On Craft

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I came across the following:
‘In the fine arts, a master class is a small class where students and coaches
work together to support a high level of technical and creative excellence.
This book tries to capture the spirit of a master class while providing
coaching for readers who want to refine their skills as solvers of problems,
especially those problems dealing with mathematical inequalities.
The most important prerequisite for benefiting from this book is the
desire to master the craft of discovery and proof. ‘ – J.Michael Steele
Now I wonder if there is a finer example of Mathematics as craft, explained anywhere?

On Unemployment

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Firstly it isn’t always obvious whether or not technology is a good thing.
Tale of two countries the divide between Silicon Valley and the rest of America
I came across the above article from Hackers News,and it got me thinking about disruptive technology and its effects on workers. Recently in a conversation with a close friend, he was annoyed at me when I pointed out I could using Maths probably get a job easily once I graduate. With the blend of skills I’m developing that is possible, and the reason he was probably annoyed was that he felt insecure about his own chances. Having been under-employed for two years one shouldn’t forget the problems that such predicaments put on the person. Umair Haque speaks in his tweets about the human cost of such tragedies. If there is a greater noxious ill in humanity than unemployment I’m not sure what it is.

Why Unemployment Matters
Megan McArdle speaks poignantly about the effects of unemployment and the psychological effects.
How a new Jobless era will transform America
What is most concerning is how conceited some people sound, I’ve young friends who have the chance for great careers and they seem oblivious as is much of those in power about the human cost, and to speak in the parlance of my Aunt ‘the effects on the working man’. I think that work is a lot like fibre, we feel a lot better when we have sufficient amounts of it, and the political debate being against those on Welfare (stoked by a combination of pseudo-feudalism – the Tory position in the UK, and the horrible small mindedness of the Tea Party in the US which is stopping the sort of tax rises that are necessary).
We’ve forgotten the public realm. To tackle mass unemployment we need creative public action, and lets not forget that it was creative public action that sent people to the Moon. The naive view which comes from Libertarians is that taxation is theft. I certainly fell prey to such ideas until I read the following article.
The definitive attack and destruction of an obscure (and in my opinion talented) philosopher Nozicks’ views on Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Thanks in no small part to that silence, we have passed through the looking glass. Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the framework, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the “libertarian” right moves to take the risks of unemployment, disease, and, yes, accidents of birth, and devolve them entirely onto the responsibility of the individual. It is not just sad; it is repugnant.

Critical mass in Education

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I came across in an article by Barry Mazur, this excellent quote:

He tells me that at one point in his career studying
European History, he experienced an abrupt phase shift. Once you’ve achieved—says my friend—a
certain critical mass of historical information, all of a sudden your view of the entire subject changes.
First, your power of simply retaining information increases multifold; but more importantly, your
way of thinking about the subject bears no relation to the way you approached things initially. My
friend accounted for this surprising moment as a consequence of accumulation, perhaps to overload,
of somehow-connected specifics that forced him to involuntarily re-configure—in a more meaningful
way— his modes of organization, and contemplation, of the entirety of this corpus of knowledge.

I think this phase shift is correct, there are times in my education when a discipline suddenly makes infinitely more sense. Its hard before this point to really understand what an expert is talking about, and general ideas can’t replace technical fluency.

