Tag Archives: University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)

The insanity of Canadian science outreach (Science Odyssey, May 12 – 21, 2017 and Science RendezVous on May 13, 2017)

When was the last time you saw a six-year old or a twelve-year old attend a political candidates’ meeting or vote in an election? Sadly, most creative science outreach in Canada is aimed at children and teenagers in the misbegotten belief that adults don’t matter and ‘youth are the future’. There are three adult science outreach scenarios although they didn’t tend to be particularly creative. (1) Should scientists feel hard done by elected representatives, they reach out to other adults for support. (2) Should those other adults become disturbed by any scientific or technological ‘advance’ then scientific experts will arrive to explain why that’s wrong. (3) Should the science enterprise want money, then a call goes out (see my May 12, 2017 posting about the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation gala and, yes, they were a bit creative about it).

I am oversimplifying the situation but not by much especially if one considers two upcoming national Canadian science events: Science Rendezvous which is a day-long (May 13, 2017) cross country science event taking place during while the Science Odyssey holds a 10-day (May 12 – 2017) cross country science event. The two groups arranged their events separately and then decided to coordinate their efforts. Science Odyssey is a rebranding of the Canada Science and Technology Week organized by the federal government for at least two decades and which was held (until 2016) in the fall of each year. Science Rendezvous (About page) was launched in Toronto in 2008 (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)).

Regardless, both events are clearly aimed at children (and families).

I’m not suggesting that exciting science outreach for children should be curtailed. Let’s expand the efforts to9 include the adult and senior populations too.

In all the talk about Canada’s adult and ageing populations, perhaps we could approach it all more creatively. For example, there’s this (from an April 18, 2017 University of California at San Diego University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Inga Kiderra,

Philip Guo caught the coding bug in high school, at a fairly typical age for a Millennial. Less typical is that the UC San Diego cognitive scientist is now eager to share his passion for programming with a different demographic. And it’s not one you’re thinking of – it’s not elementary or middle school-aged kids. Guo wants to get adults age 60 and up.

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, Guo outlines his reasons: People are living and working longer. This is a growing segment of the population, and it’s severely underserved by learn-to-code intiatives, which usually target college students and younger. Guo wants to change that. He would like this in-demand skill to become more broadly accessible.

“Computers are everywhere, and digital literacy is becoming more and more important,” said Guo, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, who is also affiliated with UC San Diego’s Design Lab and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “At one time, 1,000 years ago, most people didn’t read or write – just some monks and select professionals could do it. I think in the future people will need to read and write in computer language as well. In the meantime, more could benefit from learning how to code.”

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, ACM SIGCHI. Guo will present his findings at the group’s premier international conference, CHI, in May [2017].

When prior human-computer interaction studies have focused on older adults at all, Guo said, it has been mostly as consumers of new technology, of social networking sites like Facebook, say, or ride-sharing services. While a few have investigated the creation of content, like blogging or making digital music, these have involved the use of existing apps. None, to his knowledge, have looked at older adults as makers of entirely new software applications, so he set out to learn about their motivations, their frustrations and if these provided clues to design opportunities.

The Study

For his study, Guo surveyed users of pythontutor.com. A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses). Despite its legacy name, the tool helps people supplement their studies not only of the Python programming language but also Java, JavaScript, Ruby, C and C++, all of which are commonly used to teach programing. The users of Python Tutor represent a wide range of demographic groups.

Guo’s survey included 504 people between the ages of 60 and 85, from 52 different countries. Some were retired and semi-retired while others were still working.

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad pedagogy. It was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Other frustrations included a perceived decline in cognitive abilities (12 percent) and no human contact with tutors and peers (10 percent).

The study’s limitations are tied in part to the instrument – self-reporting on an online survey – and in part to the survey respondents themselves. Most hailed from North America and other English-speaking nations. Most, 84 percent, identified themselves as male; this stat is consistent with other surveys of online learning, especially in math and science topics. There was a diverse array of occupations reported, but the majority of those surveyed were STEM professionals, managers and technicians. These learners, Guo said, likely represent “early adopters” and “the more technology-literate and self-motivated end of the general population.” He suggests future studies look both at in-person learning and at a broader swath of the public. But he expects the lessons learned from this group will generalize.

The Implications

Based on this first set of findings and using a learner-centered design approach, Guo proposes tailoring computer-programming tools and curricula specifically for older learners. He notes, for example, that many of his respondents seemed to take pride in their years and in their tech-savvy, so while it may be good to advertise products as targeting this age group, they should not appear patronizing. It might make sense to reframe lessons as brain-training games, like Lumosity, now popular among the older set.

Just as it’s key to understand who the learners are so is understanding where they have trouble. Repetition and frequent examples might be good to implement, as well as more in-person courses or video-chat-based workshops, Guo said, which may lead to improvements in the teaching of programming not just for older adults but across the board.

Context matters, too. Lessons are more compelling when they are put into domains that people personally care about. And Guo recommends coding curricula that enable older adults to tell their life stories or family histories, for example, or write software that organizes health information or assists care-givers.

