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November 30, 2011

Good Teaching is Not About the Programming Language

After working for a number of years as a commercial programmer, I decided to become a teacher here in New Zealand. As part of my teacher training, I had to chose three subjects to teach and the main subject I chose was Maths. My teacher training also included working as a student teacher in a number of schools. After observing a Maths teacher in a very poor school I asked him: "Do you ever get bored teaching (such simple) Maths?" You can tell I probably should never have continued with my teaching career! He replied "I don't teach Maths, I teach students".

I am often reminded of this when I hear the great programming language debate. Language choice reasons vary. You may be a zealot, an aficionado of a language, someone who teaches a language because they have to, someone who does it because the tertiary their students are headed to will use it. There are many, many reasons and shades of opinion on programming language choice.

But in K-12, we want students to be simply enthused enough with the subject to wish to continue. And it is not language choice which determines that. It is teachers who "teach students". It is teachers who care about their students and their learning. I would argue that it is completely irrelevant whether teachers care about language A or language B.

And if, towards the end of the course, you can acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the language you used, your students will appreciate the insights that gives and your academic honesty.

Margot Phillipps
CSTA International Director

Posted by cstephenson at 02:23 PM | Comments (0)

November 28, 2011

Seeing Computer Science Everywhere

I'm the type of person who really does see computers and computer science everywhere. I can turn any situation or location into a discussion or eye-opening opportunity for students. Some are more obvious than others, especially for those of us already teaching computer science.

For example, a couple weeks ago my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant in the mall that had a different gimmick. Each table had an iPad. At first we thought it was meant for entertainment. But its purpose was to allow the customers to order and customize their food. After the novelty of customizing the food yourself and seeing the cost of each added item (such as adding cheese or tomatoes to your salad changes the price) wore off. We found we missed the human interaction of the server. Would we really want to frequent a restaurant where the people only drop off the food?

The iPad and the software used brought the ordering system that servers use to the customer. It was made more user friendly by allowing customers to drag the ingredients they wanted onto their salad/sandwich/pizza and see it stacked in a visual graphic. I couldn't help but want to take my CS students on a mini-field trip to the place so they could "deconstruct" the specifications needed for the software used.

This, of course, is one overtly obvious place that computer science is applied. Some variation of the application is used in all restaurants to allow their servers to put orders to the kitchen. Cash registers in retail stores are computers (gone are the days of a traditional cash register), the receipts are merely reports/outputs. Professional football broadcasts overlay the line of scrimmage and first down markers on a live video footage of the field. Disneyland and other amusement parks use software to control their rides. All these are examples of computers and computer science used in the world around us (and these don't even include the cell phones, laptops and other mobile devices we carry with us).

As CS Ed week approaches, I encourage you to challenge your students to write down every place where computers and computer science are used as they go about their week (include the weekend). I'm sure they'll be surprised as to all the places it reaches and will lead to some good conversations in the classroom!

Shirley Miranda
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 04:25 PM | Comments (3)

November 26, 2011

My Thanksgiving "Vacation"

I just returned from a week in Costa Rica. Unlike many foreign visitors, who land in San Jose to hop in cars and tour buses to get away to the beautiful white sand beaches, active and dormant volcanoes, amazing flora and fauna, and pristine forests, I spent my Thanksgiving week in San Jose, working (along with Wanda Dann, Don Slater and Jacobo Carrasqual) with 60 or so teachers and teacher trainers at the Omar Dengo Foundation running an Alice workshop.

I saw a very different view of San Jose (Costa Rica's capital) than most tourists. During the past week, in San Jose.

  • I saw several thousand motorcyclists blocking the traffic on an enormous circle in front of the restaurant where we went for dinner. They were protesting the high cost of motorcycle registration and insurance.
  • I saw taxi drivers driving ridiculously slowly protesting the limited rates they could charge for fares.
  • I read about (actually, not being able to read Spanish, had Jacobo read to me) the country's anesthesiologists who went on strike wanting more vacation, leading to a stoppage of all but emergency surgeries.
  • I saw the police outside a women's jail (and later read that they were stopping a riot inside)
  • walked on the dangerous crumbling sidewalks, and saw a lack of city planning that allowed residences to be alongside restaurants to be alongside factories, etc.
  • I saw high fences topped with barbed wire on virtually everything.
  • And yet in a capital city and country without much interest in physical infrastructure, and struggling to deal with a myriad of labor and social challenges, I saw a country with a surprisingly long-term view of education, and technology/computing education in particular.

