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September 16, 2005

Talk Xanga: Capturing Gen-Z’s Computational Imagination

By Krishna P.C. Madhavan, Sebastien Goasguen, Gary R. Bertoline

Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, Purdue University

In a recent HPCWire article entitled “New Directions for Computational Science Education,” the authors claim computational science education in the United States is broken. We agree whole-heartedly with this assessment.

A more important point, however, is that it is not just HPC education that is broken, but there is a dire need to think of a cyberinfrastructure-enabled educational science, where information technology provides the necessary foundation to build pedagogy. If cyberinfrastructure is poised to change the way discoveries happen in science, technology, engineering as well as social and behavioral sciences, the educational system as a whole needs to reflect this urgency.

The overt presence of cyberinfrastructure in every aspect of our life — starting from HDTV at home to high-speed cellphone networks — throws into sharp relief the need to re-think education ground up given the recent advances in cyberinfrastructure (CI) sciences.

The truth is that cyberinfrastructure is everywhere and is an overt market force that we educators are yet to completely understand. No pedagogical solution that treats the CI sciences as a static entity that is hidden and waiting to be uncovered, rather than an area of science that is evolving to meet the grand challenges of the next century will be successful.

While the above article takes into partial consideration the changing landscape of the high performance computing world, there is a real need to tailor our arguments to the modern teenager — the aptly named Gen-Z or the “CI generation.” The challenge is to teach our students that form of computational science that will help them enter modern cross-disciplinary fields, such as nanotechnology, genomics and biomedical engineering. While HPC is partially about understanding MPI and speed-up, it is now — in this new CI world — a tool that will let scientists solve the next generation of scientific grand challenges including ones in computing.

The problem is not so much that teenagers cannot or do not have access to powerful computers or are aware of the complexity thereof, but rather that most students prefer to use their powerful desktop computers to play online games, chat with friends or share audio and video with friends and strangers around the world. A teenager today is no stranger to superior computational power. They use gaming devices that have significant computing capacity; students carry around 60 GB hard-drives that store songs, pictures, calendar, and pretty much everything else they need. In addition, they add to this impressive technology arsenal a variety of all-in-one, trendy cellphones that seem to have an unending list of capabilities. They create social networks and “collaborate” with students all over the world on common tasks.

The current generation of students and increasingly the next generation will be completely comfortable playing a critical role in establishing new models of economy that will shrink the world even more. Today's students are increasingly driving home the message on campuses and high schools not only highlighting the need to deploy a robust cyberinfrastructure, but also the need to revise existing teaching methods to increase the focus on students.

They use words like “Xanga,” sentences like “let's 360 at my Xanga” and fuel a multi-billion dollar economy by trading “e-props” online. The problem is we, the educators, are left dumbfounded at what these words and concepts mean. Now, think about the teacher in a high school or a faculty member at universities; this is the generation of students they have to entice into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Given the fast moving nature of the field of high performance computing, we need to systematically and carefully look to the future of cyberinfrastructure — simply because the fundamental fabric of high performance computing is changing and we cannot pretend that preserving the status quo will do the trick.

Gen-Z students are quicker to adopt new technologies, faster, smarter and more in tune with the new CI world because they are being raised in it. They understand CI better than the generations of students before and want more out of it than any of us. They are one of the major forces driving innovation in the new world and we cannot keep up.

As the new world is one of global knowledge and global sharing, the challenge resides in teaching the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering and mathematics without compromising the way Gen-Z students think of technology. Offering more workshops, providing more lectures, software tools or for that matter even grid on CDs is only going to deliver on this requirement partially. One might present counter-arguments and vouch for the success of traditional methods. After all, most of us were brought up using the traditional paradigm and it has apparently worked for most people. The simple truth of the matter, however, is this methodology is nothing new and has essentially failed. Future generations of students are growing up in a “ever flattening world” where the Internet and the worldwide web are viewed as technologies of the 1990s. Education in the United States stands at crossroads; we either choose to be bold and innovative or sit back and pave the road for next generation of innovations to come from countries such as China and India.

Simply put, we as scientists, educators and researchers, despite our best efforts, are slowly losing touch with the current generation of students. We argue for practices that we know have failed to deliver concrete results — mostly because it is the safest route to take and we are comfortable with them. This boxed approach to education in general, and computational science education specifically, is slowly forcing us to descend a path to irrelevance.

