Thursday, April 27, 2017

How important is the first programming language really?

We really need people who have never faced a room full of  students in their lives to teach us how to teach computer science.

Said no CS teacher ever.

What brought that on you may well ask. Long story. First Mark Guzdial posts about changes at Stanford (Stanford CS department updates introductory courses: Java is Gone) highlighting an experimental version of their first programming course to use JavaScript. Then it hits Reddit (Stanford is moving from using Java to JavaScript for their introductory CS course) where hundreds of comments follow. Yes, hundreds. Most appear to be from people who have never taught a class themselves but have strong opinions of what a first language should be. And the occasional journalist kicks in with something like Universities finally realize that Java is a bad introductory programming language

How ever would we poor ignorant teachers get along without these experts? Fortunately for my sanity Mike Zamansky who actually is a teacher jumps in with some useful thought. A new first language? What's the follow up plan?

I believe that a first programming course is very important. The language used, while important, is not the biggest consideration. Rather is is the concepts covered (see Mike’s post) and how well the instructor does in preparing students for what comes next. The new course at Stanford is going to be taught by Eric Roberts who is one of the al time outstanding CS educators. I’d sign up for that course because of the instructor even if it was in COBOL.

Teacher is important. Curriculum is important. Projects and assignments that help learning are important. Language some where down the line.

I figure I’ve learned a new programming language about once every three years for the last 45. While I joke that I can still write a good FORTRAN program in any language the truth of the matter is that learning new languages changes how I code and how I think about problems. The first language got me hooked. But that was not the end all and be all. The first course is just the first course. There is a lot more to come and it would be a mistake to try to cram a four year undergraduate curriculum into a one semester (or even full year) high school course. And yet that is what some "experts" seem to be trying to do.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Surface Book–a first look

I’ve had two Surface Pros. A Surface Pro 3 and a Surface Pro 4. I love them. Make no mistake these have been idea travel computers for me. And powerful enough for just about everything I could want. They are also great for teaching as I can carry them around the room, use the tablet, and project wirelessly to my LCD projector. But I have had my eyes on the Surface Book for a while.

And now, thanks to the MIE Expert program and the Surface Experts program (https://education.microsoft.com/microsoft-innovative-educator-programs/mie-expert) I just received a new Surface Book. As someone who teaching computer science this means three things for me. 1) More disk space - more VS is being installed now 2) more memory (8gb) so emulators should run better for mobile development 3) a faster CPU.

Actually the more memory means the most to me. More disk is a close second. Modern CPUs are fast enough for just about everything I do. Also the screen on the Surface Book is larger which is also a nice thing.

As I said though memory and disk are big plusses for me. I’m not your average classroom teacher. I like to install lots of software (I’ve had as many as three versions of Visual Studio installed at once in the past) and I always want to try more things. The disk space on the Surface Pro limited me a bit. The Surface Book has twice as much disk so I have installed a bunch of Visual Studio things to play with. I may not need it all for teaching but I do for learning.

Memory is the next big item. My Surface Pros have 4gb of RAM. I can run mobile emulators but barely and I have to be very careful about what else is running. With the Surface Book and its 8gb that problem goes away. With my computer lab being updated to 8gb systems over the summer I now have a lot more options to my Mobile Development course next year. To say nothing of my own “needs” for mobile development.

The look of the Surface Book is nice as well. I’m not big on esthetics of computers but having a nice clean design is nice. I understand the keyboard (a very nice friendly keyboard BTW) comes off but I don’t need that very often. And I still have my Surface Pro 4 if I do.

All in all I am very happy with it so far. It’s everything the Surface Pro is but more. Just what a computer science teacher who can’t stop trying new things needs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Code Slow Finish Fast

Looking through student code today brought this quote to mind.

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

Students are always in a hurry to write the code for programming projects. No matter how strongly I suggest they think about the problem and design their code most of them start coding right away. This often results is a lot of code where a small amount of code will work just as well if not better.

Often the techniques for less code require a bit more thought. Setting up a long set of if statements with a bunch of different variable names is tedious but doesn’t always require as much planning as setting up an array and loop solution does. Students are in a hurry so they take what they think are shortcuts.

Experience tells of course. My version of Whack A Mole (our current programming project) can be changed from 5 possible “moles” to 6 by changing one 5 to a 6. Some of my students would have to write, well let’s just say I don’t want to do the math.  We’ll go over the options during our next class. The theme will be to think more before starting to code though.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Math vs Programming

MathTake a look at these two equations. I found the first one on Facebook. The second is my first attempt at rewriting it for the computer. What is the answer?

Well the first answer is 1. The second answer is 9. How is that possible? If you think about it there is a sort of implied parenthesis around 1/3. It’s pretty clear in the more traditional mathematical expression that one is to divide by one third and not 1 divided by three. imageA more accurate expression for the computer would have some parenthesis to make things obvious. That would give one the answer 1 that the traditional expression provides.