    Foundacion Omar Dengo is a private organization that receives significant government support to strategically plan out the country's technology education future. The foundation has been in operation for nearly 30 years and coordinates computer purchase (both operational as well as academic) for all of the country's schools, offers professional development to all its teachers (often through the use of teacher trainers), and handles the challenges associated with this responsibility. Third graders are exposed to computing using Microworlds, fifth graders receive computing education (and problem solving) using Scratch, seventh graders build off of that in Visual Basic, and the 9th graders continue their experiences with Alice. I was stunned to hear that 33,000 Costa Rican 9th graders learned problem solving with Alice this past year (the academic year in Costa Rica actually ends in late November and their summer and winter breaks are the opposite of ours in the US).

    On the flip side of what I mentioned earlier:

  • I saw the amazing worlds created by four 9th graders using Alice to teach about biology. And two of their four presentations were actually in English! These were students from an award-winning school, from some sort of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) competition.
  • I have been reading the Costa Rican ICT didactics documents (basically the strategic K-12 ICT educational plan, which seems to include a fair bit of discussion in teaching methodologies as well as content) and student learning outcomes document (the focus is on ethics, logical reasoning, creativity, collaboration, and proactivity). It was exciting simply to see the existence of such national standards, as well as seeing the impact of these standards on the four students who were sharing their Alice worlds. After the students gave their presentations and demoed their work, the audience asked the students some rather tough questions. The students huddled together to discuss their answers before replying.
  • I met and befriended the dynamic teachers and teacher-trainers from across the country, and the committed researchers, teachers, administrators, IT staff and planners of the Foundacion Omar Dengo. These folks were extraordinarily kind, and optimistic.
  • I found the excitement of our Alice workshop to rival any workshops I have run in the US. And this was despite the language difficulties. Many of the workshop attendees spoke little English. I spoke no Spanish, and we all went around with these earpieces so the translators could let us communicate.
  • I listened with excitement to the Foundation's plans for outreach to their "Indian" communities. Much as was done with our Native American population, the Costa Rican "Indians" were relocated to inhospitable mountainous regions where they live without electricity or plumbing for example. But the Foundation is piloting programs where they work with the communities to help develop trust and exposing those communities to ICT (cranks and solar power somewhat obviate the need for electricity), though the cultural barriers are enormous.
  • I've returned to the US with a good deal of optimism. If a small and relatively poor (at least compared to the US) country like Costa Rica can have such a national interest in computing and technology education for its young people, it would seem that all the US needs is a slightly modified mindset, a belief that ICT education is important for our youth.

    Pura Vida!

    Steve Cooper
    Chair, CSTA Board of Directors

    Posted by cstephenson at 02:19 PM | Comments (0)

    November 23, 2011

    When Something Helpful Comes Along

    You never know where a resource is going to come from. We have a retired guidance counselor that is back subbing in our building this month. He sought me out to ask if I had seen an interview by Charlie Rose with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I had not, but the interesting thing was that he said Zuckerberg had talked about how everyone should take a programming class.

    So I found the interview at:

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11987 or at YouTube http://youtu.be/LFdUEkTzDeI

    and at about 15:30 it gets to the part that will make every CS promoter's heart flutter.

    Zuckerberg talks about his number one piece of advice is that everyone should take a programming course. He also goes on to mention how almost all jobs in the future will require some level of programming. This is something that all of us believe but sometimes have a hard time convincing others about.

    The great thing about this clip is that it is an unprompted promotion of CS Education by someone that the whole world knows about. The record number of people that use Facebook, who think it would be cool to work there, or who just like to watch the Facebook frenzy in the media, pay attention to what Zuckerberg says. Now I have a clip that I can show it to students, parents, or administrators that echoes my sentiments but comes from a media icon.

    Besides this fantastic resource I now have, I have learned something else. I have learned that if you keep talking to others about CS Education then you are the first person that pops into their head when they hear anything about CS. It is just as important to keep pleading your case and talking to people because they have their own circle of influence, knowledge, and experience. You never know when something that they come across will help you. If I was not as vocal about CS Education then the guidance counselor would not have immediately thought of me when he saw the interview.

