Shallow Thoughts : : education

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 20 Mar 2017

Everyone Does IT (and some Raspberry Pi gotchas)

I've been quiet for a while, partly because I've been busy preparing for a booth at the upcoming Everyone Does IT event at PEEC, organized by LANL.

In addition to booths from quite a few LANL and community groups, they'll show the movie "CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap" in the planetarium, I checked out the movie last week (our library has it) and it's a good overview of the problem of diversity, and especially the problems women face in in programming jobs.

I'll be at the Los Alamos Makers/Coder Dojo booth, where we'll be showing an assortment of Raspberry Pi and Arduino based projects. We've asked the Coder Dojo kids to come by and show off some of their projects. I'll have my RPi crittercam there (such as it is) as well as another Pi running motioneyeos, for comparison. (Motioneyeos turned out to be remarkably difficult to install and configure, and doesn't seem to do any better than my lightweight scripts at detecting motion without false positives. But it does offer streaming video, which might be nice for a booth.) I'll also be demonstrating cellular automata and the Game of Life (especially since the CODE movie uses Life as a background in quite a few scenes), music playing in Python, a couple of Arduino-driven NeoPixel LED light strings, and possibly an arm-waving penguin I built a few years ago for GetSET, if I can get it working again: the servos aren't behaving reliably, but I'm not sure yet whether it's a problem with the servos and their wiring or a power supply problem.

The music playing script turned up an interesting Raspberry Pi problem. The Pi has a headphone output, and initially when I plugged a powered speaker into it, the program worked fine. But then later, it didn't. After much debugging, it turned out that the difference was that I'd made myself a user so I could have my normal shell environment. I'd added my user to the audio group and all the other groups the default "pi" user is in, but the Pi's pulseaudio is set up to allow audio only from users root and pi, and it ignores groups. Nobody seems to have found a way around that, but sudo apt-get purge pulseaudio solved the problem nicely.

I also hit a minor snag attempting to upgrade some of my older Raspbian installs: lightdm can't upgrade itself (Errors were encountered while processing: lightdm). Lots of people on the web have hit this, and nobody has found a way around it; the only solution seems to be to abandon the old installation and download a new Raspbian image.

But I think I have all my Raspbian cards installed and working now; pulseaudio is gone, music plays, the Arduino light shows run. Now to play around with servo power supplies and see if I can get my penguin's arms waving again when someone steps in front of him. Should be fun, and I can't wait to see the demos the other booths will have.

If you're in northern New Mexico, come by Everyone Does IT this Tuesday night! It's 5:30-7:30 at PEEC, the Los Alamos Nature Center, and everybody's welcome.

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[ 12:29 Mar 20, 2017    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 29 Jun 2013

Teaching Robotics to High School Girls at GetSET

[GetSET Robots and Sensors workshop] Wednesday I taught my "Robotics and Sensors" workshop at the SWE GetSET summer camp.

It was lots of fun, and definitely better than last year. It helped that I had a wonderful set of volunteers helping out -- five women from CodeChix (besides myself), so we had lots of programming expertise, plus a hardware engineer who was wonderfully helpful with debugging circuits. Thanks so much to all the volunteers! You really made the workshop!

We also had a great group of girls -- 14 high school seniors, all smart and motivated, working in teams of two.

How much detail?

One big issue when designing a one-day programming workshop is how much detail to provide in each example, and how much to leave to the students to work out. Different people learn differently. I'm the sort who learns from struggling through a problem, not from simply copying an example, and last year I think I erred too much in that direction, giving minimal information and encouraging the girls to work out the rest. Some of them did fine, but others found it frustrating. In a one-day workshop, if you have to spend too much time working everything out, you might never get to the fun stuff.

So this year I took a different approach. For each new piece of hardware, I gave them one small, but complete, working example, then suggested ways they could develop that. So for the first example (File->Examples->Basic->Blink is everyone's first Arduino exercise), I gave everyone two LEDs and two resistors, and as soon as they got their first LED blinking, I encouraged them to try adding another.

It developed that about half the teams wired their second LED right next to the first one, still on pin 13. Clever! but not what I'd had in mind. So I encouraged them to try moving the second LED to a different pin, like pin 12, and see if they could make one LED turn on while the other one turned off.

