New for Spring 2011: CS177 Scientific Computing

The Computer Science department will be offering a new course this semester, CS177 Introduction to Scientific Computing, taught by Prof. Tim Hickey.  The course has no prerequisites and is designed for Science students interested in learning how to use Matlab and other tools to analyze data and simulate physical systems. It meets MWT 9-10 and there is still room for more students. The first part of the course will be an introduction to the lingua franca of the Scientific programming community:  Matlab/Octave. No programming background is assumed or required. The second part of the course will cover the use of Matlab/Octave to solve a variety of scientific problems using various techniques including statistical analysis, curve fitting, optimization, ordinary and partial differential equation solving, image processing, SVD and other matrix factorizations, 2d and 3d plotting. Students will also learn to use  a number of tools for collaboration and dissemination of scientific results including LaTeX for scientific papers, GIT for source code sharing, google docs for shared editing and google sites for dissemination of results. For more info see the course website https://sites.google.com/a/brandeis.edu/scientific-computing/home

A text-based student community for reading and writing science

Science and technology moves forward at a very rapid pace. Those who don’t continue to read the literature become outmoded. What kinds of learning activity help students develop the necessary skills, and habit, for reading science?

In the dissertation work of Johann Larusson, my lab began to develop a co-blogging environment that already has been adopted in several different classes at Brandeis. Student co-blogging is a text-based online student community that supports students as they learn to read and write science.

In the co-blogging environment, each student has a blog. The blog is composed of multiple posts written by the blog owner. Students can read each other’s blog posts and comment on them. Student co-blogging has tremendous potential as a learning activity. It continues to be a research topic for my lab.

Co-blogging enables students to move beyond just rereading their notes and assigned readings as a way to learn material. Students have the opportunity to review, rethink, articulate, explaining in their own words what is significant about the material, making “common” sense of the causal relations among the different elements of the course content. The discussions that naturally emerge expose the students to alternate ways of “seeing” and “constructing” what is significant and why, allowing students to collaboratively work through arguments and trade-offs, weighing and comparing different explanations and justifications. To a greater or lesser degree each of these elements has developed in the courses I teach.

During the semester, there is an aggregation of content in the blogosphere. Topics and themes introduced at the beginning of the semester persist in the blogosphere and can be revisited and further developed as they again become relevant. The aggregated content of the blogosphere can be exploited for other learning activities like constructing arguments, summarizing the literature, writing papers, or preparing for exams.

Each post in the blogosphere is tagged by the student from a selection of pre-defined topics. These tags help students to navigate the blogosphere. Students also receive daily email newsletters that summarize the online co-blogging activity of the class in the previous 24 hours. Students can use links in the newsletter to directly navigate to posts or comments on the blog site that are of particular interest.

The co-blogging environment provides some visualizations for the teacher and students that represent student activity level, balance of participation, and other aspects of the blogosphere. The visualization shown below helps students and teachers locate discussions within the blogosphere.

The Changing Face of Science Reflected in Exciting New Courses

Exciting advances in science are reflected in at least 9 new courses to be offered by the Division of Science. From epigenetics to medicinal enzymology to stem cells to MATLAB, these courses will expose students to some of the frontiers of new knowledge in science.

Details of the courses offered can be found on the following pages

Science and Music

Prof. Harry Mairson of the Computer Science Department writes:

The above title, from Sir James Jeans’s famous book on the physical analysis of musical sounds, underlines the intersection of these subjects at the bottom of my recent experiential, interdisciplinary project:  I just finished building my first violincello.  The design of the instrument isn’t after any particular famous cello, but strongly resembles the cellos of the 18th century Venetian luthier, Domenico Montagnana.

The project was a real mix of art, culture, science, and engineering.  The number of issues here is quite remarkable: design, construction (each with its own chapters), varnishing, acoustics, setup…  Some aspects were aesthetic (appearance), some technical and precise (essential dimensions so that any cellist can play it, as well as the crucial contribution of arching to sonority), and some ineffable (judgment of sound quality, where it isn’t even always clear what “a good sound” is, and the interplay of contributions of the player and the instrument is pretty hard to disentangle).  Remarkably, the relevant mathematics of form predates both Descartes and Galois, where the geometric design was with a straightedge and compass, in a world without graph paper and Vernier calipers (though I was lucky to have both).

Moreover, I found the process of lutherie very much like that of research, which requires both concentration and patience, the importance of hypothesizing and visualizing results and analyzing whether you got there, and continued climbing on the learning curve without falling off.   It’s been such a learning experience in so many ways to have figured out how to do something that was effectively understood 400 years ago, and is still practiced and valued.  The cello was played this week by the cellist in the Lydian quartet in Slosberg.  We thought it sounded good.

HPC cluster hits milestone

Our high-performance computing cluster passed the 1000 core mark this month, thanks to computer purchases for the computational biophysics and computational neuroscience groups and infrastructure support from Library and Technology Services. I’m looking forward to another great year working with you all.

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