    So keep on talking and promoting as you will never know what it will lead to!

    Stephanie Hoeppner
    Vice-President CSTA Ohio Chapter

    Posted by cstephenson at 03:33 PM | Comments (1)

    November 20, 2011

    Binary Hand Dance

    If you are looking for some inspiration and/or entertainment for you or your students, check out the Vi Hart's Blog. Vi is a "recreational mathemusician" (her words, not mine) who creates interesting videos about mathematics and music. They are highly entertaining - perfect for for high school students, but also teach real mathematics and critical thinking. My favorite is the Binary Hand Dance:


    which is a fun and catchy way to demonstrate binary numbers. Just watch it, then tell me you weren't practicing on your own when no one was looking ;-).

    Dave Reed
    CSTA Board of Directors

    Posted by cstephenson at 04:47 PM | Comments (1)

    November 18, 2011

    Using Corporate Advertising to Promote CS Education

    I've attended quite a few Computer Science conferences over the years including many years of SIGCSE and the past two years of the K-12 Workshop at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Typically, I sift through the big bag of stuff and create piles.

    One pile is composed of anything that I can pass off as a generous gift to my own two children. These items include pens, mirrors, pens, travel nail clippers, pens, sticky notes, notebooks, pens, cell phone holders, pens, screen cleaners, lanyards, pens and of course pens.

    Another pile is advertising from companies or schools recruiting and desperately trying to convince people to work for them or attend their programs. That stuff is historically the throw-away pile since I'm not the intended audience. Then I had a thought....why not save these pamphlets and prove to parents or guardians and students that there are companies and colleges begging for employees and students?!

    Don't take my word for it, here are examples after examples of major companies like Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Oracle, Yahoo and a ton of others vying for the chance to get your attention.

    So, on my latest flight home from Portland to Chicago, I brought these pamphlets along with me to show to my students and their parents or guardians with the hope that these pieces of paper may help show that Computer Science isn't defined by outsourced tech support centers, but by exciting and innovative companies and educational institutions working collaboratively on the challenges we face today and tomorrow.

    Jeff Solin
    CSTA Chicago Chapter
    Northside College Preparatory High School
    Chicago, Illinois

    Posted by cstephenson at 07:01 PM | Comments (3)

    November 17, 2011

    Kicking Off CS Ed Week

    What better way is there to kick off CSEdWeek than to hold an open house showcase of great student work and projects? This will answer for my community the age old question, "What is Computer Science?"

    The open house is also a celebration of changes in our district. We built a new high school and moved in just in time for the start classes. In addition to opening a new building, we combined two existing high schools into one and closed five other schools. We restructure the building grade levels to K-5, 6-7, 8-9, and a 10-12 high school. Needless to say it has been a challenging start to the school year, but we know how resilient our students can be!

    Our open house will confirm that CS education in Mifflin County is doing great things for students.

  • My programming and web design classes will have displays of their work including websites created using Microsoft Expression Studio and games made with Scratch, Alice, and XNA. The XNA projects were made possible by a donation of 20 Xbox controllers from Microsoft.
  • Our FIRST Technology Challenge (FTC) team will setup the field and run through some of the missions for the upcoming robotics competition. This is our second year for team competition and we are excited to show our progress to the community.
  • The success of FTC and my middle school girls' summer camp encouraged me to start a Fisrt Lego League (FLL) team for students ages 9-14. The FLL team grew from six of my sons friends to over 25 with absolutely no advertising. So many students want to participate that we also have a Junior FLL team for students ages 6-9. Next year we will need to recruit more coaches. But how do you say "no" to a student who wants to learn about robotics, programming, and engineering?

    The public will get a chance to talk to my students, see firsthand how much they have learned, and discover why my students enjoy learning in this great project-based learning environment. Maybe someone will volunteer to be a coach!

    To see photos, videos, and weekly updates, check out our blog at www.pegfisher.wordpress.com.

    The open house is open to the public and you are invited to attend.
    6-7:30 Monday December 5
    Mifflin County High School
    501 Sixth Street, Lewistown, PA

    Hope to see you there!
    Mrs. Peggy Fisher
    STEM Club Advisor
    Computer Science Teacher

    Posted by cstephenson at 03:35 PM | Comments (0)

    November 16, 2011

    Computers Shouldn't Make Sandwiches

    This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the CSTA/Anita Borg K-12 Equity Teacher Workshop at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Portland, Oregon. It was great to feel energized and inspired by the power of so many computing educators talking about critical equity issues in computer science education.

