Gas station without pumps

2014 November 29

Futuristic Lights close to their Kickstarter launch

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:05
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My son has been working hard at school, but perhaps not as much on school work as on his start-up company, Futuristic Lights. It was just over a year ago that I was writing about My son’s first PC board, and I talked more about what his company was doing about 6 months ago, when they participated in TechRaising 2014. During that year he has designed, written software for, and tested 4 PC boards: 1 through-hole and 3 with surface-mount components (not counting a test fixture and a tiny board for connecting LEDs to cables).

His most recent design (the “Kinetic”) is going to be a real product—they are starting a Kickstarter campaign soon (they want to start it before Christmas, though they probably won’t be able to ship product until March). They just got 100 prototypes delivered from their manufacturer last week, and they are pleased with how well they came out.

The Futuristic Lights Facebook page has demo videos of the new board, but does not currently show a picture of the board itself (they do have some nice shots of the previous prototype, which has the same functionality, but needed some redesign for durability and fitting in the cases).

I don’t know how big their goal will be for the Kickstarter campaign, but I think that they need to make at least 1000 of the Kinetic boards to get a low enough price on the manufacturing (the 100 prototypes cost almost as much per board as the retail price for the finished ones, but a lot of the costs drop dramatically at 1000 units, and some of the tooling costs were already paid to make the prototypes).

They’re currently working mainly on their marketing efforts (they’ve got 6.8k likes on their Facebook page, but I’ve no idea how many people are following them closely).  If they sell the lights in sets of 10 (one per finger), they’ll need to sell around 100 sets, which is a conversion rate of sales at 1.5% of likes, which seems high to me.  They’ll need to get a lot more people interested once the Kickstarter campaign starts, so they are gearing up for that.  I believe that they’ll be releasing new demo videos and some more technical videos that describe the features of the Kinetic boards over the next couple of weeks—you can follow the progress on their Facebook page.

My son, as Chief Technical Officer, is not a major part of the media campaign, but he’ll have to start lining up suppliers and manufacturers and figuring out lead times for the actual manufacturing.  The 100 prototypes took less than a month from ordering to delivery of assembled boards, but getting sourcing the parts for a small batch run may take longer, as Digi-Key and Mouser don’t always stock that many of all the parts they need—they may need to contact some of the chip makers directly.  They also need to get the cases, batteries, gloves, and custom boxes for shipping the sets.

This project has been a marvelous educational experience for my son—something that would be hard to duplicate at any university, as student projects rarely get past the prototyping stage into small batch manufacturing and fulfillment.


2014 November 24

A seat at the table

Mark Guzdial in #Gamergate as a response to re-engineering: BPC as a conspiracy to change computing wrote

We in the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) community are aiming to achieve a similar kind of social engineering that the Gamergate supporters are complaining about. I am part of a vast, international (though maybe not particularly well-organized) conspiracy to change computing culture and to invade computing with many women and members of under-represented groups. We are “actively plotting to influence” computing. The Gamergate supporters argue that the conspiracy is about “artistic aspirations.” In BPC, we say that we’re about social justice, equity, and diversity. From the perspective of the “engineered,” the difference in purpose may not make much difference. One of the pushbacks on the call I shared to eliminate nerd culture was, “Can’t we just shape/change nerd culture?” Do the nerds want to be changed?

What might a response to BPC look like? Might well-prepared, privileged male and white/asian CS students complain about efforts to give seats in classes to women or under-represented minorities whom they may perceive as less-prepared?

I have no objection to giving seats in classes to anyone capable of  learning the material, but I believe that this needs to be done by increasing the number of seats, not taking them away from other students.  I’m all in favor of expanding the pipeline, but not of holding back those who have already started on the path, so that others can “catch up”.

There’s a general awareness that there’s a problem, but there’s less conviction that it’s an important problem or that there’s an obvious way forward to fixing it.

