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Students’ Task: Think Computer Science
December 17, 2009 11:00 AM PT

In December 2008, during the annual Think Computer Science event hosted by Microsoft Research Cambridge, Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Manchester, entertained hundreds of teens by asking: “Brains, computers … what have they got to do with each other?”

Furber’s question was the launch pad for a discussion about how even rapidly advancing computer capabilities can’t yet approach the powers of the human brain. But in a broader sense, the Think Computer Science event is always about brains and computers—and the intriguing possibilities when they are combined.

The event, hosted by Microsoft Research Cambridge since 2005, is designed to provide insight into the world of a computer scientist and the realms of research and innovation—areas deemed critical in the facility’s efforts to inspire and support young students and encourage them to consider a career in computer science.

On Dec. 11, more than 400 invited A-level students congregated in the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, U.K., for this year’s Think Computer Science event. The attendees got a chance to experience a day full of talks from esteemed researchers, a visiting professor of robotics, demos of developing technology, and interactive sessions.

Andrew Herbert, Microsoft distinguished engineer and managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, welcomed the students and provided an introduction to the day’s events. He also led a panel question-and-answer session and gave closing comments to lend a bit of clarity to an assemblage whose heads were swimming with new possibilities.

After Herbert’s introduction, the pre-lunch session featured five speakers giving presentations on various aspects of the computer-science educational and professional experience:

While lunching, the invited students got a chance to examine 14 technological demonstrations, encompassing a range of five research areas. Eleven of the demos were from Microsoft Research Cambridge, one from the University of Edinburgh, one from CS4FB (Computer Science for Fun), a U.K. magazine for school students, and one from Microsoft’s Developer & Partner Evangelism group:

  • Wayve: Lindley demonstrated a messaging device based on the idea of a digital sticky note.
  • TimeCard: A navigable digital record of the past that can be crafted into a lasting memorial of a person’s life, presented by Tim Regan, research software-development engineer in the Socio-Digital Systems group at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
  • TellTable: Creative storytelling on an interactive tabletop, shown by John Helmes, an interaction designer, and Stuart Taylor, a research software-development engineer, both of the Socio-Digital Systems group.
  • Dragonfly: Electronic building blocks that enable the invention, design, and construction of small computing devices, demoed by Nicolas Villar, researcher in the Sensors and Devices group at the Cambridge lab.
  • SecondLight: Surface-computing technology that can project images and detect gestures in mid-air above a display, shown by Steve Hodges, principal hardware engineer and manager of the Sensor and Devices group, and Dave Molyneaux.
  • weConnect: An online service that enables mobile and desktop users to connect via exclusive and personal media channels, explained by Gavin Smyth, a research software-development engineer, and Jamie Costello, both with the Computer-Mediated Living team at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
  • TrueSkill: A Bayesian rating and matchmaking system designed to work with online multiplayer video games and Xbox LIVE, with games such as Halo 3. Jurgen Van Gael explained how it works.
  • A new model of the global carbon-climate system: Purves discussed how future global carbon-dioxide levels can be predicted under different scenarios and how the various impacts can be assessed.
  • Check your units!Andrew Kennedy, a researcher in Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Programming Principles and Tools group, demonstrated how the new programming language F# can help researchers avoid disastrous errors involving units of measure.
  • Proving that programs eventually do something good: Samin Ishtiaq, senior research software-development engineer in the Programming Principles and Tools group, demonstrated a pair of tools that automatically check that software cannot hang or crash.
  • Codename Oxygen: A mobile-phone program for exchanging photos, videos, music, texts, and files when phones pass nearby each other, even without a good Internet connection. Dinan Gunawardena, research software-development engineer in the Cambridge Systems and Networking group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, supplied the details.
  • Magic of Computer Science: Peter McOwan, professor of Computer Science and director of Outreach in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, showed this CS4FN demo of how magic tricks are responsible for interesting computer-science applications.
  • The X Factor: Andrew Sithers and Paul Foster of Microsoft’s Developer & Partner Evangelism group, discussed how to build games for the Xbox 360 using XNA Game Studio.
  • Connect with AI: An interactive demo that by itself can play a game of Connect 4 against a human opponent. Vijayakumar and Matthew Howard of the University of Edinburgh showed the demo.

Also during lunchtime, two representatives from each participating institution competed in a skills-based quiz for a chance to win £1,000 for their school or college. The questions during the quiz addressed a range of subjects from computing to mathematics to science and were designed to test reasoning skills and acquired knowledge. The quiz was timed, and the winner was the duo with the most correct answers in the shortest time.

The announcement of West Suffolk College as the competition’s winner concluded an eventful day in which all participants got a good feel of what it means to Think Computer Science.

After the event, Herbert said that one of the many pleasures of his role in the event is meeting students who, after spending a day with Microsoft Research, feel inspired to embark upon a career in computer science.

“Every year, I get a real buzz from the enthusiasm shown by the students and teachers,” Herbert said. “These young people are the computer scientists of tomorrow, and without them, facilities such as Microsoft Research and its centers of collaboration would not have fresh minds to welcome.”