Musings on science, technology, education and policy

Happy Yuri’s Night

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Written by futuresmith

12/04/2013 at 18:00

Challenger and Public Policy

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Really enjoyed watching the dramatisation of Richard Feynman’s role in the Rogers Commission on the Challenger disaster that was shown on BBC2 this week. If you haven’t seen it then I highly recommend it you catch it while it is still available on iPlayer.

Richard Feynman had a varied career in science. He worked on the Manhattan Project during WW2 and only one year after the first integrated circuit was developed by Kilby he gave a seminal speech entitled “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” that many people consider the beginnings of nanotechnology as a discipline.

Part of his reputation as a great scientist derives from his engagement with the public and contributing to public policy activities such as the Rogers Commission. Recently, I’ve taken part in a Crucible exercise (that I’ve been meaning to write up) where we had facilitated workshops on themes such as engagement with the public and policy. Feynman’s experience within the Washington Bubble was initially frustrating, which I don’t find altogether surprising from my own experiences talking to those in politics.

I think this frustration stems from the differences between scientists and politicians. Some politicians seem to care only about evidence that backs up their views rather than evidence based policy. In Science, if the results doesn’t match the theory then the theory is revised until it explains the results. Politicians work in election cycles and are always thinking on these timescales, which limits them to what they can or want to achieve. Scientists generally work on grants that last anywhere from 2 to 5 years but they usually work to solve problems or answer the same question within their discipline over the course of their careers and so look at the bigger picture. Politicians are also conscious in how their actions are perceived by the media, which gives the Daily Mail and it’s ilk a hold over the policies that are enacted. One recent example of this is the sacking of Professor David Nutt by then home secretary Alan Johnson.

However, I believe that without the sterling work of the learned societies, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the likes of Richard Feynman that public policy would be lot poorer.

British Pathé video clip on Transistors

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Nice little video from the British Pathé website about transistor production in the UK. Some things stand out for me when watching this video. The most obvious being the size but also how the yield of the devices must have been quite low compared to what can be achieved now in a cleanroom environment and also how time-consuming the fabrication of discrete transistors was. Of course the thing that seems strange the most is that they once produced transistors in the UK. Quite sad that that this no longer the case.

Written by futuresmith

25/02/2013 at 12:00

MOOCS: Dropping out in Digital Education

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Many have pointed out the un-sustainability of the ever increasing costs of higher education. Some have predicted that the burden of the debt accrued upon graduation will eventually lead higher education to be the next bubble to burst. This has lead some to even ask whether it’s even worth getting into so much debt for a degree that no longer guarantees employment after graduation.

This debate has occurred in parallel with the emergence of massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, MIT open courseware and EdX. These MOOCs have been hyped and praised as the saviour of higher education, bringing high quality education to the masses at next to no cost. This noble goal is to be praises but are MOOCs the right way to do so?

Obviously some people think so judging by how quickly the MOOC companies are signing up different higher education providers and expanding the array of courses they offer. Recently coursera announced another 29 universities have signed on to it’s platform to provide college level courses to whoever wants to sign up for free. What is also interesting is that the American Council of Education has approved five of the courses that they provide with college level credit and is assessing whether to grant the same to some of the courses provided by Udacity. Are MOOCs the future of education? Do MOOCs solve the threat of a higher education bubble?

I don’t think so. While they are useful, I believe there is more to higher education that these services provide. One problem that these courses face is completion. A recent article in the Atlantic stated that that just over 20% completed Stanford’s AI course, less than 5% of those that registered for MIT’s ‘Circuits and Electronics’ completed the course and UC Berkeley reported a pass rate of 7% for one of their courses. If these are any indication then a major problem with MOOCs is high drop-out rates. I don’t agree with the Atlantic’s conclusion that this is not a mark of failure. It is a failure when these companies have stated that the purpose of their existence is to widen access to a high quality education and the fact that many are not completing these courses shows that this goal is not being met.

I think a large part of the reason for the large drop out rates is that MOOCs do not (yet) emulate higher education learning that well. Most of the courses that I have signed up for, and I have signed up for a lot (but not completed that many) consist of a series of pre-recorded lectures with examinations to test understanding of the course material. The lecturing style is mostly didactic, which does not suit the learning styles of many. In fact it can get quite boring after a while. I would be interested to see how these courses could integrate different learning styles into their courses. I’d be even more interested in seeing how these courses will integrate experiential learning that many technical, scientific and medical courses depend on for embedding knowledge and skills either in the form of lab work or projects. The over-reliance of these courses on didactic teaching was also singled out as a recent conference. Basically, it’s outdated pedagogy provided by up to date technology, surely MOOCs can update the technology even more to account for up to date teaching methods.

Written by futuresmith

24/02/2013 at 21:56

Posted in education

What I’d want in an Electronic Lab Notebook

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I’ve recently begun thinking more seriously about electronic lab notebooks after spending what seemed like ages pouring over old lab notebooks looking for the results of an experiment I had a vague recollection of performing. The lab notebook serves various purposes, firstly it is a record of what you’ve done in the lab and what results you’ve gained. It is to aid memory later when you want to recall these results and so it should be organised, clearly written and succint. In industry it also serves as a tool in proving intellectual property by noting the date that the experiment was performed and having it witnessed.

I’ve previously tried various approaches to electronic lab notebooks such as tiddlywiki and evernote. Electronic notebooks are usually searchable, allowing quicker recall and better organisation compared to most lab notebooks. However, these methods can often be limited compared to pen and paper in other respects, for example the need to code entries in tiddlywiki to format the note or insert and image, table and equation.

I have not given up my search for a good electronic notebook and within the past week I came across a webpage from Cornell listing many others. Since then I’ve tried a few of these and while I’ve been impressed by some aspects of each of them; I have yet to be wowed by any single one.

This experience has made me think of what I would like to see in a preferably open source electronic lab notebook software. The ability to search and tag notes is in my opinion one of the main benefits of this type of software, but U would also like to see all the data and the notes to be exportable in XML or other non-proprietary format. The electronic notebook should be customisable for the discipline that the user works in. I would personally like to see data graphing and equation editing incorporated.  I think that all data entry to the software should be tracked by an un-editable time stamp log to back up any intellectual property claims.

Does anyone know of anything like this, or is this too much to ask for?

Written by futuresmith

06/02/2013 at 22:45


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