We see this sort of thing a lot – students assuming that equations in programming are exactly the same as the mathematical expressions their are used to using.  The most common issue is students thinking that the = sign allows copies from left to right as well as right to left. After all in mathematics the = sign means that both sides of the equation have the same value. That is not the same think as the = sign meaning copy the value on the right into the location on the left.

Some functional languages do things differently. The WeScheme IDE and DrRacket used by Bootstrap for example. That curriculum takes a much more algebra focused look at computer science. Or is that a more computer science focus approach to algebra? Either way it seems to be very effective. (Note that Bootstrap training is available though CSPdWeek and other venues.)

Those of us using other platforms though have a lot to contend with as we teach students how to build expressions that mean what students think they mean. Is it worth the effort? I tend to think so. But it is confusing at times.  Days like to today make me rethink things.

Computer Science Teachers Association T-shirt Campaign

Are you a computer science education super hero? You know you are so now you need the t-shirt. Get yours here and also support the computer science teachers association. cs hero

Just the thing to wear to the CSTA conference or really any education event. I would love to see lots of them at ISTE to let people know that CS educators are there

Saturday, March 25, 2017

CSPdWeek: Free Professional Development for many K-12 Teachers

The people I talk to who went to last year;s event rave about it. If you are looking for some good professional development this is well worth looking into.


Thanks to funding from Infosys Foundation, NSF, NCWIT, and CSTA, CSPdWeek is *on* again for next year: July 17-21st, 2017

. CSPdWeek is a distinctive cross-curricular event that offers high-quality professional development for teachers planning to teach any of the following: 

  •       AP CS Principles
  •       AP CS A (Java)
  •       Exploring Computer Science
  •       Bootstrap

Each of these week-long workshops will be led by leaders in the field. In addition, counselors are invited to attend half the week (2.5 days) for professional development. 

Please share this email with anyone planning to teach computer science in K-12 during the 2017-18 academic year, as well as counselors at high schools. Extended details on each of the CSPdWeek tracks are below. Information and application materials are available at: http://www.cspdweek.org

Colorado School of Mines is excited to host this exceptional event.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

ACM and CSTA Announce Cutler-Bell Prize Student Winners

Make no mistake I think the Cutler-Bell Prize is an outstanding award. I love that it recognizes early computer scientists (high school students!) for outstanding achievement.

This year's winners appear (based on the names) to be computational focused magnet schools. On one hand that such schools exist is great and even exciting. On the other hand I worry about the kids who have great interest in computer science but who don't get the opportunity to spend several high school years learning the cool stuff and working on great projects. Will the publicity for this award motivate more school districts to set up more similar magnet programs? Or perhaps at least look at expanding the CS offerings they offer? I hope so.

In the mean time I congratulate these students. It looks like they have done some serious work and I wish them great success in the future.


ACM and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) have announced the 2016-2017 winners of the Cutler-Bell Prize in High School Computing. Three high school students were selected from among a pool of graduating high school seniors throughout the US. Eligible students applied for the award by submitting a project/artifact that engages modern technology and computer science. A panel of judges selected the recipients based on the ingenuity, complexity, relevancy and originality of their projects.

The Cutler-Bell Prize promotes the field of computer science and empowers students to pursue computing challenges beyond the traditional classroom environment. In 2015, David Cutler and Gordon Bell established the award. Cutler is a software engineer, designer, and developer of several operating systems at Digital Equipment Corporation. Bell, an electrical engineer, is researcher emeritus at Microsoft Research.

The winners are Elizabeth Hu, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (Virginia); Avi Swartz, Cherry Creek High School for Computational Biology (Colorado); and Aaron Walter, Yorkville High School for Computer Science (Illinois). Their submissions ranged from using data to study refugee migration models; determining type and quantity of protein components in biological samples; and a software program that evaluates students’ understanding of curriculum components.

Each Cutler-Bell Prize winner receives a $10,000 cash prize. This year’s recipients will be formally recognized at the Computer Science Teachers Association’s annual conference, July 8-11.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Datasets For Use in Teaching Computer Science

I found this thanks to the APCS A mailing list. 

CORGIS Datasets Project

The Collection of Really Great, Interesting, Situated Datasets

“The CORGIS Datasets Project seeks to make highly-motivating introductory computing experiences through simple, easy-to-pick-up datasets for beginners. We offer a wide range of libraries for many different programming languages and contexts. “

I haven’t looked at the libraries yet as they are for languages (Java, Python, and Racket) that I am not currently using but I would be if I were using them. There are also raw data sets in sql, JSON, and CSV formats. I use CSV files a lot and was very please with the look of the 43 data sets in that format. I can see some interesting projects ahead for my programming classes, data analysis in Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles, and even my freshmen course where we use EXCEL.

If you are interested in good data for real learning I recommend you take a look at https://think.cs.vt.edu/corgis/