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March 31, 2010

Facebook: What's appropriate?

By Fran Trees

As computer science educators, we think of ourselves as computer savvy. We are knowledgeable about social networks and online communities. I'll wager that a good many of us have accounts on Facebook (even if we do not actively post what we do every waking moment of our existence).

I have a Facebook account. My activity is very limited. I confirm friends when I receive an email requesting me to do so and I have a clue who the person is! I login to my account occasionally to find that my friends are finding Ugly Ducklings on their farms, building horse stables, sharing flowers with me, and doing whatever is happening in Mafia Wars. In a way (a very small way), I'm jealous. How do these people find time to do these things?

I do find joy in keeping up-to-date with activities and events in the lives of my friends: pictures of new grandchildren, accomplishments of dogs in of agility competitions, pictures of vacationing children, new pets, experiences on cool dive sites, and great ski adventures.

I also question some of the information people post. I hesitate to tell the world where I am each day. I doubt that they would care. I don't think I would tell the world where my children are, either. I know, when I post information to Facebook, it's not really "to the world." I do have a bit of control about just who my friends are and who sees what. So, maybe, I'm just a bit old-fashioned.

Lots of people post how they are feeling: it's a bad day today; it was a great day at the mountain; it's only Wednesday; I need sleep. I need chocolate.

Just what is appropriate? Is what's appropriate for one person inappropriate for another?

I was floored when I read the following article about a professor being suspended for comments made on her Facebook page:


There are many similar stories:
A student being suspended after threatening remarks on Facebook:


This makes for a great class discussion (or writing assignment).

What are your thoughts?

Do you have a Facebook account?

How active are you on Facebook?

I can't wait to see how many friend requests I get as a result of this blog!

Fran Trees
CSTA Chapter Liaison

Posted by cstephenson at 08:58 PM | Comments (3)

March 26, 2010

Computing and the Common Core

By Cameron Wilson

K-12 computer science education might get a boost from a recently released document called the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). This initiative is historic for the United States. For the first time forty-eight governors have come together to propose a common set of English arts and mathematics standards -- which are key drivers of the curriculum students are exposed to -- for their states. Until the common core standards initiative, state standards were generally disconnected from each other.

The exciting news is that computer science is listed as a potential fourth course in their model pathway, which is described below. Or, put another way, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is proposing that computer science be part of the students' core curriculum. States are not bound by these standards or this model, and this doesn't mean that once the draft is made final computer science will count as a mathematics credit in high schools across the nation. But political momentum for the initiative is building and being a part of it gives computer science a much needed boost.

To better understand how computer science fits into the Common Core State Standards Initiative we need to dive deeper into policy landscape and context.

Most education policy discussions revolve around standards and a student's "core" curriculum requirements. Every state has standards for education, and many assess student progress toward meeting these standards. But each state sets is own standards. For example, a Virginia 11th grade mathematics standard might be in a different grade in North Carolina or might not exist in another state. The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes the main cause of the problem is that we've given states too much flexibility on setting standards and too little in implementing them through rigid testing requirements. The initiative is part of an attempt to change this dynamic.

The second piece of the policy framework revolves around core curriculum -- i.e. what "counts" toward a student's requirements for high school graduation. Of the states that have credit requirements, many are moving toward a "four by four" plan. For example, students will have to take four courses of mathematics and four courses of science to graduate. Typically other disciplines such as English arts, social studies, etc. are in the "core."

When it comes to computer science education in K-12 we have two major policy issues: 1) most states do not have specific computer science standards, and 2) if computer science courses are in schools, they don't count toward a student's core credits. Some states like Texas, Georgia and Virginia have moved to count computer science courses in high school as either a math or science; however, in most states computer science is an elective. This leaves computer science courses starved for attention, resources and student interest.

