[University of Waterloo]


Past days


About the Bulletin

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

  • Pass it on: algorithm sorts letters
  • The case for Lego in university
  • Students honoured for high-tech work
  • Other notes after the long weekend
Chris Redmond

Fighting the West Nile virus

Pass it on: algorithm sorts letters -- from the UW media relations office

[Journal's cover] Ming Li's penchant for classification and his ensuing research in the area has led to a featured report in the June issue of Scientific American.

[Li] "It's all about my new theory of how to classify objects or sequences," said Li (left), a faculty member in UW's school of computer science and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Bioinformatics. "The sequences can be anything from genomes, music, to Internet documents, to chain letters, to computer programs, to languages."

The study, titled "Chain Letters and Evolutionary Histories", shows how a new algorithm can be useful in inferring the family tree of anything that evolves over time, such as chain letters, biological genomes (genetic material of organisms), languages and even plagiarized papers.

Li co-authored the study with noted physicist Charles H. Bennett, an IBM research fellow who invented a practical system of quantum cryptography, and Bin Ma, of biochemistry and computer science at the University of Western Ontario.

The featured report in Scientific American leads off with: "In our hands are 33 versions of a chain letter collected between 1980 and 1995, when photocopiers, but not e-mail, were in widespread use by the general public. These letters have passed from host to host, mutating and evolving. Like a gene, their average length is about 2,000 characters. Like genomes, chain letters undergo natural selection and sometimes parts even get transferred between coexisting 'species'."

The authors add that while the letters are an intriguing social phenomenon, they also provide a test bed for the algorithms used in molecular biology to infer the phylogeny (evolutionary history) of trees from the genomes of existing organisms. "We believe that if these algorithms are to be trusted, they should produce good results when applied to chain letters."

They found that by using a new algorithm general enough to have wide-ranging applicability to such problems, it was possible to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the 33 chain letters. They also determined that standard methods do not work as well in classifying the letters.

[Lego bricks]

The case for Lego in university -- by Cara DeHaan, from the teaching resource office newsletter

Ever wish you still had time to play with Lego?

If Dorothy Kucar had her way, first- or second-year engineering students would have the opportunity to "play" with Lego in introductory design courses. A PhD student in electrical and computer engineering and a Certificate in University Teaching participant, Dorothy presented a TRACE research talk and wrote a CUT research paper on this topic last term. She hasn't had a chance to implement her idea but cites literature describing others who have.

It's not just that she wants students to relive their childhood -- although many engineering students were undoubtedly big Lego fans growing up. Rather, she believes that students' learning would be enhanced with Lego.

Engineering design requires the fusion of analysis, hand skills, and creativity. Dorothy notes, however, that most engineering classes focus primarily on analysis, which requires learning and manipulating mathematical formulas. She argues that although analytical skills are critically important, students could lose the intuition they need to be good engineers if they are taught to rely too much on equations. They also might lose interest in design when they see how many equations they need to memorize.

Software Engineering 101 uses the Lego Mindstorms Tracking Robot
That's where Lego comes in. As a toy and visual aid, Lego has the power to arouse and maintain students' interest, especially in introductory courses. More importantly, with Lego students can manipulate something besides equations. The 750-piece Mindstorms set includes (in addition to regular blocks) motors, wires, and gears -- exactly the materials needed to model some concepts discussed in introductory design courses. Many students learn from seeing how things work, and Lego would give them the kind of hands-on experience they need to strengthen their hand skills and creativity. It could initiate a "process of enlightenment," as it did for Dorothy. "For a hobby, I've built something," she says, "and then realized -- oh, that's why that equation works!"

In her paper, which is on file in the TRACE library, Dorothy describes how Lego could be incorporated into a lecture: "After the professor finishes analyzing a simple system of gears and pulleys, the students can quickly build it [using Lego] to verify that the analysis corresponds to the working prototype. They would be able to feel that, for example, there is a strong force at a particular spot in the construction -- that the mathematics has some relation to the physical system. I would not be surprised if some students then had further questions of the type 'what happens if?' or 'why is?' In essence, the students would become part of a more interactive classroom setting. Based on my own experience in design classes, I think the students would certainly retain more of what is taught in class."

Engineering professors, like all instructors, need to use their class time efficiently, but Dorothy stresses that most models would only take a few minutes to make. She also notes that Lego sets are relatively inexpensive -- the Mindstorms set sells for about $300 -- and can be purchased at an educational discount. . . .

