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

April, 2011

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Links Post 18 April 2011

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    Imagine Cup US is over and now we start thinking and planning for the Worldwide Imagine Cup finals in New York City this summer. The CSTA CS & IT Conference will also be in New York at the same time and we have plans to invite all of the CS&IT attendees to the final day festivities. This will be a great chance to see what students around the world are doing with technology and using it to help make the world a better place. So I hope to see some of you at CS & IT, the Imagine Cup or ideally both. It should be great.

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    Vicki Davis (AKA coolcatteacher) who is one of my all time favorite teacher bloggers had a great post titled  Top 10 Coolest (Mostly Free) Things for Teachers from Microsoft last week. She also had nice things to say about me but I would have liked and linked to the post anyway. Good stuff for all teachers to check out.

    Jeannette Wing, from Carnegie Mellon University, is pretty much the Godmother of computational thinking and the one who really got everyone talking about it. Recently she told an audience in Qatar that Computational thinking should be taught as fundamental skill. I agree.

    Edwin Guarin, (AKA @edvangelist and my “work son”) had a post last week highlighting Boston Area Students at the US Imagine Cup  A sort of local students make good. Of course we are proud of all the Image Cup teams but you can’t blame Edwin for pointing out some of the teams he worked with.

    Speaking of both computational thinking and the CSTA you can now access the May issue of the CSTA Voice! In this issue:Computational Thinking

    Didn’t get to enter in the Imagine Cup or perhaps didn’t get as far as you would have liked and looking to take on a different challenge? Dream.Build.Play Challenge is your shot to build the next mind-blowing game for Xbox using XNA. Read more here:

    This looks interesting for the people interested in data driven education reform - Hacking Education: A Contest for Developers and Data Crunchers  via @DonorsChoose

    For students interested in Windows Phone development, check out the Student App-a-thon!

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    Enter the Student App-a-thon

    Be one of the first 1,000 students to publish an App in the Windows Phone Marketplace between April 11th and June 30th and choose between Halo Reach®, Fable®, or three other games for Xbox 360®. That’s not all. The student who publishes the most Apps will receive $5,000 cash or an equivalent prize package. The three students who publish the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th most Apps will receive $1,000 each.



  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Boring is Bad

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    I have long been an advocate that teaching should be as much about sharing enthusiasm and it is about imparting information. Teachers who are bored or down on the material will often dampen the interest in the subject that their students feel. They can turn powerful ideas and wonderful stories into tedious and even painful experiences for students. On the other hand enthusiasm is also contagious and it the way to make students want to learn. Boring is bad – fun and exciting is good. I’m not saying that educators should be entertainers, at least not as something they fake. rather they should be telling interesting stories that teach and educate and keep people awake. Not entertainment for the sake of entertainment but fun and joy from an intrinsic excitement of the material. The bad news is that this is very hard to do while teaching to the test and teachers are under great pressure to do just that.

    Recently on one mailing list I am on Cay Horstmann, author of Big Java, Java Concepts, and the AP CS Grid World case study contributed this thought:

    “Standardized exams are dull. You think AP CS is dull? Look at AP Calculus to see how all life has been sucked out of a discipline. And they are dull by necessity. They must be easy to administer and easy to grade. That’s why the AP CS exam has inane multiple-choice questions and a pencil-and-paper programming part that rewards fast scribbling of an approximation of the proper incantations.”

    Now Cay and I don’t always agree but I am 100% onboard with this statement. Now I am not a big fan of the current APCS course. I never liked the choice of Java (this long pre-dates my employment by Microsoft BTW), for example. And I think that to some extent the current curriculum is too much of an everything but the kitchen sink that makes it hard to provide enough depth in some important areas. But worst of all there is not enough room for the average teacher to get creative. Now some teachers do get creative and many of them share what they do with others. Far too often though those creative ideas are hard to replicate in all circumstances. You can do more in less time with above average students for example. Classrooms where CS has been a dumping ground (you would not believe how often I hear about that) or that have large numbers of English Language Learners, or any number of other issues create situations where teachers feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have to cram cram cram for the exam to have any hope of getting their students to pass the AP exam. In the end what parents, administrators, and others really seem to judge success by is students passing the exam. As opposed to boring things like students actually learning things or perhaps discovering the Beauty, Awe and Joy of computer science. I’m going to go scream now. OK I’m back.

    I am cautiously optimistic about the new AP CS Principles course. It’s language independent and it seems to have some flexibility to it – more so than the existing APCS course anyway.