Care: Or the fallacies of Neo-Liberalism

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This article probably won’t be too long. There is nothing I can say which is better thought out than the following article in last weeks Guardian Deborah Orr speaks about Care.
There are problems with both the left and the right, certainly in terms of thinking of their views as moral. Deborah Orr points out how false this is. I’ve family members who work in the care industry, they do a fantastic job and the range of social skills and empathy involved is staggering. Yet if one is interviewed (and I cite this interview from memory) about things such as inequality, people will say that those who earn high wages somehow deserve it. Assuming say that wages in management consultancy increase, this doesn’t necessarily mean that wages in the care sector (which I see no reason why they need to be paid low wages). It all reminds me of Baumols Law.
We’ve collectively given economics a lot of power in public policy, a huge number of people in power in the West have Economics backgrounds. Yet it is easily apparent to anyone who spends any time thinking that there are flaws in classical economics and I’ve met enough proto-MBAs to have very little respect for anything masquerading as thought that comes out from these hacks.
Care like teaching should be celebrated, and to paraphrase what Hawking said about Schrodingers Cat, every time I hear mention of the ‘market’ I feel a need to reach for a revolver. We’ve seen that the market isn’t rational or as simple as we think it is – nor does it appear to be efficient. Alternative models and great Mathematics is produced in academia yet these things aren’t used. We need serious debate about care, and the Dilnott report is an excellent start (its recommendations strike me as sound). Yet is it optimal that a society cares more about its footballers, WAGS, Management Consultants, Advertisers and Bankers than it does about its Care workers, Cleaners and Teachers? I think not.

Education and Innovation interview: Dr Rao

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The following interview is with Dr Rao.

Dr Venkat Rao

Venkat Rao is an academically trained engineer who now works as a consultant and writer.
The interview is only six questions, and I’ve not edited much of the interview. His answers are interesting as is his blog. Truly this is an example of a polymath, and it was a pleasure to interview him!

1. Do you feel that the University education system in the USA is
producing graduates for the STEM careers. If so what would you
introduce?

Mostly, yes. The university system is doing a good job. The problem is that it is far too costly given the expected returns, and is delivered in a waterfall manner: 4 years are supposed to sustain you for 40+ working years. That’s the unsustainable part. Smart continuous learning and interleaving with work experience is required. I think the associates degree (2 years) in the US needs far more investment and ramping up in prestige. Today it’s mostly remedial education for bad high school education, or for students who cannot afford the 4 year thing. I think an Associates-Plus degree upgradeable to a full bachelor’s degree by adding evening/weekend credits and work-for-credit experiences over the course of a decade would be far more useful. Students could use at least 2 years worth of credits in an agile/iterative way, instead of waterfall, making their investment more cost-effective and current, and informed by evolving work experience demands. They’d also enter the workforce earlier, at 20, with less debt, and be able to design the rest of their education to match their working life needs through their 20s, and around age 30 they can decide whether to become technical managers, deep technologists etc. This is for people who don’t go beyond undergraduate at most. The MS and PhD are of course very different, but frankly not very important in my opinion. The biggest impact can be made at the undergraduate level, and specifically in the first two years.

2. Where do you feel screen casts, Khan Academy, Youtube videos and
MIT OCW should fit in an undergraduate STEM course?

Not for STEM, no. For some liberal arts and humanities, perhaps, alongside some cooperative/group learning infrastructure. STEM education is heavily dependent on classroom structure, homework, office hours, recitations, labs, practicing skills etc. Khan etc. are bad substitutes. At best they are band-aids to cover gaps left by a regular university style education. MIT OCW type material can be used to lower cost of educational materials and curriculum development at universities with weak faculties, but to imagine that they can serve as self-learning material on a significant scale is deluded. At most 1-2% of students can self-learn using those materials, and they will be severely handicapped due to missing things that come from a social, structured classroom context.

3. In a post corporation world, what skills will become more
essential? Assuming of course we are close to writing the obituary of
the corporation.

Not skills so much as the meta-ability to assemble a set of skills into a personalised package that fits your path. We are nowhere close to writing the obituary of the corporation. It’ll be another 100 years at least. Students need to be prepared to deal with both corporate and free-agent/entrepreneurial phases in their futures. They will likely go back and forth between the two gears.

4. Do you feel the university will be replaced by such technologies
mentioned above? If no, do you feel that some pronouncements by people
like Bill Gates or certain politicians are a bit premature?

I don’t know what pronouncements specifically you are talking about. There is a lot of talk of university reform of course, and there always has been since the 9th century. But that’s a far cry from saying universities are obsolete. Some corners of academia — like design or software engineering — may be partially replaced by other community or organisational forms, but the majority will likely stay in a recognisably university style format. And your assumption is basically flawed. Institutions are a mix of people, social contracts and technologies. You cannot replace that kind of mix with a pure technology. You still need the people and social contracts governing what education is, how it is to be valued, and so forth.

