23-acre city for autonomous cars and “mechatronic pedestrians”

A new University of Michigan facility is ready to test autonomous cars in urban settings:

Welcome to M City, a soon-to-open 23-acre mini-metropolis at the University of Michigan, where automakers can test autonomous cars to prepare for the driverless future expected within a decade. Seeking to replicate a modern city’s chaos—traffic jams, unpredictable pedestrians, weaving cyclists—M City starts running on July 20 and has carmakers and tech companies queuing up to conduct research on its roads…

M City sits amid towering pines in the Detroit suburb of Ann Arbor, a short hop from the technology labs of multiple carmakers. Once completed this summer, the $6.5 million facility will be outfitted with 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, and plenty of obstructed views. There’s even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps to test how cars without a driver would merge.

“Mechatronic pedestrians” who occasionally pop out into traffic will provide a critical—and bloodless—measure of whether sensors and automatic brakes can react in time to avoid running down a real person. As in a Hollywood backlot, building facades can be rearranged to add to the chaos confronting the chip-controlled vehicles…

Eventually, hundreds of robot cars will ply M City’s urban byways in all seasons and weather conditions. “We would never do any dangerous or risky tests on the open road, so this will be a good place to test some of the next technology,” says Hideki Hada, general manager for electronic systems at Toyota’s Technical Center in Ann Arbor. “A big challenge is intersections in the city, because there are vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles together with complex backgrounds with buildings and connections to infrastructure. That’s why this is really important.”

I wonder if the results will get released. Just how random will those “mechatronic pedestrians” act in order to replicate the unpredictable nature of human beings? Will the landscape eventually involve real humans (given the use of undergraduate students in psychology experiments, there is a large potential pool of participants nearby)? How real will the fake city look, particularly if this becomes an area for photo opportunities?

For some reason, it sounds like the sort of facility that could easily become the setting for a horror/sci-fi film where automated cars and people come to life and wreak havoc on the urban landscape…

Sociologist: “one-year change in test results doesn’t make a trend”

A sociologist provides some insights into how firms “norm” test scores from year to year and what this means about how to interpret the results:

The most challenging part of this process, though, is trying to place this year’s test results on the same scale as last year’s results, so that a score of 650 on this year’s test represents the same level of performance as a score of 650 on last year’s test. It’s this process of equating the tests from one year to the next which allows us to judge whether scores this year went up, declined or stayed the same.But it’s not straightforward, because the test questions change from one year to the next, and even the format and content coverage of the test may change.

Different test companies even have different computer programs and statistical techniques to estimate a student’s score and, hence, the overall picture of how a student, school or state is performing. (Teachers too, but that’s a subject for another day.)

All of these variables – different test questions from year to year; variations in test length, difficulty and content coverage; and different statistical procedures to calculate the scores – introduce some uncertainty about what the “true” results are…

In testing, every year is like changing labs, in somewhat unpredictable ways, even if a state hires the same testing contractor from one year to the next. For this reason, I urge readers to not react too strongly to changes from last year to this year, or to consider them a referendum on whether a particular set of education policies – or worse, a particular initiative – is working.

One-year changes have many uncertainties built into them; if there’s a real positive trend, it will persist over a period of several years. Schooling is a long-term process, the collective and sustained work of students, teachers and administrators; and there are few “silver bullets” that can be counted on to elevate scores over the period of a single school year.

Overall, this piece gives us some important things to remember: one data point is hard to put into context. You can draw a trend line between two data points. Having more data points gives you a better indication of what is happening over time. However, just having statistics isn’t enough; we also need to consider the reliability and validity of the data. Politicians and administrators seem to like test scores because they offer concrete numbers which can help them point out progress or suggest that changes need to be made. Yet, just because these are numbers doesn’t mean that there isn’t a process that goes into them or that we need to understand exactly what the numbers involve.

Sociology quiz turns 19 year old into local hero

A 19 year old Canadian college student illustrates the dramatic effect a sociology quiz can have on one’s life:

Nanaimo’s Derrick Kalicum just had to stop when he saw an elderly lady trapped in her car…

The 70-year-old woman was in a Toyota Matrix that was struck by a reddish-maroon vehicle at the intersection of Wakesiah Avenue and Second Street around 12:42 p.m. The car that hit the Matrix backed away and then fled the scene…

He didn’t hesitate to stop and he credits [Vancouver Island University] for teaching him about the “bystander affect.”

“That’s something I was quizzed on the day before in my sociology class,” he said…

“I have to thank my sociology professor for explaining the bystander affect to me. I really think people should stop and help,” he said.

A little knowledge can go a long way. And they say a sociology degree isn’t worth much

It is too bad that he wasn’t asked if he would have stopped to help this woman if he hadn’t learned about the bystander effect.

Cutting writing tests to save money

The Chicago Tribune reports on Illinois’ plan to cut down on state writing tests for 2010-2011 to save $3.5 million. From the article:

[L]ate last month, the Illinois State Board of Education decided to eliminate the writing exam given to students in grades three, five, six and eight for the 2010-11 school year.

The 11th grade writing test still will be given because some universities require a writing exam of applicants, said state board spokesman Matt Vanover.

I wonder if this is a cut intended to draw outrage from citizens…who might then be willing to pay more toward education.

Additionally, federal statutes focus on reading and math and do not require a writing test. The article also notes that Illinois’ writing scores are typically poor.