Monday, December 28, 2009

Star Trek to blame for lack of female Computer Scientists ???

How very interesting, two topics that are very dear to my heart...Star Trek and gender balance in Computer Science...a study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggesting that stereotypical images of computer science (including Star Trek, videogames, junk food, and comic books) create barriers to females from joining the fold, as the decor broadcasts a kind of masculinity. The paper entitled "Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science" suggests that these stereotypical images can either create/prevent a sense of (ambient) belonging, and for females they serve as barriers to joining.

I love the debate that this opens; I think it is a very interesting and a very important issue to discuss. I think it is vital we have gender balance in computer science, it is a necessity as fundamental as gravity.

The study in this paper is a good beginning, but that's about it, in it the authors presented students with two computer rooms, one which contained comic books, video-game boxes and junk food, the other room contained nature posters, healthy snacks and general interest books -- given the choice, 82 percent of the women picked the nonstereotypical workroom. In follow-up tests, a total of 215 students were asked to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation. For every possible scenario, women preferred the non-geeky space.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington suggests that non-stereotypical depictions of computer science, in the media and in classrooms, could help update the field’s image. Now this it seems to me is very, very obvious, and over simplified -- the findings suggest that environment can influence people's comfort level. I accept this, but I think there are a number of larger issues here, such as the way computer education is treated in secondary school as a result of secondary school teachers attitudes to women in science. I think blaming the media is a bit trite, I have previously looked at the representation of computer users in TV and it is clear to me that female computer users are well represented in the media.

I think to make this type of study more useful, the experimental approach needs to be expanded.

First what we need are more longitudinal studies on this issue, the study undertaken in this paper appears to be a very short-term experiment.

And second let's see which of the geeky elements are the problem. Do they work in combination or is there any one element that is key? My view is "let's not eliminate these things (where possible) let's modify them to be more inviting to everyone", So;
  • If Star Trek is a parameter, what if the images are of positive female role models in Star Trek, e.g. Captain Janeway or B'Elanna Torres the engineer, would this change things?
  • If video games are a parameter, let's try ones with more positive female role models in them.
  • If the issue is junk food let's just get rid of junk food out of computer labs, it's bad for your brain.
  • If the issue is comic books, can we find comics with positive female role models? like Halo Jones or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Still this is a great paper to start the debate.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Harvard study: Computers don't save hospitals money

An interesting article on the benefits (or lack thereof)
of computers for hospitals. It would be interesting to
see a similar study in schools.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Computer Science Related Articles

I've started a new blog;

in which I will post links to interresting
computer science related articles.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Picasso's Guernica in 3D by Lena Gieseke

Picasso's Guernica is a painting that means a great deal to me,
I have just found a wonderful site that has created a 3D rendering
of Guernica and has movies that focuses in on the individual parts
of the painting, to let you see it in a whole new way, wow !

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

Things I do on my summer holidays

Here are a few work-related things I do over the summer holidays;

  • Development of new courses and subjects, to address market needs, and new technologies and methodologies,
  • Research, including designing experiments, writing code, interviews, survey, etc.
  • Recruitment which can be meeting and interviewing potential students and production of promotional materials,
  • Liasing with Industry and government bodies,
  • Writing research papers,
  • Dealing with student appeals and cases of unfair practice,
  • Supervising postgraduate students,
  • Applying for research funding,
  • Helping organise conferences,
  • Reviewing journal papers and drafts of student dissertations,
  • Helping students revise for repeat exams,
  • Teaching in partner insititutes,
  • Development of teaching and assessment materials for next year (so I typically teach 4 courses in Semester 1 and 4 in Semester 2, and rarely get the same courses two years in a row. It typically takes me 2-3 hours to prepare an hour of lecturing for an undergraduate course, and 5-6 hours for a Masters course (you can't exactly make this stuff up on the spot), and as it happens for next year I am going to be teaching subjects on four different Masters courses, so I'm going to have to be working at least 9-5 for a lot of the summer).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Female Hackers on TV

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to blog about female computer scientists we admire. Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) is credited with authoring the first computer algorithm (which concerned a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers) in 1843 for use on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine.

