Really Smart People

Yesterday served as a testament to me that there are a lot of really smart people and I was so fortunate to be able to see them show off just what it is that they stand for.  At the end of the day, it really was a humbling experience.

In the morning, we started with a breakfast speaker.  Dean Kamen got our intellectual blood stirred by sharing stories about his efforts to bring science opportunities to the youth.  He started with a wonderful story of his attempt to bring science to the masses with the creation of a Science Centre but realized that he was missing so many students going this route.  This inspired him to found the USFirst series of robotic challenges.  It was amazing to sit in the audience and hear how this has taken off both in the US and internationally.  I really liked his understanding that youth had their heroes in sports and entertainment but nothing academically and he was about to change that through this program.  From its humble beginnings, it moved from 23 company support to championships held at Epcot Centre and GeorgiaDome.  The most impressive statistic was the $15M that students were able to garner in university scholarships last year.  Quote of the day here is attributed to President Bush when addressing students at the opening ceremonies – “It’s like the WWF only with smart people.”

Then, it was time for the entire conference to get on the bus and we had a nice scenic tour to New York University where the learning continued.  This time, it was another overview of the piloting CS Principles Course.

Paul Tymann provided a wonderful overview to his implementation of this course last year.  It was designed for those students who might not otherwise engage in Computer Science because of the fear of mathematics or perhaps they were just browsing to see if there was some interest in the discipline.  There were four big themes to the course: Nuts and Bolts, Algorithmic Thinking, Computing Systems, People and Computing.  That would indeed provide a nice introduction to Computer Science and also to societal implications.  Paul shared some of the things that worked:  Image manipulation, steganography, and “go buy a computer” and some things that didn’t:  generate a webpage, accessibility for all.  There was a great deal of interest from the audience looking to offer this course themselves when it’s finalized.  Resources are at http://csprinciples.org and links there to the College Board website.

Then we were in for a real treat.  A graduate student, a regular student, and a summer intern shared some of the gaming software that they had been working on at the university.  We saw how a Kinnect system monitors movement and got an idea about how that might be used in mathematics!  We got demonstrations of Factor Reactor, Super Transformation, and NoobsVersusLeets.  Development was done in XNA and Silverlight and the whole experience was quite fascinating.  Writing the game isn’t enough but also monitor its use was important for research.  To that end, we got to look behind the curtain to see, not only the data collected by the user, but how biometric devices like a pressure seat and skin cuffs measure student reaction when playing the games, collecting 8,000,000 data points in half an hour.  The big question was how do you leverage game playing with academic games?  We talked about solo play, competitive play, and collaborative play.  In the cool department was a demonstration of the Do It Yourself Touch Table.  It was fascinating to see what you could do with plexiglass, a couple of Kinnect sensors and the ability to think outside of the box.

Competitive Factor Reactor Game

Then, it was back on the bus to enjoy the New York traffic and head to the Lincoln Centre and the finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup.  Speaking of thinking outside of the box…

Those who were competing where set up in booths that were open for us to walk through and talk about the projects with the competitors.  The main language of conversation was certainly English but the culture was world-wide.  Students were developing software and prototypes in their quest for a better world.  For the most part, it was just heavy traffic and then an opportunity to chat with the students.  At one point, though, there was this crush of humanity headed my way… Eva Longoria was there to take in the exhibits and talk with the students.  With my phone held high, I got this fuzzy ponytail shot over the shoulder of a really rude professional photographer.

Then, it was show time!  In the Koch Theatre the students all showed up to see who the award winners would be.  I didn’t have the ability to take notes so you’ll just have to visit the Imagine Cup website for the full details.

The presentation was just as good as any awards show might well be.  Betsy and I sat way, way up in one of the top rings with just a few others.

There were some really interesting projects that caught my eye walking through the display area.  One was a helicopter like device developed by a Singapore team that, by remote control, could survey a disaster scene from on high.  It had two cameras and could be outfitted with a number of sensors (radiation, smoke, etc.) to send important information back to rescue teams.

There were two tablet applications that caught my eye in particular.  One actually did win an award in its class.  It was a system of moving PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to a portable device for those students who need it to communicate.  I could see a huge demand for that.  The gentleman that was showing it off was from France and the product is tentatively named after a young lady who needs it for communication.

How about a traffic monitoring system complete with dry ice simulating fog?

Then, I spent almost half an hour talking to another group from India who had a sort of working prototype.  It was a tablet computer for the blind.  Instead of a clear glass screen like we normally think of when we think tablets, it had a braille interface with mechanical pins to interact with the user.  I was blown away with the concept – I wish that they had been closer to a final working product.  Talk about thinking outside the box, er, tablet.

As was noted, these students were all winners with their ideas and implementation.  One question that I asked at every table was how they intended to monetize their product.  Responses ranged from putting out a limited free version with the possibility of a purchased upgrade to donating all the work to Open Source.

The kids are all right.  If you ever have a chance to walk the hall in future Imagine Cups, you absolutely must do so.  Yesterday’s complete results are found here.

Alfred Thompson blogs his thoughts about the day here.

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