Interview with Jacob Marks:
It’s a Processor!
Yale Undergraduates Bring Computer Architecture and Design into the High School Classroom with Geppetto D2O
By Keith Lee
Computer systems and embedded technology are playing a larger and larger role in our day-to-day lives. From smartphones to smart homes, we’re putting computers everywhere. As these systems become more and more complex, training the next generation of innovators gets increasingly difficult.
The first step, of course, is to convince High School students that degrees and diplomas in computer science are attainable goals. Today, kids can usually pick up any device and start using it right a way. But to them, the inner workings of computers may be a complete mystery. So how do we break that barrier and demystify computer hardware?
Well, a handful of Yale undergraduates may be onto something, and they’re using Gumstix boards and Geppetto to do it. Jacob Marks, a Yale senior and president of the Ventures in Science student organization, along with his colleagues designed a lesson plan to help young students engage, both intellectually and manually, with the inner workings of computer hardware and architecture. I asked Jacob some questions about it and he told me all about Ventures in Science, ‘It’s a Processor’, and his experiences.
Jacob and ‘Ventures in Science’ Take on STEM Education
“Ventures in Science (ViS) is an undergraduate organization at Yale, started five years ago by a bunch of students who wanted to connect undergraduates with scientists in industry,” Jacob says. “[...] In the past few years, ViS has refocused its efforts on educating the leaders of tomorrow about science and its role in law, technology, policy, and culture. When I became president of ViS, I realized we could further advance our objective by increasing scientific literacy and exciting children about science.”
To this end, he and his team started teaching middle school kids about the scientific method with paper airplanes. “My team led students as they experimented with different designs and materials, trying to throw their airplane the farthest. In just an hour, students learned about hypotheses, trials, controls, and variables.”
From there, their involvement in science education continued in the form of demonstrations at Science on Saturdays, a popular lecture series for kids at Yale, reaching out to students from dozens of New Haven schools.
Jacob is a student of physics, mathematics and philosophy with a keen interest in quantum computing technologies. But he confesses that his exposure to computers and technology was very limited in grade school. “I remember spending elementary and middle school computer classes learning to type with Mavis Beacon, and (more frequently) an “educational” computer game called Oregon Trail,” he related to me, “When I started college I had never written a line of code, and I couldn’t tell ROM from RAM.”
This continues to be a typical sentiment in public schools. For whatever reason, computer science and technology tends to get only the most cursory treatment. Kids are encouraged to use computers in and out of the classroom for word processing, research, and edutainment but most often everything beyond the keyboard and screen is left a mysterious, black box of parts to many kids.
After being exposed to subjects like cryptography, and a software engineering internship at Reservoir Labs, and realizing how many other people’s pre-university computer science background was near zero he decided to make it his goal to “expose - and excite - as many students as possible about the subject.”
In order to tackle that challenge, he and his team developed a lesson plan called “It’s a Processor” for High School students. “ ‘It’s a Processor’ was the beta-test of a new interactive curriculum to teach kids about digital logic and computer architecture. Analogies and demonstrations help illustrate how all of the hardware components in a computer come together to perform computational tasks.”
The title refers to more than just computer processor. “The name ‘It’s a Processor’ points to the process of learning itself, self-consciously acknowledging that this one event is only one small part of a complete education in computer science,” He told me, “We wanted students to walk away with a basic understanding of computer architecture, but more importantly we wanted them to leave feeling inspired to dig further into the theory and practice of computer science.” This certainly a noble aspiration for inspiration, which deserves a stronger foothold in our children's’ education.
The ‘It’s a Processor’ drew in students from 7 different public schools, none of whom had ever seen the inside of a PC. “For many, this was their first time seeing logic gates, and holding a processor, but they all caught on quickly. It was truly a pleasure working with these students!” The computers built during the event are all being donated to Wilbur Cross High School, “the largest public school in New Haven, and one of the most lacking in resources.”
The workshop starts with a quick, 20-slide high-level presentation. First it reviews the nature of electricity, describes digital logic, and then moves on to deconstruct computers into its various hardware components and architecture. Explaining these more detailed features to the uninitiated can be a real challenge.
Often, when it comes time to describing the inner functions of the computer, educators will use the brain and central nervous system as an analogy to compute systems, but is this the right approach when you’re talking to high school students?
“It’s true that the computer is often anthropomorphized - and the human-computer analogy is very strong,” Jacob agrees, but “[...] While children understand the roles that the ‘brain’ and the ‘nervous system’ play in a human, the connections between these various body parts are somewhat complicated and can be hard to visualize. To really appreciate the way that they work together, one would need a basis in biology and physiology.”
