## CSE 322 Spring 2008, Week 1

This quarter I am teaching CSE 322: Introduction to Formal Models in Computer Science. Good fun. As part of my teaching I am LaTeXing up lecture notes from the class, which follow closely the book we are using, Sipser’s “Introduction to the Theory of Computation.” Here are the first three lectures for those with nothing better to do during their weekend:

• Lecture 1: Welcome and Introduction
• Lecture 2: Formal Definition of Deterministic Finite Automata
• Lecture 3: Regular Operations on Languages

The notes are certainly full of many typos and such, but maybe there is a young teenager who isn’t in college, but who is bright, and wants to learn something cool about theory, and thus might actually click on those links. Comments and criticisms by others are also greatly appreciated.

## Embarassment Is…

…realizing that the class you are teaching for the first time this quarter ends on the half hour, not the hour, and therefore the fact that you are rushing through the material must seem extremely amusing to the students who know the class ends at 20 minutes after. Doh. Doh. Doh!

## Do We Teach Addition Backwards?

Addition, for me, is intimately connected up with my concept of a number. When I think of numbers in my head, I often think of the number in connection with its constituent parts, and when I divide these parts up into equal pieces I “get” multiplication. However, on top of this bare bones thinking, I also conceptualize numbers strongly by their size, thinking about the number first as the most significant digit in the number and proceeding down to the less significant digits. Which makes me wonder, do we teach addition backwards?
Continue reading “Do We Teach Addition Backwards?”

## Teaching Happiness…

…is finding a homework stuck to my door, with duck tape, along with the note “Gone to Mt. Baker” (Mt. Baker is a local ski area.) Actually this reminds me of a policy I’ve always wanted to try: require every student to NOT attend class at least a few times a term. The idea being that it is actually beneficial to at least try to teach yourself the material without guidance from the teacher. Many students probably can learn on their own, but never try, because they equate doing well with attendance. Nudging these students towards that realization, I think, might actually be a good thing.

## Rethinking Scientific Talks

I’ve seen many a scientific talk, ranging from the truely inspiring, to the incredibly painful. I’ve also given many a scientific talk, ranging mostly to the incredibly painful end of the spectrum. Stuck in back of my head when I’m giving a not so good talk, there has always been a little devil saying “Come on, Dave, there has got to be a better way to give a talk!” Well usually I just ignore that little devil (“see him again on the forth of July”) but today watching a colloquium by Richard Anderson inspired me to think some crazy thoughts. Not because of the style of Richards talk, but instead because Richard is involved in a host of collaborative technology and its use in education, including the very cool Classroom presenter which I highly recommend for tablet based teaching.
Okay, so let me dream up a new way to give a scientific talk. First of all, I think we should take a lesson from Stephen Hawking. No, not a lesson in general relativity (allthough I’m quite certain that would be a great lesson, or at least a very hard lesson), but I mean I am totally jealous of Hawking’s speaking abilities. Why? Because he gets to write his talk before hand, plug it into his hand dandy speech synthesizer (“This synthesiser is by far the best I have heard, because it varies the intonation, and doesn’t speak like a Dalek. The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent.”), and then lets it rip. He just gets to sit back and enjoy his talk. Now I don’t think this is where I want scientific talks to be going totally. I don’t want prerecorded audio/video to be the only medium available for a talk. I mean sure, it is great to have resources like talks at the KITP, but I think scientific talks serve a broader goal than just the discinimation of a non-interactive lecture. But, let’s face it, giving a talk is hard. I mean live television, for example, is hard. But actors get to do multiple takes. They get to slowly think out the plan of their talk in advance and then don’t suffer from execution problems since they get to correct their mistakes. Certainly good speakers are the ones who can execute on demand, but isn’t there some way that we can use technology in an inovative manner to help bad speakers like me?
Deep breath. Okay so what am I advocating. First of all I want better presentation software. This software should allow me to prerecord parts of my talk. I should be able to then play this back at my own pace, stoping the prerecorded parts when I need to, jumping to parts which I’ve also recorded which explain tangential thoughts, as well as the ability for me to give a normal talk at any point AND I want this normal part of the talk to be recorded for posteriety so that I can use it if need be when I want to. I want giving a scientific talk to be more like being a music producer who can also sing their own song. I want my good explanations to be repeated and my bad ones to be easily thrown away. One inspiration for this is a talk which Manny Knill gives on fault-tolerance. As far as I can tell he has a big pdf file with all of the details of his work and he can easily move hyperlink style through the different relevant bits of information. This allows for a level of customization which the standard linear powerpoint doesn’t make natural (allthough I’m guessing there is a way to get powerpoint to imitate this, I just haven’t tried this or seen many people use it.)
Second I want vast communication to be occuring while I give a talk. One of the beauties of classroom presenter is that students can write on their tablet PCs and then send you up what they are writing. And its been my experience that the best talks are the talks where a great questioner is in the audience (for example any talk with Dorit Aharonov in the audience is destined to be a better talk!) Now the danger with allowing communication between the audience memebers during a talk is that they will be distracting. So first of all I think the in audience communication should not be point to point between audience members, but on a shared medium. Of great importance in this setup is people expressing questions or points they do not understand during a talk. I mean I can’t recall how many times I’ve given a talk and wondered how lost everyone is. With real time feedback it should be possible for talks to be adjusted on the fly to meet the demands of the audience. Further I think it can also help in that with a wide spectrum of viewers, some of the more informed viewers can actually help avert bad questions, which is probably almost as important as having a good questioner in the audience.
Okay, well the technology for carrying out talks like that I describe above is probably workable today. I think we lecture in particular styles because they have worked in the past, but I also think that we could probably use technology to allow us to give talks in an even more coherent and fullfilling manner. Well maybe I’m just dreaming, but someday, someday, I hope to give a heck of a talk that isn’t just me fumbling around with the laser pointer and mumbling something about hidden subgroups.

