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C'est la Z

Sigsce 2023 Opening morning

Arrived in Toronto yesterday for SIGCSE 2023 along with Devorah and Batya. Devorah to play tourist and Batya as conference attendee. As usual, I arrived early the day before to get my bearings. Since we weren't partaking in any of the preconference activities we had an afternoon to explore the city. Ten miles walking from the hotel near the CN Tower, through and all around Kensington, looping through the University of Toronto campus and back. We hit local arts, games, yarn and fabric shops as well as other local establishments.

This morning, I have to say that the intro announcements was for the birds, or more specifically, the bird as there was a pigeon soaring up and all around the plenary hall.

More seriously we had the usual warm welcome and I have to acknowledge that I really appreacited that like last year, coffee was available before the first session, Interesting that they announced around 1500 total participants which included both in person and remote. This is still down from in person attendance prior to Covid. Interpret that as you will.

After the usual announcements - logistics, policies, top papers etc, we were off to the first keynote - astronaut Robert Thirsk. I really enjoyed his talk but it was an interesting choice as he's neither an educator or commputer scientists.

Thirsk was a mission engineer on the space shuttle and he walked us through a mission. He artistically painted a picture of the environment, launch and all that it entailed. As the mission proceeded, he recounted how they dealt with systems failure after failure. Some legit, some sensor issues, some major, some minor. In the end they had to abort and make a danger fraught landing. From Florida to Spain in 40 minutes.

Then the reveal - it was all a dream. Or rather a simulation.

Then Thirsk proceeded with his takeawys and how he felt they related to education.

First, a couple of things I noted about this mission:

One, and this was something repeatedly emphasized by Thirst was that in order for the space shuttle to work over a million components have to work, interact, and work together both the first time and everytime and there has to be extreme redundency.

Another was that the crew used notepads for their checklists and for important information. Here they are in one of the worlds most advanced technological creations. Surrounded by monitors, switches, indicators and the best technology can provide and they were using old school, hand held, hand written notebooks. Cool.

After the mission, Thirsk talked about his takeaways. His big one was simulation modelling and experiential learning and doing it so much that not only will you get it right but you can't get it wrong.

Thirsk felt that we need much more of this and if our populations were trained this way maybe we woould have had better responses in times of crisis like when Covid hit or the supply chains failed.

We already see a push for experiential learning in CS so I think most of us would agree but while his pleas were probably preaching to the choir this morning, it will probably fall on the deaf ears of those who actually make decisions and set policy.

First off, simulation modelling and experiential learning takes longer and, like most teaching, works better in small classes. You know, like in those schools that rich folk send their kids to. Not so much in the public schools. It's also much easier to test memorization with standardized tests so I wouldn't hold my breath.

Also, our entire system isn't based on the common good. It's based on money and keeping those in power in that money. We could maintain our infrastructure, simulate possible dangerous scenarios and how to deal wtih them and build in failsafes and redundencies but why do that. All it will do is maybe save lives or make sure people have clean water to drink and air to breath but it's cheaper and more profitable to behave irresponsibly.

Sorry, that's not particularly uplifting but that is America.

Another big takeaway Thirsk talks of the importance of "non technical competencies" which is a much better term for soft skills and that there are all sorts of important things to learn during the college experience beyond the classroom. No argument there.

Finally, Thirsk talked about the influence of educators. Something I've written about before. He told of how Mrs. Shirly Cole, his third grade teacher took time out from class to play a radio broadcast on John Glenn's launch into space. Mrs. Cole didn't remember this years later but it had a huge impact. Thirsk went on to talk of other educators and how they had impacts.

This is something worth remembering. Sure, we teach CS - loops, conditionals and the like but sometimes it can be a little something else that has greatest impact.

As I said, it was an interesting choice to select a non educator no CS person but it was a strong keynote and I enjoyed it immensley.

At the coffe break I barely got to any vendors as I ran in to some friends. I'm writing this while listening to a session on the ACM 2023 CS Curriculumm (Beta). I'm not getting a whole lot out of this session, hence writing the post. I'll probably talk a bit about this session though in a later post.

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