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May 29, 2012

Planning a Summer Institute

I think my last blog was written while I was monitoring my final exam. This one is written as I take a break from planning for a summer institute for teachers for AP Computer Science. This will be a one-week crash course event here in Columbia, but with some work before the week here in town and some work after. I have a first rate AP teacher from here in town as the Master Teacher to do this with me, and we have about 20 teachers signed up from all across South Carolina.

We are somewhat unique in South Carolina, apparently, in that the state Department of Education provides substantial funding for the summer institutes. I applied for and received a grant last year but didn't get enough teachers signed up (the Dept of Ed normally wants at least ten to justify the expense). This year, I applied again, and this year we have the enrollments. I did an institute in 2009, in a year when the state didn't have the money, but we were able to get the institute funded by an industrial consortium.

I have taught our first semester course, which the institute has some resemblance to, but not for a while. Fortunately, one of the professors who has taught the course recently has put up about 60 short YouTube videos of various programming, computer, and Java concepts. This should help, since many of the teachers who have signed up for the institute have some programming experience, but some of that experience is not recent, and some of that is not in Java. It's going to help to have lots of videos for people to scan in order to all get to the same place for the compressed week here in town.

Duncan Buell
CSTA University Representative

Posted by cstephenson at 12:08 PM | Comments (0)

May 22, 2012

Computer Science: The Big Picture

As I prepare to meet with a local School Board member and a magnet high school principal to discuss implementing computer programming in the high school, I have to wonder what has taken them so long! It seems like a no-brainer to me (but then I guess I'm one who is singing in the choir). The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that "Employment of software developers is projected to grow 30 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations," so why aren't students and parents beating down our doors? And then I remember my own daughter telling me (during my Accounting I class) "Mom, no one says they want to grow up to be an Accountant." Insert Computer Programmer and there we have it! The student perception of these occupations is pretty dismal, but in fact the careers are far from dismal! (Given my druthers, I would most certainly choose Computer Programmer over Accountant although the combination of the two would be quite marketable.)

An article in our Sunday newspaper highlighted a Computer Science professor and two students at Wake Forest University working on a cure for cancer (Video Game vs. Cancer). The requisite skills for the team of scientists: "the ability to comprehend, interpret and apply complex concepts and data in a new format; the pursuit or completion of advanced degrees; patience and a tireless work ethic, and being a video game master." Doesn't everyone want to find a cure for cancer? Who would have thought that being a "video game master" was a required skill? Again, I guess I am singing in the choir on this subject as well. For our statewide computer programming curriculum next year, we will be field testing the use of XNA Game Studio to apply the C# programming concepts the students learn in class. We knew we had to do something when we saw the huge drop-off in enrollment from the first course to the second course. We'll see how this goes, but preliminary word-of-mouth reports tell us that the students are very interested.

And, that's not the only change we have made in our statewide curriculum. We have a new course for freshmen titled Foundations of Information Technology that will allow the students to see the kind of work that is done in each of the four pathways we have in the IT Career Cluster: Programming and Software Development, Web and Digital Communications, Information Support and Services, and Network Systems. Most ninth graders have no clue what a network engineer or network administrator does, let alone a software developer. And most ninth graders can see no connection between high school and his/her world beyond. This course is intended to appeal to the target market while directing them to further study while in high school and beyond. These young students do need to see the big picture so they can graduate from high school "college and career ready".

Additionally, we have completely revamped our Network Administration I and II courses to provide students the opportunity to earn Microsoft certifications (something beyond MOS certifications that are available in every high school in our state). Also, we're refreshing our e-Commerce I course by updating the content to teach HTML 5.0 and the applications of social media and mobile computing in an e-commerce environment. AND, we have also been fortunate enough to be asked to participate in a pilot of the Computer Science Principles course by partnering with Dr. Tiffany Barnes at UNC Charlotte. What a great opportunity for our teachers and students to explore the Beauty and Joy of Computing! We have eight classroom teachers participating in the pilot, and a section of the course will be taught through the state virtual public school.

We are working diligently in our state to interest and inform students about the world of opportunities that awaits them in the computer science world. It's not just about computer programming, but that's a great fit for some of the students. That's where I got my start, but now there are so many more venues to explore. And the interrelationships among disciplines are fascinating and create even more opportunities.

What are you doing to interest students in the wonderful world of computer science?

Video Game vs. Cancer: http://www.newsobserver.com/scitech/
Career Clusters: http://www.careertech.org/

Deborah Seehorn
CSTA State Department Representative

Posted by cstephenson at 02:41 PM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2012

Gearing up for Next School Year

Now that the AP Computer Science test is over, my thoughts have turned to the next school year. I had finished my recruiting campaign in February but I had to wait for the data to be entered. I was anxious to get those numbers because I had tried something different this year and was hoping that it was successful.