 Happy Ada Lovelace Day,

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. For my contribution I'm including a list of female hackers from various television shows:

* Abigail "Abby" Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) in "NCIS"

* Angela Bennett (Brooke Langton) in "The Net"

* Barbara Gordon/Oracle (Dina Meyer) in "Birds of Prey"

* Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) in "Knight Rider"

* Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in "24"

* Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) in "Smallville"

* Cindy "Mac" Mackenzie (Tina Majorino) in "Veronica Mars"

* Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) in "Criminal Minds"

* Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) in "Max Headroom"

* Rachel Gibson (Rachel Nichols) in "Alias"

* Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer) in "VR.5"

* Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shamanic Teaching Spaces

When I first got a job as a lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology I was required to undertake a few courses to qualify me for the position. An interesting incident occurred at one of those courses that significantly clarified my views on teaching.

During the class the trainer showed a video which she characterised as "a bit of fun" that included some pejorative remarks about a recognisable group within society. After the class was over I approached the trainer and expressed my objections to what was shown on the video. At first she tried to brush me off "Oh, come on, I think you are being a bit too politically correct", when that didn't work she then tried to excuse it with "well, there wasn't anyone [from that particular minority] in the room", but when that didn't work she tried to justify it with "Look, it's very hard to get lecturers interested in this subject, and I have to include some light-hearted material in my classes." Eventually we agreed that if I wanted to I could leave when these videos were being shown, and so it was for the rest of the course I was required to do the 'walk of shame', walking out in front of everyone and coming back later, embarrassing, but necessary.

It took this incident for me to realise something that I'm sure is obvious to everyone else, the lecturer creates a teaching space with their students, and the lecturer decides what is and isn't allowed into that space. In this situation the trainer allowed things to occur in her teaching space that I would never allow in my own teaching space. This is not to say that she is wrong and I am right, but rather that different people have different ideas of what goes on in their teaching, so the lecturer has to be very active in their control over the teaching space and has to carefully review any materials that they present to students, and if someone makes remarks that the lecturer thinks are out of order, the lecturer must express their disapproval immediately. This is not to say that my classes are very serious and solemn, on the contrary, I think comedy and humour are vital in helping students learn. I will do almost anything to make my classes fun and enjoyable, other than making fun of individuals or groups.

The point of looking at the teaching and learning process as occurring in a teaching space is that it acknowledges that this process usually occurs in a somewhat ritualised manner. Everyone knows why they are there, everyone is indoctrinated into the education process, and all have one or two decades practice in how it works. The lecturer begins the class, usually recapping a little on what was discussed in the previous class, then introduces the main topic being discussed today, the lecturer goes into detail on the topic, quoting examples, and opening it up for discussion, and then the class usually finishes off with a summary of what was discussed. The students will undergo this hourlong ritual several times a day.

In a sense the lecturer acts as a mediator between the students and body of knowledge being communicated, this body of knowledge has no real-life existence, it can be expressed as formulae, theories, definitions and examples in the real world, but in reality it only exists in a Platonic Idea Space (of Ideal Forms) to which the lecturer intercedes on the students' behalf. This relationship is very much like the shaman who acts as mediator between his/her tribe and the spirit world. Of course the term "shaman" come from "one who knows" and the job of the shaman is to educate the tribe about the beliefs of their culture, very much like a lecturer. Also if one considers the manner in which the lecturer communicates to the students, not just their notes and what they say, but how they say it, the emphasis, the motions, and the gestures, it has a clear parallel with the shamanic ethnohermeneutic approach.

So in summary, teaching must be done thoughtfully, carefully, and with the recognition that sometimes the students are in a trance because of, rather than in spite of, your teaching ;-)