    Along with, Elaine Bromeyer, an Exploring Computer Science teacher from South Gate High School in Los Angeles, I gave a presentation to highlight the contextual and pedagogical elements of teaching computer science. As part of this presentation, we showed a short video of Elaine's classroom lesson that focused on students' creation of directions for assembling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

    The conversation Elaine and the audience participants had following this video highlighted the particular inquiry-based pedagogy and equity-based practices of Elaine's classroom. Though I found the entire discussion illuminating, Stanford professor Eric Roberts' final question has stayed with me as a central pedagogical technique that blends inquiry and equity.

    Eric Roberts began with commenting on one of the students' reflective remarks on the lesson that stated, "I learned that computers shouldn't make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches". Eric's question was, "How can we take student comments like these to look at other things computers aren't particularly good at?"

    By pointing out this teachable moment, Eric highlighted how student-centered instruction can lead to sets of rich discussions about central themes of the utility and tradeoffs of computing in particular social contexts. I believe that this instructional technique of using student reflective comments to drive classroom discussions of related computing topics a great instructional tool for computer science classrooms. Having students write journal reflections on a regular basis is a great way to adopt this approach in your own classroom.

    Joanna Goode
    CSTA Equity Chair

    Posted by cstephenson at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)

    November 14, 2011

    Many Issues Have No Borders

    At the recent CSTA board meeting, a recent paper on the status of computing in several countries (including the USA) was pointed out to me. The paper has Simon Peyton-Jones, a well-known computer scientist now at Microsoft in the United Kingdom, and a number of others (including the CSTA's Chris Stephenson) as co-authors.

    I have been following for some time now the commentary coming from the UK about the situation there. It is cold comfort to know that many of the problems we face here in the US are the same as those faced elsewhere in the world, but the corroboration that our analysis of the situation is the same as others' analysis does at least suggest that if we are trying to correct the problems we perceive then we are in fact trying to to correct problems that do exist.

    What I have seen from the UK sounds familiar. There is discontent from industry about the knowledge and skills that students have and the numbers of students who really know computer science. Students at schools perceive that there is no real content to what they believe to be computer science, bolstered by an institutional bias toward use of technology (which in the UK goes by the name of Information and Communication Technology or ICT). The problems we face in the US with computer science being part of career and technical education and not viewed as a core academic subject are replicated in the UK, with similar results.

    Among the issues that seem to be common across several national borders are these:

  • We must ensure that computer science is treated as its own subject discipline, distinct from the mere use of computers.
  • We must emphasize that an education in computer science is not just the skills training that ensures substantial benefits in the job market, but a genuine education in how to analyze and solve problems and how to think clearly and critically on any topic of interest.
  • We must work to increase the number and quality of computer science teachers, and, in part through CSTA, work to make them more successful in a difficult educational situation with a rapidly changing discipline.
  • As I say, it is cold comfort to have the problems of marketing the discipline that we seem to have. Nonetheless, the fact that our problems are common problems should help us more quickly and clearly focus on remedies that can be effected.

    Duncan Buell
    CSTA Board of Directors

    Posted by cstephenson at 11:40 AM | Comments (1)

    November 07, 2011

    Picture Me In Computing Day

    As the tenth of November approaches (111011), we are again preparing for Picture Me in Computing Day. Picture Me in Computing Day, also referred to as "picmecomp", began last year in an effort to raise awareness as to how wonderful the computer science and IT professions are for women. We initiated a worldwide digital flash mob, having people tag all of their social interactions with #picmecomp, hoping that the tag would eventually reach teenage and pre-teen females and spark their curiosity.

    The first year of the campaign, 2010, happened to coincide with the release of Computer Engineer Barbie (tm). Mattel gave us their enthusiastic support and allowed Barbie to serve as our celebrity spokeswoman. The wonderful people at Mattel even arranged for tweets and Facebook posts from Barbie, encouraging people to participate. Hundreds of women around the world tagged and uploaded images of themselves with Computer Engineer Barbie, showing their dedication to women in STEM.

