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

November, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Fun With Formulas


    Last week I was in Denver for a large middle school STEM event. They had a large selection of workshops for well over 1,000 middle school girls. My co-worker Hilary Pike did three workshops while I took care of our booth. During a lull I had a chance to visit other booths and one of the booths I visited was by the American Council of Engineering Companies in Colorado. I picked up a bookmark that told about horsepower. Did you know that horsepower was based on James Watt finding that a work horse could lift a 1,000 pound weight 33 feet in 60 seconds? Neither did I. Well actually it is more complicated than that and there are actually a number of different ways to calculate horsepower. Visit Wikipedia at for some additional information and links.

    But for the time being let’s stick with this definition. If you want to figure out your own horse power you can do so by using your weight, and counting the steps you can climb in a minute. So if you are 100 pounds and climb 495 8-inch stairs in a minute that is one horsepower. The bookmark I picked up had this formula for figuring out how many steps one had to climb in in minute for one horsepower.

    33,000 ÷ your weight = (answer)
    (answer) x 1.5 = number of steps to climb

    My fist inclination since I love math but am not overly fond of doing division and multiplication by hand was “hey I can write a short program to do that!” So I did. I translated that formula to C# as:

                int iWeight = int.Parse(textBox1.Text);
                int ans = 33000 / iWeight;
                double  dSteps = ans * 1.5;

    That code takes a weight as string from a textbox and displays the number of steps to climb for one horsepower in a message box. In Visual Basic .NET it would be:

    Dim iWeight As Integer = Integer.Parse(textBox1.Text)
    Dim ans As Integer = 33000 / iWeight
    Dim dSteps As Double = ans * 1.5

    Well you could do this just as well with a calculator or a spreadsheet.


    So what kind of program is that? Pretty boring. So I started thinking about ways to make it more interesting. Perhaps a table? The very earliest computers were used to compute all sorts of tables. Of course back then computers took up whole rooms and so printing out tables was the way to go. But still I think there is some learning we can get from all this.

    First off what if you don’t have 495 steps to climb? If you have fewer steps to climb you are likely not to take a whole minute to climb them. The obvious answer is to build a formula that takes the number of stairs you climb, the time you take to climb them and your weight into account and tells you how much horsepower you have generated. Yeah, algebra! So that’s what I did.

    But you know it still seemed like building a table was a job for a spreadsheet. So to test my formula I built a spreadsheet. I put the number of steps in cell A1 and built a list of weights across the top and a list of seconds down the left side. By the way if you haven’t looked into Auto Fill in Excel you are missing a great shortcut.  I then created the formula (no I’m going to leave figuring that out to you. Ask a Math teacher for help in you need it.) I used absolute addressing so that I could then just copy cells to fill out the spread sheet. And lastly I added conditional formatting to make cells that were more then one horsepower red, one horsepower to .70 horsepower in green and less than .70 horsepower in yellow. The results looked like this for 60 steps.


    I think the coloring adds to the table. To me it makes things more clear at a glance. Using color in tables can be very helpful if not overdone.

    So I started with a computer program that really was a better fit for a spreadsheet. Back when I started with computers we didn’t have spreadsheet programs which is probably why my mind still starts with “write a program.” This is something of a reminder to me to think a bit more about the right tools for the job. In between I was reminded yet again that algebra skills can turn out to be very useful when you have one formula but really need another one. And of course I had to throw in conditionally formatting to remind myself and others that the sort of things one learns in programming (conditionals in this case) often leads to useful thinking for other applications.

    ACEC has a number of other interesting items – fun facts and activities - for students at their web site. Check it out.

    There is a lot to think about and learn about in engineering and a lot of it is fun!

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Director Office of Educational Technology


    Ever since the election the blogosphere has been a buzz with discussion about who should have what cabinet post and what their goals should be. There is lots of talk about who President-Elect Obama should pick for national Chief Technical Officer (or should it be Chief Information Officer?) Among education bloggers there is a lot about who should be the next Secretary of Education. Me? I’m thinking about the role of Director, Office of Educational Technology who is a special advisor to the Secretary of Education. Tim Manger is the incumbent and I have no idea if he’s doing a fabulous job or a horrible job. But in the world of political appointees that seldom makes a difference. He’s almost sure to be replaced regardless of how well he’s doing.

    So since there is going to be a change I’d like to posit my personal opinions. This is a role I’d like to see expanded a bit. I’d like to see this person be someone who has real experience with Web 2.0 as well as with more traditional educational technology. I’d like to see someone in this role who could and would actively promote expanding learning beyond the classroom though the use if the Internet and its communication tools. I’d like it to be someone who mines the experience of people like Kathy Schrock and Vicki Davis for example. Actually any candidate who doesn’t know of those two women and their work should probably be discounted completely. No seriously! Also someone who talks to principals like Chris Lehmann who use the web to grow their personal learning networks and to communicate to the world as well as their local area. I could go on of course. The education blogosphere (and Twitter sphere) is a large and growing community that includes a lot of people with valuable real world experience that could be tapped.  The Director, Office of Educational Technology should be someone who is plugged into this community.

    Also I really want someone in this role for whom educational technology is not just theoretical. Ideally I want someone who has had to reschedule or jump through hoops to get around school network filtering. I want someone who knows how to use smart boards, Tablet PCs, scanners, and a wide variety of computer applications (on the desktop, the network and the Internet) in the classroom.

    The teachers who are jumping ahead on their own with educational technology and the web are doing amazing things. But they need support. They need a high level advocate who can help them communicate, with authority, to school boards and school administrators about the value of these tools. We need someone who can also talk to Congress to explain these issues. Congress seems to be adding regulation to Internet use more based on fear and extreme views than actually knowledge of how things work. We need to blow through some of the barriers to use that are limiting the leading edge educators. The right Director, Office of Educational Technology could help there.

    I have no idea if the company I work for has any opinion in this matter. These are just my opinions. I don’t get to speak for anyone but myself.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    MSDN Developer Conference


    Wait! Aren’t the MSDN Developer Conference programs for professional developers? Well, yes, generally speaking they are. But at the same time they can be valuable learning (dare I say professional development) opportunities for educators and academic technology support people. Few of you can attend the PDC – I couldn’t. But these local one day events are more affordable and a lot more people can attend them. From the announcement page:

    We’re bringing the PDC to you! For just $99 you’ll get the best of the PDC in your own backyard and hear all of the exciting announcements around the Azure Services Platform and Windows 7. Other sessions include the latest developments in .NET, Silverlight, Surface, Parallel Programming, Live Mesh, and more.

    Maybe not as much for high school teachers unless you’re really into running along the state of the art but people at community colleges, vo-tech programs of all levels and four year college people who like to keep up will want to at least check these events out. There are three tracks

    • Cloud Services
    • Client and Presentation
    • Tools, Languages and Framework

    MSDN Developer Conference programs will be presented in 11 cities all over the US.

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