His team opted to use a beautifully hand-rendered “Computer as a City” example. It relates memory to storage facilities, external ports to shipping docks, and buses to... well, buses. Admittedly, this sounds much easier to assimilate than the organic CNS example. So where did this come from?
“I first came up with the idea when I heard data buses described as ‘information highways’, and thought it would be interesting to map the parts of the computer onto different urban features. Then our graphic designer Dana Smooke ran with it and turned it into both a teaching tool and a work of art. The finished product was even better than we had hoped - and the kids loved it!”
2 - It’s a Computer
The kids had an opportunity to check out, up close and personal, what goes into the workstations at their school and at home. Able to touch things like the motherboard, RAM modules, SSDs and power supply, they got to assemble their own “city”. “[...] the tactile act of holding the internal components in their hands helped make computers more tangible. ‘It’s a Processor’ turned a ‘black box’ into hardware that they recognize and appreciate.” After all the demystification of computer hardware and architecture is the primary goal of the workshop.
But desktop computers weren’t the only things these kids got their hands on. Gumstix partnered with ViS at Yale, and donated ‘Pepper DVI-D’ single-board computers (SBCs) for the students to investigate. The Pepper DVI-D is a 10x7 cm SBC with Ethernet, HDMI, USB, audio and a bootable SD card slot -- everything a barebones system needs -- connected to an ARM Cortex-A9 SoC. Each group was given a Pepper to connect, boot, and play with, adding to the haptics of the experience. “ Working with the sleek and light-weight Pepper board took away the potentially intimidating scale of a massive HP-like motherboard.” With peripherals connected and SD card loaded, the students were able to observe a working Linux environment on a tiny, unobtrusive device.
3 - Grand Finale: Geppetto
Geppetto is a web application from Gumstix that allows users to build their own embedded computers from the ground up in minutes without using complex tools. While this tool is ideal for small to medium size tech companies and startups looking for a fast path to market, its intuitive design proved helpful in driving home the day’s experiences. “All of the students loved using Geppetto!” shared Marks, “I walked them through a brief tutorial on the projector screen and then they each had a chance to play around with it on their own. The kids were so drawn into Geppetto that we actually had to get more computers so that they could all explore the framework at once.”
“The most valuable feature of Geppetto [for the lesson] was definitely the “show-price” capability. The students got really into seeing who could design the cheapest motherboard that had specific components,” he shared, “The blueprint view also helped them as they attempted to fit as much as possible onto a board without having to extend it. [...] the students really loved the opportunity to design custom motherboards, moving beyond the limitations of pre-made hardware.”
The team wrapped up the session with Geppetto’s 3D preview, a feature that shows you a close approximation of your board’s appearance before you even order it. It’s rendered in real time in your browser so you can rotate, zoom, and even export the model as an .STL file. “Geppetto was the perfect finale to our event. Its 3D viewing capabilities allowed the kids to concretely identify the abstractions of Computer as a City with the physical components of the computer they had just constructed.”
Bringing It Home
When asked about how the whole session went, he told me about how the students felt about the experience:
“After the event, we asked the students to take a short survey about our interactive activities and demonstrations. Their responses were mostly positive, but some of the students suggested that we make the activities EVEN MORE hands-on. We definitely hope to do so in future iterations.
“‘It’s a Processor’ was a huge success in that it helped get kids interested in computer architecture. But there is still so much work to be done refining our curriculum and learning to express concepts as effectively as possible. This is absolutely an ongoing process. The next step is to bring this to a wider audience by working with both middle and high schools all over connecticut.”
“It brought me great joy to see how the team was able to use our Geppetto system in the curriculum to bring the students right into the process of device creation,” said Gordon Kruberg, M.D., C.E.O. of Gumstix, Inc. “We at Gumstix are proud to support the It’s a Processor curriculum and look forward to seeing more smiling faces from student inventors as they begin to understand that they can control their own futures.”
For more information or the Ventures in Science curriculum contact Jacob Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos from the ‘It’s a Processor’ workshop provided by Jacob Marks and the Ventures in Science Student Society with written permission from participants.
The ‘Computer As a City’ artwork contributed by Dana Smooke.
Keith Lee is the Gadget Guru at Gumstix. He has a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering From the University of British Columbia and enjoys making, tinkering with, and designing gadgets of all kinds whenever possible.