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August 31, 2010

New Developments in the Exploring Computer Science Curriculum

Many of you are familiar with the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) curriculum, developed in partnership with CSTA as part of an NSF grant. Though initially developed to broaden the participation in computing for Los Angeles Unified School District high school students, many teachers and educational leaders throughout the nation have adopted some or all of the ECS curriculum in a variety of school and informal educational settings.

This spring, we made some substantive changes (along with minor edits) to strengthen the curriculum. As in years past, our revision cycle relies on the feedback of Los Angeles teachers who have taught the curriculum to students and have ideas for improvement. Newly released version 3 includes several large edits to Unit 1 (Human Computer Interaction) and Unit 2 (Problem Solving) with some smaller edits to Unit 3 (Web Design). We are excited about these changes and feel really good about the improvements made in this 3rd edition. The pdf document with daily lesson plans and associated electronic files are all available to download in a zip file from the CSTA website.

Also, in collaboration with UCLA's Center for Embedded Network Sensing (CENS) and Google, we recently piloted an alternative Unit 6 (Data Modeling) with a small group of Los Angeles teachers. In this new pilot unit, students were given smart-phones to document the assets and concerns in their community. They used the phones to map these chill/stress locations, and used the statistical programming language of R to synthesize their findings. With the decreasing cost of smart phones and the knowledge students already hold about their community, we found this to be a dynamic unit for teaching students about the relevancy and power of computer science. It is our hope that we will eventually get enough funding for classroom sets of smart-phones for all of our Los Angeles computer science teachers.
Stay-tuned for more updates on Exploring Computer Science.

Joanna Goode
CSTA Equtiy Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 10:57 AM | Comments (1)

August 29, 2010

So What Are You Doing the Week of December 5?

The process of starting a new school year is empowering, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time. Even though it's been five years since I was in the classroom, I still get the itch to make big plans and do new cool stuff. I even love the smell of a new school year. I can't resist buying new markers and erasers!

This year holds even bigger opportunities for CS teachers. Computer Science Education Week (December 5-11) is your open-door to bragging about your students' accomplishments to colleagues and parents, exciting students about the future they can have in CS, building your program with up-to-date resources, and in general, celebrating the power and joy of CS education.

This is a perfect time to plan collaborative projects between CS classes and other departments in your school. Showcase the impact CS has on every field and the power it holds to make the world a better place. Computer Science Education Week will be here before you know it, so it's time to get cracking!

* Make plans now to do something fun in celebration of our week.
* Consider joining with colleagues near and far for joint activities.
* Check out the long list of classroom resources on the CS Education Week site.
* Plan to include the soon-to-be-available audio and video "morning announcements."
* Share your ideas and plans here in the blog or thru the Connect With Us link.
* Involve the media in announcing and reporting your activities. It's OK to brag!

Pat Phillips
Editor, CSTA Voice

Posted by cstephenson at 12:44 PM | Comments (1)

August 27, 2010

Students Need Both Knowledge and Facts

As the new school year starts, an old complaint resurfaces. A recent opinion piece has said once again that US higher education is failing US employers. Students are graduating without knowing how to write, how to do a critical analysis, how to think. The complaint is that students are learning facts (or maybe not even learning those) but not how to survive in the real world.

In everything, it would seem, there must be balance. I have taught more than once our junior level course on professional issues. Part of the reason for this course is to have students learn and think about how to make professional decisions about policy in the computing world. Some of these students will become managers and administrators. They will have to decide how to distinguish between company use and personal use of company resources. They will have to work up policies for complying with law on intellectual property. And as managers they may have to learn how to deal with squabbles among the people they supervise.

I start this course each time with a list on the board of key phrases and references that are the background to how we create policy. "Peter Zenger", "clear and present danger", "due process", "trademark", "patent", "trade secret", "copyright", "due diligence" and so on. I teach at a US university, and our background begins with US policy, so your mileage may vary, but there will be a similar set of standards wherever one happens to be. I also point them to my university's policy statement that (unlike at some other institutions) says that the student owns his/her own work submitted as assignments for classes.

I don't expect these students to become lawyers, and I usually do not have a specific policy position I expect them to adopt. I do hope, though, that they get a background in how policy is created. If they embark on a software project that includes work from other people or other companies, they will need to know something about how to judge who owns what. That, certainly, involves critical thinking. On the other hand (and this is the real point of this blog), critical thinking has to start from a background of history and of society's accepted norms. When lawyers and money get involved, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge "I didn't know that I had to care about that" argument no longer works. That's where it would help to have a basic notion of what "we" consider "due diligence" in ensuring that what we are doing is ok.

Santayana had it right (even if misquoted often): "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This extends beyond history. Those who cannot do arithmetic are unlikely to be able to analyze competing economic trends to determine a proper course of action. Those who don't know examples, precedents, and past history cannot reason by analogy when confronted with new situations.

