Teacher Talk: A brush with greatness.

Anyone with a passing interest in physics, a knowledge of bestselling books, or -more important to some- a fanatic devotion to Star Trek: The Next Generation should know who Steve Hawking is. I had the opportunity to attend the lecture he gave on June 29th at the Orpheum. More thrilling for me, I attended the after lecture reception and met Dr Hawking face to face. As both a teacher and a computer connoisseur I think there are several interesting aspects of the lecture. I would like to restrict this discussion to the computer side.
In the field of adaptive computer technology, the common name for computer aided equipment for the disabled, Dr Hawking is an interesting case study. Dr Hawking suffers from ALS the disease most recently made famous by Sue Rodriguez. He communicates with the aid of a Toshiba 386 portable computer and a voice synthesiser. Since he has lost most of his motor control, he creates sentences by clicking a hand paddle that he operates with the one hand that functions well.  When the word he wants scrolls by on a LCD panel in front of him he clicks the paddle. The list that he has to scroll through is basically a dictionary, the same as most people would have with their word processor. Consider having to scroll through thousands of words, waiting for the one you want and you can understand why the system is agonizingly slow. At the end of the presentation, they tried to conduct a question and answer session. The average answer took three to five minutes and was one to three sentences long.
The voice synthesiser is reasonably clear but looses a fair bit of clarity as you get further away. The PA system in the Orpheum also made for a less than optimal presentation. After struggling with a wireless mike that picked up interference from Dr Hawking’s computer equipment for several minutes, the organizers finally had to resort to a basic floor mike. Evidently the voice synthesiser did not have a mike jack. At the same time that they are struggling to hear the words, the sold-out crowd seemed to be transfixed by the message. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Here was someone using rather inadequate technology while dealing with the fundamental nature of the universe.
You would think that if there was better technology available that someone of the stature of Dr. Hawking would be the first person to have it. The technology is amazing in the sense that it make communication possible but as a triumph of technology over a physical handicap it has a long way to go.

Bill Kempthorne is a high school science and math teacher currently completing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science Education at UBC. Comments are requested by email to kempw@unixg.ubc.ca or on the First Class systems at Apples B.C. or Sunshine

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