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December 29, 2009

Lessons in Lego

ByRon Martorelli

Last month the students in my high school collected cans of food for a local food bank. The cans were to be packed into boxes and distributed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I'm sure this event was repeated at many elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges all around the country.

Somehow, I was volunteered to assist the students in the packing process. My group of about twenty students, a mixture of boys and girls, was to collect the boxes after they were packed, then tape them up, and stack them onto pallets to be fork lifted to the waiting truck.

The students began to stack the boxes on the pallet, but in a very unsecure and haphazard manner. As soon as I saw it I had visions of boxes tumbling off the fork lift, so I stopped the process and told them we had to restack them. "Let's at least use the Lego method of building" was my suggestion. Only one boy knew what I was talking about, and he began to lead the others in stacking the boxes so that the seams overlapped and the boxes were lined up neatly and precisely.

So how does this relate to CS? It made me think about the fact that many of our students do not engage in too many hands-on construction, engineering, or designing projects throughout their K-12 education. Yes, there are some building block type experiences in the lower grades and some science experiments in the upper grades that involve some of this type of experience, but overall it is pretty minimal. This is especially concerning if you factor in the reduced number of students who participate in after school activities that would provide such opportunities. Programs such as YMCAs, Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts often include these types of activities, but enrollment in these organizations is generally down. After-school building experiences (whether tree houses or doll houses) seems to be a thing of the past, replaced by afternoons of video gaming or computer based social networking.

Many high schools in the U.S. no longer include courses in wood shop, automotive technology, or metal shop as part of core curriculum. Some schools are starting to include a type of Tech Shop, where students use computer software to create animated experiments and design. Without a physical experience in conjunction with this software, however, the student loses the chance to actually build anything.

If we are to educate students in computer science curriculum of programming, computer aided design, software engineering, or animation it seems that it will be important to provide them with hands-on experiences that will give them the opportunity to put into practice what they design. The possible failures of translating their computer based design into reality would provide them with additional learning opportunities. Experiencing the success of that translation will provide them with incentive and enthusiasm to go beyond their initial experiences.

Ron Martorelli
CSTA Board

Posted by cstephenson at 06:48 PM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2009

Holiday Reading Corner

By Dave Reed

Ah, the holiday break. Time to relax, catch up on sleep, and perhaps read a book or two. If you are looking for some interesting reading related to CS education, here are three books that I read over the summer and really enjoyed:

Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis, Rachel Estrella, Joanna Goode (CSTA Board Member), Jennifer Jellison Holme, and Kimberly Nao. MIT Press, 2008.

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown & Co., 2008.

Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis. Addison-Wesley, 2008.

As a CS teacher, if you haven't read Stuck in the Shallow End yet, you really should. It gives a detailed analysis of factors that have led to our shortage of CS students, especially among women and minorities, and describes the project currently underway in L.A. to try and address these factors. All of Malcolm Gladwell's books are interesting and fun to read. This one looks at characteristics that lead to success (and so complements Margolis' book very nicely). Blown to Bits is a great description of the technological changes going on in society and how they impact our lives. Lots of fascinating facts and anecdotes you can impress your students with ;-).

What other books are people reading that might be of interest to the CSTA community? Please follow up with your recommendations and reviews.

Dave Reed
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2009

Keeping Advanced Students Challenged

By Karen Lang

How do you keep your advanced students challenged? My school is a magnet school for 11th and 12th grade students who excel in math and science. Every junior takes computer science. Despite the fact that they are all exceptional students, they come from varied backgrounds. Their technology experiences range from keyboarding to Advanced Placement Computer Science. Many of my students are intimidated by Computer Science class for this reason. They have taken math, science, a language, humanities. But many have never taken a CS course in their life and it's a scary prospect. For the first month, many of my students will tell me over and over again that they have never taken a CS course before and that they have never programmed before. I tell them to look around as ninety-five percent of their peers are new to CS too.

This just explains that my students are at varying levels of expertise, comfort, and skill, which is the standard situation in most computer science classes. I use pair programming, which helps to alleviate the fear of those who are intimidated by technology. However, I am always looking for ways to keep those who have programmed before and/or just "get it" challenged and engaged.

For every programming lab, I post "dessert" problems to give more challenging problems to those who want to pursue them. I often wonder if that is enough. If a student sees the topic as mundane they may not even try these problems because they don't see it as challenging enough. I have also sent students to the Project Euler site (http://www.projecteuler.net) to try some of those problems for extra-credit.

A few years ago, two of my advanced students were allowed to work at their own pace on the curriculum. They raced through it, mainly I think to get to what they wanted to learn, which was a different language (I teach using the Scheme language). I do wonder if they would have benefited with the structure and disciplined documentation I require of the rest of the students. These two students did well enough to get through the required labs in order to move on to topics of their own interest. Did they miss out on a more in-depth exploration of Scheme, a functional programming language, with its own nuances and different ways of solving problems? Or did they get more out of exploring what they wanted to learn, pacing themselves, pushing themselves, motivating themselves?

