Monday, May 16, 2022

BINGO Inspired Projects

My son’s school, he’s principal of an elementary school, had a Bingo themed fundraiser yesterday. I can’t help but think about how things are done with any event like this. My first thought was about the Bingo cards themselves.

Typical Bingo cards consists of a five by five grid. The letters B I N G O label the columns and each column has a random number. The center square of the grid is a “free” square and doesn’t have a number. Obviously, generating Bingo grids is a logical project. The numbers in each column must be without a specific range and duplicates are not permitted.

The next obvious project is one to “call” the numbers. The numbers must be identified by number and column where the column is identified by the letter above the column. Drawing duplicate numbers is not permitted so keeping track of numbers drown is important. Keeping track of numbers drawn is also important for verifying Bingos. A program should have a way to do that . This becomes a user interface problem as well as a data storage problem. That may be the most interesting part of the project. At least it is for me.

Now if you really wanted to get complicated, one could design a system where Bingo cards are numbered and their contents stored. One might then be able to use that data with the data of numbers drawn to verify if a Bingo was on the card using only the number of the card. I see this as a group project where individual students would write parts of the program and have them work together. A lot of planning would have to go into this of course.

The Bingo at my son’s school used a traditional ball cag. That seems more fun somehow than drawing the numbers on a computer. That doesn’t mean that software would be a bad way to keep track of numbers drawn and used to verify a Bingo. Another project idea perhaps?

On the other hand, the whole idea opens a discussion of “just because something and be computerized does that mean is should be?” The human factor is an important one. I’d love to have student discuss the pros and cons of computerized Bingo and old fashioned ball cages and physical tracking of drawn balls. Which is more authentic? What does authentic even mean?  That discussion might be just as useful as discussion of what data structures should be used to track Bingo numbers.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Teach CS in K-12? Please Help Gather Data

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the Kapor Center are conducting a survey of K-12 computer science teachers in the United States. The CS education landscape continues to evolve, and we want to hear directly from teachers about your experiences, challenges, and what resources would be most useful to you at this time. Having detailed and current information allows policymakers, curriculum & PD providers, State Departments of Education, membership associations, and other organizations to better understand and meet the needs of teachers. Results will be used to make specific recommendations to improve support for CS teachers.

If you teach K-12 computer science, we need your voice!

We invite you to participate in this national survey, which will take approximately 20 minutes of your time. Responses are confidential and optional.

As thanks for your time, the first 3,000 teachers who complete the survey will receive their choice of a $10 Tremendous gift card. All participants will be entered in a raffle for one of five $200 gift cards.

Please encourage other CS teachers to also complete the survey, and if you have any questions, please contact membership@csteachers.org or research@kaporcenter.org. Many thanks again for contributing vital insights to improving K-12 computer science education!

With appreciation,

CSTA and Kapor Center

Build

Learn more about the Computer Science Teacher Association here.

Learn more about the Kapor Center here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Last Mile Education Fund–Making a Big Difference

We often underestimate the difference that small things can make. When I was in high school all I could afford was a cheap plastic slide rule (no calculators back then) and it really slowed me down with math. I sometimes wonder what a more expensive and accurate slide rule would have done for me. I had other privileges and did well in the long run. But that is not the case for everyone.

Privilege often gets conflated with potential when in fact a lot of potential gets short circuited because of obstacles that are more common for non-privileged students. Things that are non-issues for many become showstoppers for far to many others.

Picture a student with great potential in computer science who can’t afford a good laptop? Or cannot afford her textbooks or lab fees? Low income students often take longer to graduate because they don’t have adequate preparation and need some extra courses and time to catch up. That often means they run short of funds even with the finish line in sight.  Even good scholarships often leave gaps in funding that limit students from underprivileged backgrounds.

That’s where the Last Mile Education Fund is making a difference today. From the mission statement of the Last Mile Education Fund:

  “The Last Mile Education Fund takes an abundance approach, investing in a broader group of students already committed to technology and engineering fields, providing support for challenges they face beyond their control, and incubating them to be the next generation of innovators. “

Last Mile Education Fund invests in striving, low-income students pursuing degrees in the high-demand fields of technology and engineering to support them in their last mile to graduation and into a career.

