Computer Science Teacher Alfred Thompson

This is Alfred Thompson's blog about computer science education and related topics. Alfred Thompson
Updated: 1 hour 24 min ago

Coding is Not a Four Letter Word

27 June, 2017 - 11:35

I am at ISTE and have lost count of the times today someone said "you can program this without knowing how to code." Usually they mean this because they use a block based programming environment like Scratch or Blockly or Snap! Well to me that is still coding. Just because the language is not text based doesn't mean it's not real programming or real coding. I come back to the idea that coding and programming can usually be used interchangeably. If anything coding is a superset of programming. HTML is certainly coded instructions but probably not really programming. At least not all the time. Arguably using CSS is programming of a sort. Arguably.

Personally programming or coding, how ever you want to call it, is what I am teaching. If it doesn't need coding than I'm probably not interested. Of course when I talk like that they tell me that I can also use JavaScript or Python or Java or any number of other more traditional programming languages.

Most of these companies are, I feel, really trying to sell some hardware. They must think that coding or programming is scary. Or perhaps that it is too much for someone. For students? For teachers? I'm not sure who. It shouldn't be scary though. It should be empowering. There is a place for block programming tools for sure. But some of us want the power and flexibility to say nothing of the easier transference of skills to other domains that text based programming languages give us.

So don't tell me your device can be controlled without programming or coding because you are using Blockly. That just doesn't compute. And real coding might just be what I am looking for.

Categories: Planet

ISTE 2017- A First Look

27 June, 2017 - 00:40

If I am seeing a theme at ISTE 2017 so far it is making. Session after session demonstrates learning by making things. No where is this more true than with computer science. Micro:bit and AdaFruit Circuit Playground Express are being seen in booths at poster sessions and discussed in workshops. Those two seem to be the tip of the ice burg though. This morning I saw a programmable (in Scratch) device that can be inserted in a flying disk.

The image on the left here shows a “guitar” made from duct tape, cardboard, and a Micro:Bit. The accelerometer in the Micro:Bit means that when the guitar is shaken it plays sounds.

And then there are these “magic wands” that respond to both movement and sounds. There seems to be a virtually unlimited set of ideas for making smart devices that include the various miniature devices that are becoming available. Microsoft MakeCode is usable to program many of these devices.

One of the cool things about MakeCode is that you can switch between a block like language and JavaScript. That means students don’t grow out of it very quickly – if at all.

What does this mean for computer science? Several things I think. One is that it means we can bring programming to younger and younger students. Most of these devices can be programmed with drag and drop block languages using words that young students can understand. Add to that color and creativity and you have a recipe for keeping lots of students engaged.

But it means something for older students as well. A key thing for getting students engaged is tying their learning into things they are interested id doing. For some that is robots. People who teach in all female environments tell me that women and girls are interested in robots. They just see different robots than boys usually do.

And fashion? NCWIT has e-Textiles-in-a-Box that looks very exiting. Just like robots are not just for boys, e-textiles are not just for girls either. I’ve seen a number of posters involving wearable items that mix electronics and or computer devices with clothing loosely defined.

ISTE is really just getting started today. I expect to see a lot more and will share some of the best of it.

Categories: Planet

Student Programmer Fix This Code

22 June, 2017 - 23:07

Recently I came across this cartoon and shared it on Facebook.

Responses were interesting. The newer one was to programming the more likely people seemed to be to explain why the if statement wasn’t working correctly. The more experienced one was the more likely they were to point out that you probably shouldn’t have written that code (an option to kill humans) in the first place. There is some validity in both responses of course.

In teaching we often create code that is less than ideal to force a particular observation of a concept if less code. How often do we explain that to students? And how well does it take? I’m not sure but it does concern me.

Returning to asking students to debug code. I like the idea and it is something I want to do more of in the future. The problem comes when students don’t have enough experience yet to find the less obvious errors. On the other hand how will they get experience if we don’t let (make?) them practice debugging? Most debugging practice students get is on their own code. Often they are too close to it to see what is wrong.

Last semester I gave students code written by other students and asked them to test it. Most of the code worked as advertised and what students reported out was missing functionality rather than “broken” code. Maybe I need to write some broken code of my own and have students look at it?

How are you helping students learn to debug code? Any ideas to share please leave them in the comments.

BTW there is some discussion if asking students to debug code is better than asking them to write code on the new CS Educators Stack Exchange. You may want to join in there as well.

Categories: Planet

Become A Computer Science Teacher in Five Days

22 June, 2017 - 05:37

Garth Flint is a computer science teacher in Montana. While most computer science teachers are a bit isolated, most are the only CS teacher in their school. Garth is more so because Montana is a big state with a small population and few computer science t3eachers. Recently he attended a workshop to teach CS teachers. He wrote a review of the experience - A week of in-service: Another Python course

Some of the teachers had no previous computer science background let alone experience teaching computer science. They were mostly told to teach a course in the fall and figure it out.

Only a couple of us had actually done any CS/programming teaching.     It was a bit interesting talking to the teachers that had been give the directive to offer a programming course at their school.  It was a “come up with something” type of directive

I hear this a lot. You know a good teacher can teach any subject with a little prep time. Well no they cannot. Can you imagine asking an English teacher who spoke no French to teach a French course after a one week PD even at a local college? I don’t think so. Why is it less crazy to do the same for computer science?