Another challenge with workshops is that people work at very different speeds. You have to have projects the fast students can work on to keep them from getting bored while the rest are catching up. So for LEDs, having a box full of extra LEDs helped, and by the time we were ready to move on, they had some great light shows going -- tri-colored blinkers, fast flashers, slow double-blinks.

I had pushbuttons on the tentative agenda but I was pretty sure that we'd skip that part. Pushbuttons are useful but they aren't really all that much fun. You have to worry about details like pull-down resistors and debouncing, too much detail when you have only six hours total. Potentiometers are more rewarding. We went through File->Examples->03.Analog->AnalogInput, and a few teams also tried LED fading with File->Examples->03.Analog->AnalogInOutSerial.


[GetSET Robots and Sensors workshop] But then we moved on to what was really the highlight of the day, piezo speakers. Again, I provided a small working example program to create a rising tone. The Arduino IDE has no good speaker examples built in, so I'd made a short url for my Robots and Sensors workshop page,, to make it easyto copy/paste code. It took no time at all before their speakers were making noise.

I was afraid they'd just stop there ... but as it turned out, everybody was energized (including me and the other volunteers) by all the funny noises, and without any prompting the girls immediately got to work changing their tones, making them rise faster or slower, or (with some help from volunteers) making them fall instead of rise. Every team had different sounds, and everybody was laughing and having fun as they tweaked their code.

In fact, that happened so fast that we ended up with plenty of time left before lunch. My plan was to do speakers right before lunch because noise is distracting, and after you've done that you can't to concentrate on anything else for a while. So I let them continue to play with the speakers.

I was glad I did. At least three different teams took the initiative to search the web and find sample code for playing music. There were some hitches -- a lot of the code samples needed to be tweaked a bit, from changing the pin where the speaker was plugged in, to downloading an include file of musical notes. One page gave code that didn't compile at all. But it was exciting to watch -- after all, this sort of experimentation and trial-and-error is a big part of what programmers do, and they all eventually got their music projects working.

One thing I learned was that providing a complete working .ino file makes a big difference. Some of the "music on Arduino" pages the girls found provided C functions but no hints as to how to call those functions. (It wasn't obvious to me, either.) Some of my own examples for the afternoon projects were like that, providing code snippets without setup() and loop(), and some teams were at sea, unsure how to create setup() and loop(). Of course I'd explained about setup() and loop() during the initial blink exercise. But considering how much material we covered in such a short time, it's not reasonable to expect everybody to remember details like that. And the Arduino IDE error messages aren't terribly easy to read, especially showing up orange on black in a tiny 3-line space at the bottom of the window.

So, for future workshops, I'll provide complete .ino files for all my own examples, plus a skeleton file with an empty setup() and loop() already there. It's okay to spoon feed basic details like the structure of an .ino file if it gives the students more time to think about the really interesting parts of their project.

Afternoon projects

[Working on the robotic car] After lunch, the afternoon was devoted to projects. Teams could pick anything we had hardware for, work on it throughout the afternoon and present it at the end of the workshop. There were two teams working on robotic cars (sadly, as with so many motor projects, the hardware ended up being too flaky and the cars didn't do much). Other teams worked with sonar rangefinders, light sensors or tilt switches, while some continued to work on their lights and music.

Everybody seemed like they were having a good time, and I'd seen a lot of working (or at least partly working) projects as I walked around during the afternoon, but when it came to present what they'd done, I was a little sad. There was a lot of "Well, I tried this, but I couldn't get it to work, so then I switched to doing this." Of course, trying things and changing course are also part of engineering ... that sentence describes a lot of my own playing with hardware, now that I think of it. But still ... I was sad hearing it.

Notes for next time

So, overall, I was happy with the workshop. I haven't seen the evaluation forms yet, but it sure seemed like everybody was having fun, and I know we volunteers did. What are the points I want to remember for next time?

Thanks again to the great volunteers! I'm looking forward to giving this workshop again.

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[ 20:36 Jun 29, 2013    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 05 Nov 2011

The Stanford online Machine Learning class

In case you haven't been following it, Stanford's computer science department began a grand experiment in online learning early this month: free, upper division college courses, given online and open to the whole world. There are three classes offered: Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Introduction to Databases.

