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April 29, 2010

NJ Students Protest Budget Cuts

By Fran Trees

On April 20, 2010, the school budget in my township was PASSED. In an average year, approximately 70% of school budgets in NJ are approved. On April 20, 2010, close to 60% of the school budgets in NJ were defeated.

Politics probably contributed to the defeat of the majority of school budgets, but this degree of defeat has not occurred since 1976. The new governor of New Jersey recently proposed mass cuts in state education funding, freezing aid promised to districts this year and cutting $820 million for fiscal 2011.
Today, April 27, thousands of high school students across New Jersey walked out of classes to protest education funding cuts proposed by the governor. The protests were initiated by an 18-year-old college student who set up a Facebook event page about a month ago encouraging the walkouts. This event page has over 16,000 members.

Many students fear the loss of teachers, extracurricular activities, and special programs. In most areas of NJ, computer science is a special program. Will these budget cuts affect computer science education in NJ?

We, CSTA, strive to improve education in our schools. We seek to educate our constituencies about the importance of computing disciplines in our curriculum. We dream of a national K-12 computing curriculum in our schools. These cuts affect our progress.

What suggestions do you have for the NJ folks? How do we continue to move forward?


NOTE: The New Jersey Education Association did state that they do not support or condone students walking out of school.

Fran Trees
CSTA Chapter Liaison

Posted by cstephenson at 11:23 AM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2010

Dealing with Plagiarism

Karen Lang

Plagiarism has turned out to be a major problem this year in my Computer Science class. I have had five separate situations where I caught students handing in copied code. I seem to be the only teacher in our building (there are only seven of us) that had any issues with plagiarism this year. I wondered, "Why me?" Is it that my course is so difficult that students must turn to copying? Is it that I read my students' code so closely that I am able to catch these duplicates?

Carolyn Duffy Marsan, in her article in NetworkWorld contends that students in CS don't necessarily plagiarize more. It is just that CS teachers are able to catch them due to access to automated tools. I didn't use any software. I just used good old detective work. It wasn't too tough to catch, frankly. One student's use of odd variable names or a unique indentation of code, when replicated, jumped off the screen with a big red flag.

All copying occurred between students, not from online resources. I encourage collaboration between groups so students are allowed to ask other students for help. However, I draw the line with transferring of files. Students try to wiggle out of the infraction on that technicality, stating that they sat next to each other and programmed together, or one showed the other what he/she had done, while the other sat and typed.

I could use the approach that Georgia Tech uses, according to the article. They allow students to copy, in order to encourage collaboration, as long as the students can demonstrate their understanding of the code. Assessments count for more than homework assignments.

Plagiarism is a problem in this day and age of information at your fingertips. Technology makes it very easy to copy and call it your own. Students have such a cavalier attitude about copying and using music, video, and software without paying for it. Is that different than handing in an assignment for a grade, without working for it?

I experience disappointment and anger when plagiarism situations arise. And I am not naive enough to think that I found every copied piece of work this year. I look on the ones I do find as a teachable moment and see it as a good early warning to students before they get to college and beyond where it can have much large consequences.

Do you have plagiarism issues in your classroom?

How do you handle it? What do you do to prevent it?

Karen Lang
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 10:16 PM | Comments (4)

April 26, 2010

Creating Games is More than Programming

By Duncan Buell

For me at least the academic year is about to end; my final exam is ten days away.

And then I have to gear up full time for a June gaming institute for students and faculty from the humanities. This has been a somewhat different experience for me, and it has led me to think about how broad the whole computing industry is. We tend to focus on the obvious deeply geeky aspects of computer science, perhaps because that's what we know better and what we have seen. But the digital humanities is a growing, and in many ways a very different, side of the world. And the concept of gaming in the humanities is a different concept from first-person-shooter games or even the more naive pedagogical games.

Some of the gaming in the humanities involves using the digital world to learn more about who we are as human beings and about how to appreciate literature and the arts. The usual nature of a game is of something that is unguided, as is unguided learning in artificial intelligence. This is different from literature, that has been through an editing and a vetting process. When we read, we are following in a narrative a path that has been specified for us. Relatively few books (The French Lieutenant's Woman is a rare counterexample) offer a choice of endings, although the world of visual and performance arts has provided more examples of works of art for which the "ending" is not automatically specified. Digital gaming, however, permits the "reader" or readers to find multiple, alternate, paths to the same learning process, and it could (perhaps?) be more absorbing to participate in the process of the story than simply to have at the end the book club questions that are supposed to help us understand what we have read.