I am curious to hear your strategies for keeping advanced students engaged and motivated within the regular computer science classroom.

Karen Lang
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 03:48 PM | Comments (0)

December 17, 2009

Fall 2009 issue of Journal for Computing Teachers

By Chris Stephenson

The fall 2009 issue of Journal for Computing Teachers is available at

http://iste.org/jct (direct link is http://tinyurl.com/yfq9qjz).

JCT is a K-12 oriented online periodical where the emphasis is teaching about computing. JCT is published under the auspices of the Special Interest Group for Computing Teachers (SIGCT) in the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The primary mission of SIGCT is to enhance precollege computing instruction.

You are encouraged to submit papers for possible publication in JCT. For your planning purposes, the submission deadline for the spring 2010 issue is February 15, 2010. Information on submissions can be found at http://iste.org/jct. Please contact John with your submission ideas and/or if you're interested in serving on the Editorial Review Board for JCT.

Chris Stephenson
CSTA Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 04:27 PM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2009

Programming Challenge 4 Girls (PC4G) Event in New Zealand

By Margot Phillipps

In November this year, a series of challenges using Alice was held at 4 venues around New Zealand. The events were staggered as the days were planned so that a visiting speaker could attend each event. The venues varied enormously in the demographic they reached. The second venue was Manukau Institute. Manukau city is the largest Polynesian city in the world (as it is the major center for Polynesian migration to New Zealand.) The third venue, Gisborne, is a center with a very high Maori population. (New Zealand's indigenous people)

Each school was allowed to bring two teams of two girls in year 10 (grade 9 in most countries) to participate in the challenge. Each school was required to have a teacher accompany the teams.

The day(s) were planned so that the girls and their teachers had some tuition and practice in Alice (14 of the 20 teachers hadn't used Alice before) and then after some refreshments the girls sat the challenge while the teachers had a workshop.

Dr. Chris Stephenson, Executive Director of CSTA held the workshop for teachers, which reinforced for them not only the importance of CS Education but also let them know that the challenges of a reasonable curriculum and assessment, qualified teacher, and uptake by students are not just issues in New Zealand.

In the challenge, all of the teams were given the problem statement that included a number of set tasks (story-boards provided). Once a team mastered those tasks, the girls were encouraged to "add value" with their own ideas for an extension to the story. For good marks in this section they had to story-board (ie: design) it first.

At the end of the 3 hour challenge and teacher's workshop, lunch was served, and each of the hosting sites then provided a 45 minute presentation or activity for the girls and the teachers while the judging team marked the contest entries. The judging criteria had already been set and tested, so judging was relatively straight-forward. This allowed the judges to rapidly group the results into gold, silver, bronze and participation categories.

The final event of the day was the awards ceremony. The gold, silver and bronze category winners received medals and the top team's teacher received an Alice textbook.

Student evaluations showed 79% of girls saying that they would take a subject like this in senior high school if it was available. Unfortunately at present the offering of a CS courses in senior high school in New Zealand is limited. The research that the organisers read suggested that girls enjoy contests and competing but they prefer team work. This was supported by 97% of the respondents saying they enjoyed the teamwork.

Although the challenge reached both important "CS minorities" (girls and minority cultures), future challenges will need to be sensitive to the story lines set for the challenge. This year was a dog-obedience class and as one teacher remarked "Girls from our school wouldn't know dogs got trained".

The organisers have tried to make it as simple as possible for a school to offer to be a site and have devised a "cookbook" of what needs to be done and when for running the challenge. The practice material, the challenge and the mark sheets are all provided by the committee (all volunteers). The hope is that each year the challenge will grow in the number of sites and thus the number of girls being exposed to programming. Our hope is that this experience will convince the girls that computer science isn't nerdy, it is intellectually interesting and most of all fun.

Margot Phillipps
CSTA International Director

Posted by cstephenson at 02:55 PM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2009

Computing Our Children's Future

Reposted from the Huffington Post

To the age-old question -- "What do you want to do when you grow up?" -- children today give many modern answers: "Help feed hungry families." "Prevent and cure diseases." "Find sources of renewable energy." "Understand the universe."

One clear path leads to each of these aspirations: the study of computer science. Computer models and applications enable farmers to increase crop yields, HIV-positive patients in Africa to receive lifesaving treatment, industry to reduce its carbon footprint, and explorers to study the stars. Computing has become the universal underpinning of scientific advancement and economic activity.