It takes both a knowledge base of facts and the ability to reason about those facts in order to be successful. Yes, there needs to be a balance between getting students to learn basic fact and getting them to think, but both are necessary.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2010

Student Collaboration in the Classroom: Making it Happen!

In my last blog entry, I posed questions regarding what we want for our students and how we are designing interactions in the classroom to cultivate those characteristics in our students. One of my favorite presenters at the CS&IT Symposium was Megan Smith, Vice President of New Business Development and General Manager of Google.org. She spoke at length about interconnectivity, specifically as it related to "mobilizing" youth to change the world around them and how kids from all over the world were collaborating to accomplish that goal. Because of my own passion for social justice and the work I do with COMPUGIRLS out of Arizona State University, I found myself cheering (inwardly) at the prospect of incorporating social justice into computing classrooms. What better way to teach students to utilize computing in a way that is motivating and collaborative? Her talk made me think further about how we foster collaboration between students in the Computer Science classroom.

In my own experience as a teacher, any time anyone asked me what I wanted for my students, I always responded that I wanted them to be able to work as a team, to be able to collaborate and learn from one another. This always sounds like a great dream for our students, but it brings us back to one of our lessons from Google: How are classrooms designed in order to cultivate teamwork and collaboration in our students?

One way I've found to be effective in developing a collaborative classroom atmosphere comes from my days of teaching special education, as well as my current experiences working with COMPUGIRLS, a culturally relevant technology program for minority girls. In both settings, I strive to demonstrate that everyone in the classroom has expertise in something. It is the job of the teacher to connect that expertise to what is happening in the classroom and build it up! This is no easy task, as it removes the teacher from role of the omniscient knowledge dispenser and more toward a role of facilitator. In my classroom, each student acquired a title throughout the course of the year. Syd became "Super Speller" while Doreen was "Problem Solver Extraordinaire." I worked diligently to notice what each student was good at and celebrated that skill with his or her classmates by telling them to "go to the Super Speller" or "ask Problem Solver" instead of relying on me for answers. This developed a strong collaborative community, in which everyone, students and teachers alike, brought something to the table that everyone could learn from.

In COMPUGIRLS' classrooms, we have achieved a sense of community within the classroom through a very similar method that centers on the kids' use of technology. Each of the girls has demonstrated a capacity for different aspects of the technology we utilize. Some have shown a specific propensity for programming through our use of Scratch. Others have shown promise in the area of graphic design. As a teacher in that classroom, I know who can help their peers with design questions or programming questions and I direct them that way. I believe this method goes a long way in dispelling the myth of the lone computer programmer. It shows students that teamwork is valuable in all areas of learning, but also when you enter the workplace. In your own Computer Science classrooms, do you find yourself at the center of problem solving or are you able to divert those questions from students to their peers? What are some other ways to increase collaboration between students in Computer Science classroom?

Cynthia Mruczek
Doctoral Student
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
Arizona State University

Posted by cstephenson at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2010

Can Our Classrooms Be More Collaborative

I recently had the privilege of attending the Computer Science and Information Technology Symposium at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. Wow! What a cool place! Lava lamps! Foosball tables! Who wouldn't want to bring their dog to work, play a quick game of beach volleyball, or hop on a bike to take a ride across campus for lunch? I'm not implying they don't work hard at Google because it is quite obvious that is not the case. But man, what a COOL place to work! I found the teacher in me asking, "How can those two guys playing pool be working? I wonder if they are going to get in trouble?"

Ah, teachers. We've been programmed (yes, pun intended) to have a very specific view of what "work" looks and sounds like. In my short series of blogs, together, we will examine the relationship between Google's headquarters and the classroom, opportunities for collaboration among Computer Science teachers, and suggestions for collaboration between students.

I should come clean now. I am not a Computer Science teacher. I've taught in Phoenix public schools for thirteen years, during which time I was a Special Education teacher and a fifth grade teacher. The last few years of my teaching career, I spent coaching teachers as a Collaborative Peer Teacher. Therefore, I write to you from the perspective of a person whose job it was to increase the collaborative atmosphere at her school: not only between teachers, but also between students, as well as the collaboration between students and teachers.

As I moved through the day at Google, enjoying the speakers' various perspectives, it was very evident that the message of "collaboration" was a thread connecting each presentation. Virtually every speaker I saw made some mention of CS teachers needing to collaborate or giving students an opportunity to collaborate. But the thread of collaboration was really exemplified through the setting at Google Headquarters. The atmosphere at Google, combined with the speakers' emphasis on collaboration made me ask the question, "How can the setting at Google translate into a classroom setting?" I'm not asking you to get a foosball table for your room, although you'd probably win the "Most Popular Teacher" contest. Rather, how is learning incorporated into social interactions between students? How are social interactions between students supporting learning in the classroom?

