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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Algorithms for Visual Learners

Computer programming is a lot like chess. It is fairly simple to teach people the moves. But knowing how the pieces move isn’t the reason you can win. You have to understand how the pieces work together. It is easy to learn the mechanics of a for loop or a Java interface. But what makes programs work are algorithms. There are many books and classes dedicated to algorithms, but if you are a visual learner, you might be interested in a site that shows visualizations of algorithms called VisuAlgo.

The site is from [Dr. Steven Halim] and is meant for students at the National University of Singapore, but it is available “free of charge for Computer Science community on earth.” We suspect if any astronauts or cosmonauts wanted to use it in space, they’d be OK with that, too.

The animations¬†and commentary take you through algorithms ranging from the common — sorting and linked lists — to the obscure — Steiner and Fenwick trees. Each animation frame has some commentary, so it isn’t just pretty pictures. The site is available in many languages, too.

Many of the animations allow you to set up problems and execute them using a C-like pseudo language. When it executes, you can watch the execution pointer and a box comments on the current operation. For example, in the linked list unit, you can create a random doubly linked list and then search it for a particular value. Not only can you see the code, but the graphical representation of the list will update as the code runs.

The site allows you to register for free to get additional features, but we didn’t and it was still a great read about many different data structures. Also, a few of the¬†commentary slides require you to show you are actually a computer science professor — we assume there’s some copyright issue involved because it is only a few.

This site is a great example of how many free educational resources are out there on the web. It isn’t just computer science either. MITx — or more generally, edX — has some great hardware classes and many other topics