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June 27, 2010

Computer Science Is More Than Just Programming

By Duncan Buell

I have just finished leading a three week workshop for faculty and grad students from the humanities. The topic was serious (digital) games for research and pedagogy. When we teach students about computing, we try to emphasize that computing usually starts with a good application, and that the nontechnical description and definition of the application is as much a part of computing as is the technical part of producing code. I have been struck in the last three weeks by how much this is actually true when one talks with people who have great ideas but will need help turning those ideas into working programs.

Some of our visitors, for example, were interested in building simulation games for teaching history. These would be games that provided a sense of history, a sense of decision making and the social dynamics that existed in different periods of history. Part of the goal of our workshop is to help frame these games and get their development started. To build out a history game like this will require graphics and animation, and of course there is some programming. But that's only part of the process.

Although the imagery and the logic of the programs will be crucial, more important even than these technical issues is that the history be presented. To do that, the historians have to do something they don't normally seem to do...present history as a set of rules. If you say nasty things about your unpleasant neighbor, then yes, you could get your neighbor banned from the village. But maybe your neighbor will call in some favors from the local baron's manager, and instead you will find yourself up on charges of witchcraft.

The graphics and imagery are important, yes. Programming the rules may not be all that difficult. But sitting down with the historian to get all the rules spelled out. That could be tough. This isn't just crunching numbers, whether for science or a business application. This is artificial intelligence, in that the goal is a program that simulates human behavior. And it is going to be hard to work out the rules for an experience that is both historically and culturally accurate but also rich enough and complex enough to be interesting and worth doing in a classroom setting.

Is this computer science? Yes, I think it is. Computer science is not just the programming of an application. It includes all the work that leads up to the programming. This involves quantifying the world and building out and organizing the rules that describe the world. If it can't be described algorithmically, then it can't be programmed. And who best to try to create that algorithmic description except someone trained in turning algorithms into programs?

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 01:49 PM | Comments (1)

June 24, 2010

Bad Times and Good Times in Georgia

By Barb Ericson

It has been a hard year for computing teachers in Georgia. Many school districts are operating with reduced budgets and have cut teachers. Even though Georgia teachers aren't unionized, the cuts were made based on seniority. Often the computing teachers had the least seniority and several were let go even though no other teachers in the school have the background or experience to teach computing classes. Several math teachers who also teach Advanced Placement Computer Science A were told that they couldn' teach as many computing classes this fall, as they will be needed to teach more math classes.

But, on a more positive note, Operation Reboot which is a NSF grant to retrain unemployed IT workers to be high school computing teachers, has picked a second group. We started training 9 unemployed IT workers in Dec of 2009 and they co-taught with the existing computing teachers in the spring of 2010. Three IT workers have quit the program, but the remaining six will co-teach in fall 2010. They will earn their initial teaching certificates in Dec 2010. We picked a second group of 9 unemployed IT workers in May 2010 and they have started training. They will co-teach during fall 2010 and spring 2011 and earn their initial teaching certificates in May 2011. We will pick a third group in May 2011.

We also have a huge number of teachers and IT workers registered for the summer Computing in the Modern World workshop at Georgia Tech (over 40). We have been offering free webinars on Alice, Media Computation, GridWorld, and Greenfoot (see http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/ice-gt/1387). We ran Alice and Scratch competitions and had over 100 students come to take a practice AP CS A exam at Georgia Tech this spring. We had over 300 high school students attend a Cool Computing Day at Georgia Tech this spring. We had 560 Girl Scouts attend computing workshops at Georgia Tech this year.

So things weren't all bad this year.

How have things been for you this year?

Barb Ericson
CSTA Board of Directors

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

June 15, 2010

Have You Ever Considered a Do-It-Yourself Summer Program?

By Mindy Hart

One of the ways to get kids interested in a topic is through extra-curricular opportunities. And Summer is a prime time for such activities. And a great time to introduce students to topics they may not get curricular exposure to such as computer science. Have you ever thought about running a computer science based day camp or workshop at your school or library during the summer?

I know many people think coordinating an event or program is a lot of work. And while that may be slightly true, here are some tips to make things easier on you.

1) Plan. It never hurts to have a plan- you can always change it, but at least it provides direction.
2) Know why you want to offer this program. Is it just to get kids interested in computing, is it to target an underrepresented population, or as way to earn extra income or funding for a school program?
3) Know your space limitations. Will you be in a school computer lab? How many stations do you have in your available space? Is it feasible for students to bring their own computers?
4) Decide who is going to be involved. Are you targeting a certain age group of students? And who is going to instruct the content? Do you need extra helpers?
5) Choose a time-frame that works for your school district. For example, could you coordinate it with summer school or offer it as a back to school enrichment program? And are full days or half days better in the summer?
6) Know what you are going to teach. Will it just be free programs such as Alice or Scratch that they can continue to use even after the program? Or is there something you would like to throw in as a teaser to get them interested in taking a course in your school later on?
7) The biggest tip is to figure out how it can best be done. Who do you need approval from? Is it going to be fee based? Do you need to have food for the participants? How will you advertise the program?

All in all, there may be a few extra details to work out, but these should get you well on your way to helping create a computer science literate population. And you might have some fun along the way too!