I agree that the problem of gender imbalance and racial imbalance in CS is an important one, but I’m less convinced than Mark that there is an obvious, equitable way to fix the problem. He seems to think that lotteries are the way to go:

In NPR When Women Stopped Coding in 1980′s: As we repeat the same mistakes, Mark wrote

I understand why caps are going into place. We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.

I disagree with him strongly on this. I responded on Mark’s post with the following comment:

I’m not sure that I agree with “We can’t support all these students, and there are no additional resources coming. What else can CS departments do? We might think about a lottery or using something beyond CS GPA to get those seats, something that’s more equitable.”

Granting access to a limited resource to those whose prior achievement is highest seems to me to be highly equitable. Denying higher achievers because they are of the wrong race or gender does not.

Increasing the resources available for teaching, so that we don’t have to restrict who majors in a field seems like a good strategy, as does providing slower on-ramps for those who did not have good early training. But denying entrance to those who may have dedicated their lives to the field, just because others did not have (or did not take) the opportunity to reach that level of achievement—that does not seem “equitable” to me.

Note: I may be biased here, because my son is a white male majoring in computer science who has been doing recreational programming as a major activity since he was 10 years old. I would be very offended if he had to win a slot in the major by a lottery—college admissions alone is enough of a lottery these days.

Are we then to tell students not to form any intellectual passions in middle school or high school, because doing so will get them labeled as “privileged” and denied further opportunity? Or should they only form passions for things that no one cares about, so that no one will try to take their passions away from them?

Although I’m not fond of sports analogies, it is common for people to point out the absurdity of the lottery position by suggesting that the same be applied to sports teams. The football teams at the Big 10 schools should not consist of those privileged athletes who started young, got the best training, and had the best performance in high schools, but should be assigned by lottery to anyone who is interested in playing, even if they have never picked up a football in their lives. Why should only those who had the good fortune to be large, fast, and strong be allowed to play?

Michael S. Kirkpatrick countered my comment with

It’s often so hard to be objective when it comes to perceptions of equity. As Anatole France observed, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” The open question is whether those students truly are higher achievers, or if they are just starting from an advantageous position. In that case, would it not be more equitable to give the opportunity for students who did not have prior opportunities?

His argument makes the assumption that primary goal of college education is a social justice function—to provide opportunity for those who have not previously had it. While a generous impulse, this philosophy taken to extremes results in eliminating grad schools and upper-division courses to create more freshman courses, and even replacing freshman courses with remedial courses, resulting in college as very expensive high school (or, in the case of some athletes in scandal-ridden schools, grade school).  Increasing opportunity is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be allowed to kill off the other great things about universities: like the opportunity for people to stretch their minds to the limit, to share ideas with other intelligent and passionate people, and to advance the state of the art. While universities do serve an important role in aiding social mobility, it is not, in fact, their primary function in society.

A variant of Kirkpatrick’s argument has often been used to kill off gifted education in public schools (because of a correlation between socio-economic status and identification for gifted programs)—forcing the parents of gifted students to take on educating their children themselves, which only the wealthy (or upper middle class) can easily afford to do. This approach increases the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as the gifted students with less wealthy parents get much more limited educations—defeating the original goals of “equity” that killed off the public programs for gifted students.

There are good reasons why many parents of gifted kids started referring to “No Child Left Behind” as “No Child Allowed Ahead”, as it was much easier for schools to reduce their achievement gaps by slowing down the students who were learning fastest than by speeding up those learning slowest. Guzdial’s approach to rationing CS education seems to be following the same model.

Bonnie responded to Guzdial’s post with comments about what her college is doing to broaden participation, speaking both of successes and failures, and ending with

I just don’t know how we can make up for the poor education they received in K12. And that, I think, is where the true inequity lies.

Here I agree with Bonnie—if the problem is that some students get support early and others get support late, the solution is not to slam the door in the faces of those who got early support, but try to extend early support to more people. For that matter, I’m not in favor of slamming the door shut on anyone.  I don’t buy Guzdial’s assumption that this is a zero-sum game and that the only way we can have more women and URMs in CS is to have fewer white or Asian males. I think that there is plenty of room in the tent still for everyone who is interested and willing to work at learning the material.  We should not be rationing education, but providing enough education that everyone can get as much as they want.

