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First Day Activities Revisited

My district is starting school two weeks earlier this year. I have been thinking about how I could use the few extra days that I have gained before the AP test. I want to do a few activities at the beginning of the school year to engage my students and to introduce them to computer science. To find some activities I, of course, performed an Internet search. I noticed that First Day Activities was a CSTA blog post by Leigh Ann Sudol-Delyser in August 2007. That is why I titled my post First Day Activities Revisited.

In her post Leigh Ann describes her first day activity as follows:

One of my favorite first day activities is the paper airplane building exercise. I pair the students in groups of two and give each person a sheet of paper. The rules are that only one student is allowed to talk, and the other needs to follow the directions they are given EXACTLY. I then sit the students back to back so that they cannot see each other. The student who is allowed to talk creates a paper airplane and talks through the process, while the student who is not allowed to talk follows along. It is fun to see if they come out with the same airplane at the end of the session.

After the paper airplanes are built, I engage students in a discussion about the process, asking them questions such as: "Does the order in which you gave the directions matter?", "What was the most difficult thing about not being able to talk?" and "Would it have been helpful to get feedback during the process about how you were progressing so far?" (Hint - this is a subtle reminder about writing programs in pieces and compiling as you go along rather than trying to do it all at once.) I then refer back to this activity throughout the year as a common experience in which I can frame other parts of the code - compile - run - refactor process.

Baker Franke responded to Leigh Ann's post with his first day activity:

I break the class into small groups and have them write instructions for sorting eight playing cards. The rules:
1. The cards start face down on the table
2. The instructions must be for only one person.
3. The person moving the cards can only have one card in each hand at any point (i.e. s/he can only look at the values of two cards)
4. The instructions can't require that the person remember the value of a card once they put it down. You can however use the space on the table however you like.
Then we share.
This works really well for me for a number of reasons:
1. If there are enough groups you'll usually see all of the n^2 sorting algorithms come out...on the first day! At least one group does selection-sort, another insertion-sort, another bubble-sort, and you even get crazy mixes, it's quite fascinating. This pays huge dividends down the line when you actually have to teach the sorts. Just remind them what they saw on day 1.
2. The students don't feel patronized. Sorting is a deep, but accessible problem. They haven't touched a computer in the class yet, but they can understand that a computer needs to process things as a series of steps and this exercise immediately gets to the depth of that, showing that sorting things is not just something a computer can "do." There are choices that have to be made, trade-offs to be considered. Students also immediately, innately, start asking good questions - "what if the list is already in order?" - "What's the 'worst' order it could be in?"
3. I usually have one group read their instructions to me (I'm the computer) and follow *EXACTLY* what they say to make the point about ambiguity in instructions.
4. Once the kids have struggled with this, you can demonstrate mergesort on a set of cards (I sometimes wait until later in the year) and it's like magic to them. They love it, and see immediately why/how it works. I'm sure many of them use it as a party trick.
Anyway, that's my first day activity. Enjoy.

One first day activity that I have done for the past few years was one that Dean Johnson from Fort Atkinson High School in Wisconsin suggested to me. You have bags of candy and pass them out to groups. I allow the students to self-select the groups. The only condition I place on the groups is that the group must be four or fewer students. I tell the students to dump the candy onto the desk. The first question I ask the students is: What characteristic(s) does/do all of the candies have? We have a short discussion about the characteristics the students suggest.

Then I have the student groups think of a characteristic that they can use to sort the candy. I have them write it on a piece of paper then sort the candy. After the groups have sorted the candy, each group shares what their characteristic was. I then have them do it again and repeat the same process. The groups do it a third time. I have the groups turn in their write ups. I have referred back to this activity when we are discussing attributes in relation to classes and objects.

Last week I attended CS4HS at Crafton Hills College, Yucaipa, CA. As the professor was discussing the definition of computer science, I thought of another activity I could do on the first day using the references that were discussed. I would have the students work in pairs to describe/define computer science. After they have finished, the pairs would share their definitions. Using the references from the workshop, I would have the students go online and summarize the definitions from the different sources and compare and contrast their definition with the definitions they looked up. Then discuss what they found.

One other possible first day activity I found on Twitter was the Robots Game. Stuart Wray, Senior Lecturer at the Royal School of Signals in Blandford, England describes the game and has the maze on his blog: http://onfoodandcoding.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-robots-game.html

He has a board for every six players and six robot pieces number 1 through 6. The six players are divided into two teams. Each player writes up to 10 moves onto a move-sheet. One person rolls the dice to determine which robot starts first and executes all of its moves. The others follow in numeric order. For each robot the owner reads the moves from the move sheet and another player executes the moves. A robot moves one square for each forward or backward instruction or turns left or right without a move for those directions. If there is another robot in the square the robot whose turn it is moves into the occupied location and the stationary robot will be moved one space out of the way. The players continue to move the robots using the move sheet until their robot reaches the exit squares. The first team with all their robots on an exit square wins.

Dr. Wray says that after the game is over, he points out to the students the relationship of the game to programming. The moves are blindly executed just like computers execute code without thinking.

I am looking for more first day activities.

What first day activities have been successful for you?

Myra Deister
CSTA At-Large Representative

Comments

Thank you Myra! I'm ready for the first day - and it won't be filling out book cards and passing out books and going over classroom procedures for the year (blah!) I also may throw in the icebreaker activity that I credit to Barb Ericson - where the student write their names, their hobbies, and one thing fun about themselves on a piece of paper. Then crumple and throw around the room. After a few tosses, everyone picks one up. Then each person starting with ___ reads about the person on the paper and that read about person is next to read.

Cool Activity! I also do that before, and it is so enjoyable to do. First day of class is really memorable for me. I also have my own experience to share but not now. Haha. Thanks for sharing. Keep posting

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