Friday, 6 June 2014

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 3

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 3

In addition to 'Infinity' reviewed in my last blog, I also attended 2 other events on Day 3.

First was learning to code using Minecraft for Raspberry Pi.  The first thing I noticed was that the average age for this workshop was considerably younger than all the other events I have been to.  The  attendees were mainly school aged boys who were far more competent at the task in hand than I was!

This workshop used the Raspberry Pi which is a very cheap computer which looks a bit like a small, credit card sized circuit board with plugs taped around the outside.  It plugs into a keyboard, monitor and mouse, costs around £25-£30 and enables the user to learn about coding.  The Raspberry Pis we used also had a version of Minecraft, a cult level online game which is a bit like building lego online, and the object of the workshop was to learn how to use simple coding to make things happen on Minecraft.

Already feeling considerably outwitted by the other attendees I bravely attempted the first task, which was to go onto Minecraft and build a house.  Given that I had never used Minecraft in my life I was beginning to wish I had been able to smuggle my 10 year old son in with me.  Thankfully I sat next to a very considerate 15 year old who was able to get me to navigate around the screen and I finally managed to build a wall.

We were then shown how to write several different pieces of code using Python to get Minecraft to do different things; to teleport the player to a different location, to leave a trail of flowers when walking around and to automatically build a house.  We were also given worksheets to enable us to try out other codes at home.

It was great to learn a bit of coding and see your commands take shape within the game.  I have to say what impressed me the most was simply witnessing a really sophisticated computer interface all coming from this circuit board with plugs!  I'm a huge fan of Raspberry Pi and given that it doesn't cost much more than a book, it's a revolutionary computing tool for anyone who wants to learn to code.  I'll certainly be getting one for my family.  Also, the teaming up of Raspberry Pi and Minecraft is a sure winner for encouraging many young people to learn coding.

Next I went to see 'Identifying Autism', a talk given by Emily Jones, cognitive psychologist and winner of the L'Oreal UNESCO prize for women in science.  The talk was presented as an interview with the chair of the session, so was delivered in a question, answer format.  Jones defined what autism is, a neurodevelopmental disorder that is diagnosed through recognised behaviours which are; stereotypical behaviours, restricted interests and social communication (sometimes including language) difficulties.  She highlighted that diagnosis is difficult, and diagnostic criteria differ not only over time (the USA has just published a revised criteria in their diagnostic manual the DSM V) but also geographically, with different criteria in Europe and the USA (Europe uses a World Health Organisation criteria the ICD 10).  One feature that has emerged from the recent changes to the USA criteria is that the term 'Aspergers' Syndrome' will no longer be used, as individuals previously diagnosed with Aspergers's Syndrome are now thought to be the same as those identified as high functioning autism.  These discrepancies in diagnosis can prove both frustrating and confusing for both families who have a child they suspect is autistic and individuals who have received a diagnosis in the past that no longer is used. She also stated that many parents of children with autism notice that something is wrong at around when their child is aged around 1-2, yet children often do not receive a diagnosis until around age 4 years.  She pointed out that given that there is much evidence that the earlier children receive treatments for autism the better the outcomes,  there is a need to try to identify signs of autism at an early age.

Jones then outlined her research, which was following infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism.  These children have a 20% chance of developing autism themselves, so Jones' team at Birkbeck observe all these children at key milestones (5 months, 10 months, 14 months 2 years and 3 years) in order to try to identify emerging symptoms of autism at an earlier stage.  Observations include use of EEG, optical imaging, eye tracking techniques and use of interactive stimuli that respond to the infant's eye movements.

Jones highlighted treatment options currently available for children with autism, including parenting programmes and training programmes for children (for example, one computer based training programme is aimed at increasing eye gaze and visual attention using eye tracking technology).

During the question and answer session that followed many individuals cited personal experiences of living with autism or a loved one living with autism.  Difficulties with diagnoses were discussed, but also success stories, for example, starting university.  Jones' highlighted the value of looking at the positive features of autism and discussed that perhaps autism could be seen as a different personality, rather than just in negative terms.  Suggestions were made from the audience on helpful strategies, such as educating the wider world about autism, and using sport to support some of the negative associations with autism, such as depression and anxiety.

This talk clearly had personal resonance with many people in the audience, and Jones made herself available for continued discussion in the hub afterwards, which is to be commended.

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