Mindy Hart
CSTA Board Member

Posted by cstephenson at 11:08 AM | Comments (1)

June 09, 2010

Technology is Not a Replacement for Face-to-Face Instruction

Steve Cooper

A couple of days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article about Salman Khan, a fellow who quit his job as a financial analyst to start creating curricular materials on the web in various K-12 areas. (See http://chronicle.com/article/A-Self-Appointed-Teacher-Runs/65793/ for more details.) Unfortunately, he doesn't have any CS materials on the web, but he does have several STEM content areas, and the couple of math videos I looked at seemed reasonable enough. His website is:


I first came across him when it was announced he had won a Tech award in 2009

In an era of technology, it is interesting to explore its possible impact in education. (See, for example Allan Collins' new book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and the Schools. While I disagree with nearly all of his conclusions, he makes an intriguing case for challenges to secondary schools in the US in the Information Age, and the role technology can play.) I am a fan of MIT's open courseware project and the availability of actual videotaped lectures seems to be a natural extension. Khan keeps his lectures quite short (the few I saw were under 10 minutes), and has a chatty and informal approach I think might appeal to lots of students.

Forgetting about the difficulty of trying to consider how to teach programming in an environment which is not interactive (and programming seems to be one of those skills that is best developed by doing rather than by watching somebody else do), I am still concerned that the Chronicle article seems to imply that this is the wave of the future, to someday replace college (and potentially high school) with purely on-line versions, through technology. Certainly, there are currently many on-line courses available, as well as a few degree programs. Perhaps I am a Luddite, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give up face to face instruction, performed (at least at the K-12 level) by instructors trained in pedagogy in addition to the content area (something Mr. Kahn readily admits he is not). I think that such materials as produced by Kahn are a potentially wonderful augmentation to traditional face-to-face instruction, but not a replacement for it.

Steve Cooper
CSTA Vice President

Posted by cstephenson at 02:42 PM | Comments (2)

June 06, 2010

Authentic Curriculum; Authentic Assessment

By Deborah Seehorn

As I was browsing the CSTA Blog recently, I was intrigued by Joanna Goode's post on Assessment in Computer Science. Since assessment is an integral part of my job at the state level, I have long been a proponent of authentic assessment, which merely means student assessment using real-world tasks (and associated rubrics to evaluate the assessment). We have done quite a bit of work in Career and Technical Education in the authentic assessment arena. As a programming teacher, I worked to give the students those real-world assessments. After all, we are supposedly preparing students for the world of education beyond high school, and ultimately for the career world. That's were students will find those truly authentic challenges that the real world offers us. Unfortunately, we live in a high-stakes accountability world, and sometimes the focus in the classroom is on the objective (multiple-choice) summative assessments that students take at the end of the course to prove what they have learned.

My pondering about authentic assessments continued as I listened to the evening news and was dismayed by the lack of progress being made on the clean-up of the BP oil disaster just off the coast of Louisiana. I wondered how in this age of high technology in 2010, it could take so long to solve this clean up problem. Shortly thereafter, I read the article in the ACM Technews on May 26:

Researchers Race to Produce 3D Models of BP Oil Spill
Computerworld (05/26/10) Thibodeau, Patrick

The U.S. National Science Foundation recently made available an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours on the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Ranger supercomputer to study how the BP oil spill will affect coastlines. The goal is to produce a three-dimensional (3D) computer model that can forecast how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas by showing in detail what happens when it interacts with marshes, vegetation, and currents. The model "has the potential to advise and undergird many emergency management decisions that may be made along the way, particularly if a hurricane comes through the area," says University of North Carolina professor Rick Luettich. The model, called Advanced Circulation Model for Oceanic, Coastal and Estuarine Waters, can track the oil spill into the marshes and wetlands due to its fine scale resolution, says University of Texas professor Clint Dawson. The 3D modeling can show what happens to the oil at various depths and how it travels as it comes in contact with underwater surfaces. (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9177363/Researchers_race_to_produce_3D_models_of_BP_oil_spill.)

It was somehow reassuring that computer scientists were in fact working on the problem. Surely some of the university students or graduate students are working to help solve the dilemma. Hopefully we, as educators, are preparing our students to handle this type of 21st Century critical thinking problem-solving. They certainly won't develop those problem-solving skills by answering multiple choice test items. We definitely need to be continually assessing our CS and IT students using real-world assessments.

That same day, as I was reading the Career Tech Update, I came across an example of authentic, real-world assessment in the middle school:

Students Use STEM Skills to Solve Emergency Situations In NASA Simulation

N8-TV Austin, TX (5/25, Gonzalez) reported, "TV and video conferencing technology are all it takes for students at G.W. Carver Academy in Waco to work through a live simulation with NASA." The STEM-focused "e-Mission" that the students took part in "creates a real-world situation," said science teacher David Gibson, adding that in the simulation, "people's lives are at stake and so it adds a lot of meaning and purpose to it." N8-TV noted, "Those real-world situations included an erupting volcano on an inhabited island and an approaching hurricane. The NASA commander fed data for the students to analyze." N8-TV included a link to more information about the program, as well as a link to the Connect A Million Minds program, which is backed by parent company Time Warner Cable. (See news story at http://news8austin.com/content/headlines/271315/students--minds-ready-for-lift-off-with-e-mission.)

NASA does a great job of supporting education as do many of the high tech businesses and organization. Certainly a project of this sort will interest students in some sort of STEM-related course of study and career. Maybe the students will see the endless possibilities in Computer Science. What better discipline to teach innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to students than Computer Science? What better discipline to give students the authentic experiences that will engage them in school and prepare them for life in the 21st Century? Hopefully our students are being assessed with authentic assessments of some type. What methods do you use to assess your computer science students?

Deborah Seehorn
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 09:08 PM | Comments (2)