04 June 2015

Today I did a careers day presentation at Hunter’s Bar Junior School. The children were between the age of 8 and 11, and they had a selection of presentations to attend, including one a script-writer’s, journalist’s, doctor’s, solicitor’s and an international development consultant’s. I was billed as an ‘IT lecturer’, which wouldn’t be my chosen title, but it was a fine starting point.

It was a little disappointing that in the first session, out of around 30 in the class there were only two girls, but the second session was better. With five or six. You can see how gender imbalance issues can start so young, because the boys noticed that there were only two girls in the class, and the girls already would have felt somewhat isolated.

A lot of the children have already done some programming in Scratch, so they have an idea of what programming is about. I was working unscripted, but I tried to keep things away from the technical side and more towards the challenges of comptuers, how we can make them easier to work with. I used an analogy I’ve developed for a (hopefully forthcoming) piece contrasting the abilities of comptuers to the abilities of our pets. In particular with regard to their ability to interact naturally with us and empathise.

The first thing I normally address is the nature of the University job, how it involves teaching and research and why that’s an interesting thing. I think I did that better in the first group than the second though. Each session was half an hour long.

There were some very interesting questions, I don’t remember them all, but here are some of my favourites.

“Have you ever told any one to turn it off and turn it on again.”

My answer: yes, all the time. It’s a bit like in Minecraft, you start with a nice world, and then you’re in creative mode and you mess it up. Sometimes the same thing happens to the state of the computer. In Minecraft, you start a new world, reloading the software, or reinstalling or turning it off and on again is like resetting the seed to the new world. It often fixes things.

“What’s the toughest thing you had to do to get to your job”

I said it was writing up the PhD thesis (not actually doing the PhD, that was a lot of fun). I’ve probably done tougher things since then, but in terms of an intimidating challenge, that’s one that sticks in my mind.

“How many hours do you spend in your job?”

I said this was hard to answer, because I think about it all the time, but I’m often not in my office!

“What do you like about your job?”

I like the fact that I can think about it anywhere, and I can work in lots of different fields.

“Is your job very complex?”

I said that to many people think what I do is, but I’m very lucky that I get a lot of freedom to choose what I do. And that I like to choose to do things that are just a little bit more complex than I can currently manage, because they’re the most interesting things. Mr Allen said that was very interesting because that was also how they like to try and teach people: at the school, give them things to do that are just a little bit more complex than they can already manage, because that’s when people seem to learn the most.

“Is your job stressful?”

I said it can be, but I don’t like it when it is. I said that managing stress was one of the most important abilities in life, that when you get very stressed you stop functioning. I said that last year I ran the biggest meeting for my research area and that I was stressed every day for a whole year. But that was useful because every day I would wake up and think about the things I needed to do that day. I said that I deal with stress by running and cycling and talking with friends, and that we’re very lucky in Sheffield because we have the Peak District which is very good for all those things.

“Have you ever written a game?”

I told them about Kappenball and that they could download it on the iPhone. I told them that it wasn’t just a game but a way of understanding why people have to behave in different ways.

“Will you write any more apps?”

I told them I that I wouldn’t be likely to write one myself, but I was hoping that in the group that we would and I told them about one of our latest ideas that we are working on with Mike Smith and citizenme: the ‘artificial psychic’. It is also inspired by conversations with Jonathan Price.

“If there was any program you could write what would it be?”

This made me think about our current projects on personalized health, in particular the ideas we have for creating applications that could help people with mental health problems. I asked if any of them got angry, perhaps with a brother or a sister. And if sometimes they realise that when they are angry they are unreasonable, and they need to talk to someone, like a Mum or a Dad to help them become calm again. I said that even adults get like this, but they don’t always have someone there to help. I’d like to write a program that helps, or contacts people that can help when this happens.

I think my very favourite question in the day, was from the boy who asked me about “switching it off and on again”. He came up to me afterwards and asked me how a computer could generate a random number, he said that he thought that would be very important to do, but he didn’t think computers would be very good at it. Clearly a budding MCMC person there!

The tea break was also very nice, meeting the other presenters. Producer of Radio Sheffield breakfast show, the police liason for the Universities (who is also a nephew of Geoff Hinton!), the international development consultant.

There is perhaps something particularly nice about Sheffield that the people here are so passionate about what they do. This morning I visited Samuel Staniforth, the knife manufacturers in Halfway, they make custom knives. We are having our kitchen redone by David Clayborn, I spoke with his son who was chipping out the concrete from the base of the old conservatory, before dropping in on the school. Then on the way up from the school back to work, while pausing to write this, I bumped into Steve Marsden, a cycling friend who used to work for Recycle and CTC and now works as a tree surgeon. To me they all seem to be people who are dedicated to what they do. Their passion shows. I think we are very lucky when we are in that position.

These events are always good for self reflection, and this was no exception, so thanks so much to the school for hosting me and for all the interesting questions. And thanks a lot to Kat in our department for asking me to participate.

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