My California school district administration has expectations of a "reasonable" number of students when offering an elective class. With the budget deficit, that number seems to be increasing each year so I felt I needed to try a different approach to recruiting students. During the Grace Hopper Conference in Portland I had attended a breakout group about recruiting. One of the suggestions was to mail home letters to the parents. I decided to try it even though I would have to find the money to pay for the postage.

I went to work and asked for lists of students from the data tech. I used recruiting letters that other computer science teachers had successfully used to create a letter that would meet my needs. Next, I personalized each letter using mail merge, printed labels, assembled them and mailed them off I did get responses. Students dropped by the computer lab to speak to me about the class and I received phone calls from parents who told me they did not realize that computer science was offered at our school and wanted to know more about the class. I was hopeful that the efforts would pay off. What I learned last week was that my numbers are up in A.P. Computer Science by about 40%. However, because I did not send as many letters to the introductory students my numbers remain about the same.

After I asked about the number of students who registered for computer science, I spoke with the new assistant principal about other types of recruiting activities I could be doing. He suggested that I visit math classes. That is something I had wanted to do but was I was never offered the opportunity by the previous administrator. For next school year that is added to my list. Another surprise, I received is that the principal told me that she also mentioned my computer science class at the PTSA meeting and told the parents that I offer a supportive environment in which to learn computer science. I plan to remind the administration about computer science by sending them examples of student work and invitations to the peer reviews of student projects so that they will continue to help me recruit students.

Another development that could help with recruiting is a recent change to the minimum graduation requirements in California. With permission of the school board, computer science can be substituted in place of the Visual and Performing Arts requirement. I will be investigating how that process works and soliciting the assistance of my administration.

During the summer, I will continue to investigate successful classroom management and delivery strategies for multiple subjects during one class period. I want to improve my students' experience in the classroom which is why I enrolled in an online teacher certification program. I want to use those techniques to improve the learning experience for all of my computer science students.

In June and July, I am looking forward to the professional development opportunities that I can take advantage of. I will be attending a Tapestry Workshop where I will learn more about recruiting and retaining students in computer science and the CS & IT Conference where I am always exposed to more ideas to try out and investigate. Summer is my time to recharge and think deeply about what I want to try out the next school year.

Myra Deister
CSTA Board of Directors

Posted by cstephenson at 09:14 AM | Comments (1)

May 10, 2012

Video Games

Video games are just plain fun! Your students know it, you know it, but so do administrators and colleagues who sometimes think that if you are teaching something that much fun, it can't be truly educational.

To include game design in your CS class you might need a little help in pointing to evidence that not only is game design serious CS, but it is also serious business that involves serious money and seriously worthwhile topics. I've been gathering a few pieces of evidence "for the defense."

  • Video games are being used to train employees in everything from management at Chick-fil-A, and portion control at Cold Stone Creamery, to commanding a tank in the US Army.
  • Cargill uses an Adventure Park game to train employees in project management, complete with nagging bosses, pestering co-workers, and ornery contractors competing for attention with emails, phone messages, and urgent tasks.
  • Fujitsu America and GlaxoSmithKline use puzzles to teach teamwork and problem-solving.
  • The University of Washington struggled for over a decade to discover the structure of a protein that helps the human immunodeficiency virus multiply. After they posted on online game, Foldit, the problem was solved in three weeks by 57,000 players, most of whom hand no training in molecular biology!

    Gather more evidence from an interesting article in Delta Airlines Magazine:


    Don't you just love it when you learn something six miles in the air?

    And for something a bit more scientific about serious games and crowdsourcing, read Gaining Wisdom from Crowds in the March 2012, Communications of the ACM (cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/3).

    To see serious games in academic social, cultural health education in action, visit Serious Games (www.seriousgames.dk/node/511). And don'tmiss the US Army site with games for marksmanship, teamwork, and helicopter flying (www.goarmy.com/downloads/games.html).

    All of these resources can give you and your students plenty of evidence and ideas for creating games and simulations that go beyond entertainment.

    And if you're looking for teaching resources with a focus on creating games for social causes, look at the XNA Game Development teaching resources from Pat Yongpradit, CSTA member and CS teacher at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland (www.microsoft.com/education/facultyconnection/precollegiate). Pat will be presenting Project-based Game Design for Social Causes at CS & IT in Irvine, California, this summer.

    Pat Phillips
    Editor, CSTA Voice

    Posted by cstephenson at 02:53 PM | Comments (2)

    May 07, 2012

    Open Book Exams and SMOP

    It is perhaps fitting to write a blog about teaching programming while I sit here and monitor my students as they write the final exam. I did my other exam yesterday (same class, another lecture section) so the grading is very fresh in my mind.

