Wired In: Sibin Mohan

Wired In: Sibin Mohan

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a different high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet SIBIN MOHAN, a research assistant professor in computer science who with his students has been introducing young people to the technology behind computers, tablets and smartphones. And he has an important use for his own smartphone.

What brought you to the University of Illinois?

I initially came to Illinois as a postdoctoral researcher — after I completed my Ph.D. at North Carolina State University. My postdoc advisor, Professor Lui Sha, was (and is still is) a really famous researcher in my field, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with him.

You and your students have used a cirriculum developed by UI computer-science professors that uses Scratch, a visual programming language aimed at kids. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Scratch was actually designed at MIT. It is a visual programming language where you build computer programs using visual building blocks (instead of writing code). The idea is to teach kids the concepts behind logic and basic programming constructs without having them labor through the (often heavy) syntax of modern programming languages. So the learning curve is fairly small, and the interface is intuitive.

Was it already in use at the UI?

Computer-science faculty at Illinois (led by Professor Lenny Pitt) used the Scratch platform to put together a curriculum aimed at middle school kids. It includes a variety of fun exercises that the kids can go through. These exercises are meant to teach the basics of logic and programming; for instance, how to repeatedly carry out a task (looping) or how to pick between alternate choices (if-then-else) and so on. These are the basic building blocks for most programming languages, so when the students learn these concepts, they can then combine these constructs to build more complex programs. Jana Sebestik, assistant director of the STEM curriculum design, was also instrumental in building this curriculum. In fact, she also made the connections with Urbana Middle School for us.

Do kids pick this up fast?

While I'm not an expert on childhood behavior and development, I have read and noticed that children can pick up fairly complex concepts at a young age. For instance, they are able to learn how to speak multiple languages even before they turn 5! Programming concepts (or even a programming language) can also be seen in a similar light. It is like learning a second spoken language. If you learn it when young, you can adapt to it quickly (like a "native speaker"), and with practice (as is with spoken languages), it quickly defines the way you think. A young brain is like a sponge that can absorb large amount of information fairly quickly — this becomes exponentially harder as you age. All of this prepares the children to interact with computers in a more organic fashion.

Forty percent of the members of the first class, in the fall of 2017, were girls. That is certainly different from years past. What changed?

I believe it might be the result of many factors. Programming, the field of computer science or being geeky about it has become "cool" in the last decade. This could be due to the large amounts of media attention to the area, the success of many startups, the development of movies and TV shows that focus on related topics, having successful women engineers and tech leaders who act as role models, the hard work by CS and STEM educators who have reached out to many communities to teach them about the importance of programming, easier access to computing devices, etc.

And parents?

Parents are also more cognizant of the importance of computer science in basic education, so they encourage their children more and are happy to give them access to the necessary resources. And all of this has made it obvious to many young girls that this could be fun and a great way to explore their scientific/technical side. And once they are introduced to this at an early age, we realize that their gender doesn't matter, and they all excel in it.

Who has been on the team so far?

My Ph.D. students, Chien-Ying Chen and Monowar Hasan, and myself. Two other students, Ritwika Ghosh and Hussein Sibai, also participated during one semester.

You sound both tolerant and creative. When one student wanted to play video games instead of working on assignments, you showed him how to change the game's code to make the character jump higher or run faster. That's something kids can relate to.

And some of the students had already mastered the lessons they were teaching and were building their own games or working in the more advanced Python.

What's different about Python?

Over the last decade or so, Python seems to have become the language of choice for many people starting out in programming. There are many reasons for this, but I think a fundamental one is the ease of use. Python programs come close to how people think an algorithm should work or be written. Also, it has an incredible ecosystem of tools, libraries, online forums and users who are willing to help each other. It also has a very simple syntax, so the learning curve is not very high. Python can be used to develop fairly sophisticated solutions in a vast variety of fields.

TECH TIDBITS ... from SIBIN MOHAN

What's your favorite app? I use Twitter and the Apple News apps a lot. But I like Instagram quite a bit since I'm into photography. Also, the Marvel Comics app.

Book or Kindle? Kindle. I always have multiple books on there at any time that I switch between. Right now, "Diaspora" by Greg Egan, "Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro, "The Gunslinger" by Stephen King, "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel and some Marvel/DC comics.

Do you have any wearable electronics? I used to have a Motorola 360 smartwatch for a long time, but the battery died, so I'm in the market to figure out what to get next. I do have a continuous blood-glucose monitor attached to me (since I'm diabetic), but it connects and works through my smartphone — which I think is very cool!

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