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

January, 2012

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Software Engineering High School


    It sounds like a movie title doesn’t it? Like Super Hero High for geeks. But in this case New York City gets a Software Engineering High School this coming Septembers for real. What’s it going to be like? It looks like Joel Spolsky and other software professionals including involvement from a number of major software related firms are involved from the industry side. From the academic side Mike Zamansky  from New York’s Stuyvesant High School and Leigh Ann Jervis DeLyser are involved. Leigh Ann is someone I have known for a while. She was my trainer when I helped grade the APCS exam a bunch of years ago. She’s being doing CS education related studies as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon the last few years after being a HS CS teacher for a good while. So it is not just all industry people and not just all education people but people who actually know what they are doing in both fields. That makes it sound pretty good.

    One of the goals of this school is increasing the diversity of people in the software engineering field. With not entrance exam (NYC has a number of outstanding entrance exam high schools – I attended one) this one will be open to students with an interest regardless of tests. This should open a lot of doors. It has challenges as well but interest from students and good teachers can overcome that – I have faith in that! I do worry about recruiting though. How many middle school students know that they are interested in this area if they haven’t been exposed to some computer science (not applications use) in middle school? Perhaps students (or their parents) will be attracted by the career possibilities. I hope so. The software industry can be a great place to work and not just for the money but the chance to make a difference in the world. Joel Spolsky expects the school to be overwhelmed with applicants. I hope he’s right but I worry by nature.

    Besides students this school is going to need great teachers. The board and principal (they still need a great principal) will have to work hard to find the right teachers. I am more optimistic about this. I mean seriously I would love to teach at a school like this. What computer science teacher who loves the subject and loves teaching wouldn't? Will this strip the other high schools in NYC of all the best CS teachers though? Or will it attract enough new candidates from outside the area to really build a CS education community in NYC? Now THAT would be an exciting development. I really hope that happens.

    Over time schools are judged in large measure by their graduates. This school intends to be a rigorous academic environment. That’s a good thing. We, and by we I mean the software engineering professional and academic communities, need this school to turn out a diverse, motivated, and ready student body who will attend great universities and really move this country forward in the field. So the CS and the other academic areas need to be top notch. Sounds like that is the goal. Retention will be tricky. Rigorous means that some students who are not used to rigor will struggle. The faculty will have to help keep them motivated and moving. That’s what good teachers do of course. Environment is key though. I firmly believe that if the environment outside of school is not supportive the culture and environment inside the school becomes even more important. I like what I read so far (there are other articles on this school out there) though.

    Personally and professionally I hope to get involved in this school. I’ll want to make sure they are able to take full advantage of the new improved DreamSpark program for example. If you are familiar with MSDN Academic Alliance that is being upgraded to this new version of DreamSpark Premium with institutional subscriptions. And of course make sure they know about all the free curriculum resources at the Faculty Connection site. And we’ll see what else we can do to help over time. It’s going to be an interesting experiment. If it works it may be a model for more schools around the country. Wouldn’t that be something?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Time Flies When Learning Is Fun


    I did some work workshops with the great people from Digital Wish again this week (see also Teaching Teachers and Students Together) We did a full day workshop on web development using Expression Web using the Heavy Metal Car tutorial workshop from We were able to cram a lot of learning into one day and by the end of the day the students (high school students and faculty mixed) had created a web page that included quite a bit of learning. Actually it was a pretty crammed day but pretty much everyone was able to keep up with the fast pace. I think the fact that Expression Web uses a lot of the same sorts of icons, command ribbons and generally has a look and feel a lot like Microsoft Office has a lot to do with the fast learning curve. Day two was another Kodu workshop. Honestly I think we learned some things about workshops like this from the previous one and we covered more in less time and had more fun. In fact there was an interesting exchange just before the lunch break.

    The head of Digital Wish announced that we were going to take a lunch break and that we had been going at it for about three hours already. One of the students popped up and said “What? we’ve been doing this for three hours?” and looked at the clock. This was followed by him turning to his peers and saying “Guys we’ve been at this for three hours already!” This was followed by the students almost waking up from a trance. Honestly I have seen very few students engrossed in learning something as these students learning Kodu.

    WP_000303I’m not sure the students in the picture on the left even knew that I was walking around taking pictures. For some of these students Kodu was not their first experience with visual programming tools. Some had used Alice (from Carnegie Mellon) while others had used Scratch (from MIT). now I love both of those tools and I’ve seen them used with great effect. I do recommend them myself. But at least in my face these students were enjoying Kodu more. I see this as a statement of one size not fitting all more than as a criticism of those other wonderful learning tools. One of them would still rather use Game Maker for example for their own projects.  Since the students in this workshop are going to be teaching other, younger students I’m glad they were enjoying themselves with Kodu of course.

    The highlight of the day for me was one other comment from a student. I didn’t catch it all as he was talking to his peers but it was along the lines of “I thought programming was all dull and boring but this is really interesting and fun.” That to me is one of the real goals of using Kodu, and to a real extent some of the other visual programming languages. We want students to see some real success and create something meaningful to them. Once they have that success and realize that they can program and that they can create value they become much more willing do to  the hard work that moving to more advanced programming entails.

    I know a lot of students who really enjoy programming games using XNA for example. This is much more complex and difficult than Kodu. But knowing what is possible (Kodu is written using XNA for example) and knowing that they can have fun while learning is a great kick start. Students will work hard to learn things that interest them. They will also find it fun. Really that’s not such a bad thing.

    Related links:

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    We Need A Wider Conversation on CS Education


    There is an active conversation going on in the UK about computing education. From the Royal Society report (Shut down or restart?: The way forward for computing in UK schools) to Op-ed pieces in newspapers to blogs people are asking “why are we not teaching students more computer science?” I see some of that conversation in the US as well. Andy Young’s piece on Why programming should be required in schools was Slash Dotted this week. The response on Slashdot is mixed. We have Computer Science Education Week now and some in Congress are talking about the need to do more. But far too little of this conversation is taking place outside the computer science education ghetto/echo chamber.

    Computing in the Core seems like a good step and the organizations that are involved are the right ones.

    Computing in the Core is a non-partisan advocacy coalition of associations, corporations, scientific societies, and other non-profits seeking to elevate the national profile of computer science education in K-12 within the US and work toward ensuring that computer science is one of the core academic subjects in K-12 education.

    But other than Microsoft, Google and SAS there doesn’t seem to be much participation from industry. Frankly industry should have the most vested interest in participating. Where are the other hardware and software companies? Where are the tech bloggers for that matter? The answer I’ve gotten before is that “not my area of expertise” or “I’m focused on other things.” Joel Spolsky is one of the exceptions with his involvement with the proposed software engineering high school in New York City. He sees the need for more highly skilled and trained computer science people. Then of course he is not just a pundit spouting off but a practitioner who actually hires software develops for his company. It may be that smaller companies are feeling the shortage of qualified people the most. The Microsofts, Googles, Facebooks, HPs, Dells, and other really large companies get to pick from the cream of the software development crop after all. The big companies need the small ones though. That is one of the reasons Microsoft has programs like BizSpark to help startups and works to help increase the pool of computer scientists – so that our partners will also be able to find the people they need.

    Startups, who are also sucking up some of our best and brightest, are too small and too focused to get much involved. So it is the big companies we need to be involved for the betterment of the whole industry. The pundits in their blogs and social media outlets could be a powerful force in getting more companies involved. I just wish they would look around and get active. If they don’t they may all have to move to India or China to cover the software industry one of these days.

    Related Links:

Page 1 of 7 (19 items) 12345»