A number of grant programs are available. Some of them specifically for female and non-binary students but a number of them are available to all genders.  The Microsoft Cybersecurity scholarship is for community college students of any gender for example. Full information about these opportunities is available at the Current Funding Opportunities page. I have links attached to some that have pages with more details.They include:

  1. EMERGENCY MINI-GRANTS
  2. Bridge Grants
  3. LAST MILE GRANTS
  4. MICROSOFT CYBERSECURITY SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM
  5. NORTH TEXAS BIOTECH WORKFORCE FUND
  6. REU PARTICIPATION FELLOWSHIP

If you know of students who could take advantage of these grants please spread the word.  And let teams/people at universities and colleges who support low-income students know about these programs as well. They can help a lot of high potential students with some hurtles that could but shouldn’t hold them back.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Word Games and Cryptography

My latest discovery, thanks to Doug Peterson, is Crazy Phrase. Crazy Phrase is something of a variation of Wordle except that in Crazy Phrase the player is a phrase to discover. Clues are similar to Wordle with visual clues like green being a letter in the right place, yellow being in the wrong place but in the right word and blue being a good letter for the phrase but placed in the wrong word.

I was a bit intimidated when I first visited this new puzzle. I soon realized that some things involved in decoding cryptograms can be helpful. As with Wordle, looking for common letters is particularly helpful. With phrases we have the added option of looking for common words. This is especially true with two and three letter words. Words like “to”, “on”, “of” and the like can be very helpful in spotting the direction a phrase of going.

There is a proliferation of games on the internet inspired by Wordle these days. They offer a lot of possibilities for teaching problem solving. Creating new versions of games is an obvious programming project. Discussing these as cryptography related is an other possible topic. The use of computers to analyze strings is widely used for many applications so getting students to think about the process as used in games can be very helpful. And fun.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

APCS A–Java or Python?

There is a lot of discussion about moving the Advanced Placement CS A exam to Python from Java. The Collegeboard is reluctant to do so. They see APCSA as the equivalent to CS1 or the first course for CS majors in university. They cite research that indicates that APCSA students for very well in CS2 (usually data structures) and that CS2 is almost always taught in Java or C++. On the other hand, at many universities the purpose of CS 1 is growing and the audience is widening to include students from many different majors. I wrote about that yesterday (What Should APCS A Really Be About?) Mike Zamansky took it on on his blog as well (SIGCSE 2022 - What language APCS-A part 1 - the intent)

It seems like we have to first agree on the intent or purpose of APCSA (and CS1) before we discuss language. Given that agreement is never going to happen – CS people can’t agree on anything. So I will start my discussion from the standpoint of APCS A should increase diversity in computer science and prepare students for using computing in CS as well as other disciplines.

This is a concepts first decision not a language first decision. I feel that non-CS majors need the same concepts as CS majors. SO what are those concepts? Not a lot changes except that in computing widely APOs are bringing far more critical than they used to. They enable programmers to easily do things that used to be hard. They also more things we used to do early to later in a CS major.

Sorting is one example. With so many libraries to do sorting why should we spend a lot of time in a first course having students write sorts? We know they sorts they will write are not going to be up to the standards and power of sorts they can call that exist already. Algorithms? Surely there are other algorithms we can focus on to help students learn to study problems and developing algorithms?

So if we want to increase the number of students who study computer science beyond the limited scope of would be computer science majors preparing students for CS2 loses some power in the argument. And Python gains some because of all the APIs that are available and all the other disciplines that are already using it.

At SIGCSE, the panel members arguing for Python talked about much of what I write above. They also talked about Python avoiding some of the “cruft” of Java. How much easier “Hello world” is in Python for example. The “other side” focused mostly on the costs of changing and not specific criticisms of Python. There are things about Python that people do raise. It’s dynamic typing rather than Java’s strict typing. I’m a strict typing person myself but I can be open minded. Also the use of white space. Now it is not clear to me that either white space or curly braces have advantages over the other so I see that as a wash as well.

The post panel poll, FWIW, had 57% saying to switch to Python and 28% saying “keep Java” with the rest being answers all over the map.

I have no dog in this fight since I no longer teach AP CS but I am leaning toward that it is time for a change. I like the idea of a high school course, even on modeled on a university course, preparing a wider range of students for a wider range of majors.

The Collegboard is going to do what they want and the costs of changing may be as big a factor as anything. They are also driven by what universities do and as universities revisit the purpose of CS1 that will have more impact on anything anyone in high school has to say.

Mike Zamansky has a different take on this at SIGCSE 2022 - APCS-A Language strengths and weaknesses

Monday, March 07, 2022

What Should APCS A Really Be About?