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain. [emphasis mine]

Guo joined the UC San Diego cognitive science faculty in 2016 after two years as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2012. Before becoming a professor, he built online learning tools as a software engineer at Google and a research scientist at edX. He also blogs, vlogs and podcasts at http://pgbovine.net/

When was the last time you heard about a ‘coding’ camp for adults and seniors in Canada? Also,, ask yourself if after you’d reached a certain age (40? 50? more? less?) you’d feel welcome at the Science Rendezvous events (without a child in tow), Science Odyssey events (without a child in tow), or the May 17, 2017 National Science and Innovation Gala in Ottawa (from my May 12, 2017 posting “It would seem the only person over the age of 30 who’s expected to attend is the CBC host, Heather Hiscox.”)?

Let’s open the door a bit wider, eh?

2015 Canadian federal budget and science

Think of this post as a digest of responses to and analyses of the ‘science component’ of the Canadian federal government’s 2015 budget announcement made on April 21, 2015 by Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver. First off the mark, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) has featured some opinions about the budget and its impact on Canadian science in an April 27, 2015 posting,

Jim Woodgett
Director, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Sinai Health System

Where’s the Science Beef in Canadian Budget 2015?

Andrew Casey
President and CEO, BIOTECanada

Budget 2015: With the fiscal balance restored where to next?

Russ Roberts
Senior Vice President – Tax & Finance, CATA Alliance

Opinion on 2015 Federal Budget

Ron Freeman
CEO of Innovation Atlas Inc. and Research Infosource Inc. formerly co-publisher of RE$EARCH MONEY and co-founder of The Impact Group

Workman-Like Budget Preserves Key National Programs

Paul Davidson
President, Universities Canada

A Reality Check on Budget 2015

Dr. Kamiel Gabriel
Associate Provost of Research and Graduate Programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), Science Adviser and Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) of Research at the Ontario Ministry of Research & Innovation

The 2015 Federal Budget Targets Key Segments of Voters

I suggest starting with Woodgett’s piece as he points out something none of the others who chose to comment on the amount of money dedicated to the tricouncil funding agencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]) seemed to have noticed or deemed important,

The primary source of science operating funds are provided by the tricouncils, CIHR/NSERC and SSHRC, which, when indirect costs and other flow through dollars (e.g. CRCs) are included, accounts for about $2.5 billion in annual funding. There are no new dollars added to the tricouncil budgets this year (2015/16) but there is a modest $46 million to be added in 2016/17 – $15 million to CIHR and NSERC, $7.5 million to SSHRC and the rest in indirects. [emphases mine] This new money, though, is largely ear-marked for new initiatives, such as the CIHR Strategy on Patient Oriented Research ($13 million) and an anti-microbial resistant infection program ($2 million). Likewise for NSERC and SSHRC although NSERC enjoys around $16 million relief in not needing to support industrial postgraduate scholarships as this responsibility moves to MITACS with no funding loss at NSERC. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, estimates that, taking inflation into account, tricouncil funding will be down 9% since 2008. [emphasis mine] It is hardly surprising that funding applications to these agencies are under enormous competitive pressure. At CIHR, the last open operating grant competition yielded unprecedented low success rates of ~14% along with across-the-board budget cuts of grants that were funded of 26%. This agency is in year 1 of major program reforms and has very little wiggle-room with its frozen budget.

To be fair, there are sources other than the tricouncil for science funding although their mandate is for ‘basic’ science, more or less. Over the last few years, there’s been a greater emphasis on tricouncil funding that produces economic results and this is in line international trends.

Getting back to the CSPC’s opinions, Davidson’s piece, notes some of that additional funding,

With $1.33 billion earmarked for the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI], Budget 2015 marks the largest single announcement of Canadian research infrastructure funding. This is something the community prioritized, given the need for state-of-the-art equipment, labs, digital tools and high-speed technology to conduct, partner and share research results. This renewed commitment to CFI builds on the globally competitive research infrastructure that Canadians have built over the last 15 years and enables our researchers to collaborate with the very best in the world. Its benefits will be seen in universities across the country and across disciplines. Key research infrastructure investments – from digital to major science infrastructure – support the broad spectrum of university research, from theoretical and discovery to pre-competitive and applied.

The $45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

While the news about the CFI seems to have delighted a number of observers, it should be noted (as per Woodgett’s piece) that the $1.3B is to be paid out over six years ($220M per year, more or less) and the money won’t be disbursed until the 2017/18 fiscal year. As for the $45M designated for TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics), this is exciting news for the lab which seems to have bypassed the usual channels, as it has before, to receive its funding directly from the federal government.

Another agency which seems to have received its funding directly from the federal government is the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), From an April 22, 2015 news release,

The Council of Canadian Academies welcomes the federal government’s announcement of new funding for in-depth, authoritative, evidence-based assessments. Economic Action Plan 2015 allocated $15 million over five years [$3M per year] for the Council of Canadian Academies.

