Blog Archives

Hackathons Coming to a University Campus Near You This Fall


The stereotype of a computer programmers is that of an antisocial person sitting in a cubicle or basement, staring at a computer screen late into the night. Although there may be some truth to this, writing code that matters often requires quite a bit of social interaction. None of the software that we use today would be around if it were not for the collaboration of thousands of software engineers who exchanged ideas, fixed each others bugs, and perhaps even provided moral support.

For young programmers, getting together with their peers as well as with seasoned veterans is an educational experience that elevates programming from homework assignments and tests to serious product development that can affect lives. This October MIT is hosting its annual hackathon, a three day get-together for college students and high school students who are eighteen years old or older, that serves as an engineering fest and competition. Students can build anything they want while sharing ideas with fellow participants and learning from invited experts. A few weeks later, Yale is hosting its inaugural hackathon with a similar format. If you’re an undergraduate interested in the software industry, either event is the place to be. If you teach computer science and your college or high school does not host hackathons, you should consider organizing them as a way to get students to work together on exciting projects.

A Free Stanford Online Course to Develop Your Mathematical Thinking

Most math classes try to teach computation skills and not much more. This is true not only in school where students memorize mechanical procedures and how to plug numbers into formulas, but also in university courses targeting scientists and engineers. Computational fluency is important but it is only a stepping stone to mathematical maturity.

Higher level mathematics requires the ability to prove mathematical statements, which in turn, requires the ability to think logically and create convincing and rigorous arguments. If this sounds more like something taught in law school, it’s because much of math education has been divorced from actual math. We’ve addressed the topic of mathematical thinking before, but now there is an online course that teaches the most foundational concepts in non-computational math.

That course, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking is offered by Stanford University via Coursera and is taught by Keith Devlin, who is a well known and charismatic math popularizer, educator, and researcher. The main purpose of this course is to serve as a transition between computation-fixated school math classes and undergraduate math major courses. In some ways, this is a traditional course that many university math departments require, but as a MOOC it is now accessible to anyone from high school students to math teachers. As Professor Devlin says in the introductory video (below), the course does not teach students new mathematics; instead it teaches them how to think mathematically and work with the standard mathematical language that involves notions like equivalence relations and logical quantifiers.

The course has been offered before with tens of thousands of students and has received excellent reviews. If you have never been exposed to anything beyond plug and chug math, this course is for you. Once you acquaint yourself with the basics of mathematical thinking, you will gain a deeper appreciation of some important topics that are usually left out of the regular school math curriculum.

The Theoretical Minimum: An Introduction to Modern Physics for the Curious Amateur

photo of Susskind

After Walter Lewin wows you with his theater of physics and you become intrigued by the possibility of parallel universes, you may be interested in some of the details behind modern physics. Unfortunately, at that point, you will most likely run into a serious roadblock. Contemporary theoretical physics is steeped in advanced theoretical mathematics, and most textbooks are geared towards future researchers, not intellectually curious individuals with limited backgrounds in either subject.

Luckily, Leonard Susskind, a Stanford Physicist and one of the fathers of string theory, comes to the rescue with The Theoretical Minimum, his unique series of courses on modern physics. The outstanding feature of Susskind’s lectures is that they do not shy away from mathematical derivations; the concepts are introduced in a completely rigorous way, yet they are made accessible to people who have never studied much math or science beyond advanced high school courses. In effect, these lectures offer both a physics and mathematics education for the price of one (figuratively speaking — the courses are free). Susskind develops the material from first principles and introduces all of the math that the physics requires. His target audience is adult continuous learners who want more detail than can be found in popular lectures, but bright high school students will benefit from seeing what life as a physics major entails. It doesn’t look too scary at all.