There is also a lot of blind optimism about what unstructured learning through entrepreneurship or participation in open-source communities can achieve, even in disciplines like software engineering. I find people who have solely this kind of education beyond high school to generally have severe and crippling gaps in their education and skill levels.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there WILL be cataclysmic shifts in the university system, to the point that we may not recognize its descendent. But things like Khan, OCW, open source communities and Y-combinator are not where the next-generation STEM education ecosystem will emerge. They may play a small role, but for better or worse, the university is going to remain the workhorse of higher education for at least another 40-50 years at least.

5.Finally, is a STEM graduate functionally illiterate if they lack
programming skills? Why so?

An unqualified yes.10 years ago, I’d have said pure mathematics is an exception, but now I believe you cannot even do college level mathematics without a solid programming base. STEM disciplines depend on programming today as fundamentally as they do on the three R’s: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. This is more a subject for K-12 than universities. Students interested in STEM careers should be exiting high schools with fairly solid programming skills, comparable to the math skills. Good high schools produce graduates with strong pre-calculus mathematics skills in the US. Programming skills should be comparable. Today, high school seniors, if they have programming skills at all, have them at fairly terrible levels, equivalent to about 6th grade mathematics. The good ones who go beyond are self-taught.

\textbf{ 6. Is there anything more you’d like to add? Do you feel this
questions miss the mark of what actually will be important for young
graduates to understand? You’ve written about the use of say
Mathematics (Operations Research) in Shipping, and how that
technologists sometimes miss the real important events in
globalisation,is it possible in our discussions of the future of
education we actually miss the mark? After all the information dump of
Wikipedia and Khan Academy doesn’t necessarily lead to expertise.}

The liberal arts disciplines are sorely lacking in STEM majors. I’d like to see improvisational theater or fiction writing 101 become mandatory for STEM track students, along with a sequence of two well-designed cognitive psychology courses covering things like metaphor, narrative and their applications to things rhetoric, influence, ethnography and so forth. These should become standard in the curriculum, even at the expense of cutting out some old standards. This is scary to some people, but engineering does need to get closer to being a true liberal art.

If these things are addressed at all these days, they are taught in very narrowly utilitarian ways: rhetoric and narrative are reduced to their limited application in “technical communication.” Metaphor becomes “user experience.”

At a broader and more radical level, I think the practice of defining engineering majors at least, has become counter-productive. I have degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, have worked in neither, have expertise in control theory which is generally considered more of an electrical engineering field, and most of my professional work has been in software product management. Something similar holds in science: the distinctions among physics, chemistry and biology are starting to become idiotic. At the undergraduate level, there should just be engineers, scientists and mathematicians. At the MS level, there can be more specialization, but it should still be something less formal than a departmental affiliation.

STEM Education Interview: Robert Talbert

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I’m excited to put up my first ever interview. I’m working on a project for an organisation and this
is an interview as part of my research.

Picture of Robert Talbert


Robert Talbert is a Mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University, who researches Cryptography but has also
spent a lot of time recently experimenting in the field of Mathematics Education. His interview answers are interesting, non trivial and show some of the work that is being done in this area.

1. Do you feel that the University education system in the USA is
producing graduates for the STEM careers. If so what would you
introduce? You’ve written on your blog about the difference between
say a 1960s Engineering graduate and a 2011 one, do you feel that the
University system has caught up with this?

Universities are definitely producing STEM graduates, but it’s debatable whether production is keeping up with demand, and whether graduates are really prepared for the challenges that are coming up in the twenty-first century. To be fair, nobody really knows for certain what the future holds, and so it’s difficult for universities — which are by nature conservative — to adapt to an increasing pace of change. Some universities are catching up fast, and the professional STEM organisations in the US, such as ABET, have been good agents to drive the necessary changes in education. But there are also many universities, some with highly-respected STEM departments, who wish to maintain a 1960’s model of STEM education even as they do cutting-edge research in their disciplines. There’s a sense that if the model we’ve been using has produced successful researchers and professionals, then why change it? But there are a lot of reasons to change, and a lot of potential for even greater success if we do.

