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

January, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Why do schools need a computer teacher

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    I love to look at the logs of this blog to see how people are finding it. It looks like close to half the traffic here comes from search engines. Now I wish there were lots and lots of people who subscribed and read every post that I make of course. At the same time I like to think that people searching for information on the Internet are finding it when they get here.

    The other day someone arrived here after searching for "why do schools need a computer teacher" The post that showed up at the top of the search page was one I wrote back last April called "Do We Really Need Computer Applications Classes?" In it I discussed some of the ways beyond dedicated computer applications classes that we should be teaching students how to use computers.

    I've been thinking about this question in a broader sense lately in the context of the One Laptop Per Child program. The question I have been thinking about is why do children need teachers? Much of the idea behind the OLPC program is that children will teach themselves and each other. The computer as a tool will enable them to to overcome a lack of well-trained teachers. Heck of a theory.

    Of course some students do teach themselves a lot. Most of what many students know about computers they learned on their own or from friends. And I've known a good number of students over the years who have gone far beyond what they learned in school in many subjects through self-study. Having a computer makes that sort of thing a lot easier. But is it enough? For most children I think not.

    How would you have done in school without a teacher? Could you have gone to the library and immersed yourself in books and learned what you needed to learn? Are the videos and other media one can find on the Internet enough? For some, sure, but for everyone?

    Now don't get me wrong - I am much more afraid of the consequences of the OLPC programming failing than I am of it succeeding. I desperately want to see technology used to improve education everywhere in the world. Not just in the third world but in the US as well. There are lots of indications that it can do that. It's just that the idea of not training and equipping teachers to have and to share knowledge scares me. The idea that kids are motivated enough and discerning enough to learn enough on their own flies in the face of my own classroom experience. As much as I believe in technology I believe in good teachers more. They must (in my opinion) be an important part of the equation.

    My fear if the OLPC program does not live up to expectations is that a failure will set back the continued introduction of technology into education. That would be a catastrophe. So I hope they succeed. I just wish there was more emphasis on training teachers so they could better "kick start" kids along the learning path. Lets give the kids every advantage we can.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    How Software Is Built - Updated

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    It's been about five months since I wrote about a then new site called How Software Is Built and a lot has gone on since then. They have added a bunch of new interviews since then with the five in December bringing the total up to 23. And I know that a lot of new semesters are starting and some of you may be interested in pointing students to these interviews.

    What is the site? From their about page:

    How Software Is Built is a blog forum created by Microsoft to encourage community dialogue about open source and proprietary software development models.

    Industry IT professionals, Scott Swigart and Sean Campbell are driving this project . The aim is to create a forum that will facilitate a lively community discussion and help gather insights from a large audience interested in this topic. Ongoing discussions have been held with various industry subject matter experts to help gather different perspectives on both open source and proprietary software development models. The transcripts are posted on this blog forum.

    So there are interviews with Microsoft developers but also developers from other companies (Sun and Adobe included) as well as people deeply involved in the Open Source development community. A good exchange of ideas is being made.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Adding the Percent Key to a Calculator Project

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    Like a lot of teachers I have use the four-function calculator project as a way to introduce various programming concepts to my students. Just figuring out how to keep track of 10 number key buttons can be a little challenging of course. But generally by the time I use this project I am most interested in a good project for using a stack. Simple calculators are good for that.

    Many students once they implement the basic add, subtract, multiply and divide functions start looking for additional functions to add. This is something I have always encouraged. Square root is often the first "extra" feature they add because it can be done simply with a built-in function. Occasionally I have had students add parentheses. That's a but more advanced and shows a lot of understanding of both math and CS concepts.

    Recently I ran across a post by Raymond Chen that explains how the calculator key in the Windows calculator works. Its the same way it works in most standard four-function calculators one can buy. The surprising thing to me is that it works differently, though better, then I thought it did. I very seldom use that key but now that I know how it works I might just use it in the future. The post also suggests that adding the percent key to a calculator project might just be a lot more useful than I would have thought.

    Raymond's post describes the algorithms and logic behind them in simple easy to understand terms. It's really useful that way. You can see not only how the function works in practice but the algorithms involved and why they are set up the way that they are.

    There are also a lot of comments to his post that are interesting in their own right. In fact I can see them as a basis for a classroom discussion about the percent key, about how features for calculators and other programs are designed, and the whole question of why is it that some people never seem to see the same value in a feature that the creator of the feature do?

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