A Faithful Replica Of An Early Computer Trainer

Turn the clock back six decades or so and imagine you’re in the nascent computer business. You know your product has immense value, but only to a limited customer base with the means to afford such devices and the ability to understand them and put them to use. You know that the market will eventually saturate unless you can create a self-sustaining computer culture. But how does one accomplish such a thing in 1961?

Enter the Minivac 601. The brainchild of no less a computer luminary than Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, the Minivac 601 was ostensibly a toy in the vein of the “100-in-1” electronics kits that would appear later. It used electromechanical circuits to teach basic logic, and now¬†[megardi] has created a replica of the original Minivac 601.

Both the original and the replica use relays as logic switches, which can be wired in various configurations through jumpers. [megardi]’s version is as faithful to the original as possible with modern parts, and gets an extra authenticity boost through the use of 3D-printed panels and a laser-cut wood frame to recreate the look of the original. Sadly, the unique motorized rotary switch, used for both input and output on the original, has yet to be fully implemented on the replica. But everything else is spot on, and the vintage look is great. Extra points to [megardi] for laboriously recreating the original programming terminals with solder lugs and brass eyelets.

We love seeing this retro replica, and appreciate the chance to reflect on the genius of its inventor. Our profile of Claude Shannon is a great place to start learning about his other contributions to computer science. We’ve also got a deeper dive into information theory for the curious.

Thanks to [Granz] for the tip.

Learn Digital Logic By Alien Abduction

Some of the best educational material we’ve seen tells a story. There’s something more fun about reading a story than just absorbing a bunch of dry facts. That’s the idea behind Adventures in Logic Land. In the first episode, you are abducted by aliens trying to decide if humans are intelligent. To prove that, you have to work a series of logic puzzles.

The approach is a little unorthodox. You are shown a live logic simulation (spoiler: it is a NOR gate) and you have to fill in a truth table. The gates use alien symbols which contributes to the storyline but perhaps isn’t the best choice from an educational perspective. Besides, they already use red for zero and green for one which seems a little culturally-specific. The next test shows you how to build your own little simulations and run tests to see if they meet the alien’s criteria.

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Expert Says Don’t Teach Kids To Code

I was a little surprised to see a news report about Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at OECD — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Paris, Schleicher thinks that teaching kids to code is a waste of time. In particular, he seems to think that by the time a child today grows up, coding will be obsolete.

I can’t help but think that he might be a little confused. Coding isn’t going away anytime soon. It could, of course, become an even deeper specialty, and thus less generally applicable. But the comments he’s made seem to imply that soon we will just tell smart computers what we want and they will just do that. Somewhat like computers work on Star Trek.

What is more likely is that most people will be able to find specific applications that can do what they want without traditional coding. But someone still has to write something for the foreseeable future. What’s more, if you’ve ever tried to tease requirements out of an end user, you know that you can’t just blurt out anything you want to a computer and expect it to make sense. It isn’t the computer’s fault. People — especially untrained people — don’t always make sense or communicate unambiguously.

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Back To School Online

In 1961, FCC Commissioner [Newt Minow] famously described TV as a “vast wasteland.” But TV can do great things; educational programming, news coverage, and great performances do appear, just not all that often. You can draw the same parallels to the Internet. Sure, it’s mostly cat pictures, snarky comments, and posts of what your friends had for dinner. But it can also be a powerful tool, especially for education. Recently, top-name schools and other institutions have posted courses online for everything from Python to Quantum Mechanics to Dutch. The problems are finding these classes and figuring out which ones are gems and which are duds. A site called Class-Central aims to solve these problems.

The site aggregates class descriptions from a variety of sources like edX, Coursea, and more. Users can rate the classes. Many of these courses are free to take. The recent trend is to offer the content for free, but charge for people who want an assessment, such as a certificate of completion or even a full-blown degree. Even then, the cost is typically far less than traditional college costs.

There’s also news about courses. For example, a recent post highlighted that edX now offers nine online master’s degrees in conjunction with major schools. A computer science masters from the University of Texas, for example, runs about $10,000. A Georgia Tech cybersecurity masters degree costs even less. There are another seven not ready yet, including one for electrical engineering.

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A Nibble And A Half Of Wooden Bits

If you are familiar with binary, what would you need to teach someone who only knows decimal? If you do not know how to count in binary, let us know if the video below the break helps you understand how the base-2 number system works. If learning or counting binary is not what you are interested in, maybe you can appreciate the mechanics involved with making a counter that cycles through all the ones and zeros (links to the video shown below). The mechanism is simple enough. A lever at the corner of each “1” panel is attached off-center, so it hangs when it is upside-down, then falls to the side when it is upright, so it can swivel the adjacent panel.

Perhaps this is a desktop bauble to show off your adeptness at carpentry, or skills with a laser cutter, or 3D printer. No matter what it is made out of, it will not help you get any work done unless you are a teacher who wants to demonstrate the discrete nature of binary. If wood and bits are up your alley, we have a gorgeous binary driftwood clock to feast your eyes on. Meanwhile if analog methods of working digital numbers suit you, we have binary math performed with paper models.

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Facebook Wants To Teach Machine Learning

When you think of technical education about machine learning, Facebook might not be the company that pops into your head. However, the company uses machine learning, and they’ve rolled out a six-part video series that they say “shares best real-world practices and provides practical tips about how to apply machine-learning capabilities to real-world problems.”

The videos correspond to what they say are the six aspects of machine learning development:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Data
  3. Evaluation
  4. Features
  5. Model
  6. Experimentation

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Computer Programming Unplugged For Kids

There was a time when computers were far too expensive to let mere students use them. In those days, we wrote fake programs for fictitious machines and checked them by hand. That wasn’t fun, but it did teach you to think about the algorithm. You weren’t worried about how many tabs to indent code in the editor, or checking your social media feed, or changing the track on your Spotify playlist. Maybe that was the idea behind Computer Science Unplugged. The site is aimed at educators and gives them lesson plans to teach kids about computer concepts through activities that don’t use a computer.

The target ages are from 5 to 14 and topics range from binary numbers, sorting, searching, error detection, and robotics. For example, one exercise has students line up to be bits in a binary number. Each kid holds a card that is blank on one side or has the right number of dots on the other (for example, bit 0 has 1 dot, bit 2 has 4 dots, and so on).

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