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

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Just Add Imagination

    • 148 Comments

    I met a 12-year old programmer yesterday. He was on a field trip to the Microsoft Technology Center in Chicago with his middle school. He'd brought a USB storage stick with a program he'd written on it to show us. What he had written was a very cool web browser. He told me it included about 20,000 lines of C# code.

    He demonstrated the program for the group and I have to say he impressed a lot of people. This web browser had the features you would expect such as tabbed browsing but it had a lot of features I'd never thought about. For example it was a simple menu option to have the program look up the ownership of a domain using whois. And there were other options to get other bits of information about the web site as well. Frankly there was too much to see in a short period of time for me to absorb it all. I gave him my card and asked him to email me. Frankly I want to try his program out for myself. I also want to know more about how he did it as well.

    There were a couple of messages I took from this experience. One key message was that young students are very capable of thinking outside the box. They are quite adept at looking at a tool (in this case C# and the .NET Framework) and putting the pieces together in new and interesting ways. Another is that Visual Studio and the objects in the .NET Framework clearly make a lot of things easier to include in a program than ever before. This student was taking full advantage of them and had created a very powerful application.  The combination of opportunity, the right tools and a young, energetic creative mind is a very wonderful and powerful thing.

    I just wish we could introduce programming to more young students. This student is 12 but has already been programming for three years. Bill Gates started programming when he was 13 so this young student has a four year head start. Just imagine the possibilities.

    {Note: I have a brief follow up on this student posted as he enters high school.]

    [Note to Digg readers - please look around and read more of my blog. I'm glad you stopped by.]

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Why are all programming languages in English?

    • 93 Comments

    Last week I was at the CSTA Computer Science & Information Technology conference in New York City. One of the great thing about events like this is the hallway conversations that just happen. When you get a lot of interesting people together the conversations are interesting by default. I had one such conversation with Dave Reed, computer science faculty at Creighton University and past Chief Reader of the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam. We started by talking about programming by people whose language is not English. The keywords they use are, for almost all languages, in English. Comments, variables, user written classes and methods though are in their own language. How confusing might that be? Dave has used a program written in German in some of his classes and asked students to explain what is going on from context. That’s an interesting exercise for sure. On the other hand why not translate the keywords?

    Many years ago I heard Grace Hopper talk about an early compiler. As I recall they wrote this sample compiler and finished it before it was due. They thought about the fact that keywords are really just symbolic so why not make them in other languages. They wound up adding support for several languages into the compiler. Unfortunately the committee who reviewed the final project thought that was far to complicated to actually work and concluded the demo was faked. Ah, the early days on computers when people really didn’t understand what they could do. To this day compilers seem to only understand keywords in one language and that language is almost always English.

    It is not just Americans or even other English as a first language speakers who are doing this. Niklaus Wirth who designed PASCAL among other languages was Swiss. No doubt he could have used any one of several other natural languages but he used English. Off hand I don’t know of programming languages that use non English keywords. If there are some, and there must right, they don’t appear to be common. Anyone know any?

    I’m not sure why this is. Most modern computer design was done in English language countries but that should not be a limitation. The other thing I really don’t understand is why IDEs don’t support non-English keywords. I mean how hard could it be to add a parser that uses different (or additional) keywords? It’s been a long time since my graduate course in compiler design but as I recall parsing was only a small part of the whole process. Converting things to meta data should be a simple matter. Expensive perhaps but not critically so. Anyone know of IDEs that do this sort of thing? And why are people whose first languages not designing their own languages using non-English keywords? I can understand something about wanting widespread acceptance and that most experienced programmers know English keywords if not a real working knowledge of English. On the other hand having kids learn in their native language strikes me as potentially a good thing.

    Just something to wonder about today.



  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    FizzBuzz–A Programming Question

    • 48 Comments

    Projects or exercises that lend themselves to many different “correct” solutions are just about the best sorts of learning experiences I can imagine. They really open the possibilities for discussion and from discussion – questions, answers, explanations – comes real learning. Recently Dennis Shaw, a student at Old Dominion University and a Microsoft Student Partner, told me about the FizzBizz exercise. (see Using FizzBuzz to Find Developers who Grok Coding for where it comes from) This is exactly that sort of multiple solution but not that difficult sort of exercise I love. Briefly stated the exercise is:

    Write a program that prints the numbers from 1 to 100. But for multiples of three print “Fizz” instead of the number and for the multiples of five print “Buzz”. For numbers which are multiples of both three and five print “FizzBuzz”.

    So there you have it. It involves using some sort of conditional of course. Nested or unnested? It can be done either way. Which way is best? Do you check for multiples of three first or five? Do you check to see if the number ISN’T one of those cases  first or if it IS one of those cases? Or rather than If statements is there a different way completely? Perhaps a select/case structure? Does creating functions/methods complicate of simplify the result? If students know multiple programming languages is there one that is better for this than another (think especially about functional languages v. procedural languages). Are there special operators (like perhaps the ternary operator in C#, C/C++ and Java) that might make the code “tighter?” Is there a trade off between complication and understanding? Oh and of course, does your solution actually work?

    Justify your answers. (Don’t you just just love the teacher-ness of “justify your answer?” Smile)  I can see asking students to write up an explanation of how their solution works and why they did it that way as a means for forcing examination of the solution. And as a side benefit a lot of students can benefit from yet another writing exercise. Code that can’t be explained isn’t properly understood and that causes problems in the long run. A piece of code should not be “magic” to the person who wrote it.

    There are many solutions on the Internet to the FizzBuzz question. So yes, some student might go searching for one and even try to use it. The “justify your solution” question means that they still have to understand and explain how it works and why they like it. I can’t see a student saying “I like this solution because I found it on the Internet and it works.” Well, I hope they wouldn’t try that. But if they do, grade them on how well they explain the benefits of using borrowed code and if they credited the original source properly. And of course they should also be able to explain why this solution is better than others they might have found. Surely they were not so lazy as to hand in the first solution they found?

    BTW a couple of related posts of mine are Teaching, Learning and the Job Interview and Characteristics of a Good Programming Project



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