One of my favorite speakers of the day, Owen Astrachan, asked a question of the audience. "What should our next president be able to do?" What a powerful question for teachers to ask themselves as they reflect on their practice. This question made me think about what we, as teachers, want for our students and how that influences literally every decision we make in the classroom. When I think about the typical classroom, I picture the teacher centered as the Distributor of Pearls of Wisdom, with eager students working diligently (and quietly) to gobble up the pearls doled out by the teacher. In looking at our future, Google can provide us with a way to examine how we are accomplishing our goals in the classroom. One lesson I believe we can take from Google is that learning must occur within and through social interactions. And yes, learning should be fun. Students must be allowed to talk to each other, to problem solve together, and learn with and from one another.

Another lesson we can take from Google is how the atmosphere challenges the typical stereotype of the lone computer programmer, sitting in a dark room, his pasty white skin glowing only by the light of a computer screen. Aside from the two Googlers playing pool and talking shop, I saw teams of people working everywhere. Pairs of people were walking through the halls, carrying laptops, and looking at each other's screens. Even those who had offices shared that space with one or two other people. If we make technology classrooms reflective of Google's workplace, I believe a more diverse population of computer programmers would emerge. Specifically, girls would be able to potentially see themselves as computer programmers.

So now it's your turn. What do you want for your students? How have you set up interactions in your classroom to cultivate the characteristics you desire for them? What are some other lessons we might draw from Google?

Cynthia Mruczek
Doctoral Student
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
Arizona State University

Posted by cstephenson at 06:23 PM | Comments (1)

August 08, 2010

Teaching Style Does Matter

I recently read a really interesting article on interactive teaching in computer science by .

The article, appearing in ACM Inroads (Vol. 1. No. 2) was interesting to me because it concerned teaching style/pedagogy, which is a topic that is too rarely discussed in post-secondary computer science education.

In his article, Diagnosing your teaching syle: How interactive are you?, Clear puts forward the argument that the current environment for university level computer science education (academic workload, managerial policies and practices, pressure to expand research output) engenders "a stifling conformity and natural conservatism in teaching practice." Clear further notes that "the increasing focus on consistency in a mass production model of teaching militates heavily against innovation" in teaching.

The body of the article explores Clear's efforts to get a better sense of student perceptions toward his course and the extent to which those perceptions may be impacted by the extent to which other instructors or the program as a whole use more collaborative and interactive teaching styles.

I won't tell you what he discovered because you really should read the article for yourself, but I will tell you that his statement that:

"We need to imbue the process of learning with some inherent discomfort and challenge to achieve meaningful outcomes, which is characteristic of truly transformative learning experiences."

really resonated for me.

So, when you look at your own teaching, do you believe that you challenge your students with interactive and collaborative learning experiences and if so, how comfortable do they feel with these practices?

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director

Posted by cstephenson at 04:45 PM | Comments (2)

August 06, 2010

University Faculty Can Help with K-12!

I think many of us (including faculty at liberal arts colleges) hold a pretty outdated view of what goes on in different kinds of institutions. We tend to think that at the larger universities people walk into giant lecture halls, wax eloquent (or not) about loops and decision statements and stacks and queues, and walk out again, leaving behind a bunch TAs who try to finish up the "teaching" job. But there have been some changes in this model over the last few years. Yes, universities tend to teach much larger lecture classes than we do at small liberal arts colleges. Yes, they rely a lot on teaching assistants. But the downturn in CS enrollments nationwide has forced them to think a lot more about undergraduate CS education than they used to, and think about pipeline. And about what is going on in K-12, particularly in high school computer science.

So I was at lunch last week with several CS faculty from a state university, including the folks responsible for their undergraduate CS curriculum. And they started talking about the numbers of students entering their program, and then they started talking about who teaches high school CS in the local area. And then they thought "what if we invited all the high school CS folks to come here for a gathering?" Which led to the question of what the outcome of that meeting would be. Didn't take much to seed the idea that 1) getting all the high school teachers in touch with each other would be fabulous and 2) encouraging them to create a CSTA chapter would be great too!

I know times are tough, but it doesn't cost that much to provide coffee and lunch for a group of high school teachers. Nametags are cheap, and facilitating discussion is priceless. So if you are at a university or a college that has a number of high schools in the general area, start collecting names, pick a date, and invite some teachers over! If you are a high school teacher who really would like a way to get connected to other teachers in your general region, why not contact the university or college nearest you and encourage them to host a gathering.

Valerie Barr, Union College
CSTA Task Force Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 03:01 AM | Comments (2)

August 04, 2010

CS Education Gets Congressional Attention

Last week was a huge one for computer science education in the Nation's Capital. Congressmen from both parties introduced two pieces of legislation -- The Computer Science Education Act and the Computer Science Education Week Resolution -- intended to help strengthen computer science education. I've written before that the road to education reform is long, and progress will come in fits and starts. Both pieces of legislation represent another step along this road and the beginning of a much broader engagement to bring attention to computer science education issues in the United States.