Perhaps my favorite panel of SIGCSE 2022 was debating the question of should the APCS A course switch its language from Java to Python? During the discussion it occurred to me that there was a bigger question that had to be answered first That is “what is the purpose of APCS A?” Now the normal and obvious answer is that it should be equivalent to university CS1 courses – the first course CS majors take in university. That's too easy and also not helpful.

What should CS1 be all about? Traditionally, CS 1 was a course taken by CS majors and was preparation for the rest of the CS curriculum. Today it is not that simple. Increasingly, other departments in other disciplines are wanting their students to take CS1 or something much like it. Engineering, astronomy, physics, and business are just some of the areas where programming is growing as a tool. The CS department is the best department to teach this first course.

What does that mean? Well, for one thing it opens the door to more programming languages. While Java and C++ are the big languages for a next course for CS majors the same is not true for other departments. Without getting into the language discussion (until my next post) we need to look at what concepts are needed and ask if they are similar enough for everyone.

Owen Astrachan suggested at SIGCSE that the “A” in “APCSA” has traditionally stood for “Algorithm” but should now stand for “API.” Not that we ignore algorithms of course but that APIs were the way computing was increasingly being done. If we look at how non-CS programs are using programming we see that this is very much the case. This probably means that for CS to remain and improve as a teaching, learning, research tool it has to focus on APIs as well.

That is probably only one example of things we should look at changing (in APCSA and CS1) I  get the impression that many university departments are already changing and looking at changes as they see their CS1 course serving more than just CS majors.

Circling back to APCSA in particular, are all of our APCSA students going to major (or minor) in CS? Probably not. Many? Perhaps. But a majority are probably going to move into other areas of study. To we ignore their needs to focus only on future CS majors? That seems a recipe for turning students off from computing completely. High school courses should never be weed out course. One can have a rigorous impactful course without scaring people away from the field.

There is a lot of thinking about what CS1/APSCA should be about and I want to learn more about how university departments are adjusting to today’s  needs for students. Keeping things the way they are today just because we have always done it that way seems a lot less than ideal.

What is your thinking? What should CS1/APCSA be focusing on?

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Final Thoughts on SIGCSE 2022

I had a great time at SIGCSE 2022. As an introvert I probably suffered less from not being with people than many but after two years I really needed to be with people. I was able to connect in-person with friends I had not seen in years. Some a decade or more. That was truly awesome. The community building of an in-person conference should not be understated.

I had some great “hallway track” conversations. This is not nearly as easy in a remote conference and it contributed to what I was learning. Besides being with people I really did want to learn. So my hallway conversations were not all catching up with friends. I was able to ask a lot of questions about the work various people were doing. Things often outside the scope of a specific talk or panel that I attended.

I visited with Ruthe Farmer of the Last Mile Fund. The Last Mile fund is “investing in a broader group of students already committed to technology and engineering fields, providing support for challenges they face beyond their control, and incubating them to be the next generation of innovators.” It’s an amazing program that helps students who are missed by a lot of programs giving them the help they need to complete their educations. They are particularly focused on women but have some money for men in community  colleges. Check them out if you know someone who needs a little help making it through.

It seemed like there were multiple interesting sessions in every time slot. Where I had to choose I picked panel or supporter sessions over paper sessions. Mainly that was because with paper sessions I could at least read the paper. Not the same thing but it was that or miss out on a panel completely.

The elephant in the room may have been COVID and masks. COVID times was a topic of conversation but masks? Not that I heard. The conference organized stated that even though CDC guidelines had changed the attendees had signed up expecting everyone would be masked so they were going to stick with that. I think it was the right decision. While masks are not always comfortable and they make it a little harder to recognize people it added to comfort levels for many attendees. Including me.

Sessions were split between the Rhode Island Convention center and the Omni hotel. The two are connected and traveling between them was pretty easy. I have a bias to all being in the same building but honestly I have walked further between sessions in some convention centers so there is that. The rooms themselves were large, accommodating people sitting apart if that made them more comfortable. I suspect that is what required using both facilities when one might have divided large rooms under normal circumstances.

Hybrid sessions where some or all of the presenters were remote were interesting. It worked pretty well overall. I hear there were some that were played recordings with no interaction but I didn’t “attend” any of them. The real bonus of a paper session is being able to ask the author questions so that is important. Mike Zamansky has more on this on his post at SIGCSE 2022 - Conference format.

I left Providence with a lot to think about and some great memories of visiting with people face to face – even with masks. Now to renew my passport so I can attend next year in Toronto!