Archive for March, 2015


March 26, 2015 1 comment

Earlier this month a large group of Virginia Tech faculty and grad students attended the ACM SIGCSE Conference in Kansas City, MO—the flagship conference in computer science education. It’s an interesting conference, full of people at lots of levels of CS education: K-12, small colleges, big universities, and companies and book publishers that support them. The conference was is Kansas City, known for its BBQ, downtown plaza, long walks, and BBQ. VT faculty Steve Edwards, Cliff Shaffer, Manuel Perez, Dwight Barnette, and I all attended, along with a large number of grad students. Within my research group, Andrey Esakia, Shuo Niu, and Mohammed Seyam joined us on the trip to SIGCSE. I connected with lots of VT alums, along with with colleagues from Georgia Tech, UNC, NCWIT, Colorado, and elsewhere.

SIGCSE 2015 Pebble demo

our SIGCSE 2015 Pebble demo session with Shuo and Andrey

Our highlight of the conference was a full paper talk, focusing on our use of Pebbles in CS 3714. As far as I can tell, we were the first to use smartwatches in the classroom, and we had a well-attended talk. We touched on the assignments and activities from spring 2014 and summer 2014 sessions. We covered the core lessons related to smartwatches—including multi-device connectivity issues, wrist-mounted accelerometer use, and limitations in graphical and processing resources. At the end of the talk, Andrey demoed VT undergrad Jared Deane’s music synthesizer app—a class project in one of our classes—which was a big hit among those in attendance. There were lots of good and on-point questions at the end, showing that the audience was plugged in to our talk. Most of the questions focused on use cases for smartwatches that we were considering, though there was one on security issues with regard to smartwatch-phone pairings that merits future consideration.

We also had a demo in which we showed off the many apps that VT students have developed, including Jared’s and several by VT students Sonika Singh and Shuo Niu (favorites were Pebble-Paper-Scissors and Selfie Watch). That was a fast and furious hands-on session with some good discussions that hopefully inspired interest in using smartwatches in the classroom–as well as future outreach efforts like our Pebbles and kids program at a local elementary school. In addition, we had several posters as well. Seyam’s work on Pair Programming in the classroom was chosen as a finalist in the Microsoft Student Research Competition–yeah!  Andrey had a forward-looking poster on Android Wear in CS 3714.  These can both serve as stepping stones to bigger and better things.

VT folks on the SIGCSE road trip

VT folks on the SIGCSE road trip

Big thanks to everyone for helping make this trip a big success. Particular thanks to everyone for getting the apps working and available on the online store, and thanks to those who gave feedback on talks and posters and such.  And it was great to get to know the VT crowd on our massive road trip. CS Education is a big deal at VT, and it’s great that we were able to contribute to a big VT presence–over 20 faculty, students, and alums.  Next year’s event is in Memphis–a bit closer–so I’m hopeful we’ll have an even bigger presence there.

Pebbles and kids: Smartwatches in the elementary school

March 20, 2015 3 comments

Virginia Tech undergrads took Pebbles into a local elementary school computer club to show off the capabilities of smartwatches. 2015-02-10 18.07.07The Pebble smartwatch is a low-cost (and low-functionality) device with a low-resolution black-and-white screen, an accelerometer, haptic output, and Bluetooth connectivity. Thanks to a generous donation from Pebble, Virginia Tech received 100 of the classic Pebble smartwatches, presenting to us a great opportunity to use them in outreach events. At the elementary school, we set up stations with three types of apps: a graphics station, an accelerometer station, and a games station.

At the graphics station, students learned about the difference between the high-resolution color displays on computers and mobile devices and the low-resolution black-and-white displays on a Pebble smartwatch. Pebble’s 144×168 display may seem large (24,192 pixels!), but not so much when compared to the more than 2 million pixels on tablets and laptops.  Similarly, you can’t do as much with 2 colors (black and white) on a Pebble as with the 10,000+ available elsewhere. We highlighted this difference with the SelfieWatch app (that is at the heart of a Virginia Tech course-wide programming assignment crafted by grad student Shuo Niu). 2015-02-27 15.52.54 (2)This app allowed the kids to take a full-color picture of themselves with a smartphone and transfer a black-and-white version to the Pebble as a watch face—highlighting the difference in quality on the two screens, and letting the kids explore how faces, posters, words on the blackboard, and more don’t always look the same in reduced form.

At the accelerometer station, the students got a simple lesson in 3-degree-of-freedom accelerometers, learning how changes in x, y, z position can be used to measure steps, gestures, shakes, and more. The kids got to try out a simple step counter created by Virginia Tech undergrad Sonika Singh, as well as a more complex one that differentiated sitting, walking, and running. The kids tested out how many steps it took to walk around the school, and they saw how much the step count varied from person to person. They also had fun trying to “fool” the step counting algorithms by waving the Pebbles around.

At the games station, the students tried out a bunch of Pebble-specific games, both those by Virginia Tech students but also some available on the Pebble store. Most were accelerometer-based, including a version of the popular 2048 game by Sonika Singh in which kids had to tilt the watch to slide the blocks. Another popular app is a Pebble-based synthesizer written by Virginia Tech undergrad Jared Deane, in which a user can control features of music by tilting the Pebble.

This was one of the many wonderful and worthwhile activities sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Community Service (CS Squared) student organization. They teach about programming, web apps, and mobile apps at AHarding Avenue Elementary school and other schools in the area; they visit our community center and a senior center to teach local residents about web apps like e-mail, Pinterest, Google Maps; and they participate in a variety of outreach activities around campus. (Full disclosure: I’m the faculty advisor for this club, though the vast majority of the work is done by the students.)

This event is just one of the many things we’ve been doing lately with smartwatches—in elementary schools, in Virginia Tech classes, and in our research efforts. Many were highlighted at the SIGCSE Conference in March 2015, a conference dedicated to computer science education. Links to papers, posters, smartwatch apps, and other resources can be found at