They've sparked an incredible response: exact numbers don't seem to be available, but rumor is that AI had about 130,000 enrolees, while ML had about 70,000. (Nobody seems to have published numbers for DB.) Update, a day later: @seemsArtless tweets that ML currently has 87,000 registered users.

Why so much interest? Surely there are lots of places to get free information (like wikipedia) and even course lectures (like MIT). And there are plenty of places to take classes for relatively low cost, like local junior colleges or ed2go.

What's different about the Stanford classes is that they cover advanced material, in far more depth than you'd find at a junior college or typical online site. They offer graded homework so you can see how you're doing, and there are other students taking the class at the same time, so if you get stuck, there are all sorts of discussion groups you can turn to. It's one thing to read a textbook or watch a video by yourself; I find a class much more helpful, and judging by the response to the Stanford classes, I'm not alone in that.

I agonized over whether to take AI or Machine Learning. They both sounded so interesting! Since I couldn't decide, I initially signed up for both, figuring I'd drop one if the load was too great. By the end of the second week, I'd settled on Machine Learning. I was starting to dread the AI class flash quizzes -- which didn't always work right, but made it hard to proceed until you'd answered the question right even if you couldn't see the question -- and to feel frustrated about the lectures, which clearly were meant as a jumping off point for students to go do their own outside reading.

On the other hand, I was really enjoying the Machine Learning lectures, and looking forward to each new one. And the real kicker: Machine Learning includes programming assignments, so students can implement the algorithms Professor Ng talks about in the lectures.

What's great about Machine Learning

Andrew Ng's video lectures are wonderfully clear, well paced and full of interesting content.

He uses a lot of graphs to help students visualize what's going on geometrically, rather than just relying on the equations. (Better yet, in the programming exercises he shows us how to create those graphs for ourselves.)

And he's great about flagging certain portions as possibly review (you can skip this lecture if you already know linear algebra) or advanced (this is some extra background for people who know calculus, but you can skip it and still do fine in the course).

The technology is simpler than that used in the AI course. If you have a slow net connection or travel a lot, you can download the lectures as mp4 files and watch them offline. You can download lecture slides as a PDF or PPT. Review questions (graded) are handled with simple HTML forms. All very simple, well-tested technology, and it works great. I've had no problems accessing the servers, submitting homework or anything else -- very impressive!

But the heart of the course is the programming exercises. ML is taught in GNU octave, a framework and language for numerical computing and matrix operations. Students aren't absolutely required to use octave, but it's highly recommended: Professor Ng says he's found that students learn much faster that way. Sounds good to me, and octave looks like a useful skill, well worth acquiring. I'm having fun learning it.

The programming exercises come with a lot of scaffold code plus a few files with "Your code goes here". The actual amount of coding isn't large. But I'm finding that it does the job: it forces me to make sure I understand the matrix operations discussed in the lectures. And at the end, you come out with something that's actually useful! From the first few weeks, I have linear and logistic regression code that I could use to analyze and visualize all sorts of datasets. Now, at the end of week 4, we're halfway through writing a neural network to recognize handwritten numerals from image data. How cool is that?

Suggestions for improvement

The class is a huge success. Who would have thought that you could teach something this advanced on such a huge scale, so effectively?

I have only a couple of small suggestions -- ways the class could be even better next time.

Hope for future expansion

I mentioned my suggestions because I fervently hope there is a "next time". These classes are a great service, and I hope the huge response isn't putting too much burden on the instructors.

"Common wisdom" among providers of online classes seems to be that there's no demand outside of enrolled university students for hard courses, courses with prerequisites, and especially courses that involve (shudder) math. Just look at the offerings from any online courseware or adult ed program -- they're long on art appreciation and "Introduction to MS Word", short on physics and econometrics. Even the for-pay online degree mills concentrate on humanities and business, not technical subjects.

Stanford's experiment has proven that "common wisdom" is wrong -- that tens of thousands of students will jump at the chance to take highly technical, mathematical courses. I'd love to see the model expanded to other subjects, such as statistics, economics, physics, geology and climate science.

And, yes, there is money to be made here. If this many people will take a free class, wouldn't quite a few of them be willing to pay? Most couldn't afford $1000 like UC Extension classes -- but how about $100, comparable to other online education classes? Would people pay more if you offered college credit?

Online education providers, take note! There's a large, underserved market for scientific and technical classes out here in the long tail.

