Khan academy to serious gaming. The video features education innovators like Dr. Sugata Mitra, visiting professor at MIT; Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy; and Dr. Catherine Lucey, Vice Dean of Education at UCSF.

The video suggests that the current school system is still based on Victorian-age ideals (such as submission) and industrial age skills (such as arithmetic . People featured in the video suggest that education needs to prepare students for the post-industrial world. Basic arithmetic skills are now less relevant than reading comprehension, information search and retrieval skills, and critical evaluation skills.

Order of academic authorship (and how to avoid conflicts)

Photo by Shironosov/ iStock

Academic papers are often co-authored by several authors, from two to several hundred (for example in CERN physics studies).

Rules for the order of multiple authors vary by discipline, but generally there are three possibilities:
  • By degree of contribution: Authors are listed in descending order of contribution. The principal investigator is often placed last in the author list. However, some universities want to change this practice by only having the principal investigator listed if he/she actively contributed to that particular paper.
  • Alphabetically: Authors are listed in alphabetical order (by family name).
  • Random: Authors are listed in randomized order (rarely used).
In theory, deciding on an order of authors should be a straightforward process. However, disputes over the order of authors can ensue. Ilakovac (2007) in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that over two-thirds of 919 surveyed authors disagreed with their coauthors regarding contributions of each author.

There are several suggestions how to avoid authorship conflicts (compiled from source #1 and source #2):

1) Who counts as an author? Only people who made substantial, direct, intellectual contributions should be listed as authors. All authors should meet the following three criteria, and all those who meet the criteria should be authors:
a. Scholarship: Contribute significantly to the conception, design, execution, and/or analysis and interpretation of data.
b. Authorship: Participate in drafting, reviewing, and/or revising the manuscript for intellectual content.
c. Approval: Approve the manuscript to be published.
People who provided technical services, administration, acquisition of funding, collection of data, editorial writing, or general supervision should not be listed as co-authors but mentioned in the acknowledgement section (see argument here).

2) Responsibilities of lead author: As a practical matter in the case of publications with multiple authors, one author should be designated as the lead author. The lead author assumes overall responsibility for the manuscript, and also often serves as the managerial and corresponding author, as well as providing a significant contribution to the research effort. A lead author is not necessarily the principal investigator or project leader. The lead author is responsible for:
a. Authorship: Including as co-authors all and only those individuals who meet the authorship criteria set forth in this policy.
b. Approval: Providing the draft of the manuscript to each individual contributing author for review and consent for authorship. The lead author should obtain from all coauthors their agreement to be designated as such and their approval of the manuscript. A journal may have specific requirements governing author review and consent, which must be followed.
c. Integrity: The lead author is responsible for the integrity of the work as a whole, and ensuring that reasonable care and effort has been taken to determine that all the data are complete, accurate, and reasonably interpreted.

3) Responsibilities for co-authors: All co-authors of a publication are responsible for:
a. Authorship: By providing consent to authorship to the lead author, co-authors acknowledge that they meet the authorship criteria set forth in section 1 of this policy. A coauthor should have participated sufficiently in the work to take responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.
b. Approval: By providing consent to authorship to the lead author, co-authors are acknowledging that they have reviewed and approved the manuscript.
c. Integrity: Each co-author is responsible for the content of all appropriate portions of the manuscript, including the integrity of any applicable research.

4) Talk about contributions early: Co-authors should talk early in the process about the order of authorship, degree/kind of contribution, and the decision-making process (how decisions are made and who has final say if a consensus is not reached). The order of authors is a collective decision of the authors (not just by the lead author).

5) Deal with disagreements: If disagreement arises, make every effort to resolve the dispute locally among the authors. If necessary, get the principal investigator or the Ombuds office involved.

6) Revise degrees of contributions: If authorship seems straightforward, the order of authors can be arranged in advance but with the caveat that this could change if contributions change significantly. Create a culture of transparency and revisit the issue of order of authorship periodically in case contributions (or assumptions about contributions) have changed. Towards the end of the writing process, each co-author should describe his/her contributions and what he/she thinks every other author contributed (this can reveal misunderstandings and provides the opportunity for clarification).

7) Approve final document: Each co-author should review drafts and approve the final version before submission.

