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

September, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Who Are The Students We Are Missing

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    Some years ago I asked a woman who was a PhD in computer science and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University for ideas of projects that would appeal to women/girls. She thought about it a minute and replied “I have no idea. I guess I was the sort of girl who liked the same projects as the boys.”  Mark Guzdial writes about this sort of problem in a post titled Know Thy Students, For They Are Not You Go read it. I’ll wait.

    We have to realize that the students we are not seeing in computer science classrooms are different from the ones we are seeing now. It is not as if we had enough students but worse still is that we need those other students. We need some different ways of thinking, or looking at problems, and even different ideas about what problems to look at. So the question become how do we attract these other students? If games and robots will not do it (and evidence suggests they don’t help enough) what will work?

    I like the idea behind the Media Computation program at Georgia Tech as an example. I like the  connected courses program at Wheaton College (MA). But I’m not sure they scale to high schools. More specifically high schools cannot offer multiple options. Georgia Tech is large enough to have several “first courses” in computer science to attract different audiences. High schools that are lucky these days to have one or two sections of a first class just do not have the resources for that. So the challenge becomes to offer some variety within a single class in hopes that a) something sparks interest and b) allows the teacher to cover all the material that needs to be covered. Given the requirements of the current Advanced Placement CS curriculum this would appear to happen before APCS.

    As Mark points out in his blog, most teachers build their curriculum around their own interests. That’s pretty normal in any discipline but it is probably not something we can afford if we want to expand the audience for HS CS. What’s the answer? Perhaps some case studies to discuss? Maybe we need to replace some of the tired old projects that have been assigned for the last 35 years with something new. Can we find some medial related projects? Well, I’m not sure what else because those old projects interested me.

    Tools are one area where there has been some work. Scratch and Alice are two that come to mind. Storytelling Alice which allows the creation of stories has shown itself to be very effective with young women and girls. Can we find ways to expand on that I wonder. What other directions can we go in? Suggestions anyone?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    More On Turning Consumers Into Creators

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    For me the joy of computer science has always been about doing new things – about creating. A computer program is intrinsically a cool thing to me but even more cool is seeing other people use it. I like to create something that itself can be used to create, stimulate or facilitate. Yes even the accounting software I wrote in the early part of my career was a creative act that I like to think made a difference for some people. Learning more about things so I could use them was always a passion for me.

    Jenny Slade on the NCWIT blog the other day wrote about young people who take technology so much for granted that they want/expect other people to understand it for them. They are interested in using it but not getting involved with it or understanding it at a deep level. They are happy just to be consumers and are not very interested in being creators. This is of course a big problem. As a country, as a world really, we need more creators, more innovators, more problem solvers, more people who do things rather than just use things. Can computer science be a part of that? Arguably it has to be.

    Jenny Slade ends her post with this set of related questions:

    What do you think?  Why aren't more teenagers interested in being technology's creators, rather then just its consumers; and how can we get them interested in getting behind IT?

    I think that part of the problem is that as a society we don’t encourage students to be creators early and often enough. Today we organize activities for our kids – what happened to pick up ball games? Today it is all about adult organized sports with coaches and regular hours and set teams. Some years ago my son worked at a summer program that taught kids how to build tree houses. Say what! Are the days gone when kids find a tree, scrounge up scrap wood and design sparse but creative tree houses on their own?

    Well that is a more general, societal problem I guess. Maybe it is safer to focus on the IT/CS piece. At least writing a computer program we don’t have to worry about a kid falling out of a tree or getting beaned with a baseball. Computer Science is physically safer than a lot of things. Although a signature on an email I saw recently said “programing is an art form that fights back.” But it is creative. We have to show that creativity to students. We have to give them the freedom to use their imaginations and to show their individuality.

    I know that a lot of teachers prefer to avoid graphical user interfaces in projects. They find it a distraction and that it takes time away from the important concepts they are trying to teach. I think this is a little short sighted though. When I used to teach Visual Basic as a first course the students loved to get creative with their UI. Yes it could be a distraction at times but I think the value of unleashing creativity paid off in increased interest and the desire to learn new things.

    For example it seems like every year some student would discover the timer control and use it to change the background color on their form every second. Totally useless. Actually counter productive in a program for people to use. But they were motivated to learn how to use timers which does have other more useful purposes. And they became very comfortable with manipulating controls. Often they taught themselves how to use random numbers to pick the colors. If not that then they learned to understand counters, loops and how colors were represented in the computer. As a bonus for me I was presented with a teachable moment to talk about good user interface design and why that sort of thing was not such a good idea in a real program.

    Experimentation and freedom is key I think to turning kids into creators. Especially freedom. We can offer students a lot of freedom in computer science because there are almost always many different ways of doing things. Some are better than others of course. But not too many are completely wrong and even the bad solutions offer learning possibilities. More than most subjects I believe that computer science is useful for getting kids to create. We just have to point them in a direction and get out of the way. And for some students the pointing in a direction is optional.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Time To Start Thinking About NECC and Other Conferences

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    Wait, isn’t NECC in the summer? Well, yeas actually it is – June 28th to July 1st 2009. So why should I be thinking about it now? Two reasons actually. First is that now is the time to start working on your administration to put some money aside to send you. Or if not you, someone from your school/district should be going. Maybe your technology integration people. Maybe someone from administration. Maybe some of your teachers who are willing to implement new technologies and teaching strategies into the curriculum. Maybe someone else who could use a dose of “OMG do you see what amazing things schools and teachers are doing with technology to improve teaching and learning?”

    The other big reason is that the call for participation is out. Between now and October 8th (a date which is closer than it sounds) ISTE is accepting proposals for presentations, model lessons, panels and more. Are you doing something innovative with technology? This may be a great opportunity to share what you know with others. Maybe you should  be thinking about writing a proposal. Vicki Davis who has given a number of great talks at NECC has some suggestions about what works towards getting a proposal accepted.

    NECC is a great event. This year it will be in historic Washington DC. I hope to see many of you there! And if you are presenting please let me know so I can stop by and learn from you. Learning is what I like most about NECC.

    Oh and I just found this. Steve Dembo has a list of state and regional conferences with information about their calls for proposal as well.

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