The mathematics standards in the draft document are split by grade level from K-8; certain concepts would be taught in certain grades. In high school, the framework splits the remaining standards into threads to be taught in some sequence. To help guide course development in high school, the initiative developed a model four-course pathway for mathematics, which is part of the Appendix to the standards. The standards only reflect three years of courses, but the model reflects what they would consider appropriate courses for additional study. Computer science is one of those additional courses in the mathematics pathway.

ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association have met with the leaders of the initiative and advocated that it computer science should be part of a student's core subject. The draft of the common core standards initiative gives us a foothold in meeting this goal.

Now the community can support this breakthrough by sending letters for support for the inclusion of computer science in the final document. The initiative is taking comments on the draft until April 2. There are two ways to comment. The first is by taking the survey, which as an additional comment area where you can express support for computer science. (Follow this link and click on the "submit feedback" to get to the survey.) The second is by sending letters to commonstandards@ccsso.org.

Cameron Wilson
Director of Public Policy
Association for Computing Machinery

Posted by cstephenson at 01:41 PM | Comments (7)

March 25, 2010

Do Contests Promote Computer Science?

By Karen Lang

I am just coming off the spring local programming contest circuit, as many of the nearby universities held their contest during their spring break. Unfortunately, that meant that two of these contests also fell during our spring break.

I put it out there to my students, asking if anyone was interested in spending a day or two of break at a programming contest? Surprisingly, I got two teams together and even had to turn down students. It's usually not too hard to convince students to give up a day of classes to go to a contest, but to have students give up their vacation day(s) really impressed me.

I sometimes wonder about the benefits of these contests. Some would argue that the contests don't reflect real-life situations. Out in the real world, programmers would not be sitting in a crowded computer lab, four to a single computer, racing to find a solution to ten random problems, meeting a three hour deadline. They would not be limited to hard-copy resources.

When I asked my students why they gave up their day off, they said simply, "because this is fun". They enjoy the challenge of solving hard problems quickly under time pressure and in a team situation. They get an opportunity to visit a college where they see professors and college students enthused about computer science. They become part of a group of people enjoying their geekiness for a day. They meet other students who love programming as much as they do.

Do contests help to promote Computer Science as a discipline? It does get the attention of the other students, especially if the team does well. But, I often take my better students, the ones who will be able to do well in the contest. It is not really an opportunity for students curious about the subject to see what it is like. It is more of an opportunity for students who have an interest to get confirmation. Yes, CS is fun and there are plenty of others who feel the same.

What do you think? Are you pro/con for contests and why?

Karen Lang
CSTA Board Member

Posted by cstephenson at 02:58 PM | Comments (2)

March 18, 2010

What Employers Want

By Duncan Buell

I write this having just finished grading another set of programs. (Or is it that I am more or less always grading sets of programs, so that no matter when I blog I have always just finished grading?)

An employer survey has just been released by Hart Research Associates about what it is that employers want in their new employees. First of all, more education is desired. High school graduates, holders of associate degrees, and holders of bachelor's degrees will be de-emphasized in that order and emphasized in the opposite order. The larger the company, the more there is an emphasis on hiring people with at least a bachelor's degree.

Another conclusion from this survey is that employers want more than just specific knowledge of a skill set; 59% want new employees to be broadly educated.

But perhaps most notable are the top six desiderata (listed in order):
* the ability to communicate effectively;
* critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills;
* the ability to apply knowledge to real-world settings;
* the ability to analyze and solve complex problems;
* the ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions;
* teamwork and collaboration skills.

These dovetail almost perfectly with what students ought to be learning from a course in problem solving, algorithmic design, and programming. Certainly, there is nothing so unforgiving of fuzzy thinking than a compiler. We joke about DWIM (do what I mean) programming, but we know it's a joke, and that the real test of whether a problem has been carefully analyzed is whether one can lay out a program to solve it. And unlike problems in pure mathematics, problems in computing usually come from real-world problems, and real-world problems don't usually have the fixed set of rules of a mathematics problem. A use-case analysis, for example, is really just an analysis of what might be the best set of rules to apply in the current situation.

