Wednesday, April 27, 2016

2016 Cutler-Bell Prize contest now OPEN!

The Cutler-Bell Prize is awarded to outstanding high school students who do computer science work well beyond the bounds of an ordinary high school computer science course. The first awardees did some amazing work. You can read about their projects ACM AND CSTA ANNOUNCE FIRST-EVER CUTLER-BELL PRIZE STUDENT WINNERS. I was impressed and I think you will be as well.

But maybe you have or know of some impressive high school computer science students. If so it is time to tell them about this years contest.

Below is the official CSTA announcement.  

The ACM and CSTA are excited to announce the opening of the 2016 Cutler-Bell Prize for Excellence in High School Computing contest. Applications will be accepted May 1 - November 1.

This prize seeks to promote and encourage the field of computer science, as well as to empower young and aspiring learners to pursue computing challenges outside of the traditional classroom environment.

Up to four winners will be selected to be awarded a $10,000 prize. The prizes will be funded by a $1 million endowment established by David Cutler and Gordon Bell.

Eligible applicants for the award will include graduating high school seniors residing and attending school in the US. Challenges for the award will focus on developing an artifact that engages modern computing technology and computer science. Judges will look for submissions that demonstrate ingenuity, complexity, relevancy, originality, and a desire to further computer science as a discipline.

The application is NOW available and will close on November 1, 2016. Winners are expected to be announced in January of 2017.

Please share this exciting announcement with your fellow teachers and your students!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hands On with the BBC Micro:Bit

Recently a padded envelop showed up in the mail. No return address. No identifying information. Inside was a BBC Micro:Bit. Now I have played with one once or twice and of course tried out software in emulation at the official BBC Micro:Bit website this is my first chance to really get into it. And I am grateful for the chance..

Micro accessoriesIt comes with a power source, which uses two AAA batteries, and a short USB cable for attaching to  your computer. When you plug in the Micro:Bit (at least on my Windows 10 systems) it shows up as an external disk drive. More about that shortly.

The device itself is pretty cool and obviously meant to be easy to understand. One side has the “stuff that makes it work” and is clearly labeled.


Seeing things like compass and accelerometer is a good clue that there are more to this gadget than some pretty lights. Though it does have pretty lights on the other side. Twenty five of them to be specific.


Here we see the A and B buttons which are programmable, the LED grid and the labeled pins for attaching things to it. I have a Makey Makey that may be plugged in soon. We’ll see. BTW I blurred out the white box in case it has information to track down where it came from just in case someone might get into a fix for sharing it on the wrong side of the pond.

My idea of a “hello world” is to make the lights light up and rotate around the screen. I used the version of TouchDevelop for my first couple of tests. There are JavaScript, Block Editor, and Python options as well.


The way it works is that you write code, test it in the emulator (assuming you are the testing sort – I am), and then compile it to a .HEX file. The .HEX file is then copied to the MICROBIT where it runs.

The .HEX file is downloaded to your Downloads folder (at least on Windows 10) and has the name of the script as its name. You could easily have a bunch of scripts compiled and ready to move to the Micro:Bit. Copies go quickly.

The Micro:Bit will run without the separate power supply while it is connected to the computer. But to take it and show off your program to you friends you’ll need to plug in the power supply.  Losing power does not lose your program from the Micro:Bit. So you don’t have to keep the power on all the time. When you plug in the power the last program you downloaded will run right away.

You could. in theory, use these without a class set but I wouldn’t recommend it. If my experience is any indication it is much more motivating to see the program run on the device than the emulator. Somehow the emulator is just not as real. Plus you can take the device around to show your friends a lot easier than you can a full size computer. Students will want to move around showing off for a while and you can’t do that with less than a class set.

It will be a while (sometime next week) before I can show this to students and get their impressions. In the mean time I’m going to try a few things and think about how I might use these next year if they become more widely available.

I would love to hear from teachers and students in the UK who are using them though. What works? What is cool? What should I watch out for?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Interesting Links 25 April 2016

April vacation! Yes we do things different in New England. After this week we still have 7 to 8 weeks of school left. So this is a good time for a break. I hope to use some of it to work on some projects like writing up some of the assignments I have been using to make then sharable, cleaning my home office desk, and playing with some “toys” like my Kinect and a BBC Micro:Bit that showed up in an envelop with no return address.  For today I have a few links to share.

Bill Gates: Ed Tech Has Underachieved, But Better Days Are Ahead … via @EdMarketBrief He’s both right and wrong here. I think he still doesn’t get the culture of education, the need for more professional development and that new hardware and software is not the magic bullet  to “fix” education.

Root, the code-teaching robot Yet another "new idea" that seems familiar. Doesn't appear to be widely available. I’ll add it to me list of Robots For Teaching Programming when it shows up “in the wild.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Surface Pro 4 Unboxing

My Surface Pro 3 has been my constant companion and major computer workhouse ever since I got it over a year ago. It’s pretty much ideal for a school computer. I’m seeing more and more students carry them around the building all the time. So when the opportunity came to apply for the MIE Surface Experts program I jumped. I was accepted and today I received a Surface Education Expert Kit. I thought I might share the unboxing with you.