In response to a different commenter, Guzdial wrote

We’re not talking about employees, Ian. We’re talking about seats at the table for students. If you get more women and under-represented minorities enthused about CS, there are still not enough seats at the table. If we’re going to allocate seats based on current ability, we have to get women and URM students to be better than privileged white boys. That’s a really high bar.

You may be under the misconception that computing is a meritocracy. It’s not. It’s not those with the most merit. It’s those with the most privilege.

It is almost certainly true the computer industry is not a meritocracy—but we should be trying to make it one, not rationing out education like butter in WW II. If there are not enough seats at the table, then buy a bigger table with more chairs! That will cost less in the long run than squabbling over who gets seated now.

2014 November 22

Librarians instead of teachers for gifted students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:08
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A couple of weeks ago, Peter Sipe published an article How to challenge voracious young readers, in which he talked about famous authors who were anti-school (Thomas DeQuincey, W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Morrissey, …). He points out that these authors may well have been autodidacts:

Which brings me back to the question of how I can make a difference for my gifted students. What these authors wrote about school does offer guidance. I find it instructive that they seem to have gained their erudition despite school, not because of it. Accordingly, I don’t think young DeQuincey et al. would much need a sixth-grade reading teacher.

But perhaps they could use a helpful librarian.

I think that it is very difficult for the average teacher in the US to make much difference for a gifted student—they don’t have the time, the training, the desire, nor (in some cases) the intelligence to inspire the gifted students. And their job, as set down by the administration and the politicians, is to get the slowest students up to minimal standards, not to help the gifted students move ahead more rapidly. In fact, many politicians and educrats would prefer it if the teachers held the gifted students back from learning, so that all students were performing at exactly the same level, doing exactly the same things. (A lot still haven’t gotten the message that equitable education doesn’t mean giving every student exactly the same lesson at the same time.)

The notion of turning over a lot of the education of gifted students to books is not a bad one—and a good librarian can recommend books to students more easily than a teacher can make up worksheets. A lot of gifted students would benefit more from reading books that are in their “zone of proximal development” than from doing classroom exercises that practice skills they mastered years earlier or from playing teacher’s helper and trying to explain stuff that it obvious to them to kids who really need help from those trained in content pedagogy.

But there are limits to what one can learn from books alone—there are skills that require practice to perfect, and reading about them is not the same thing as practicing them. The hard part with teaching gifted students is in providing them with appropriately challenging problems that will exercise and improve their skills without boring them or frustrating them too much. Finding appropriate problems is a major challenge for teaching any student, but for students clustered near the middle of the range that teachers teach, there are a lot of materials already prepared, and teachers have been well-trained to recognize and address those students’ needs. School districts have to provide specially trained special-ed instructors for students who are way behind the average, but they generally do little or nothing for those who are more advanced.

I think that the fields that have succeeded best at providing materials for challenging gifted students are mathematics (Project Euler and the courses and books from Art of Problem Solving, for example), computer programming (lots of different paths for getting into programming), and engineering (especially with the current popularity of the Maker movement and various robotics team projects).  Students can also progress fairly easily to adult levels in reading, since books at all levels are widely available, but there isn’t much for getting practice in humanities fields, nor social sciences, or even most of the physical and biological sciences.  Students interested in those fields may have to remain content with being autodidacts, and just reading about their fields, at least until they get into college (and sometimes until they get into grad school).

I don’t think schools in general do a very good job of teaching gifted students, but giving them unfettered access to a good library is one way to undo the damage caused by the schooling. Adding in access to challenging problems and tools for making things (with mentors to help them learn to use the tools) could turn the rather dismal current (lack of) education for gifted children into something really productive of learning.  Of course, the same access can and should be given to other students, though few will make much use of the library.