    Ben Chun asks a couple of questions in a blog post (Something is Rotten)

    “What if we weren’t bound to the AP curriculum? What should high school computer science look like? In other words, what are the skills, knowledge, and experiences that will support success in both university-level computer science and in computational thinking across disciplines? Or do we need to separate majors from non-majors at the high school level?”

    There are a couple of questions there and they are all worth discussion. I hope some of you will join in the conversation on his blog. I’m going to address some of it here. I’ll leave the last question for another time.

    I think that is we were not bound by the APCS curriculum we would see more diversity in programming languages used. (See The Language is NOT the Important Thing for previous discussion on picking languages) So I think that many teachers would pick other languages than Java including Python, Visual Basic, C#, F#, Small Basic and, well the list is long. I think we would also see more diversity in case studies.

    By case studies I don’t mean just in the narrow sense that the Grid World project is used in the AP CS course but in a broader sense of a context for teaching and learning. For example we would see robotics based courses, and more game development focuses courses (see a bunch of game development curriculum using XNA). BTW lots of conversations with teachers and professors at all female schools suggests that girls are interested in robots and game but they are interested in different robots and games than male students are. Letting students have the freedom to choose how they make their robots/games and other projects look and feel is a good, I would argue necessary, thing. I think that others would find still other contexts for learning as well.  Mobile (smart phone) programming is gaining in popularity (I have a sample Windows Phone game project I have been using BTW)

    The Microsoft Imagine Cup competition has as its inspiration the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. At the university level basing project based courses about the Imagine Cup and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals has been around for a while. More recently I have seen some high schools do the same thing. The combination of solving the world’s greatest problems and entering an international competition can serve as strong motivators. Some are more motivated by soling real problems and some by contests and some by both. Even if you are not excited by contests, and many are not, then just the idea of solving problems for real customers and making the world or your local area better appeal to many. I think they also support the goals of schools to support society. I know of teachers who have created project based courses that create projects for local non-profits. If not limited by the AP CS curriculum would more advanced courses use this sort of civil good as a context for learning? I’d like to think so.

    Now the APCS Programming course/test is not going away anytime soon. And that is probably ok. I do see opportunity though. The longer harder APCS AB course is gone and the new AP CS Concepts course is not more advanced than the remaining course. It is either lower lever or a peer level (depending on your point of view) which  means that at many schools there is room (sort of) for a new advanced course. That’s an opportunity for different learning contexts. There is no good reason they should be boring. Let’s have some fun with it.

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Kinect For Windows is Coming

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    K4Wbeta

    You know you want it. Ever since the Kinect was announced back when it was code-named Project Natal you know you were thinking “I could do cool things with that device.” Maybe you have been playing with the unofficial SDF for a while as well. But you know that for serious educational or research purposes you want a supported software development kit. You know, something with documentation and sample code. Well at MIX 11 this week Microsoft showed off some of what the supported SDK is going to be capable of. The people at Channel 9 showed off some demos of Kinect for Windows. The following video is about 20 minutes long and you want to watch it all. There is a mix of the serious – using the Kinect to help the blind navigate and soaring through the universe with the Worldwide Telescope. And the not so serious. Some simple games and a Kinect controlled robotic reclining chair. The chair was built my my friend the amazing Clint Rutkas BTW. If this doesn’t get you started thinking “How can I use Kinect projects to get students doing exciting and interesting things?” I don’t know what will.

    You can got to http://research.microsoft.com/kinectsdk now and subscribe to the RSS feed for the latest news on the Kinect For Windows SDK. I’m signed up and looking forward to it. but of course you want more information now. From the Microsoft Research Connections blog here are some details:

    Here are a few details on each of the SDK's ground-breaking NUI features:

    • Robust skeletal tracking will provide high-performance capabilities for tracking the skeletal image of one or two people moving within the Kinect field of view.
    • Advanced audio will enable great sound capabilities by using a four-element microphone array with sophisticated acoustic noise and echo cancellation. The advanced audio will also include beam formation to identify the sound source and integration with the Windows speech recognition API.
    • XYZ depth camera will provide a standard color camera stream along with depth data indicating the distance of the object from the Kinect camera. This will give developers access to the raw data and enable the creation of novel interfaces by using the unaltered data.

    And of course there will be

    • Documentation for the APIs and a description of the SDK architecture.
    • Sample code that demonstrates how to use the functionality in the SDK.

    This SDK is intended for non-commercial use to enable experimentation in the world of natural user interface experiences, with new state-of-the-art features planned for future releases that will continue to provide new ways to experiment.



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