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[ 17:31 Nov 05, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 28 Aug 2011

Teaching programming with "program a person"

A few weeks ago, at the annual GetSET engineering summer camp for high school girls, I taught my usual one-day workshop on beginning programming in Javascript.

The big question every year is always how to make the class more interactive. The girls who come to GetSET are great -- smart and motivated -- but after six hours of lectures and working through exercises, anyone, of any age, is going to glaze over. Especially when it's their first introduction to programming and they only have a day to learn it. People learn better when they're asking questions, thinking and solving problems, not just listening or following instructions.

For years I've heard vague references to "programming a person" as an exercise for teaching the basic idea of programming. The idea is to get the students to come up with step-by-step instructions for someone to do something -- say, walk across the room and pick up a water bottle -- so they realize how specific you have to be. It also solves another problem: giving everyone a break from sitting still and focusing on a computer screen.

But how do you really do it? What kind of problems work best in practice? How much time should you allow? If you have a volunteer carrying out the instructions, how do you keep them from skipping steps? Surprisingly, I couldn't find anything written up to help an inexperienced would-be teacher of programming.

What I needed was a chance to try out some ideas, or watch someone with more of a clue on this sort of teaching. This year, I found opportunities for both.

First try: Toastmasters

One of the reasons I love Toastmasters, especially with a small and friendly club like Coherent Communicators, is that it offers a safe place to try new presentation techniques and get good feedback about what does and doesn't work. So I made my first try at a Toastmasters meeting a few weeks before the GetSET workshop.

I allowed 15-20 minutes for the exercise. I explained to the audience that I wanted them to get me to turn left, walk over to the easel at the side of the room, touch it, turn around, walk back to the lectern, pick up the gavel and pound it on the lectern. I would solicit a command from them, write it on the whiteboard, then carry out the command and ask for the next command.

The day's audience was a fairly even mix of techies and non. I had wondered whether the audience would be widely mixed in how specific their instructions were, but they were fairly uniform -- mostly along the lines of "Turn 90 degrees left." "Take 5 steps." "Take 2 more steps". Of course, there were a few joking suggestions from the techies, like "send an electrical impulse from your brain to your left quadriceps", that you wouldn't expect with a high school group, but mostly everyone was on the same page.

When I got near the easel, we hit "Raise your right arm". (Oops, not close enough yet.) "Um ... lean forward about a foot?" A good illustration of being specific ... just the sort of thing I was hoping for.

They got me back to the lectern, got me to pick up the gavel (I was letting them skip a few steps by this point) ... and improvised a little, getting me to knock my head rather than the lectern. That was fun, and got some laughs ... it worked well.

I had hoped to do a second run where I guided them into understanding a while loop ("while (not yet to the easel), take another step"). But seeing a yellow light from the timer, I opted for a quick explanation of how a loop would work rather than guiding the audience into it. I found out later that the timer had hit the wrong button and only given me 8 minutes rather than my requested 15-20 ... so 20 minutes actually would have been plenty of time to cover loops as well as basic instructions. Disappointing ... but I was surprised we'd gotten so much done in so little time.

Lessons learned:

Try 2: "Program a blind robot"

For the real workshop, I had help in the form of Esther Heller, an experienced girl scout leader as well as many year GetSET veteran. Esther had done exercises like this before and was willing to take the lead; I was looking forward to learning from her. We had discussed two different variants, and decided to try both of them at different times during the day.

For the first variant, we waited until mid-morning when the class was bogging down a bit and looked like they needed a break. Esther called for two volunteers: one programmer and one robot. The girl playing the robot was blindfolded with a bandanna and escorted to the door of the room, while Esther whispered the task to the other girl. The task was something like walking over to a water bottle, picking it up, walking over to another girl and handing it to her -- though the rest of us didn't know that until it was completed.

The instructions suggested by the girls were quite similar to the ones I'd heard in Toastmasters. There was lots of "Take 5 steps" ... "take two more steps", guessing at how many steps it would take to get from one place to another. No one came up with anything like a loop or conditional. I'd wondered if anyone would try remote control -- "walk" then wait until the right moment to yell "STOP!" -- but no one did.

The blindfolding worked really well. I'd worried that with a volunteer chosen to be the robot, she might skip steps she hadn't been given. But if the "robot" is blindfolded and doesn't know the task, she can't skip steps; she can only do what she's programmed to. The only problem was that a blindfolded person told to walk straight ahead does not necessarily hold to a straight line, much to the consternation of the girl playing the programmer.