"If I heard a professor was using Lego in his or her classes, I'd be impressed," she says. "I'd get the impression that the prof is very enthusiastic, practical, and concerned that students learn the concepts, not just the equations." She admits that her idea is to some extent a product of wishful thinking -- what Lego fan wouldn't want to "play" in class? -- but adds that if she ever were to teach a first-year course, she would certainly consider at least using her set in class to show students different concepts.


Steve Little, president of the UW retirees association, died Friday at his cottage in Muskoka. He was 60. Stephen J. Little was UW's director of secondary school liaison for 27 years, retiring in 1996, and was both one of the best-known people on campus and a high-profile representative of Waterloo across Canada. Visitation is tomorrow at the Edward R. Good Funeral Home in Waterloo, and a funeral service will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Kitchener.

In a sad irony, the annual general meeting of the retirees association is scheduled for tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. in room West 102 of Ron Eydt Village.

Students honoured for high-tech work

UW and Communications and Information Technology Ontario will co-host a celebration event today to honour students from the University of Guelph, McMaster University and UW for their work in high-technology research. Also, a research team working with Michael McCool, of the school of computer science, will demonstrate their work.

The event starts at 1:30 in the computer graphics laboratory on the second floor of the Davis Centre.

Darin Graham, CITO's president and chief executive officer, and UW president David Johnston will speak. Graham will present cheques and awards to students who have received scholarships or internships awards from CITO within the last year.

Among those being honoured is UW student Anil Kumar, who received a scholarship for his work in the area of foldable displays. This is the inaugural year for CITO's Student Research Excellence Scholarships.

CITO internships were awarded to four UW students: Zheng Qin, Rafal Jaroszkiewicz and Wayne Olive for their work in the area of advanced shader programming and applications; and Bill Todorovic for his research into the entrepreneurial orientation of university departments and the incidence of commercial activity in Canadian universities.

All CITO research awards are required to have industry partners. In total, the CITO student research awards for Ontario universities are worth $757,000 this year.

Other notes after the long weekend

The UW senate will meet today at 4:30 in Needles Hall room 3001. Among the agenda items is a proposed graduate-level "diploma in business, entrepreneurship and technology", a cut-down version of the master's degree in BET that's already about to begin. Also proposed: an option in biomechanics in the undergraduate engineering program. And the meeting will feature a presentation from St. Jerome's University, the monthly "environmental scan" by the president, another batch of reports on academic program reviews, and much other business.

The engineering faculty council will meet before the senate meeting, at 3:00 in Carl Pollock Hall room 3385. . . . The Canadian Workshop on Information Theory is continuing in the Davis Centre. . . . Co-op students who will be taking part in employer interviews next month should hand in a resumé package today at the drop-off bins on the lower level of the Tatham Centre. . . .

Several sessions are planned today in the career development workshop series: "Interview Skills: The Basics" at 2:30, "Preparing for Questions" at 3:30, "Starting Your Own Business" at 4:30, and "Job Search Strategies" (a special session for international students) also at 4:30. Registration is through the career services web site.

Happening tomorrow:

Then Thursday brings a lunch meeting for the local chapter of Xplor Canada, an association of people in the business. UW hosts the meeting this month, with a presentation from UW Graphics under the title "Desperately Seeking Documents".

Also Thursday: a retirement reception for Bill Lennox, civil engineering professor and former dean of engineering, is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. in the Festival Room, South Campus Hall. RSVPs go to Marguarite Knechtel at ext. 3985.

Looking ahead, there will be an open house Saturday at St. Paul's United College, marking "40 years of outstanding community". It's "a celebration of the College's remarkable past and ambitious future", including tours, a barbecue, children's activities and a chapel service, and runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

UW's Midnight Sun solar race car has officially qualified for the American Solar Challenge in July. . . . Architecture professor Dereck Revington, who designed the "luminous veil" suicide barrier for Toronto's Bloor Street viaduct, has one more honour, as the project was recognized as the top engineering project of 2002 by the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction, Ontario region. . . . An interruption to computer network service last Thursday has been traced to its source, as the information systems and technology department detected hostile action by a squirrel on a fibre feed to the Chemistry II building. . . .


Communications and Public Affairs, University of Waterloo
200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1
(519) 888-4567 ext. 3004
www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca | Friday's Bulletin
Copyright © 2003 University of Waterloo