We have failed to capture the imagination of Generation-Z — something that corporate America has so successfully managed to achieve. Why is it that an artifact of computational science like the iPod is a mega-success, while computational science education is broken? Why are gaming companies able to setup a multi- million dollar gaming environment with its own internal currency targeted at teenagers and college students, while we are not able to attract and keep students from dropping out of computational science programs in our colleges and universities? The only rational conclusion one can draw is that we are not leveraging our understanding of our audience — the students, our customers — nor are we leveraging our expertise in information technology.

We talk Matlab, when students talk Xanga; we talk simulations, when students talk gaming; we talk parallel algorithms, when students talk invisible computing.

In August 2005, Time magazine published a special issue on “Being 13,” which depicted beautifully the lifestyle and technology choices of teenagers. What was really surprising about the findings was that all technologies that we scientists, educators and researches think of as important were conspicuously absent. There is absolutely no mention of computers, definitely no mention of television or for that matter teenagers seem to think the current form of the Internet is old-age. What was present on the list of technology choices were devices like iPods, gaming devices, cyber-services like iTunes and Rhapsody and really trendy communication devices.

One message that is becoming louder and is consistent with the findings expressed in the book entitled “Educating the Net Generation” (http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf): students spend more time playing online games and instant messaging than doing their homework. This being the case, perhaps we as educators should leverage the emerging national cyberinfrastructure to tap into the playing and instant messenging time.

Incidentally, what serious gamers will tell you is they spend a considerable amount of time researching their game and discussing strategies on how to win it. It is well established knowledge among educators that perhaps one of the greatest predictors of success or failure on a specific learning task is “time on task” combined with carefully structured instruction. The greater the time students spend learning and thinking about a specific concept in any subject area, the greater their chance of understanding it. Given that our students' attentions are focused elsewhere, the real challenge lies in how we transform their day-to-day activities into learning moments and fill their field of vision with learning experiences. Clearly, this requires some Gen-Z thinking.

Learning experiences of the future will be multi-sensory, engage technologies and significant computational power continuously and invisibly, and will be completely engaging. The future of learning will incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts into the students' everyday life seamlessly.

We need to look into methodologies that transform common day- to-day student activities, such as gaming, eating at the cafeteria or visiting the supermarket, into learning experiences. Our vision for the future will need to develop a Cyberinfrastructure Education Ecosystem where learning co-exists with students' lifestyles, technology choices and emerging national cyberinfrastructure.

This new vision has to signal a revolutionary shift toward user-focused discovery and pedagogical paradigm where information technology and computational science are a tacit part of all campus activities. Furthermore, any such effort should place students' learning experiences on university campuses squarely at the intersection of cyberinfrastructure science and pedagogical theory and practice.

The future of discovery and learning will force us to break computational, data, bandwidth and more importantly, imagination walls. Given current trends in technology and the dramatic innovations that the National Science Foundation is fostering through its cyberinfrastructure, engineering and educational initiatives — the question we need to think about, and more importantly encourage future students to think about, is the following: “What would we do if we were provided with virtually unlimited computational power, storage and bandwidth? What grand challenges will we take on? What would be the manifestation of this freedom on our university campuses and also in K-12 education?”

We need the vocabulary and the courage to think in those terms. For this we really need to “deschool” our minds from the traditional assumptions about education in general. Metaphorically, the solution lies in us learning to talk Xanga.

About the authors

Dr. Krishna P.C. Madhavan is a research scientist with the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, Information Technology at Purdue University. He is also the educational technology director for the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology. Dr. Madhavan serves as the Chair for the Supercomputing 2006 Education Program and the Curriculum Director for the Supercomputing 2005 Education Program. His interests lie in the new and emerging field of cyberinfrastructure enabled educational science.

Dr. Sebastien Goasguen is a senior research scientist with the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, Information Technology at Purdue University. He is the site lead for the TeraGrid at Purdue University. Dr. Goasguen is the PI for the NSF- funded middleware initiative at Purdue University as part of the NMI. He is also the co-PI on the NSF Tier-2 CMS award at Purdue University. Dr. Goasguen has also served as the technical director for the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology.

Dr. Gary R. Bertoline is an associate vice president and director of the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing and the NSF-funded Envision Center for Data Perceptualization at Purdue University. He is also a full professor of computer graphics technology at Purdue University. Dr. Bertoline serves as the Chair of the Supercomputing 2005 Education Program and the co-chair of the Supercomputing 2006 Education Program.