Yesterday, I had the honour of attending the 2010 CSIT Symposium in Sunnyvale, CA. This symposium is hosted by the CSTA (Computer Science Teachers’ Association) which is totally sponsoring by Google, Microsoft Research, and the Anita Borg Institute. This is one of the events that Computer Science and Information Technology teachers need to attend. Circle it and put it on your calendar. It’s an experience like no other. Often Computer Science teachers are the lonely runner in their schools so it’s so invigorating to be in a room with 200 others with a similar passion for a subject discipline.
The event travels from region to region in the United States and I have been a member of the organizing committee and presented sessions from at least 2002. The memory does fail over the years but the internet and the archival process makes sure that you can always dig back to relive things. That sure bailed us out as we were trying to put things in historical perspective yesterday. We all agreed that there was one year when we offered two Symposia but were really pressed to remember when or where!
This year’s event was held at the Google Headquarters in Mountain View which added a whole new level of attraction to Computer Science teachers. Excited at the prospect, we were shuttled from the hotel to the event. This was one of those things that you didn’t know what to expect but I didn’t expect this. I expected Silicon or at least a Valley or something. But, no, our approach took us to a very heavily forested area with very understated signs in front of the buildings. Even as I got out of the shuttle, I was wondering if we were even in the right place.
But, we were, and the very friendly folks wearing Google golf shirts escorted us to the second floor meeting room for the opening session (and breakfast). Unlike many businesses, the meeting room wasn’t separate from the rest of the place – we weaved our way through couches and meeting rooms and cubicles and offices or people already working hard at whatever they were doing. You knew right away that you were in the absolute middle of everything. On the drive over, I had a discussion with a college teacher from Los Angeles who taught media and had his camera and iPhone at the ready to grab some footage for his class. I had my very best camera tucked away in my computer bag to get some evidence of my own. Both of us immediately had the sense that we’d better seek permission first and expectedly were told not to record anything in the building. That’s only fair – throughout the building there were white boards with code brainstormed on them at the various informal meeting places. Of course, you could only guess as to what the content was – perhaps it was all red herrings for interlopers?
The participants of the day were treated like royalty. At every turn, there was a Google staff member there to answer questions or guide you to where you needed to be next – this really isn’t a convention centre; it’s a place of work and we were just using space that was available for the day. We were truly in the heart of everything.
Armed with a coffee, the day started with a presentation about “Soup and Nuts” from Eugene Spafford. I think it’s cool when your keynote is referenced by everyone by his nickname! His session dealt with thinking outside of conventional thought and really pushing your mind. Once our minds had been limbered up, we dug into some of the serious issues of the day like privacy and security. I had thought that a serious talk like that would be a downer and it might be in some other camps. For us, it was an inspiration and an affirmation of the importance of Computer Science as a discipline.
My first concurrent session was a tough choice. I wanted to know more about XNA game programming and Computer Science contests but Dana Nguyen from Google was doing a presentation on the whole concept of Google Applications for Education. I’ve been following this with interest and we’re at Google so you can’t miss the opportunity to hear about the project first hand. Her presentation was vibrant and took us into many areas of the applications that I’d known about but really hadn’t experienced first hand. Of real interest was the free use of Postini within the suite of applications. I found her treatment of the myths of Google Apps particularly helpful.
Then, it was my turn to present. Where’s my room? Hah! There was no room. It was a formal presentation area right on a main thoroughfare through the buildings. As I unzipped my computer bag, there was a young lady from Google there to set it up for me. Power cords are permanently stationed at the podium as well as the Mac to VGA dongle. I realized that this country boy was in the big city. I had gone and purchased my own dongle and was prepared to do things by myself. Geez! The presentation area was spectacular with a couple of overhead mounted data projects for the audience and a ceiling mounted flat screen for the presenter to see. The only little glitch was in the transition to the video. My sleeping computer with Prezi ready to go didn’t play well with the settings on the data projector but that wasn’t a show stopper – it was just a moment and we were good to go. Audience was about 50-60 permanently there but it was weird to have Google employees walking through the pathways with their laptops and just drop in to watch. Those that couldn’t find a seat just sat on a couch across the pathway. All in all, they added about another 20 bodies by the time that I was through my presentation “Web that Works”.
Lunch – outside we went to eat buffet style on picnic tables covered with some of the brightest white table cloths that I’ve ever seen. It was a gorgeous day with bright sun and just a perfect setting that could have lasted all afternoon but it was back for PD for me.
I attended Pat Phillips and Alfred Thompson’s session on “Web Design and Development – A Key to a Growing Program” where Pat introduced us to Microsoft’s Expression Studio software. It was interesting to see the group’s reaction to the concept of free. Poor Pat explained over and over that Microsoft is making campus licenses available to qualifying schools. We did finally get to the nuts and bolts and got to see a bit of the software in action. This replacement for Frontpage packs a great deal of power into a single product. It’s going to take some time to play around and master.
The final breakout was a real treat. Just a couple of days ago, Google had announced a new product called the App Inventor which is a visual programming environment for the Android operating system. It looks a great deal like Scratch but accesses the components of Android like the motion detector and camera. While I had signed up on the website to get access to the resource, “for this day only”, if we sent a Gmail message we’d be upgraded immediately. You don’t have to offer twice. I’m there and, with the rest of the group, we built a simple little Android application. What a cool concept for Computer Science. Imagine having a class set of phones that the students can program? No phones? Well, there’s always the emulator…….
The final session was an inspirational talk from Megan Smith that all educators, not just Computer Science teachers, needs to hear. It’s a reminder that we live in a huge global community and we need to be aware of it all. Through the use of Google’s data management and visualization tools, we can truly see the social issues. We also were introduced to the things that Google is doing to try and make things better world-wide. It was just — wow. You couldn’t help but sit there humbled and overwhelmed with all that was presented. For me, there were two issues that stood out. One was the time lapse imagery of the cutting of the rainforests. The second was a visualization of searches world-wide noting who is using Google services and who wasn’t. Of particular focus was the mapping of where submerged cable exists and how entire countries are bypassed and, as such, the citizens deprived of the opportunity to be connected.
The day came to a close too quickly. There was so much there that this could easily have been a week long event. Some folks are going back for a tour of the entire Google campus this morning but my trip home precludes me from joining. It would have been a really nice way to cap the experience. In a really nice tribute move, CSTA President Michelle Friend Hutton gave a special recognition to Lillian Israel and Chris Stephenson who are the driving forces to keep this event relevant and an important priority year after year.
While we didn’t take pictures inside the building, I did manage to snap a few outside and they’re available here.