    This year, we have decided that instead of focusing on just one vivacious "woman" who ventured into computer science, we would shift our attention to an entire group of women who have chosen to focus on technology. That's why picmecomp will be broadcasting live this year from the Grace Hopper Celebration in Portland, Oregon! We will continue to ask both women and men to submit images of themselves with technology, but this year we will also be video blogging with women who have made their livelihoods in the industry. To find out more about this year's activities, follow @picmecomp on Twitter and "like" us on Facebook.

    We are inspired by Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper for many reasons, not the least of which was her unrelenting thirst for challenges. In 1944 at the age of 38, when most women would have been consumed with baking and ironing, Hopper was helping to pioneer the field of computer programming by tackling the Harvard Mark I . At the time, electronic computers were new and relatively unexplored, but that didn't hold her back. She stood up to critics who believed that she was too old for Naval service and made a name for herself as an outstanding computer scientist.

    Between the campaign for Picture Me in Computing Day, where we bring STEM to girls of all ages, and Grace Hopper, who showed us that courage is more important than age, we hope to show everyone that you are never too old or too young to consider a career in technology.

    Kiki Prottsman

    Posted by cstephenson at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

    November 04, 2011

    Going Back to High School

    Having just finished my first full year as a Computer Science (CS) major at the University of Regina, I was surprised to find that my summer job would take me back to high school. Billy Hamilton, another U of R student entering his second year, and I worked on the development of an online version of the Grade 11 Computer Science (CS20) course for the Regina Catholic School Division (RCSD).

    My high school offered several computer-related courses so I was able to take CS courses in grades 11 and 12. However, few of my peers at the U of R have been as lucky as I have since relatively few schools offer CS20 and CS30 (the Grade 12 Computer Science course). The online version Billy and I worked on for the RCSD may help solve that problem for some students: online learning allows students to take part in courses, which would otherwise be unavailable, without being in a particular place at a particular time.

    Billy and I were hired to write content for this course because, as first year students, we are closer to the target audience for the material. We had ambitious ideas for making this introductory course fun and interesting for students who would be looking into Computer Science for the first time. We thought about what drew us to Computer Science and decided to focus on tools that would allow students to create uncomplicated, graphics-based programs and simple video games. Our goal was to create content that is challenging, engaging, and would be used for years to come.

    Our one restriction was that the course needed to follow the Government of Saskatchewan's existing CS20 curriculum (circa 1999). Although the fundamental concepts of logic, programming and design have not changed much in this time, many of the computer proficiency learning objectives outlined in the curriculum were more appropriate for 11 year olds than Grade 11 students of the current decade. The course definitely needed the facelift that Billy and I were more than happy to provide.

    We considered several software development environments for students to use, and chose Build Your Own Blocks (BYOB) from the University of California, Berkeley and Greenfoot from the University of Kent.

    BYOB, based on Scratch from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, is a visual programming language. It provides a fun and easy to use interface that allows students to click, drag, drop and snap together blocks, representing pieces of code, in order to build dynamic programs. BYOB allows beginner programmers to get a feel for basic programming concepts such as control structures, and modularity without facing the intimidation of finicky syntax in text-based languages.

    Once students are comfortable with the basics, they are able to graduate to Greenfoot. Unlike BYOB, Greenfoot allows students direct access to the code underlying their Greenfoot projects. Using Greenfoot's API, students write code in the Java programming language to control the behaviour of their projects. The part of our course that uses Greenfoot builds and expands on the skills acquired with BYOB and applies them specifically to Java.

    Both environments can be used to generate eye-catching graphical output and entertaining applications that students will enjoy creating. This course provides tools for students to create programs like our Rocket Demo and Pizza Patch games. You can see a demo of these programs at:


    We are pleased with the content we have produced and are positive students will enjoy the introduction to CS through this course.

    This online course is now open to registrations for students anywhere in Canada. International students are welcome to participate however credits for course completion cannot be issued at this time. For more information, please visit www.rcsd.ca/learningonline or contact Chantal Ounsworth at Regina Catholic Learning Online.

    Tori Verlysdonk
    Undergraduate, Computer Science
    University of Regina

    Chantal Ounsworth
    Teacher, Regina Catholic Learning Online
    Regina Catholic Schools
    Phone: (306) 791-7239
    Email: c.ounsworth@rcs.sk.ca

    Posted by cstephenson at 01:56 PM | Comments (0)