Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What's the state of computer education in New Zealand schools?

This interesting comment was recently on the British education system's failure on computer science.
 Google chairman Eric Schmidt has attacked the British education system, saying a failure to appreciate the importance of computer science was holding the country back in the digital age. ...
He said he was shocked that computer science was not taught as standard in British schools, adding: "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."

Do we still teach students how the chains and gearing on a bicycle works? Do we still teach students how a car works? Do we still teach them how transistors can amplify signals?

If we don't we should. They may never build a bike, car, or audio system but we should give them some idea of how the technology works.

I don't know that we could teach every student how to program (Some people are temperamentally unsuited to programming) but we should give them an overview of how programs work and how to design and build them.

I can't see why the powers that be don't want to teach it. True, it involves actually thinking through what we need to have our citizens prepared to take advantage of as yet unknown technical opportunities, but surely that is part of building a curriculum. Unfortunately what seems to be happening is we are only teaching students how to be consumers of commercial packages, not how to create and improve the software.

Liz Quilty, a friend of mine, reports
One daughter wanted to take digitech next year as an option, i looked at it and realized they were teaching how to use office pretty much and told her no [...] she learnt it at the beginning of primary, it was used as a major part of the curriculum right through primary, and i think that is not uncommon nowdays to have kids using technology.
So the secondary schools are basically going to "teach" children how to be users not innovators and to boot it's what they have already learned in primary school.

I fully agree that you need to know how to use computers and common software (Word processing, spreadsheets, databases, browsers) but if you never learn how these things are built you will never be able to go beyond the imagination of the people who have put them together and it will be much harder for you to be a creator in the next technological wave.


Leigh Hunt has published a blog entry with similar thoughts and more information.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death

1816 was the year the crops simultaneously failed in Western Europe, North America and China. Approximate European fatality total was 200,000 deaths with an unknown (to me) number of deaths in other places in the northern hemisphere.

Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency.

Rice production in Yunnan province was devastated, resulting in widespread famine. Heilongjiang province, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall was reported in various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui provinces, both in the south of the country. On Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, while frost was reported in Changhua.

The New England corn crop failed and in other places very low yields were reported.

Severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by about 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F), resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.

It is believed that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped off by the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years.

On the plus side, the lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the draisine or velocipede. This was the ancestor of the modern bicycle and a step toward mechanised personal transport

The above is adapted from this Wikipedia page. I'd never heard of it before stumbling on it today. 

There's obvious parallels to the effects that global warming are expected to have on agriculture in the years to come. The big difference is that 1816 was clearly an act of nature and nothing we could have done would have changed the climatic outcome. Europe was hit more severely by the crop shortage than it might have otherwise been  because the economy was still recovering from the Napoleonic wars, but the shortages would still have happened.

This article is largely a reproduction of excerpts from a Wikipedia page and is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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