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

May, 2011

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Programming Competition as Learning


    As I write this I am at St Joseph’s College in Patchogue, NY for their annual high school programming competition. There are about 35 teams from about a dozen or more high schools from Long Island and New York City. I’m hear largely to learn from the teachers here. What are their issues? What courses are they offering? How are enrollments? And more. BTW a number of schools are using Visual Basic and some are using Small Basic along with Java for APCS of course. Enrollments are in trouble is several schools with APCS only being offered every other year or having classes combined in some cases. But I have also been having some discussions about programming competitions in general and their academic value.

    One teacher has been telling me about a top programming student who selected a math whiz with no programming background to his team. His idea is that this student can read the problems and develop a good algorithm which he can then implement. He believes this will save him time as the math whiz will be better about word problems. An interesting idea and we’ll see how it works out. Another teacher was telling me how much communication comes into play in these events. Teams who do well work together rather than having each student work independently on separate problems. Between problem solving, planning, communication and other soft skill he believes that students learn things that will help them in future careers. It sounds reasonable. In theory. Do teams really work that way? No idea but the teacher who talked to me about this coached the winning team.

    Congratulations Bethpage High School. And to all the other teams as well. As I said in my remarks, any team that finished any of the problem is way ahead of all those students who couldn’t even think about competing.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Always Mount A Scratch Monkey


    Do today’s students know what a scratch disk or a scratch tape it? Most of them probably do not. Back in the early days of computers when magnetic tape was in wide use and hard drives had removable disks people used to actually try to fix computers rather than replace them. One tool that was used was diagnostic programs and some of these would exercise the read and write capabilities of tapes or disks. Now you didn’t want to write test data all over your good important data so before running a diagnostic you would replace the production disk (or tape) with what we called a scratch disk (or scratch tape). This was to make sure you didn’t lose anything important while allowing the tool to do a thorough job of testing. Recently a friend of mine reminded me via Facebook of the scratch monkey story. There are two versions of this story (one here and one here) What the stories boil down to is a technician starts to perform a diagnostic without realizing that the computer is controlling a system attached to a monkey. Activity happens on the computer and bad things happen to the monkey. (In some versions of the story a monkey dies.)

    Are these stores true? I don’t know. One of them is told by someone I know personally and whose skepticism is legendary so I suspect it may be. But the truth of the story is not as important as the lessons learned. A good story, and who can forget a story of a test run on a computer changing he life of a monkey, is a great teaching tool. In this case there are two lessons. One is that people should be doubly careful about what they do to other people’s computers. The other lesson is that people should protect their resources with documentation.

    The technician in this story didn’t understand the ramifications of his actions. He did not know what the computer was doing – and how could he? Well he should have talked to someone who did know. Assuming things is a dangerous thing to do. It is seldom obvious what a computer , for example, is doing just by looking at it. The console could be dark and the computer still be processing away. Blade computers and other rack mounted computers give very little indication of what they are up to. Someone usually has a way of knowing and one is a lot better off finding that person than assuming an idle computer.

    The other lesson is that when something is doing something important, especially if that something is not obvious – like controlling the environment for a monkey on a different floor – some protection needs to be made and it should be unambiguous. In one of  the scratch monkey stories a disk is set to read only. In a world of removable disks that often means don’t write to the particular disk. It is not obvious that the drive is a front for some other activity not associated with  the drive itself. An explanation might have saved a monkey’s life!

    Students are great at making assumptions. They tend not to look too far past the obvious and the jump to conclusions. So this story may be a helpful lesson. On the other hand for teachers, and anyone trying to get across something important, it is also a reminder that stories can be powerful tools for teaching. After all some of the most influential people in history presented their messages through stories.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Posts 16 May 2011


    Computer Science teacher Pat Yongpradit  seems to be everywhere on the educational blogosphere lately. I posted about his 5-6 week XNA course curriculum last week. Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) posted an interview on her  Cool Cat Teacher Blog posted a video interview him - Attracting Girls to Technology and Science. Pat himself had a post on the Huffington Post about My Year as a Teacher Beauty Queen: Microsoft Innovative Educator Forum in which he recounts some of what has happened to him since he was involved with last year’s Microsoft Innovative Educator Forum.

    Speaking of the Microsoft Innovative Educator Forum, IEF awardee Cheryl Arnett has a new blog post in the Huffington Post called Learn how to transform education to meet the needs of 21st century learners.

    I like this article by a pair of Advanced Placement  English teachers in Virginia who utilize InterroBang (@playinterrobang) in their classroom. The article is  "Challenge, Discovery, Insight, Surprise" and they wrote about it for Best In Tech Today


    Play InterroBang

    The socially-networked, mission-based, problem-solving game in partnership with the Exploratorium, Learn and Serve, sponsored by Microsoft


    Nice blog post by Ed Donahue on the recent Digigirlz Tech Camp: Baltimore 2011. DigiGirlz is a wonderful program designed to help introduce girls and young women learn about and develop an interest in technology and careers in technology.

    Diversity and Inclusion at Microsoft

    Have you ever wondered how committees select what presentations are included in a conference? On the CSTA blog you can read Choosing CS&IT Conference Sessions about how sessions were selected for this summer’s Computer Science & Information Technology Conference in New York. BTW you really want to attend this conference if you are a high school (or middle school) computer science teacher or district curriculum coordinator charged with building CS programs.

    I don’t often post to my blog over the weekend but this past Saturday I did write a blog post:  about  Returning Data From A Second Form in Visual Basic and/or C# If your students are looking at using multiple forms or building custom dialogue forms that post will be useful.

    Are you interested in images of historical devices? Checkout the Buxton Collection 30 Years of Interactive Technology.

    Lastly I want to link to a few posts by my good friend Sam Stokes who works with higher education in California.



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