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June 29, 2011

Ask Not What Your Professional Development Can Do For You

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a workshop (conveniently located) at Purdue University. The workshop was sponsored by an NSF project title CS4EDU (http://cs4edu.cs.purdue.edu/). The goal of the CS4EDU project is as follows: to create new pathways for undergraduate education majors to become computationally educated secondary teachers. This includes a joint effort between faculty in the Department of Computer Science and the College of Education to create a Computer Science Teaching Endorsement program, based on the educational computing standards set by the International Society for Technology in Education.

The workshop brought together people from many different entities: university personnel, NSF personnel, CSTA personnel, and many high school teachers. The intent of the workshop was to discuss the CS Principles course, to share ideas and experiences, and to learn what others are doing in computer science education. However, I think the outcome of the workshop provided so much more. At the end of the two days, the organizers had each participant state what they gained from attending this workshop. So many teachers mentioned that they were thankful for the opportunity to network and meet other teachers with similar goals to them.

As a deliverer of professional development workshops, I am often so worried about the content of said workshops that I forget that there is often a bigger focus and purpose to these events. Teachers need that time to get together with other teachers so they can get new ideas and share their current ideas with like-minded people. There is a flipside to this though too- I know quite a few teachers who select their professional development opportunities based on what they can get out of it (stipends, fun location, etc.) But how many people opt in to a workshop based on what they can GIVE to the workshop? I’d like to challenge your way of thinking as you go through the next year. Teachers need other teachers to be there for them. The content of a particular workshop may seem like something you already know- but just think of all the experience you could share with a community of colleagues with a common interest!

So who is willing to step up to the plate and ask not what your professional development can do for you but what you can do for your professional development?

Mindy Hart

Chair, CSTA Professional Development Committee

Posted by cstephenson at 02:49 PM | Comments (1)

June 25, 2011

Sock Monkey Meets Policy Man

Sock Monkey met Cameron Wilson, ACM Director of Public Policy, at a meeting Cameron organized for several of the organizations working on K12 learning standards. The purpose of the meeting was to brief these organizations on CSTA's new standards for K12 computer science which will be released before the end of this year.

CSTA President Michelle Hutton call Cameron "Policy Man" because he is CSTA's education policy superhero.


Posted by cstephenson at 03:31 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2011

Precise Language (again)

I am in the midst of a three-times-normal-speed theory of computing class for graduate students who need to know this material for the qualifying exam, so I have not had lots of time to contemplate metaphysical things (or write a blog post). On the other hand, Michelle Hutton's post of 6 June, 2011 resonates with me as I try to get the students to think (and write) in precise mathematical ways.

I am reminded of the time many years ago when I had breakfast at a restaurant in Tallahassee on a lecture trip. As I looked at the sentence with the options of toast, biscuits, hash browns, grits, etc., I noticed that whoever had written the menu had clearly not studied disjunctive and conjunctive normal forms of Boolean expressions. Although I suspect very few people misunderstood what was intended as the possible set of options (breakfast, after all, not being rocket science), what was written would not have been parsed as intended by the Gnu Breakfast Compiler.

We have had similar issues in the theory class. It is one thing to ask: For every integer n, describe a finite automaton F that will multiply by n. It is quite another thing to ask: Describe a finite automaton F that will multiply by n for every n. But our students learn this kind of precision; it doesn't (seem to) come as a natural part of the rest of their experience and education.

My wife used to teach technical writing. She always argued that the purpose of technical writing was to be clear, not to be great literature. And as I try to impress on students: the problems in software, as in nearly all technical projects, lie at the interface between two human beings. Inside one (technically competent) person's head, there usually isn't much confusion about what ought to be done and what is being done. It’s the communication from that person to the next one down the line that causes the problems.

Being clear in one's writing and speaking is very important.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 04:23 PM | Comments (1)

June 19, 2011


Recently I was asked by a younger teacher, how I allocate my time because he knew that I teach both computer science and mathematics. I never thought much about it prior to his question. I responded to him with, I work on what needs to be done first. That has seemed to work for me but during the last two months I have been thinking more about his question. I have had to make choices and I had to say no to some requests because I just couldn't "keep up" any more. I need to devise a system that allows me to prioritize and allocate time.

I am learning to say "I just can't do" when I know I don't have the time. However, teaching computer science is much more time consuming than teaching mathematics. I am constantly looking for ways to better convey a computer science topic to the students or I am opening the lab for the students to finish their programming projects. I want them to succeed and I feel I need to assist them and put the time in.

I know some of you have more preparations than I have and I am wondering, just like the younger teacher asked me, "how do you allocated your time so you get it all done and provide the best education for your students?"

Please share your thoughts.

Myra Deister
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 01:52 PM | Comments (2)

June 15, 2011

Robots and Android Apps and PR

This year, after the AP Computer Science exam, I gave my students a choice: robots or Android Apps. In April, my order of Scribbler 2 robots came in. I've used them in a summer program I teach in (California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science - COSMOS) and used them in my Robotics class. But, despite seeing them when they arrived and having interest in programming them, they opted to make Android Apps.

I hadn't really played with it much, but we're going to use it this year for COSMOS. So, my students and I embarked on playing with AppInventor together. Luckily, it was my APCS class and they could go from basic tutorials to more complicated ones in a short time frame. We went from the Kitty first application to an Amazon.com database search, to a GPS locator. We briefly went over the basics and I let them run with it. With the knowledge they gained from APCS, the concepts connected easily for them. If they didn't understand the point of methods before, it was clear after using AppInventor.

The blocks editor in AppInventor reminds me of Scratch. But, naturally, there is something more inherently powerful with AppInventor since it can take live data from GPS or the internet to create applications that can be used on your Android device. My students don't have Android phones or other devices, so we used the emulator. They enjoyed creating their own application. Some made games and some made paint programs or variations of the tutorials we completed.