8) Describe contributions for reader: When submitting to the journal, include a short description of each co-author's contributions and how order was assigned to help readers interpret roles correctly.

Ilakovac V, Fister K, Marusic M, Marusic A (January 2007)."Reliability of disclosure forms of authors' contributions".Canadian Medical Association Journal 176 (1): 41–6.doi:10.1503/cmaj.060687

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Using video game design for education

Gamestar Mechanic Website

In his Edutopia blog post, teacher Andrew Proto discussed the online tool Gamestar Mechanic to use video game design for education.

Gamestar Mechanic is a browser-based tutorial for video game design. After an interactive tutorial about game mechanics (such as setting goals for your players, having clearly defined rules, and different styles of games), students can use a simple drag-and-drop interface to create their games. Students can share their games with the Gamestar community to get feedback.

Gamestar mechanics has been named one of the American Association of School Librarians Best Educational Websites of 2012.

For teachers, Gamestar Mechanic offers instructional material at gamestarmechanic.com/teachersGamestar offers teachers a discount for classrooms, with student registration available at a fraction of the normal cost.

Andrew Proto suggests that video game design projects can be used in an variety of subjects. For example:
  • After reading a book in class, have your students recreate major scenes in the form of a video game.
  • Ask students to design a game that teaches other students a specific scientific concept you've been studying.
  • After studying ratios, ask students to create a game that contains a certain ratio of coins (for the player to collect) to enemies.
  • Recreate famous myths from different cultures that have been studied in history class.
  • Have students create a game that consists of a level for each stage in a butterfly's life cycle.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Examples of directly observed evolutionary changes

Anolis Lizards
150 years after Charles Darwin (and others) first proposed the theory of evolution due to natural selection, many people still struggle to accept and understand the theory. One frequently observed claim is that evolutionary change cannot be observed.

The website phylointelligence.com has a great list (with scientific references) of examples of evolutionary changes that have been directly observed by scientists. A great resource for science teachers (and everyone interested in evolution).

See the list of observed evolutionary changes here. The examples also include the occurance of human lactase persistence which I used as a case study in my PhD (see PDF here).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Great TV shows about Nerds and Geeks

Being proud of being a nerd or a geek is becoming more popular (Read more here: Evolution of Geek). Not surprisingly, TV producers picked up on the trend and are now producing shows featuring nerdy and/or geeky main characters. Whether you laugh with the nerdy characters or laugh at them (preferably the first), there are many great TV shows about nerds and geeks to choose from:

(See an overview diagram here (spoiler alert!)

Read more here: The geek hierarchy chart.

Here is a list of ten TV shows that inspire geeks and nerds.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Living in front of a computer screen

Children in front of computer screens
[Source: http://images.smh.com.au/2011/06/04/2408569/art-screens-420x0.jpg]
How much time do people spend in front of a computer screen? The 'Halifax Insurance Digital Home Index’ presents findings from an online survey by One Poll in January 2013 that included 2,500 adults aged 18 and over living in the UK. 

Not surprisingly  the survey data indicates that people spend a large amount of time in front of computer screens.
  • 73% of the participants would struggle to go one day without technology devices such as smartphones, laptops and MP3 players. 23% would feel ''uneasy or worried'', while 19% would feel concern about ''missing out''.
  • 74% check emails and social networks before starting work in the morning.
  • 25% check technology devices from their beds, and 10%  take theirs into the bathroom.
  • Each owns an average £4,164 worth of technology devices.
  • Almost one in 10 (9%) respondents use their phone during mealtimes - a figure that doubles for those aged 18-24. 
  • 53% of women use their laptop parallel  to watching television, compared to 43% of men.
  • 45% communicate via devices to speak with friends and family despite being in the same house.
This survey predicts that current children will spend an average of 25% of their non-working time in front of screens (not counting sleeping time). Dr Aric Sigman, psychologist, says: "As the amount of time spent looking at a screen or plugging in increases, the amount of time spent on direct eye-to-eye contact and developing real life relationships inevitably decreases. By the age of seven years, the average child born today will have spent one full year of 24 hour days watching screen technology; by the time they reach 80 they will have spent almost 18 years of 24 hour days watching non-work related screen technology. That's a quarter of their lives."