    For the last few years I have been teaching one of the first three courses in our major, and all of these involve programming. I tend these days to make my exams open book, open notes, open anything-printed, but closed to anything electronic. I don't know how long the closed electronic can survive, but I don't know another way to keep the students from getting too much help from outside. I do not mind if they print off piles of paper, but I also try to warn them that they need to have indexed all their material. I have seen too many students frantically searching through a thousand pages of stuff looking for the one relevant paragraph. Given the level of detail, I don't mind that they would have written down good versions of code, provided they know what that code does... (I am thinking here of the question that asks for code to link a node into a linked list, and the thee students yesterday who wrote out the code to unlink a node ... what were they thinking?).

    By making all my exams open notes, I can't ask some of the simple questions like definitions. But I can ask them to become good librarians and good at finding the references to the material. If they can properly index and organize the details, they have probably learned the material. And perhaps through sheer repetition, they might come to understand the precise way in which things are said and written. In general, their writing is fuzzy, which I think is because their thinking is fuzzy. But this isn't a discipline where fuzzy thinking is a good idea.

    For various reasons, I have been reading a lot of books of late "about" software and about how computing is changing the world. Dreaming in Code, by Scott Rosenberg; Distrust That Particular Flavor, by William Gibson; Programmed Visions, by Wendy Chun. I have also been working with faculty from across campus on digital humanities projects. We live in this strange world in which really great ideas all come down to the issue of SMOP (a Small Matter of Programming). There is a huge amount of work in getting a big software artifact written and tested. There can be major issues in dealing with APIs. All that cool stuff is available for programming iPhones, for example, but it is necessary to understand the classes and methods and how they interrelate. The big issue for me, after a long time teaching, is how to balance the need for "skill" in programming with the need for knowing how to think about putting the small pieces of code together. We still drill students in arithmetic and spelling, probably on the basis that they need to be facile with the basic skills in order to deal with higher concepts. Programming is much the same, except the skills are harder to learn and the higher concepts much harder to understand when they are fuzzy. We can read a bad essay and know that it is bad. It is harder to look at bad code, or to run bad code, and know why we don't like what we see.

    Duncan Buell
    CSTA University Representative

    Posted by cstephenson at 09:27 AM | Comments (1)

    May 04, 2012

    Membership Survey Contest Winners

    Congratulations to the winners of our 2012 membership survey:

    - Daniel Loeb, from Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

    - Joanna Baniaga, Mililani, Hawaii, USA

    Our winners will each receive a $100 Amazon gift card. Daniel and Joanna, you will be notified by email in the next couple of days regarding how to redeem your prize.

    Our thanks to everyone for providing great feedback to help grow and direct the organization.

    Lissa Clayborn
    Director of Development, CSTA
    E: l.clayborn@hq.acm.org
    C: 1.541.913.9770

    Posted by cstephenson at 12:11 PM | Comments (0)

    May 03, 2012

    Contests Can Benefit Both Students and Teachers


    CSTA Board member Shirley Miranda with her students Namrata Das and Noa Glaser.

    Recently I attended NCWIT's Aspirations in Computing Southern California Awards Ceremony in Santa Ana, CA. Two students from my COSMOS (California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science) cluster on "Computers in Everyday Life" had won awards. I was invited to the event as their teacher (and probably because I wrote letters of recommendation for them). Regardless of the reason, it is always great to hear from the organization if the students won an award and to be invited to the ceremony.

    The Aspirations award was done in conjunction with a conference that was being held. This allowed the young women who won the opportunity to see the work currently being done by university students and to speak to a panel of students and professionals. As a student, I would have loved that. As a teacher, I love it. Young woman (and men too) don't hear often enough the potential for being a part of the computer science/engineering fields. There can be a feeling of isolation if they don't know where to look. Often, the students going into the fields are fairly introverted to begin with and aren't going to seek out a community. But if they know the community exists, they gravitate toward it.

    Not only were the young ladies in high school given the chance to talk with the students presenting their poster boards, but were explicitly told that their award isn't simply about a one-time meet and greet to receive their award. They are part of a larger community of organizations and companies that want to help them network and provide support. That they are expected to give back and participate.

    These young women are already interested in pursuing CS as a field. We need to keep them there. I think what NCWIT is doing with their Aspirations awardees is a great step in the right direction.

    You can find out more about Aspirations in Computing at http://www.ncwit.org/award/award.index.php

    Shirley Miranda
    CSTA Board of Directors

    Posted by cstephenson at 04:28 PM | Comments (0)