The Computer Science Education Act is a new effort by Representative Jared Polis (Colorado) intended to catalyze state and local reforms, and expand teaching of K-12 computer science education. The legislation has five major provisions to meet this goal:

  • Clearly defines computer science education and its concepts to help end the confusion of terms around K-12 computer science education

  • Establishes planning grants for states to work with stakeholders to assess their computer science offerings in K-12 and develop concrete steps to make them stronger

  • Builds on the planning grants by establishing five-year implementation grants for states in partnership with local school districts and institutions of higher education for developing state computer science standards, curriculum, and assessments; improving access to underserved populations; developing professional development and teacher certification programs; developing on-line courses; and, ensuring computer science offerings are an integral part of the curriculum

  • Creates a blue-ribbon commission to review the national state of computer science education and bring states together to address the computer science teacher certification crisis

  • Establishes K-12 computer science teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education
  • This is the first time that any Member of Congress has introduced major legislation to address the numerous policy issues with K-12 computer science education. It will serve as "marker" representing the critical reforms the computing community thinks Congress should adopt as part of broader reforms to the overall K-12 education system, which are tentatively on the agenda for the fall.

    It will take support and activism from the community to educate the public on the issues and push Congress to support its goals. The good news is that we have the beginnings of a great coalition of non-profits and the computing industry already behind the bill. Last week ACM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, SAS, the Computer Science Teachers Association, the Computing Research Association, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology sent Congressman Polis a joint letter announcing their support for the legislation. As we continue down the long road of reform, this coalition will be working with Congress and the larger computing community to ensure this legislation is part of the education policy landscape.

    The second piece of legislation -- the Computer Science Education Week Resolution -- introduced by Vernon Ehlers (Michigan) is similar to last year's resolution of the same name. The resolution would honor noted computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper by supporting the designation of the first week of December as Computer Science Education Week. Like last year, the community will be working together to raise awareness of computing and its role in society.

    Taken together, these two bills are a watershed for many fledging efforts to ensure that K-12 computer science education is part of a student's core education. Now is the time for the community to stand up and let federal, state and local policy makers know that K-12 computer science education is critical national need and should be part of the core knowledge students are exposed to in K-12 education.

    Cameron Wilson
    Director of Public Policy
    Association for Computing Machinery

    Website http://www.acm.org/public-policy
    Weblog http://usacm.acm.org/usacm/weblog

    Posted by cstephenson at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

    August 02, 2010

    Students Benefit from Programming Contests

    "Go to a programming contest? Me? Never! I'm not good enough. I'm not fast enough. I'd never win. Why bother?"

    That's what I'd always thought. I started programming later in life (after I was 20) than all those really fast thinking, really "smart" programmers I met in grad school. Oh sure, I learned how to do some Basic programs on the Apple IIGS in 11th grade (yes, I'm dating myself), but my undergraduate degree was in Theoretical Math. And although I had managed to get a job as a programmer between college and graduate school, but I didn't feel like I had the skills to compete. After all don't these things reward the quick thinkers?

    Recently I found myself as a high school computer science teacher and associated with the Puget Sound chapter of Computer Science Teachers Association. Under the the leadership of Crystal Hess of Tahoma high school, the group has spearheaded programming contests in the last two years for high school students based on the A+ Computer Science Contest Materials. I advertised the contests in my class and encouraged students to participate, trying hard not to project my own past reservations. Three of my students attended the first contest on their own in December of 2008. More students participated in the other bi-annual contests, and even more *want* to but can't because of conflicts with other activities.

    Students tell me they participated because they know they will come away with more practice (some even like the pressure aspect of it!) and confidence, some are nudged into it by peers, and still others like to thrill of competition (the free food and raffle prizes appear to be a bonus, not an enticement). One student mentioned that there is a freedom in working in a short time period and generating code for one time use without worrying about it being elegant and fast. Students also like the contest format where there are problems of varying degree of difficulty where the novice (first year) students can start with the easier lower point problems and gain confidence, while the more advanced students could jump to the more difficult problems for more of a challenge.

    I have been incredibly impressed by what my students have learned from the process, above and beyond the thrill of hacking. They have learned to work efficiently as a team to solve a problem and overcome the "challenge" of sharing only one computer. A few of the students have received medals for placing 1-3 in either the novice or advanced division, but all of them are winners. Will I recommend the contests to my students again this year? For sure! In fact I plan on having my advanced students write problems for the novice student contests as one of their assignments. That way everyone can get involved.

    Lauren Bricker
    CSTA Member

    Posted by cstephenson at 09:24 AM | Comments (3)