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

December, 2011

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Interesting Links 19 December 2011


    I’m on vacation this week. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t collecting links last week and putting them together for this post. I’m not sure how much if at all I will be blogging between now and the end of the year. Yes, I should probably take time off from blogging as I am from other work. But you know sometimes I just have to post stuff. So we’ll see.

    Submit your idea for an application that uses Kinect for a chance to win an Xbox 360 with Kinect!* This month, Microsoft Student Partners are sharing the story of Kinect technologies at high schools across the US - is yours one of them? Share your idea for an application that uses Kinect on the Microsoft Tech Student Suggestions page on Facebook by January 15, 2012, 11:59pm PST and include your full school name for a chance to win an Xbox 360 with Kinect! Full rules here:

    Been Camping Lately? Get resources from the HTML5 and Windows Phone 7 Developer Camps  Tara Walker lists a lot of good resources in this blog post.

    I’m a big fan of FIRST robotics (you may have seen my post on FIRST Lego League last week) so I was surprised to find the the official FIRST Robotics page on Facebook only has about 8,000 fans. If you are on Facebook and interested in robotics in general or FIRST in particular check it out for the latest news.

    I spent some time with Tom Gaffey of Philadelphia's School of the Future last week. He has a large collection of  OneNote classroom examples. Tom is a great guy and a wonderful teacher. If you get a chance to hear him do a teacher workshop by all means GO! is an awesome competition that is now coming to the windows phone

    Our friends at coding4fun have some new things out about Getting started with the Kinect for Windows SDK Beta 2 and WPF

    Check this video out -- Barack Obama - Computer Science Question Fortunately someone briefed him a little. Smile 

    Check this video out -- What different sorting algorithms sound like A whole different take on things.

    Microsoft launches, looks to make spreadsheets both hip and exciting. Something different to try perhaps?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    First Do No Harm


    I came across a great quote by Pablo Picasso the other day “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” When I tweeted this someone replied that students were also scientists. A good point. Kids are naturally curious. They want to know about the world and the way things  work – science! They want to tell stories, to draw pictures, to make music (well happy sounds anyway) and to dance. Too often we teach that out of them. The other day I spoke to a group of students in a gifted and talented program in New Haven Connecticut.  The youngest kids were in fourth grade while the oldest were in seventh or eighth grade. To say that the room was high energy would be putting it mildly.

    Now it wasn’t the quietest classroom in the world but it sure was fun for me. I started by demonstrating some technology. The Kinect device was really popular. What I tired to do though was not to talk about what it did some much as how it does it. I prefaced some concepts with “warning math to follow!” The kids groaned a bit the first time but after that they were more curious than apprehensive. I warned about physics once (actually a couple of times) which lead to a conversation about what physics was. Younger kids hadn’t heard the term. In fact one of the really cool things about this talk was that since I had no clear end goal other than peeking interest in STEM subjects in general and computer science in particular we could bounce around a bit. It was like a hyperlink enabled conversation. Much fun for me. I think it was fun for the students as they all stayed awake and engaged in the conversation.

    I demonstrated some of the sample applications that come with the Kinect for Windows SDK which I find make it interesting and real to discuss the concepts behind the Kinect device. The kids wanted to try EVERYTHING. When I showed the audio test they all wanted to shout out commands to the device at the same time. This lead to conversations about sound filtering. Of course the talk on the infrared camera and how it is used to calculate distances brought in both math and physics. Everyone wanted to try the skeleton tracker which draws a stick figure that following the movement of someone (or two) standing in front of the sensor.

    It would have been easy, well as easy as anything involving middles school students, to just lecture. To just stick to a script and to accept limited questions and ignore anything that was off topic as defined by a narrow description of the topic. And some times that seems like it is necessary. But I wanted to encourage more questions and more interest in doing more exploration not less. That is the advantage of being a guest speaker I guess. I am concerned that too often we do narrow student’s interests rather than broadening them. That we teach the art and science out of students to be replaces with dry and often meaningless facts and so-called “information.”

    One of the things I like about some of the competitions that Microsoft runs (the Imagine Cup comes to mind with its several opportunities)  offer the chance to explore their interests and meld them with technology. They let them stay artists and scientists by pursuing problems that interest them. Sometimes you need to let students head off into directions of their own. Too much structure can sometimes do more harm than good. How do we keep the artist in each student? How do we keep that innate curiosity in science that children are born with? And yet at the same time we need to teach them what they need to know. A fine balance but one that I think we really need to strive towards.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Pick The Software First


    Last week an email passed though my inbox that said something like “my district is buying the latest shiny new computing gadget. What software should I get to teach computer science on it?” OK now I am a software guy and biased towards software but this question seems all wrong to me. I’ve always believed that first you figure out what software you need to solve your problem (or teach your course) and then you find the operating system and hardware that software runs on. As I Tweeted last night “Asking what software should I buy for my computer is like asking what kind of car should I buy for my tires.”

    What far too many people, and unfortunately far too many people spending scarce educational technology dollars, are doing is finding some hardware and in effect saying “this is magic – let’s find some problems that it solves!” Now 38 years of using computers has taught me that once you have a computer and some software you will find all sorts of solutions to all sorts of problems many of which you didn’t know you had. But that is not the way to invest scarce money. I believe one should start with the problems they know about  and look for solutions to those. Generally the software comes first. Those times when it doesn’t the software usually comes with the hardware. For example if you need sensors for physics class it will probably come with software. So here you want to find a computer that supports this hardware and software. Picking the computer first and saying “ok now let’s find a sensor and software that runs on it” does not seem to me to be a good idea.

    The other thing that I see which is almost as bad is a hardware and software combination for a new purpose – bought together so they work perfectly – and then telling people with existing computers to find some way (after the fact) to do what they used to do but on the new hardware and software. I have seen cases where schools have replaced labs without warning instructors who show up to school to find that the software they used in the past no longer works in the new lab. Worse still, the textbooks that they can not replace for 5 more years are also now useless. Sometimes excitement over new “solutions” causes people to ignore what was working previously. This is a failure to think holistically.

    Picking the software can be tricky enough as it is. I know one school that went with some “free” software only to find that none of the accommodations and accessibility tools they needed to support special needs students were available for this software. Fortunately they didn’t change the hardware and OS so were able to go back to the previous tool. But again narrow thinking, in this case only on purchase cost, caused long term problems.

    Selecting software and hardware for schools is more complicated than buying for home use. A lot more complicated. I recommend starting with software for him use as well but really for schools and businesses it seems to me to be absolutely essential.

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