“This is welcome news for the Council and we would like to thank the Government for this commitment. Over the past 10 years the Council has worked diligently to produce high quality reports that support policy and decision-making in numerous areas,” said Janet Bax, Interim President. “We appreciate the support from Minister Holder and his predecessors, Minsters Goodyear and Rickford, for ensuring meaningful questions have been referred to the Council for assessment.” [For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian science minister scene, Ed Holder, current Minister of State for Science and Technology, and previous Conservative government ministers, Greg Rickford and Gary Goodyear]

As of March 31st, 2015 the Council has published 31 reports on topics as diverse as business innovation, the future of Canadian policing models, and improving medicines for children. The Council has worked with over 800 expert volunteers from across Canada and abroad. These individuals have given generously of their time and as a result more than $16 million has been leveraged in volunteer support. The Council’s work has been used in many ways and had an impact on national policy agendas and strategies, research programs, and supported stakeholders and industry groups with forward looking action plans.

“On behalf of the Board of Governors I would like to extend our thanks to the Government,” said Margaret Bloodworth, Chair of the Board of Governors.  “The Board is now well positioned to consider future strategic directions for the organization and how best to further expand on the Council’s client base.”

The CCA news is one of the few item about social science funding, most observers such as Ivan Semeniuk in an April 27, 2015 article for the Globe and Mail, are largely focused on the other sciences,

Last year [2014], that funding [for the tricouncil agencies] amounted to about$2.7-billion, and this year’s budget maintains that. Because of inflation and increasing competition, that is actually a tightening of resources for rank-and-file scientists at Canada’s universities and hospitals. At the same time, those institutions are vying for a share of a $1.5-billion pot of money called the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which the government unveiled last year and is aimed at helping push selected projects to a globally competitive level.

“This is all about creating an environment where our research community can grow,” Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, told The Globe and Mail.

One extra bonus for science in this year’s budget is a $243.5-million commitment to secure Canada’s partnership in the Thirty Meter Telescope, a huge international observatory that is slated for construction on a Hawaiian mountain top. Given its high price-tag, many thought it unlikely that the Harper government would go for the project. In the end, the telescope likely benefited from the fact that had the Canada committed less money, most of the economic returns associated with building it would flow elsewhere.

The budget also reflects the Harper government’s preference for tying funding to partnerships with industry. A promised increase of $46-million for the granting councils next year will be largely for spurring collaborations between academic researchers and industrial partners rather than for basic research.

Whether or not science becomes an issue in the upcoming election campaign, some research advocates say the budget shows that the government’s approach to science is still too narrow. While it renews necessary commitments to research infrastructure, they fear not enough money will be left for people doing the kind of work that expands knowledge but does not always produce an immediate economic return.

An independent analysis of the 2015 budget prepared by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto based consulting firm, shows that when inflation is factored in, the money available for researchers through the granting councils has been in decline since 2009.

Canadian scientists are the not only ones feeling a pinch. Neal V. Patel’s April 27, 2015 article (originally published on Wired) on the Slate website discusses US government funding in an attempt to contextualize science research crowdfunding (Note: A link has been removed),

In the U.S., most scientific funding comes from the government, distributed in grants awarded by an assortment of federal science, health, and defense agencies. So it’s a bit disconcerting that some scientists find it necessary to fund their research the same way dudebros raise money for a potato salad. Does that migration suggest the current grant system is broken? If it is, how can we ensure that funding goes to legitimate science working toward meaningful discoveries?

On its own, the fact that scientists are seeking new sources of funding isn’t so weird. In the view of David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT, crowdfunding is simply the latest “pendulum swing” in how scientists and research institutions fund their work. Once upon a time, research at MIT and other universities was funded primarily by student tuition and private philanthropists. In 1919, however, with philanthropic investment drying up, MIT launched an ambitious plan that allowed local companies to sponsor specific labs and projects.

Critics complained the university had allowed corporate interests to dig their claws into scientific endeavors and befoul intellectual autonomy. (Sound familiar?) But once WWII began, the U.S. government became a force for funding, giving huge wartime grants to research groups nationwide. Federal patronage continued expanding in the decades after the war.

Seventy years later, that trend has reversed: As the federal budget shrinks, government investment in scientific research has reached new lows. The conventional models for federal grants, explains University of Iowa immunologist Gail Bishop, “were designed to work such that 25 to 30 percent of studies were funded. Now it’s around 10 percent.”

I’m not sure how to interpret the Canadian situation in light of other jurisdictions. It seems clear that within the Canadian context for government science funding that research funding is on a downward trend and has been going down for a few years (my June 2, 2014 posting). That said, we have another problem and that’s industrial research and development funding (my Oct. 30, 2013 posting about the 2013 OECD scorecard for science and technology; Note: the scorecard is biannual and should be issued again in 2015). Businesses don’t pay for research in Canada and it appears the Conservative and previous governments have not been successful in reversing that situation even marginally.