Clearly, then, our (good) students should be nailing three of the top six. I would argue that communication and teamwork come just as naturally. A program does "something", and it doesn't do "something else" (because it wasn't written to do that), and it accomplishes the "something" purpose in an operational way by doing specific things. If a student can write that down clearly, and if a student can explain it to the others on the team, then it is not only known to the student but becomes part of the general knowledge that is usable by others.

This brings us to the last of the six topic choices, the one about ethical decisions. When we created our university course in professional issues, I commented to the chair of the philosophy department that the ethics part would be easy to teach. He shot back that ethics was in fact hard to teach. I had to explain that it was not that the ethics per se would be easy, but that in computing perhaps more than any other field, the examples of ethics issues jump off the pages of the newspaper (ok, off the screen of the Kindle), and they are issues that students in fact do care about. Internet censorship, file sharing, intellectual property, data privacy--all this comes to us as case studies on a daily basis, and we can analyze the choices that could be made or could have been made against the choices that were made.

Oh, and what about the “broadly educated” part? Well, Bjarne Stroustrup of C++ fame has just written in CACM his opinion that computer science students need to be urged or required to get some second area in depth. Computing can be done anywhere in any area, and a CS student ought to be learning something else besides the purely technical.

It seems to me, then, that it is easy to make the case for computer science. All the analytical thinking can be learned by trying to solve problems, and there's no wiggle room in the end game if what has to be created is a computer program. The communication and teamwork skills come from and augment the analytical thinking and the need to explain to others what is done by this invisible thing that is a program. And the ethics questions are everywhere, because software is everywhere.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2010

Marketing Computer Science Courses

By Margot Phillipps

I joked as I left work on Friday that it was "my day of shame". I am responsible for recruiting students for a government-funded course that offers MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) and MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional). The course was scheduled to start March 8 but it has been postponed because we don't have the minimum number of students.

This is a "heavy duty" course with eight months of real full time study. It is not like a university course where you can just show up for the odd lecture. But anyone who contacts us interested in the course is prepared for the work and realizes the benefit of gaining an internationally recognized certification.

So why did we not get the enrollment we expected for this course? I think that, just as is the case with my programming and database class in high school, we assumed that we did not have to market the course to students. We know that what we're offering is useful, valid, challenging, interesting, so we assume that the students will too. And of course that's not the case.

As a Maths teacher, I envied the state of the more established subjects. These teachers do not have to "sell" their subjects. And like most teachers, I am trained to teach, not to sell. So, at the end of the day, most of us rely on our own enthusiasm to do our marketing for us. And these days that just isn't enough.

As for my current dilemma...well, I need more than enthusiasm. Maybe what I need is a marketing budget!

So what do you do to "sell" your courses?

Margot Phillipps
CSTA International Director

Posted by cstephenson at 12:05 PM | Comments (14)

March 04, 2010

Using a Sports Coaching Model to Support Informal Education

By Chris Stephenson

As a professional community, we need better idea of how many computer science teachers are also involved in informal education. I have a sense that there are many of you doing this work with no funding and even less recognition, and we need to change this.

Recently, CSTA sent out an email asking teachers to complete a survey put together by our friend Holly Yanko at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell to help us get a better handle on this. Even once we have this information, we will need to do something to fundamentally change the paradigm we've been working under.

Many years ago when one of my friends was looking for her first teaching job, every school that interviewed her asked her the same first question:

"What sport do you coach?"

The possible negative conclusion you could draw from this question is that schools often value sports coaching above teacher qualifications. The more positive spin is that schools believe that extra-curricular activities provide highly valuable learning experience for students.

And if this is true, shouldn't academic coaching be valued just as much as, if not more than, athletic coaching?

This was exactly the wavelength that Terrel Smith and Don Domes (of the Oregon CSTA chapter) were on when they thought up the eChamp grant program.

