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

January, 2010

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    FETC Day 1 (2010)

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    My first piece of advice to anyone attending FETC or other major education technology conference is don’t show up at the end of three weeks away from home. I did and I’m already exhausted. Yesterday Pat Phillips and I did a work shop in Hollywood FL about 3 hours drive away from Orlando and FETC. Then we drove up to Orlando. Yes it was a long day and I have been travelling for over two weeks already. That being said so far FETC has lived up to expectations and it wasn’t really a full day for most attendees. Pat and I did several presentations today. OK Pat did three and I did one of those three with her and was there for support for the other two. We also installed Expression Web on 33 laptops for a hands on workshop Pat will be doing Friday. In between I snuck into the exhibit hall for a while and took care of some email and phone meetings. Tomorrow of course will be busier.

    Pat and I will be reprising the three workshops we did today (two on Expression Web and one on XNA, Kodu and other game development tools). They should go even better tomorrow. No really. Stop by room 205B at 11 for the XNA/Game talk and noon or 5PM for the Expression Web talks. If nothing else come say “hi.” Microsoft doesn’t have a booth in the hall this year. (No idea why not) But you can find me around the room we have. There are other, perhaps more interesting talks, going on there as well.

    The exhibit hall seems really interesting. I stopped by the Cengage booth (they’ve published a textbook I wrote so I always do that) and spotted a couple of books on developing games using Visual Basic. One was written by a teen for teens and the other by a college professor. They’re going to send me review copies and I can’t wait to look through them. Much as I love XNA my heart belongs to Visual Basic.

    HP has a big booth and I think I saw Dell as well. Asus has a lot of netbooks and the ones I looked at are running Windows 7 which pleased me no end. There was a touch sensitive netbook that I think I really want. I need to go back and ask them about that.

    And of course there are a lot of concurrent sessions going on tomorrow and Friday. Not sure I am allowed in with an Exhibitor badge but if I have time and can get in I may try a couple. Many of them look really good.

    Speaking of advice – the PBS Teacherline blog has a post called 7 Tips for an Effective FETC Experience that is very helpful. And not just for FETC but for any good conference. They also link to other people who are blogging about FETC.

    Which reminds me, I’m already making plans for TCEA next month in Austin, TX. Microsoft’s sessions will be held in Room 410 located at the Hilton Hotel Austin next to the convention center. I hope to see people there.

     

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Brute Force or is there an easy way?

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    This year being ‘10 has lead to a lot of talk about numbers that look like binary numbers 1/11/10 or 11110 for example. Related to this is talk about palindrome dates. For example with a leading zero 1/11/10 becomes 011110 which is the same backwards and forwards. Of course a purist might point out that the year is 2010 and ask “didn’t you learn anything from the Y2K problem?” Or “real numbers don’t have leading zeros!” But purism is less fun so I ignore those people. Well at least when playing with numbers for fun. But I was thinking a bit about palindrome numbers while driving the other day. Hey, it’s safer than driving while Twittering. I started to think about writing code to count palindrome numbers. As I thought about how to get the computer to generate them I realized that the count could be easily calculated. Of course seeing myself as a programmer before a mathematician my mind went to a program before an algorithm. Silly probably but at least in my defense I worked on a couple of algorithms and thought things through a bit.

    There are 19 two-digit palindrome numbers. There are 18 times 9 three-digit numbers. And so on. There is no need to write a program to count them. You can easily build an equation that calculates the number based on the number of digits. Go ahead do it. I’ll wait. Anyone come back?

    I think all of us have to be careful when we think about solving problems. We all have favorite tools that we like to use but they are not always the best for the job. Sure you can bank a board with a hammer and get it to the right length but it is not going to be pretty. Using a saw is better for some jobs. Likewise we can’t always assume that the fast or best way to handle all mathematical tasks is a computer program or even a mathematical formula. For example while we can easily calculate the number of 5 digit palindrome numbers generating a list really calls for a program.

    Of course there are easy and had ways to do that task as well. You could generate every five-digit number, run them through a method that checks to see if it is a palindrome and only print the numbers that pass the test. But that brute force way is pretty wasteful of time and resources. With a little thought you can come up with an algorithm that just generates and prints palindrome numbers with no waste. I’m leaving that to the student too.

    I find that students look for the solution that is easiest to implement with little regard for performance. The AP CS curriculum teaches about performance calculations (emphasis on Big-O notation) but I wonder how much of it sinks in. How often do students apply that thinking to their own code? I suspect not as much as we’d all like. It’s an important topic though. Yes computers are getting faster but problems are getting larger. Somewhere in every problem there is a cross over between the time it takes to develop a really efficient algorithm and how much time it saves in the end. Brute force solutions only work for small problems. This is of course one of the problems with assigning small problems or small data sets for student projects. Ultimately we have to create projects that are manageable for students but that also force them to conceder performance. Failing to do that is a disservice I think. What do you think?

    BTW if you are interested in the math around Binary Palindromes check out Counting Binary and Hexadecimal Palindromes on the Exploring Binary blog.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Kodu Game-Creation Tool for Kids Adapted for the PC

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    I love Kodu and I’ve written about it before (my Kodu blog posts) and I am regularly asked “when can I get Kodu for the PCs in my classroom?” Well now there is a public beta of the PC version out (Kodu announcement) and it doesn’t require Xbox controllers even!

    Microsoft is pushing to bring computer programming back into the classroom – and back into the realm of the imagination.

    That push comes through Kodu, a game developed by Microsoft Research that invites users to create their own worlds while teaching them the basics of game development. Originally designed as a learning tool for youngsters using Xbox 360, Kodu is now available in a public beta for the PC. The move to the PC platform stands to make the game more attractive to schools. By eliminating the need for controllers, schools don’t need any special equipment – students can start building worlds with just a PC and a keyboard.

    The announcement also talks about and has some links to educational usage so far. Good stuff is happening. For example:

    The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Victoria, Australia, recently deployed Kodu in an extensive pilot program across 26 of its schools. Students there also are enthusiastic, says Richard Olsen, assistant director of ideasLAB, a research and development lab that explores what technology makes possible in schools. “As soon as I walked into a classroom with a big box of controllers, the kids looked at me like I was Santa,” he said. That enthusiasm continued throughout the three-month pilot. “I really believe that we learn and form knowledge by building things. The beauty of Kodu is that it’s so simple to create whole worlds, yet children gain these complex understandings.”

    This is really exciting. Really!

    To download the PC beta and get more information about Kodu, please visit research.microsoft.com/kodu.

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