WP_20160420_001The outside of the box really highlights the inking features. That’s something I really want to start using more. I think the combination of projecting on the screen and writing by hand will let me do some things I have been thinking about but haven’t really done much yet.


Now my first look inside the box. Everything is neatly arraigned and pretty easy to find. I went with the small things first.



WP_20160420_003This is a wireless display adapter. I’m going to connect it for the LCD projector in my room. I’ve been using a mostly software solution to connect with our existing wireless connection but it’s been slow and doesn’t have all the functionality I’d like. Based on what I have heard this will be better. I’ll report on that soon.

WP_20160420_004Ok the computer is out of the box. It’s a little larger than my Surface Pro 3 but still very light. I think it is a pretty nice looking device. All smooth and clean. It’s got an Intel Core M3 processor and 4GB of RAM. Not exactly top of the line but should be more than adequate for school use.

WP_20160420_005Next up the Touch Keyboard. This seems to be upgraded from the keyboard I received with my Surface Pro 3. Blue is my favorite color. How did they know? It works very well and feels natural.



WP_20160420_007Here is a side by side look at the new Surface Pro 4 (on they right) next to my older Surface Pro 3 (on the left).

One unexpected difference is the Pro 4 supports Microsoft Hello – logging in by it recognizing my face. I need to try that once the software installs are finished.

WP_20160420_006And there are some marketing materials. I’m planning on doing a show and tell for the teachers in my school soon. We’re buying new faculty computers for next year. I think there is will be a lot of interest in inking as time goes on and teachers see what you can do with it.

As I write this software installations of Office 365 and Visual Studio Community Edition 2015 are taking place. Open Live Writer for blogging is already installed and I have connected it to my OneDrive. More updates after I’ve run it through it’s paces.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Interesting Links 18 April 2016

Last week was both long and short. Short in that I only spent three days at school. Long in that I spent the weekend and Monday working at the K 12 Computer Science Framework Stakeholders Convening Time well spent of course even with a long travel day Monday night into Tuesday. BTW just a suggestion. Make sure to pay attention to AM and PM when making reservations. Just saying.

More than compiling is a great blog post by Doug Peterson that takes off where one of my posts (It Compiled, It Ran, It Must Be Right. Right? )  leaves off.

CaptionBot is a new AI bot from Microsoft that attempts to describe images that are feed to it. Visit to try it out.

Kinect and the self-driving car is about using different types od sensors in self-driving cars. An interesting conversation to have.

In IDE or the Cloud Mike Zamansky takes on the question of using a web based development or one installed locally.  He covers the plusses and minuses of both. It’s a useful article for teachers looking at what tools to use for teaching programming.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Teaching Binary with a Clock

There has been a Binary clock on my desk at school for some years now. I like using it to help students learn Binary numbers. A few years ago I wrote a software version to display on my white board so everyone could see it. (More on that at Can You Explain the Binary Clock?) It works pretty well but today I got an idea. Wouldn’t it be better to have the students set the values in the clock?

Binary time

A few minutes work over lunch and I modified the program to let me display an empty set of circles that I could have students fill in.

I brought students to the board and gave them a time and asked them to fill in the circles to show the time requested. I think it was a lot easier than it would have been without the template on the white board. It probably let me get more students up at the board working things out which is a plus.

This exercise seemed to work out pretty well today with most students seeming to get the hang of things quickly. After that we talked a bit more about how computers store information using Binary numbers.

Later I remembered how little kids learn to tell time by setting the hands of toy clocks to different times. I wonder if students still learn analog clocks in kindergarten and first grade?

BTW my primary blog list of Resources For Teaching Binary Numbers can be found at this link. I’m always looking to update it with new resources so let me know about any you might use. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

It Compiled, It Ran, It Must Be Right. Right?

One of the hardest things about teaching students about programming is getting them to properly test their code. Testing is something I explain regularly and go over from the very beginning of a course. Every course. And yet, time and again I run student programs myself and find they are not giving the correct answers.

Anyone who has every taught students programming has looked at the results of a student program and asked them “is that the right answer?” and had them reply “I don’t know. I think so.” Students seem to assume that if the program compiles and runs and gives an answer then it must be the right answer. It’s as if they expect magic from the computer sometimes.

One of the very first projects many students see is temperature conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Well at least it is common in the US where we are still using Fahrenheit but our neighbors are using Celsius. Students will plug in random numbers, get an answer and declare “it works.” Now I test that sort of program by using temperatures I know the answer to: boiling and freezing temperatures of water and of course –40 which is the same on both scales. This seldom seems to occur to students though. I wish I knew why but at least it is the basis for a good conversation on test data.

Should I provide test data with expected results for projects? That’s pretty easy for some projects. It’s not as easy for others. I also want students to figure out how to create good test data though and handing out too much test data gets in the way of that. There is also the problem of students hardcoding results into a project. That hasn’t happened in my classes in a long time but I know it does happen.

We’ll be having yet another conversation about testing in my class this week. Perhaps I just need to keep hammering it in. Anyone have any advice for me? I’m open to suggestions.