This kind of "game" presents any number of problems for developing the computer game itself. The content of the story and its various paths must be programmed in and accounted for. The usual first-person-shooter game is episodic as a story. Each encounter leads to winning or losing, and losing usually means game over. If the goal is for the digital game to lead to an understanding of oneself or of a message conveyed through "literature," then that context must be programmed in.

This may seem far afield from hacking code in Java or VB or C++. But if there is to be a game, someone will have to program it. There must be rules, choices, and paths. In the end, though, it's another of the uses to which this "computer" device can be put, provided we have those with the talents and background to create the games.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2010

Preparing Future Elementary Teachers to Teach Computing

By Joanna Goode

This term, I am teaching an Education course to University of Oregon undergraduates entitled, Teachers as Cyborgs. Most of my students are juniors who intend to eventually pursue teacher certificates and Masters' degrees in education. All but a handful of the 80 students are interested in teaching elementary school. Since they are not yet in a teacher licensure program, this is not a formal methodology course.

The course covers a variety of issues and topics, including the social considerations of children growing up online, the racial and gender stereotypes found in media, copyright law, privacy, security, gaming and learning, and how the Internet has changed our view of knowledge construction. But, I have also designed the course to develop students' understanding of computing as an academic subject area. To this end, I have come up with three strategies for introducing computer science to future elementary teachers:

* They will read Jeanette Wing's Computational Thinking article, and work towards a definition of computational thinking that applies to the K-5 setting.
* Students will experience several Computer Science Unplugged activities and be introduced to the fantastic CS Unplugged website of K-5 lesson ideas.
* Students will learn Scratch, and design a project which incorporates a well-known story or fairy-tale, but incorporates a new ending with a social justice message.

As a former high school computer science teacher, this elementary realm is new territory for me, and so I am looking for any feedback or ideas from the K-5 computer science community on how to introduce future elementary teachers to computing.

Am I on the right track?

Do any of you have thoughts on other activities/readings that might strengthen this course?

Joanna Goode
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 09:23 AM | Comments (1)

April 21, 2010

Dealing with Competence Issues

By Pat Phillips

Engaging every student in computer science is a goal we all share. We label it diversity and know it is critical to a balanced industry and a competitive country. We've all struggled with encouraging students to try our courses through elaborate promotions, active recruitment, and stealth strategies of one kind or another.

A recurring theme of student reluctance for "signing up" is that many students don't think they would be good at CS; they lack self-confidence to try something new and out of their realm of experience in spite of the fact that they are exceedingly good with many types of technology. This has been particularly noted coming from girls and other underrepresented groups, exactly the ones we are trying most desperately to attract.

I ran across an interesting entry in the Geek Feminist Blog on just this topic. The premise of the blog entry is that it takes an over abundance of self-confidence to succeed in STEM fields. The rationale is that the road to success is paved with many mislabeled experiences which students call "failures;" in reality these "failures" are the necessary steps of testing solutions and successfully solving problems. Such experiences are transformed in our brains from "necessary steps toward success that show we are competent" to "proof that we are incompetent." I think many students are highly susceptible to this thought conversion, especially those who have faced real failures, discouragement, and other de-valuing intellectual experiences. And not surprisingly, these are the very student groups we work to recruit.

So what is the solution? I think that all students should know a bit about self-confidence itself to better moderate their self-talk, to more clearly recognize their strengths, and most importantly, to foster their own sense of self-worth. I propose that knowing about the way our mind works and having skills to set the stage for our own success are critical in overcoming the reluctance of many would-be great computer scientists.

* Recognize the imposter syndrome as a common feeling. Many people feel like they're not qualified to do what they are doing; they feel like imposters and fear they will be found out.
* Be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their skills and those who are highly competent will under-rate their expertise.
* Build a classroom of cheerleaders. Surrounding students with individuals who support and encourage their hard work is critical for classroom success and a happy classroom. Finding our own cheerleaders is happy-life skill for everyone.
* Enable and encourage students to celebrate their successes. Tooting their own horn about accomplishments and milestones builds self-confidence and breaks up the negative mind games.
* Give everyone permission to be awesome. Working hard to do awesome stuff displaces low self-esteem; displaced low self-esteem allows awesome accomplishments; awesome accomplishments build self-confidence. And so it goes.