I'm torn between having them work on it during the very beginning of school (or even as a summer assignment) to get their feet wet in the programming arena. I can see positives and negatives. One negative being I always need all the time I can get to delve into the material for APCS. But I will use it for my Robotics class next year and hope to get more ideas this summer.

I think the possibilities are almost endless to what students can get out of it. It makes software development truly real for them because they can create apps that they can immediately use and share!

Now, that's good PR for CS in high school!

Shirley Miranda
CSTA Board Member

Posted by cstephenson at 06:50 PM | Comments (4)

June 12, 2011

Sock Monkey and the CSTA Chapter Liaison

While in Atlanta for an AP Computer Science meeting, Sock Monkey had a chance to meet Fran Trees, CSTA's Chapter Liaison. Fran helps volunteers through the chapter application and formation process. Thanks to Fran, CSTA's list of local chapters continues to grow.

If you want to see where the chapters are, you can visit the CSTA chapter webpage at:



Posted by cstephenson at 02:43 AM | Comments (0)

June 07, 2011

Share Those Great Resources

Whew! I can almost hear the collective sigh as the school year winds down and wraps up for teachers across the country and throughout the CSTA membership (except for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, of course).

I remember well those end-of-the-year activities of final exams, calculating grades, and boxing up the top of my desk until next September. And during the entire process of sorting and filing I found myself saying, "Gee, that was a great activity," or "My, the students really got the concept quickly with this project. I have to remember to use that one again next year!"

I suspect you will have many of the same recollections as you clear your desk over the next couple weeks. But instead of keeping those great activities and super projects all to yourself, share with your CSTA peers by submitting them to the CSTA Source Web Repository of K-12 Computer Science Teaching and Learning Materials.

Don't worry! We're not looking for super-polished documents. Just clear instructions of activities that you know work. Maybe you have step-by-step lab instructions, maybe the details of a team project, maybe a review activity, or maybe an assessment tool. It could be a single lesson or an entire unit. We want them all!

And the process is easy! Just fill in the short informational form and submit the documents online at:


Submissions are reviewed by a volunteer committee to ensure that they are relevant and pedagogically and technically sound before they are included the repository.

So, instead of filing away those instructional gems until next fall, share them with all of us. It is the neighborly CSTA thing to do!

Pat Phillips
Editor, CSTA Voice

Posted by cstephenson at 10:17 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2011

Precise Language: It's All Relative

The term "precise language" has come up twice in the past few weeks in way that highlight the difference between computer science people and other people. (I wouldn't want to call them "regular" people.)

I am involved in a project where we asked education graduate students, "How would you describe someone who is 'techie'?" One of the most interesting responses (from someone who went to an East Coast Institute of Technology) was that techies use precise language.

While I wouldn't have thought of it, that answer immediately resonated with me, from all the times I've had my vague language corrected to the very way that the techies I know talk all the time.

Then, this weekend I was sitting at a table with a bunch of techies computer science educators who were discussing whether an important part of computer science is using "accurate and precise language" to communicate. They were extremely concerned that if precision is an important descriptor that it will lead students to a level of detail that's too great for an introductory CS class. Indeed, one of the techiest senior members of the group wanted to substitute "simple language" for "precise language" in order to encourage a higher level of abstraction than he felt "precise language" would elicit.

This, it seems, is one of the very differences between computer science people and humanities people (to broadly generalize). Regular people think that the kind of way computer scientists talk all the time is precise language. Computer scientists think they talk regular and that precise language is even more detailed. I think of the math or English teachers I know, for whom "simple language" would entail a level of vagueness and abstraction that isn't what the document intended and that "accurate and precise" would be the appropriate amount of correctness.

I'd say it's all a matter of perspective, but I suspect that some computer science educators would point out that perspective is something they teach in art and English...

Michelle Hutton
CSTA President

Posted by cstephenson at 02:54 PM | Comments (2)

June 01, 2011

ICT in Abu Dhabi

I am lucky enough to be situated in a school in the Abu Dhabi emirate (in a town called Al Ain) for 12 weeks. Although I work as a Math advisor, I talk to a number of ex-patriot Information and Communications Technology (ICT) advisors and am slowly finding out the state of play here. All students through their senior years at high school (Grades 10,11 and 12) have either one or two periods a week of ICT. (All public schools have a compulsory curriculum and there are no option choices.)

The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC is the central body which controls the curriculum of this Emirate) has a new curriculum and the ICT Grade 10 to 12 curriculum covers six strands in total: Core Operations and Concepts, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communications and Collaboration, Creativity and Innovation, Software Development and Programming, and Robotics and Automated Systems.

The content is ambitious and sensibly, will need more than an hour a week to achieve the desired outcomes. The curriculum and assessment regime has recently come under ADEC control, rather than the central ministry for all of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All levels are required to undertake Continuous Assessment and do two assessments per trimester, one of which should be integrated with another subject.

It is still in transition phase, and at present grade 12 ICT marks do not count for the equivalent of University Entrance. Grade 12 students do the robotics strand and the programming strand, so it is hoped it will become the case that it "counts".

Although often teachers are well qualified, they have not all had professional development (PD) opportunities for the new curriculum. This is partly a constraint of individual school policies, partly the fact that ICT is a small faculty within a high school and thus competent relievers are scarce, and in the UAE with strict gender prohibitions, PD may be run separately for each gender. And sometimes wives may find it difficult to get permission to travel out of town for PD.

The challenges are enormous, but it is heartening to see a well formed curriculum as the beginning point for the new education model.

Margot Phillipps
CSTA International Director

Posted by cstephenson at 10:18 AM | Comments (1)