This week is the nation's first Computer Science Education Week. It demonstrates that the hopes and dreams of our future leaders will not be realized by simply knowing how to turn on a computer, but by turning kids on to computer science.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Today's Internet-savvy, video game-saturated culture has lulled parents into thinking that children already know what they need to know. But the ability to operate a PC, use a Wii, or surf the Web is no preparation for truly understanding computing.

That understanding starts early. And it starts with mastery of fundamental concepts related to computational thinking. Elementary and middle school students should be exposed to thinking about data, representing information, using computation and combining these concepts to solve problems as part of math and science courses. This basic knowledge can then form a foundation for more formal computer science courses in high school and beyond.

Unfortunately, nearly three out of four fourth-grade math and science teachers do not have a sufficient understanding of their subjects. In high-poverty middle and high schools, most did not even major or minor in math or science. "Too many middle school students are being taught by a generalist," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Compounding the problem is curriculum. In 1983, the landmark A Nation at Risk report called for students to take three years of math and science to graduate. A quarter century later, nearly half the states still do not require this amount. It is shocking, but not surprising, that the U.S. ranked 35th out of 40 nations in math and 29th in science, according to the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Schools struggling to teach basic core subjects are often unprepared to elevate computer science to its proper status. Many focus on teaching computer literacy - the ability to carry out basic tasks on a computer - sometimes confusing this with computer science - the study of computer processes and designs to solve problems. Most schools do not enhance other courses with sufficient deep computing concepts, and offer computer science only as an "elective" course or consign it to career and technical education.

Odd as it may seem in the Information Age, schools are actually scaling back computer science courses at all levels. A Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) survey found the percentage of high schools that offer rigorous computing courses has fallen from 40 percent to 27 percent from 2005-2009. And a majority of states do not have certification for computer science teachers or computer science standards to inform rigorous instruction.

Computer Science Education Week (www.csedweek) brings national attention to these challenges. The computing community, including industry leaders, is spotlighting the connection between computer science education and success in a digital world.

Together, we have already begun to develop and share best practices. The Association for Computing Machinery and the CSTA have issued a model computer science curriculum for K-12 education. The National Science Foundation is funding the creation of a rigorous new Advanced Placement Computer Science course for college-bound students. And we are working on strategies to address the significant shortage of women and minorities in the field.

We are seeing real progress across the nation. Texas, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia are working on ways to count rigorous computer science courses as a mathematics or science credit toward meeting graduation requirements. Some states are changing their teacher credentialing process to allow computer science and other professionals to become adjunct teachers. Universities such as the University of California are adjusting admission requirements to give rigorous computer science courses more weight.

President Obama and Congress have provided national leadership. They have increased funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Now they need to elevate computer science within STEM majors and fields.

The myth that all computing jobs are going overseas is just that - a myth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is one of fastest-growing and highest-paying sectors of the economy. More than 800,000 high-paying professional information technology jobs will be added between 2006 and 2016 - a 24 percent increase.

Simply put, computing drives innovation in all fields. Our society needs professionals with the ability to solve problems across multiple disciplines. And the rewards for doing so are huge. "'Where is the money?' I ask my students," wrote nationally renowned calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. "It is in physics, computers, biology, chemistry, and electronics."

In the 1950s, the launch of Sputnik compelled America to improve math and science education. Today, the mastery of cyberspace, not outer space, will determine our future. It is time to launch a new generation of innovative professionals. Computer Science Education Week is an excellent start.

Maria Klawe
President of Harvey Mudd College

Andrew Chien
Vice President at Intel Labs

Rick Rashid
Senior Vice President of Research at Microsoft, Inc.

Alfred Spector
Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives at Google, Inc.

Posted by cstephenson at 10:25 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2009

When Technicalities Interfere with Learning

By Robb Cutler

I was observing a middle school computer science class the other day working on a 3D graphics project. The teacher was describing how to define colors using the RGBA model. In this model, numerical values are assigned to the red, green, blue, and alpha components of the color. The red, green, and blue values are the amount of each hue present in the color. The alpha value represents the percentage of blending that occurs when the color is painted over another color.

Now, rather than provide the detailed mathematics behind alpha blending which, although accessible, would not have given the the students any real understanding of the concept, the teacher summarized alpha blending with one simple statement: "It's the invisibility factor, the smaller the value, the more invisible the color will be."

Is invisibility a completely technically correct explanation? Of course not. But it's certainly close enough and a more than reasonable description for middle school students. The fact is that sometimes (as this teacher correctly intuited) the technical jargon we use gets in the way of understanding for our younger students. Or worse, it makes a very interesting subject sound bland and boring.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger understood this too when he wrote "The Number Devil", a wonderful story about Robert, a boy who has mathematical dreams in which he learns about unreasonable numbers, prima donnas, and vroom numbers. The mathematics is sound; it's only the names of things that have been changed.