Let me know what you think. How have you encouraged self-confidence in your students and taught them to battle the demons that cause us to minimize our skills and talents? Tell us your stories.

Pat Phillips

Posted by cstephenson at 10:50 AM | Comments (1)

April 19, 2010

Tennessee Moving Forward on CSTA Chapter

By Jill Pala

Tennessee is talking! Well, at least in a very small corner of Tennessee, Chattanooga to be precise, the community of Computer Science Educators is beginning to grow.

After the summer leadership cohort workshop in Chicago, I was excited to start working on the CSTA initiatives in my own state, but also a little overwhelmed. As a teacher at a private school, I was very much in my own bubble and had no idea what sort of CS programs were in place at other private schools or the Tennessee public schools. I decided to start small and make my first goal to identify teachers of Computer Science and other computing disciplines in my city and try to find enough people to start a local CSTA chapter. I figured I could deal with the state level later.

Then of course school started and any hopes of identifying and gathering these like minded individuals faded for a few months. Finally I found time to start calling around, and I was able to make contact with Dr. Joseph Kizza, the head of the Computer Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I hit the jackpot! Dr. Kizza was not only very willing to host our meetings and participate in our chapter, he also had contacts with other K-12 teachers in the area! We arranged a first meeting to discuss chapter formation in February, and we had a whopping 4 people show up. Not to be discouraged, we had a great discussion about the purpose of a CSTA Chapter and what it would take to start the chapter, and decided to schedule another meeting in March to try to get more people to join us. Before the next meeting I went to the web sites of a few more local schools and found the people listed as Computer teachers and sent emails inviting them to our meeting, too. Our next meeting had 6 people attend! And only 3 were the same as the first meeting! Whoo hoo! We have enough to start a chapter!

In total we have identified 9 teachers from 7 different institutions interested in beginning our CSTA chapter. We keep trying new days and times to see if we can find the most accommodating meeting time. Our next meeting is April 12, and we plan to elect chapter leadership and finalize the chapter paperwork. Best of all, it is so wonderful to finally get a chance to talk to local people about our struggles and triumphs that we all face in our own schools. We're really excited to get our Chattanooga CSTA chapter off the ground, and we can't wait to grow even more. In fact, this year at SIGCSE in Milwaukee, I met another Tennessee teacher, Laine Agee from Memphis, who is chomping at the bit to start advocating for CSTA at the state level. We're hoping that we can figure out a way to skype her in to our Chattanooga CSTA meetings, or even help her start identifying other teachers in her neck of the woods to start a Memphis CSTA chapter!

What strategies have you used to advocate for computer science education locally or at the state level?

Jill Pala
CSTA Leadership Cohort Member

Posted by cstephenson at 11:54 AM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2010

Elective Status Creates Chaos for Courses and Students

By Ron Martorelli

A recent experience brought to us by a school within our local CSTA chapter drives home some of the unusual difficulties we have in developing Computer Science programs in our high schools.

It seems that seventeen students chose to enroll in a Visual Basic course and twelve students enrolled in a C++ course for the 2010-2011 school year. These are elective courses which, in this school, require a minimum enrollment of twenty five students. The department chairperson was advised that neither course would run because there were too few students.

"But wait", said the chairperson, "how can we cancel these courses when we have twenty nine students interested in programming?" A meeting was arranged with the principal. The chairperson proposed meeting with the students to determine if they would be interested in a combined course, sort of an introduction to programming? The principal agreed to give it a try.

The chairperson sent an email to the guidance office, asking that counselors not reschedule these students until the meeting. "Too late", replied the guidance office. We were told yesterday that the classes wouldn't run and we had to reassign the students.

Two student show up to talk to department chair. One is distraught. He wants to study computer science when he gets to college and his high school counselor has switched him to a sports medicine class. Another student with similar interests complains that she was assigned to a photography course instead of the computer science course she chose. So the department head goes back to the principal and explains what happened. "Ok", says the principal, "if you can get the students to agree we can change the schedules again and run the course".