2014 November 18

Question about high school workload for home schooling

On Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 12:57 AM, a parent  wrote to a homeschooling e-mail list (I forget which one now):

I want to prepare my kids for college, but I also value them spending an hour drawing, or trying to get a fire by rubbing cottonwood sticks together, or making a ridiculous video for fun. Can’t we have it both ways? I’ve already written off UC for freshman year, but I don’t necessarily want community college to be the only option they have. I want his 16th year to be just as fun as his 6th, filled with math and writing, yes, but also with whatever his passions are. That seems like an exciting time to get real world experience, like interning at an environmental organization, helping with water quality research, becoming a park docent, going on amazing backpacking trips … as opposed to sitting studying biology with a textbook, for example. 

Am I in dreamland? Are my priorities right here? He is in 8th grade, so according to these presenters, 9th grade is around the corner and we should be figuring out this fast.


I’m coming from a different place than many home schoolers, as we did public and private schools through 9th grade, only switching to home school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.  I understand that the reverse path (starting out in home school and switching to public or private for high school) is more common.

Having just sent my son off to college this fall (at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies) after three years of home schooling (with the aid of an umbrella school in the local school district), I can answer a few things with some confidence:

  • No matter what you do, entry into the super-selective schools is effectively a lottery.  Most people don’t win the lottery.  All the crazy-making prep changes the odds very little on the super-selective admissions lottery. Unless you donate millions to buy your way in to a private school, your odds are not much better than the ones you get from the Common Data Sets for each college.
  • High school can involve a lot of fun activity—my son took at least 22 different theater classes in his 4 years of high school, about 8 of them in his senior year (mostly through WEST).  There were at least 15 different performances in his last year (see his theater page) with four different shows four weekends running one month. He also started a tech start-up with other home-schooled teens (something that he is continuing in college—they’re expecting their 4th prototype back from China this week and hope to do first sales through Kickstarter in December).  He also was involved in a couple of the MATE underwater ROV competitions, did science fair (up to state level) every year except his senior year, kept up a full load of UC a–g courses, and still had time for his main recreations (reading and computer programming).
  • Some springs got a bit stressful, with the umbrella-school trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, State Science Fair, WEST performances, MATE robotics, and AP exams all piling up in the same few weeks.  Time management and priority setting required parental support (though my wife and I sometimes disagreed about how much parental support was needed).  Extra parental support was needed some years (like for flying from CA state science fair to Ashland, Oregon, when two events overlapped by a day, or finding a way to get AP exams offered in the make-up time slots, when AP exams conflicted with the Ashland trip, or even just finding a way to take AP exams for AP courses not offered in our county, like the AP Physics C exams).
  • Taking courses at Cabrillo College and at UCSC can be very good experience (my son had 2 at each: Spanish at Cabrillo and math at UCSC).  Cabrillo courses are much cheaper, but the hassle of biking 45 minutes each way for classes (or taking even longer on the bus) made scheduling them harder.  The practice of getting himself to classes on an irregular schedule was good prep for college, where he has a different schedule every day (from Wednesdays with classes from 8am to after 8pm to Fridays with one class at 1–1:50). Getting into lab classes at Cabrillo turned out to be very difficult, so we ended up doing all science at home (calculus-based physics for 2 years, then on-line AP chemistry for one year).

For students thinking of University of California (still a very good choice, even if the state legislators and state governor don’t put much money into UC any more), I’d recommend trying to make sure that the a–g courses are covered in spirit, even if the courses are at home or through other non-UC-approved sources.  It is not a perfect curriculum, but it represents a good compromise between many different views of what a high school education should include.​

The time-management skills my son learned from doing too many of the things he loved should help him get through college, where he is likely to set up the same sorts of stresses for himself—he took a fairly light load first quarter (4 courses: 2 math, 2 computer science), but is planning a heavier load for winter (6 courses: 2 math,  3 computer science, 1 theater, I think).  Luckily 2 or 3 of the courses are graded on a rather strange system, where the teachers decide at the end of the course how many units were earned, so if he slacks a bit on those courses his grades won’t suffer—he’ll just earn fewer units.