In a national study of over 2,000 young people, aged 8 to 18, researchers found that participants were able to squeeze the equivalent of 8.5 hours of electronic media into 6 chronological hours because of multitasking (or rather 'multi-device usage'). By the time Net Generation kids reach their twenties, the typical teenager has spent over 20,000 hours on the Internet and over 10,000 hours playing video games of some kind (Source: Digital game-based learning) [Read more here]. With devices like Google Glass and multi-device usage, time in front of computer screens might soon even exceed 100% of people's work and spare time).


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Imagining the 3D digital bookshelf of the future

How can digital books be displayed more efficiently and aesthetically? Currently, most eBook programs use a 2D bookshelf or an iTunes-like cover flow display. 

2D digital bookshelf
[Source: http://www.authormedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/shelfari.jpg]

Digital media give us the freedom to explore new ways to display books. Google engineers created the 3D "Infinite Bookshelf". It is a compromise between a traditional bookshelf view while accommodating large amounts of books (One effect of switching from physical books to eBooks is that one can store a much larger collection of books  than one would ever own in physical form). The "Infinite Bookshelf" is an infinite 3D helix that you can spin side-to-side and up and down with your mouse. It holds 3D models of more than 10,000 titles from Google Books

Google 3D Infinite Bookshelf
[Source: http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6219/6258962915_b1b16ef550_b.jpg]
Each row represents books belonging to the same genre. The books are organized into 28 genres/subjects. To choose a subject, click the subject button near the top of your screen when viewing the bookcase. The camera then flies to that subject. Clicking on a book shows the cover and the first page with a link to google books and a QR code  that’s in the bottom left corner of the page, using a QR code app likeGoogle Goggles. Try the "Infinite Bookshelf" demo here.

This short video explains the functionality of the bookshelf.

Without physical bookshelves, there is no more shelf-snooping when you visit somebodies home or office. The books we have on display show our intellectual heritage and interests. Discovering that a new acquaintance read the same book is a great start for a conversation. But how can that happen if all our books are stored electronically? Do we give a new acquaintance acces to our shelfari,  goodreads, or calibre accounts? Will we have wall-sized touch-screens displaying our digital libraries?
Browsing Google's Infinite Bookshelf (at Google NY)
Will we have physical book-dummies on display? Once we are all wearing google glasses, will visitors be able to see my personal library displayed on a wall?

While Google's Infinite Bookshelf is an interesting concept, I wonder why a digital 3D library couldn't look more like this:
Clementinum National Library (Czech Republic) 
Jedi Temple Library (aka Trinity College Library, Ireland)
I imagine a 3D digital library that links to my eBook collection (e.g. on goodreads or calibre) and displays books from each genre on a different book shelf (and one shelf for to-be-read). I could give visitors full or partial access to the library and allow them to borrow books. I hope that somebody will take on the task of creating beautiful 3D digital libraries for personal use.

See more pictures of beautiful libraries here and here

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teaching machines in 1954

Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner presents the benefits of self-paced mastery learning using "teaching machines".

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Home office of the future in 1967

Walter Cronkite presents the "Home office of the Future" on March 12, 1967 in an episode of the CBS show "The 21st Century".

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gallup poll indicates students' loss of interest in school over time

Albert Einstein said that "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.“ Sadly, a recent Gallup survey of nearly 500,000 students from grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 US states in 2012 suggests that students increasingly loose their interest in going to school in the first place. By the time students get to high school only about 4 in 10 qualify as engaged.
Larry Ferlazzo rightly points out that this is not a statistically valid survey as there was no random sampling involved; schools and students participated on a volunteer basis. However, the large sample size still provides an interesting dataset.
Another critique point is the measure for the construct "engagement". Here are some sample questions:
8. I have a best friend at school.
9. I feel safe in this school.
10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.
11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.
13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.
14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.
The data however fits well with other surveys who indicated waining interest in STEM education (See http://proto-knowledge.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/usa-fails-to-make-progress-in-stem.html)
Mark Twain suggested: Don't let school interfere with your education.

Source: A Bad Start to Lifelong Learning? - Mission to Learn - Lifelong Learning Blog