## Daydreaming About Storytelling

I have always been a daydreamer. There isn’t a place or distraction in the world which can keep me from somehow drifting off into a daydreaming state of mind. Which, of course, must be rather amusing for others observing my behavior. One second I’m talking about Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, and the next second I’ve got black holes in my eyes and am in full monk mode. Daydreaming is definitely the appropriate expression, since rousing me from this state is a lot like trying to wake me up: not an easy task!
So what do I think about when I’m in daydream mode? Well mostly I tell myself stories, or think about how things fit together. Now these stories definitely aren’t page turning blockbusters, they’re mostly about a problem I’ve been working on. Mentally it feels like I am constructing possible stories of how this or that problem might be resolved. Knowing X what does this imply about trying to make progress on problem P. Does it imply Y? Is Y consistent with a solution to P? Does Y fit into the story I know about problem Q? Etc. Etc.
Which leads me to the following question. How much does storytelling shape “good” thinking? (Okay, so my thinking is mostly less than “good”, but every once in a while I’m not a dufus.) For many years I’ve wondered how it might be possible to teach a class, like say, introductory mechanics (yeah I’m still a physicist at heart, you know), which teaches the physics by tracing the history of the subject. (I told this idea to some faculty well versed in physics education when I was a grad student and you should have seen them recoil in horror ðŸ™‚ ) Now, however, I’ve come to think that this desire was a misplaced projection. What I really wanted to figure out how to do was how to teach a course where the students could build up their own consistent story of what was going on. This story, of course, must be routed in all the history of the subject: you too must come to realize the trials and tribulations which led people to believe what they do. But it isn’t necesarily a history centric endeavor, but is more squarely centered on thinking up your own story. And it has got to be a story you are constantly examining and checking, i.e. which is open to repeated examination for consistency. A story which you could come to by daydreaming.
Another piece of anecdotal evidence of the role of storytelling in sharp thinking comes from my undergraduate days. When I think about my years at Caltech, one of the most fascinating events I observed was to watch those super achieving students spin yarns. It was not uncommon to spend hours at a time, taking some departing idea and then spend hours working out the consequences of this idea. Sure, some would call this simple B.S.ing and often the point of departure involved a Simpson’s episode, but in retrospect, I think that this was a great indication that deep down in these students brains, they had built up a strong consistent storytelling mechanism for thinking.
So what role does storytelling play in shaping sharp minds? Of course, I don’t know, but I’d love to hear a story which lets me understand how storytelling fits in with how our brain works. Then I could daydream about it.
[Of course this post is a grand exercise in extralusionary intelligence, for there are certainly loads of educational data on the role of storytelling in education. A quick look this morning, however, didn’t turn up anything concrete. So like any ignoramus, I’ve written this post completely unaware of the story other, more savy, researchers have been able to peice together.]

## Scriptovia.com

So, how is technology going to change the academic environment? (Scriptovia.com started by a University of Washington undergrad.)

## Classroom Presenter

Well the term is over and a new term has begun. No teaching this term for me, so its time to hit the research hard! Last term I taught CSE 326: Data Structures, which covers a lot of fun and core material. Hopefully the students will have forgiven my tendancy to assign more difficult theorish problems ðŸ™‚
The class I taught was for majors here in CSE at UW and we had two lecture sections of thirty plus students. Ruth Anderson, a recently minted Ph.D. here at UW, taught one of the sections and I taught the other, although we stuck to basically the same schedule. Ruth is a member of the Education and Technology Group in our department which led to us using a very interesting tool in teaching: Tablet PCs! And not just me using a tablet for presentation, but the students using tablets as well! The software which we used for this is being developed here at UW and is called Classroom Presenter (most recent version is 3.0).