2. Where do you feel screen casts, Khan Academy, Youtube videos and
MIT OCW should fit in an undergraduate STEM course?

Online video — and the ease with which people can create, share and consume it — has completely changed the game in terms of how course time is structured and managed, in ways we are only beginning to understand and accept. Where it fits in an undergraduate STEM course, I believe, is in the role traditionally occupied by the in-class lecture delivered by an instructor. There’s not much inherently wrong with lecture; students do need to absorb information from a trusted source before they can be expected to work with it. But it’s never been beneficial to student learning to allow the lecture to occupy the majority of time that students are guaranteed to be in the same place at the same time with an expert who can help them assimilate that information. The only reason we allowed lecture to occupy that position was that there was no other way to mass-transmit information. But now there is, through online video. So I see courses changing structure to place the lecture outside of class, online, where students can view it at times and in doses that make sense for them, and then use the class time for active work with careful coaching and supervision by the instructor.

3. You’ve written a lot about the inverted classroom on your blog, and
in your professional work. What do you feel this does to students?

At first, it makes a lot of them mad! The inverted classroom definitely goes against student expectations about education and the roles of teacher and student. For many students, particularly younger ones, education is about copying down what the teacher says and then duplicating it on a test; the teacher’s job is to tell the students what is on the test; and the students’ job is to take the test. When you flip things around and make students responsible for acquiring basic knowledge and then put them to work in the classroom instead of letting them passively record lectures, it upsets the system many of them have come to know and, unfortunately, love.

But in the long run, what the inverted classroom does to students is that it prepares them for lifelong learning. In their future jobs, and in their future lives, there will be no classtime lectures on the things they need or want to know. For instance, when I became a parent, there was no class to attend the first time my oldest daughter woke up in the middle of the night with a 105 degF fever. I had to do some very fast web and book searches and piece together what was going on so that I could take the correct next step. You can find similar examples everywhere from life, family, work, hobbies. You don’t, and often can’t, wait for someone to give you a lecture and work out 100 examples that will be on a test. Instead, you have to go looking for relevant information and learn the basics on your own and be able to put the basics to work in a live situation. The inverted classroom puts students in the position of being responsible agents for their own education just as they will be, repeatedly, later in life.


4. Do you feel the university will be replaced by such technologies
mentioned above? If no, do you feel that some pronouncements by people like Bill Gates or certain politicians are a bit premature?

Education is fundamentally a human activity. Cognitive research has shown us time and again that deep learning almost always takes place in a social context. As such, I don’t see online video or other similar resources as being replacements for higher education. Instead, those technologies allow the human element to be enhanced in university classrooms. For example, if we can move lectures to an online setting, it frees up lots of time for collaborative work in the classroom among students and between students and professors. Far from replacing the human element of education, technology can — and should — allow our humanity to be accentuated and more deeply involved in learning.


5. Finally, is a STEM graduate functionally illiterate if they lack programming skills? Why so?

I don’t know about “illiterate”, but I would certainly say that they would be no more than just technicians, people who can operate machinery but don’t know how it works. Computers used to be a highly specialized technology used by only a few people — back when programming consisted either of punch cards or arcane low-level languages. But these days, everybody in the STEM disciplines uses computers all the time, and the ability to custom-create functional software for specific tasks on the fly is essential to being a professional STEM practitioner. The complexity of information and tasks that we work with these days guarantees that off-the-rack software is not always going to meet our needs — there will inevitably be a situation where you’ll have to program something to get it to do exactly what you need. If you can’t do that, the next person in line for the job probably can! And anyway, the languages available for non-computer scientists to work with these days — MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic, etc. — are so easy to use that there’s no reason why STEM people shouldn’t learn how to work with them.