There was a lot of "turn right" ... "no, not that much, turn back left again" ... "now turn JUST A LITTLE to the right" that helped stress the need for specificity -- exactly what we were after. I had wondered beforehand whether anyone would ever suggest anything like "turn right by 30 degrees", but no one, either in Toastmasters or GetSET, ever did.

The exercise was successful and everybody seemed to have fun, so it broke up the morning well. We didn't get to loops or conditionals, though. I didn't record how long we spent, but it was probably in the neighborhood of 20 minutes.


Try 3, in groups: "The muffin is ready"

At the end of the day, we tried Esther's favorite variant. You're watching TV, and you want to go to the kitchen, get an English muffin, toast it, put butter/jam/peanut butter/whatever on it, take it back to your seat and eat it. What are the steps?

Esther divided the girls into groups of 4-5 and passed out post-its on which to write the steps. There was some inertia getting started ... it was late in the day and everybody was tired. (That's not unique to this exercise -- it's always a challenge to come up with something that will hold the girls' interest for the last hour. It's a long day for everyone.)

Eventually they got rolling and got into it -- I saw some very long stacks of post-its from various groups. With ten minutes left to go in the session, Esther picked two volunteers from one group: one to read the instructions, one to execute them. She pointed out places where they skipped steps -- "Hey, wait, how can she get the muffins out of the cupboard without opening the cupboard first?" After a minute or two, Esther called on a new pair from a different group to continue where the first pair had left off.

As she worked through all the groups, you could see each group becoming more cognizant of steps they had skipped, and improvising them on the spot. Despite the end-of-day crankiness, you could see they were learning from the exercise.


So which is better? The muffin exercise was definitely more time consuming than the previous "robot" exercise, due to overhead of splitting into groups and bringing up volunteers from each group. On the other hand, I could see there was benefit in having them work in small groups, and in the touch of competition in comparing their group's answers with the ones from other groups.

It was hard to compare the two exercises directly to see which one worked better, because of end-of-day crankiness. But they both worked well -- I'm going to keep using some variant of this in future workshops, ideally with loops and conditionals added. Thanks, Esther, for your expertise ... and to the students and the rest of the volunteers for making it a successful class!

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[ 16:34 Aug 28, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 19 Aug 2011

Beginning Python: Sorting lists of objects

The Beginning Python class has pretty much died down -- although there are still a couple of interested students posting really great homework solutions, I think most people have fallen behind, and it's time to wrap up the course.

So today, I didn't post a formal lesson. But I did have something to share about how I used Python's object-oriented capabilities to solve a problem I had copying new podcast files onto my MP3 player. I used Python's built-in list sort() function, along with the easy way it lets me define operators like < and > for any object I define.

You can read all about it in my post to the Courses list describing how I sorted my list of podcast objects. Or just go straight to the final program, pods.

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[ 19:48 Aug 19, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 12 Aug 2011

Beginning Python, Lesson 9: More extras

Lesson 9 in my online Python course is up: Lesson 9: Extras (requested topics), including string operations, web development and GUI toolkits.

The web development and GUI toolkits are topics which were requested by students, while the string ops are things that just seemed too useful not to include.

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[ 17:45 Aug 12, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 05 Aug 2011

Beginning Python, Lesson 8: Extras

Lesson 8 in my online Python course is up: Lesson 8: Extras, including exception handling, optional arguments, and running system commands. A motley collection of fun and useful topics that didn't quite fit anywhere in the earlier formal lessons, but you'll find a lot of use for them in writing real-world Python scripts. In the homework, I have some examples of some of my scripts using these techniques; I'm sure the students will have lots of interesting problems of their own.

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[ 14:56 Aug 05, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 30 Jul 2011

Beginning Python, Lesson 7: Object-oriented programming

Lesson 7 in my online Python course is up: Lesson 7: Object-oriented programming.

This is the last formal lesson in the Beginning Python class. But I will be posting a few more "tips and tricks" lessons, little things that didn't fit in other lessons plus suggestions for useful Python packages students may want to check out as they continue their Python hacking.

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[ 10:28 Jul 30, 2011    More education | permalink to this entry | ]