As Garth points out in his post, teaching (and learning) programming syntax is the easy part but there is a lot more to teaching computer science than programming language syntax. One doesn’t just learn syntax rules and some vocabulary and suddenly speak French. No, there is idiom involved in a new natural language and that is no less true of computer science.

A week long course can give a CS teacher enough to get ready to teach a new programming language or a new curriculum. What it can’t do is really get you seriously into computational thinking or go deeply into the how to teach or why things are done they way they are. There is just no time.

The best professional development for teachers new to the subject are more involved (and longer) than 5 days. They involve pre-workshop work, post workshop work and ideally the workshop[ is longer than a week.  Even then things are going to be pretty tough that first year (or three). What worries me the most about assuming enough can be learned in a week is a) students will get turned off b) students will have to be retaught later (if we can get them in class again) and c) that teachers will get frustrated and quit before they get good at it.

There are many who believe that it is easier to teach a teacher to teach CS than to teach a CS person how to teach. Please do not mistake me for one of those people.

Categories: Planet

Movies for Computer Science Students

21 June, 2017 - 05:10

Today was watch movie day. I watched two movies that I have been thinking about showing to my computer science students.

The first one I watched was "The Imitation Game" about Alan Turing. Frankly I didn't like it. I like it even less for showing to my students. Why? Because I don't think students will identify with Turing. He is just to weird. Make no mistake I think Turing was an amazing individual and there are lessons in his story. But, well, it just didn't inspire me to want to do things.

The second movie was "Hidden Figures." This one I loved. Even though few of my students are females of color these women are real and normal in ways that Turing wasn't. They had children, families, and were concerned about others. They had things to overcome and fought to overcome them. That is a message that resonates. I think my students will see people to aspire to be like in this movie.

My experience is that students who see stories like "Hidden Figures" see the injustices against both women and minorities. They understand how wrong that treatment was and is. Sure there were horrible injustices against Turing and his death was a tragedy. But his personality, at least in the movie, is not one to make people feel as sympathetic as the women in "Hidden Figures." And the women won! And in their winning they opened the doors for many others.

So what other movies should I think about showing my computer science students?”

Categories: Planet

Micro:bit Small-board Computer Launches in U.S. & Canada

21 June, 2017 - 01:05

The Micro:bit (nee BBC Micro:bit) is now available in the US and Canada. This little device has been in classrooms in the United Kingdom for about a year and a half but is only now become commonly available in the US and Canada. Now at first glance this may not seem like a bit deal. It is a little device that must be connected to a larger computer to program. Seems like an extra step.

But it is a big deal and it is more than just a little device. In a word, the thing that makes the Micro:bit interesting is “Making.”   This little device is easily included in little projects that can really interest students. Just programming the device on its own might get boring quickly. It was for me. But including it in a maker space sort of project is a game changer.

Now you’re asking for resources. The device is programmable in a number of languages and tools from Scratch to Python and JavaScript. There is a 14 week curriculum developed for students by Microsoft. Project Lead the Way also has a curriculum. Both are designed around making things that include the Micro:bit.

The Micro:Bit web site has a bunch of project ideas if you are looking for what others are doing. This could be fun!

Categories: Planet

How To Teach Computer Science

15 June, 2017 - 00:36
I always read articles like this one - The 5 Worst Ways to Teach Computer Science – with some trepidation. I always expect to find out that I’m doing it all wrong. The other thing that always concerns me is that the author will be all wrong. Everyone who knows how to code thinks they are an expert in teaching computer science. Many of them are wrong. But this article is a good one. (In other words it mostly talks about doing things the way I already do them.) I think to most experienced CS teachers it is review. I think it is written for teachers who are new to teaching CS though and it fits that role well.

I do think there is a place for individual projects though. Not every project needs to be or even should be a group or team project. So the second thing that article did was get me thinking about good practices.

One of the worst ways to teach computer science that the article doesn’t talk about is Do Everything On The Computer. I am seeing that that can be a real problem. My teaching focus is always concepts first and while after 40 years of writing code a lot of things on the computer seem obvious to me. Not so the “digital natives” I am teaching. Many of them separate real life from what is going on in the computer.

We think they see them as the same because of the social aspects of computer use we observe but I don’t think that is really the case. Young people see the communication aspect of using computers as somewhat parallel to their real life but that is much different from most computer science concepts.
Take counters and accumulators for example. They don’t think in terms of those computer science type words even though they use both in their daily lives. It’s hard for them to make the connection using code. I have them count a hand full of coins. Then I have a student total the value of the coins. Now we can have a conversation about counters and accumulators in the context of a loop.
Speaking of loops I have students walk as a loop. Walk seven steps or walk to this point – demonstrates counting and while/until loops. I’m struggling with how to have them act out recursion though. Ideas?

More and more I am looking for kinesthetic learning that gets students physically involved in computer science concepts. There are some great ideas at CS Unplugged which I use with several classes. “Steal from the best” I always say.
We use some exercises from there when we teach sorting, parity checking, and more. They work well and get students involved. Of course kinesthetic learning is far from just a computer science teaching thing. The growth of maker spaces is one newer aspect of it and “making” has some potential in computer science education. We can also connect computer science to other subjects which will help students learn both/multiple subjects.

The important thing is that we don’t narrow our teaching to just lecture and things the students do on the computer. We have to be more interactive and include ways to get students doing things.
Categories: Planet
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