Of the generic advice from the Khan Academy about what all high school students should be doing:

  • Take college-prep courses. Yes, definitely.  The a–g courses are a good guide.
  • ​Focus on your grades. Not really—we kept him focused on learning, not on grades. Most of his courses were ungraded, though we had very high standards for what we expected him to do.  Those courses from outside providers that were graded got high grades, but that was a natural consequence of focusing on the learning and doing all the work to high standards, not from paying any particular attention to grades.
  • Explore and commit to extracurricular and leadership activities. We considered his theater work and his start-up company as curricular activities, but someone with a more conventional view of education would have considered them extracurricular. I don’t know whether his odds at super-selective schools would have been different if we had spun the work as extra-curricular rather than curricular.​
  • Find summer volunteer opportunities/jobs/internships. Nope, he spent his summers doing more theater, more on the start-up company, and relaxing. He worked very hard at the theater and on the start-up, but it wasn’t a “job” where he was reporting to a boss—it was more like professional work, where he had to manage his own time, sometimes with externally imposed deadlines.
  • Begin an ongoing dialogue with your parents about how to pay for college. Start saving for college. High school is rather late to be thinking about paying for college.  We saved 10% of my salary each year in a 529 plan from the day he was born. As it turns out, because he ended up at a state school, we saved more than we needed to, so unless some of it gets used for graduate school expenses, we are likely to end up paying a tax penalty in 4 years for the previously untaxed earnings in the 529 plan.
  • Search and apply for non-traditional scholarships (those available before you are a senior in high school). Other than the National Merit Scholarship (he was a Finalist, but no one offered him money except desperate schools that had nothing of academic value to offer), he did not apply for any scholarships. Most of the scholarship applications are a lot of work (comparable to another college application), with very little expected return. He decided to put his time into his startup company instead, which has given him very valuable learning and experience, even if it never breaks even. Because he ended up at a public university, and we had been saving enough to be able to pay for his going to a private school, he did not need a scholarship to go to college. So the investment of his time in learning how to design electronics widgets and get them manufactured was probably a wise one—it will pay off later much more than a $1000 scholarship would.

2014 November 17

Faculty writing community

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:35
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Eric L. Muller wrote in Developing the Faculty as a Writing Community | AAUP,

I have also come to see how many other pleasures and labors of life are enhanced by companionship and accountability. Lots of people exercise more in groups, read more books with groups, lose more weight in groups. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that many faculty members might write more in groups, too?

That was a question that the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) at UNC at Chapel Hill set out to explore in the summer of 2013. The CFE is the university’s pan-campus faculty development center. Together with the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, the CFE piloted the Summer Writing Group program for faculty members across the university. The response was enthusiastic.

He went on to describe what sounds like a fairly successful experiment in faculty development.  I note that it did not appear to include any engineering or science faculty, though perhaps there were one or two in the “completely interdisciplinary” groups.

It sounds like an interesting idea, and it probably would have helped me last summer while I was trying to work on my textbook for the bioengineering electronics class.  I ended up practicing all sorts of “creative procrastination” instead of writing.  I got some stuff done on the book over the summer, but not nearly as much as I had hoped at the beginning of the summer. A writing group may have helped me keep my nose to the grindstone (a metaphor I’ve always found rather gross if taken literally).  I don’t know how much I’ll get done before I have to use the book in the Spring, since I’m teaching two classes each quarter, as well as all the work of being undergrad director and program chair for the bioengineering program.

I’ve not been part of writing group since grad school, when I was in a poetry-writing group with a bunch of people twice my age or older. Having a monthly meeting did help me then, and it was important that we read each others’ work and took it seriously (not just providing rah-rah comments). I’m not sure that the UNC approach would help much, unless the other faculty were close enough in their expertise to be willing and able to read and comment on the draft chapters.

Have any of the faculty who read this blog ever participated in anything like the UNC summer writing group? Did it help you keep to a schedule? Was it important to share drafts with each other?


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