Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

April, 2007

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    24th Annual Connecticut Invention Convention

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    This past Saturday I attended the 24th Annual Connecticut Invention Convention at the University of Connecticut. It was an amazing event where 500 students from kindergarten through eighth grade showed off and explained their inventions to judges. The judges were primarily from industry and a great many of them were engineers. So it was an intimidating audience for some of these young people. The students did an incredible job though. This is not that surprising since these 500 were the cream of the over 10,000 students who participated in preliminary qualifying events.

    I had an interesting talk with a teacher after the event though. She is a supporter of standardized tests and the need to hold schools accountable but she has worries as well. The worry we talked about was that the pressure for standardized test results and the work to the tests that goes on is squeezing out some of the other very important things that kids should be learning in school. Things like creativity, problem solving, working on teams and thinking outside the box. A lot of activities that teach those things are not being allowed during the normal school day. They take time. They are messy. And worst of all they are hard to measure on standardized  tests. And yet clearly we need those skills to stay competitive in the world marketplace.

    Programs like the Connecticut Invention Convention (which had students from states beyond Connecticut's borders by the way) fill a role that is growing in importance. We need these mental/educational events that take the good parts of the sports model to reward kids for learning. Other programs that come to mine are Destination Imagination and the various FIRST programs.

    If we are not going to teach these skills during the school day we will have to find ways to do it after school. All of these programs are highly dependent on volunteers though. Parents, teachers and other caring adults have to step forward to take part and to mentor students. In an ideal world these would be paid positions just like football coach but we don't live in an ideal world. So please find a program that promotes out of class learning and support it with your time, your money or some other means. Our kids futures and our own depend on it.

    By the way, Microsoft was a corporate sponsor for this year's Connecticut Invention Convention and sent judges to select the awards for  "best inventions enabling improved access to anything by the disabled."

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Girls and Robots

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    I came across an article on all-girl teams in the FIRST Robotics competition thanks to an email from ACM today. I've talked about FIRST before and I'm a big fan of the program. A lot of people ask about girls and their interest in robotics as if they expect girls not to be interested in them. It seems though as if girls are starting to move into that area in a big way these days.

    Part of that may be the result of the FIRST Lego League which is the middle school robotics competition that FIRST runs. Middle school girls appear not to understand that they are not supposed to be interested in robots and so they are participating in significant and growing numbers.

    There were a number of all-girls teams at the FIRST Championship in Atlanta this year. There are more and more girls involved in co-ed teams in technical/mechanical roles as well. The lead programmer for the autonomous mode program and the team I follow locally was a talented young woman. Her paper of their program was outstanding and an example of the type of skills FIRST promotes.

    One of the great things I have observed in FIRST is that the girls who are participating are not losing any of their identity as women. What I mean by that is that they are not trying to "act like boys" or to pretend that they are acting against type. They are girls and they want people to know it. More than a few girls wore skirts of some type over their jeans for example. I talked to an adult mentor from one all-girls team about this. All of the girls and their mentors (all of their mentors were women BTW) were wearing kilted plaid skirts over their pants. The mentor told me that they wore the pants to protect their legs in the work environment. The skirts were part of their school uniform and as such part of their identity.

    Girls can do any of the technical things that boys do. They can build, program and run robots. They don't have to stop being girls to do it. I think that is a valuable message for them to receive. Let us not perpetuate the myth of men's roles, women's roles or that either gender has to be more like the other to succeed.

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Computer Science and Problem Solving

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    A very interesting post by Mark Guzdial of Georgia Tech today on the relationship between computer science and problem solving. I love the line below.

    Computer science is about solving practical and impractical problems with the most creative material humans have ever invented. 

    We often bring up problem solving as a justification for teaching computer science. But really as Mark points out there is more to it than that. Most subjects and professions involve solving problems but computer science lets us look at problems in a new and different way. The rules are different and are in fact more constrained by our own imaginations than by physical laws. It's a bit like philosophy that way.

    One of the most amazing programmers I have ever known was an outstanding philosophy student. His professors wanted him to stay in that field because he was just so good at it. I have run into a number of other outstanding programmers who were originally philosophy students. Perhaps in some ways we would be better teaching problem solving and critical thinking through the teaching of philosophy. But I think we would have trouble getting that through as well. And based on my own course work in philosophy I think we'd need to use a different pedagogy to teach philosophy because few seem to be teaching that subject in a way that modern high school students would find it relevant and approachable. And forget about middle school students!

    This thinking stuff can be hard. :-)

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