While there are certainly those purists (or perhaps puritans) who would be aghast at the idea of not using the precise mathematical monikers (irrational number, prime numbers, and factorials), Enzensberger realized that his terms not only sparked his young readers' imaginations, but also whetted their interest in learning more mathematics.

In computer science, do words such as polymorphism, boolean, conditional, and algorithm not stimulate the imagination in ways that Enzensberger and the middle school computer science teacher do with their unreasonable numbers and invisibility factors? Are we unintentionally turning younger kids off to computing with our language? And, if so, how can we fix things?

Robb Cutler
CSTA Past President

Posted by cstephenson at 10:55 AM | Comments (0)

December 08, 2009

Celebrating Computer Science Education Week

By Cameron Wilson

A little over a month ago, I wrote about the U.S. Congress passing a resolution designating the first week of December as Computer Science Education Week. As far as attention for the field goes, this was cool, but my main point was if we were satisfied with just a Congressional resolution we'd have missed a big opportunity. It was up to the community to make something of Computer Science Education Week.

This was a call to action when science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called "STEM" fields) education reform is on the minds of national and local leaders. In other words, we've never had a better opportunity to highlight how computer science is transforming society and how students at all levels need to be exposed to computer science education.

In just over a month, the community has stepped up to bring together some really useful resources, promote the field, further strengthen an already strong community and tell computer science education's story to the world:

* ACM pulled together a new web portal External Link for computer science education (www.csedweek.org) to serve as a central hub for the week.
* The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) issued a call to action on their blog and via their listserv, listing several things teachers can do to celebrate the week.
* CSTA's leadership cohort (teachers that are committed to leading reforms in their states) got the State of Ohio and the State of Wisconsin to support csedweek.
* Microsoft created its own csedweek page.
* Google blogged about csedweek on its main blog.
* Congressman Ehlers and Congressman Polis, the Members of Congress that spearheaded this effort, circulated a letter to all of their colleagues announcing the week and the website.
* The message is also getting heard where it counts; in the schools themselves. The Los Angeles Unified School District issued a release in support of the week and so did the Cypress-Fairbanks school district External Link in Texas.
* Carnegie Mellon is celebrating by hosting a "Computer Science Education Day" External Link conference.
* MIT Press External Link is honoring several computer science education leaders throughout the week.

And this is just a sample of only what we've heard so far! We've seen press stories, local celebrations and teachers coming together on Facebook to ask each other what they are doing this week. My personal favorite was Mark Guzdial's post to "hug a computer science teacher" to celebrate this week.

This is a great start to the inaugural year for Computer Science Education Week. All of these things are the beginnings of a much-needed national debate about computer science education. But this is just the start. Now we need to build on this throughout the year and make next year's Computer Science Education Week an even more prominent part of the education landscape.

All of this couldn't have been done without some key partnerships. ACM has been working with the cooperation and deep involvement of the Computer Science Teachers Association, the Computing Research Association, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Anita Borg Institute, the National Science Foundation, Google, Inc., Intel, and Microsoft on this effort and wish to thank them for their involvement.

Cameron Wilson
ACM Director of Public Policy

Posted by cstephenson at 12:25 PM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2009

CS Ed Week - How Will You Celebrate?

Cameron Wilson announced CS Education Week in his blog post October 22, 2009. You've had a month to think about it, so what are you going to do to celebrate this week?

My school celebrates everything. In fact, we are just wrapping up Foreign Language Week. Teachers wore buttons announcing which languages they had studied, students made posters, each day celebrated a different language offered by including a tasty morsel of information about that language in the daily announcements, and of course, each foreign language day enjoyed a "cultural experience" (secret code for food) as part of their lesson. So how do Computer Science Teachers compete with this?

Computers and computing are ubiquitous. Can you separate these thinking machines from everyday life? No! So, embrace our deep embedding in our students' lives, and have some fun exploring computing. Here's my plan.

First, hold a poster competition and let the faculty choose the winning posters for a computer related prize. Post those posters throughout the school so everyone can enjoy them.

Second, find some interesting trivia about the evolution of our discipline and get that question of the day on the announcements.

Third, find out which faculty members have taken a computer course. Organize a scavenger hunt that includes faculty members as well as other sources (Google) to involve the students.

Fourth, hold a show and tell day during lunch. My Alice students are completing their first major project, a self-designed Halloween video. I plan to show them during lunch.

Fifth, celebrate Grace Hopper. Her birthday is December 9. Do something really special on that day (can you say Birthday Party) to celebrate her contributions as well as others in our field.

We claim that Computer Science is a creative discipline. Use your imagination to demonstrate that computer science is more than just writing java code.

John Harrison
CSTA At-Large Board Member

Posted by cstephenson at 01:01 PM | Comments (2)