Now comes the paperwork. The scheduling administrator requires that each student have a change of schedule form signed by a parent by the end of the week (two days). Do you know how hard it is to get teenagers to bring a form back home and back in a timely manner?

So far, twenty two forms have been returned. No decision has been made about the course yet.

This is just so frustrating and I am wondering just how common it is that our students get denied an opportunity to take computer sciences courses because of this kind of bureaucracy.

Have things like this happened in your school as well?

Ron Martorelli
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 05:20 PM | Comments (1)

April 10, 2010

CSTA Membership Survey Raffle Winners

By Dave Burkhart

Two CSTA members who completed the 2009-10 Membership Satisfaction Survey have been selected as the winners of our member survey raffle.

Deboarah Gilliam of Alma J. Brown school in Grambling, LA and Elaine Adams of Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School in Hollidaysburg, PA have each won a Flip video camera. In total more than 1400 CSTA members participated in the survey.

The survey, conducted every two years, is of great importance to CSTA because it not only gives us with a better idea of how well we are currently serving our members, but also provides key data that will be used to refine current projects and launch new member benefits over the next two years.

It will take us a while to crunch through all of the numbers, but the results of the survey will be reported in an upcoming issue of the CSTA Voice.

On behalf of CSTA, I would like to personally thank all of our members who took the time to participate in our survey and so provide us with their insight and suggestions.

Dave Burkhart
CSTA Membership Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2010

"Training" Should Be a Four-Letter Word

By Gail Chapman

"We need to train more teachers."

"Teachers need more training in order to be successful at teaching computer science."

"More teacher training programs are needed."

Statements like these are common and reading a recent post on another blog reminded me of just how much I hate the word "training" when it is used in reference to teachers and teaching. (I even had a professional title once that included the word training and I fought against it then.)

Not that I believe that those who use the word intend to be mean-spirited or do harm; it has just become part of the language we use when we talk about the various needs surrounding teacher education.

I'd like to challenge our community to make a conscious effort to remove training from our vocabulary and replace it with words like education, preparation, and professional development.

Is anyone else bothered by this? Will you accept the challenge?

Gail Chapman
Director, Leadership and Professional Development

Posted by cstephenson at 01:36 PM | Comments (1)

April 07, 2010

Books Worth Reading

By Robb Cutler

Some books I've read recently have a lot of applicability to education in general and computer science education in specific. So I thought I'd share...

The Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart talks about how to fix the study of math that we've made so boring and uninteresting, it's no wonder kids don't like it. Read this and think about how we teach computer science.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. Sally Fincher talked about this book in her SIGCSE keynote this year, though I first learned of it about in the fall from my Human Factors professor. Even though it's about building, the idea of abstracting salient design patterns is brilliant.

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. This is a beautifully-written book which I read before reading A Pattern Language (and which probably should be read before reading APL). While APL is the what and how, TWB is the why and provides the motivation for thinking about design in this manner.

Discrete Mathematics for Computer Scientists by Cliford Stein, Robert "Scot" Drysdale, and Kenneth Bogart. Although I'm not quite through it yet, I'm excited about finally finding a discrete math book that:
1) is written in clear and accessible yet precise language (that could be used in an upper-level high school course), and
2) provides application to computer science problems and algorithms.
Drysdale is the former Chair of the APCS Development Committee, and if you've read his posts on the APCS listserv, you'll understand how clearly written this book is. (Disclaimer: Scot was my undergraduate advisor.)

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. You should read this book (and read it again if you haven't read it in a while) if you ever write a computer program with a user interface, even though Norman never discusses computer interfaces. (If you've read it recently and want something more practical for interface design, Jennifer Tidwell's Designing Interfaces: Patterns [there's that word again] for Effective Interaction Design is quite good.)

The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch. If you haven't read The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, you should (it's a short story that's freely available on the web). Bloch describes the mathematics behind the story in a very accessible and interesting way.

Feel free to add your favorite books (or even just what you've been reading recently) in the comments!

As John Steinbeck once said, "I guess there are never enough books."

Robb Cutler
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 08:00 PM | Comments (1)