Engineering CoacHing And Mentoring Program (eCHAMP) uses a model analogous to high school athletics. Teachers receive stipends in return for serving as coaches of engineering teams. These engineering teams attend a regional or statewide competition to share their results and compete for awards, and benefit from the learning, inspiration, teamwork, scholarships, and rewards that competitive activities provide.

The eCHAMP coaching initiative was successfully piloted during the 2008-2009 school year in five Oregon school districts and leaders are excited to expand the program to more districts. The grants pay half the stipend cost for teachers to serve as engineering coaches as well as costs for first-year materials and equipment to start new programs. There are numerous team programs already in place for schools to adopt, including FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST Robotics Competition, Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, and Oregon Game Project Challenge.

Several schools in Oregon have now received funding under this grant program and the teachers note that this eCHAMP is placing robotics team students on the same platform as other varsity athletes, changing perceptions about what a team sport can look like, and most importantly, retaining the coaches who make it all happen.

I know that it may be unrealistic to expect that academic coaching will ever be as well-supported as sports coaching, but these folks in Oregon have developed a really good model that makes a start at providing much needed support.

Chris Stephenson
CSTA Executive Director

With thanks to Ron Tenison for reminding me about eCHAMP!

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

March 03, 2010

Lessons on Active Learning

By Barb Ericson

On 2/18/2010 I went to a talk on getting students involved in classes even if there are 200 of them in the class. It was about active learning, and not surprisingly it used active learning during the talk. I really enjoyed the talk and learned some things from it.

* Students will listen best after the first 5 minutes of class and up to about 10-15 minutes tops. They are busy getting settled for the first 5 minutes do they don't pay much attention then. After 10-15 minutes, you will lose most people's attention during a lecture.
* You can re-engage the students by making them think at least every 15 minutes. You can do this is a variety of ways. One way is to ask the students what the next step is in what you are doing if you are demonstrating something. You can also give them a handout that has questions that they have to answer. You can ask one person to explain to the person next to them what you just said. You can ask the students to think about a problem and talk about it with the person next to them.
* You also need them to believe that they may be called on to report what they think. Don't just ask for volunteers. Pick at least 3-4 students to report and then you can also take volunteers. Pick different students each time.

I have had to lecture to 300 students at a time and it is hard to keep them awake. Some of the things that I figured out on my own are:
* Don't stay up on the stage (or front of the classroom). Wander around. People have to look at you when you get close to them.
* Don't ask if there are any questions. There are, but nobody wants to admit that they have questions. If I can, I walk around the room when I have assigned a project and ask how things are going. Then I get lots of questions.
* Repeat things. When I show how to do something I undo it and show it again. This is especially important if I have people following along.

When I lecture, I try to keep the lecture part very short (10-15 minutes tops). Then I always have an assignment that incorporates what I just talked about.

I am currently helping in an AP CS A class and I do very few lectures. I give the power point slides that I normally use in a lecture to the students to read and then mostly assign active work in class. I am doing things this way in part because I can't be at the class everyday (I help on Monday and Friday and usually also on Wednesday) so I can't lecture as often I would. It is also partly because the projector doesn't work very well and students wouldn't be able to see what I am doing. I the ask the students to apply what they should have learned from the powerpoint slides (and book).

This approach seems to be working very well for the top and middle students in the class. But, we have a group of students who are way behind. Some of them are trying, but are just moving much more slowly than the rest of the class. Some students, however, simply don't try and do very little of the work.

I once had to give a lecture that I prepared powerpoint slides for and the projector didn't work. So, I consulted my slides, but mostly just talked and wrote on the board. Students afterward told me that it was a great lecture. So, I am trying to reduce the amount that I actually use powerpoint slides. You can just give out handouts with complex drawings on them or just use a few slides.

What have you learned from what you have tried in your classrooms?

Barb Ericson
Georgia Tech

The url for the class I am helping with is http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/ice-gt/1043

Posted by cstephenson at 12:16 PM | Comments (1)