Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Book Review: "Tools and Weapons"

"Tools and Weapons" by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne is a look at some important computing issues through a Microsoft lens. It is a pretty revealing look as the authors write seriously about the thinking behind Microsoft’s dealing with issues like the Snowden leaks, suits against the government about over reaching subpoenas, protection of users data, transparency, cyber security, and more.

I really like this line from the introduction "When your technology changes the world, you have a responsibility to help address the world you helped create."

There were several threads moving through the book. One was the need for building guiding principles for looking at technology and its uses. An other was the need for diversity among people developing technology and the guiding principles. There is frank talk about embedded bias in algorithms and how diversity is essential to fixing that problem. Responsibility for what technology does is another key thread. Without using these words, the book suggests that “should we” is as important if not more so than “can we.”

The chapters on Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition are the best look at the pros and cons I have read so far. Many people seem to have a doomsday view of AI but Smith and Browne have a more nuanced look; one that is not apocalyptic but more practical and near term. There is a lot to think about in these chapters but the picture painted is more about how we need to think about issues going forward than that we should either panic or be unconcerned.

I found the chapter on China very interesting. It was clearly written carefully to outline cultural and political differences without appearing to attack anyone. I might have preferred a stronger stance but I’m not the president of a global company.

One clear takeaway for me is that today’s Microsoft is not the same Microsoft as it was under Ballmer or Gates. Satya Nadella is a different sort of leader altogether and ethics and principles of a company are set at the top. Where Gates was naïve in some ways and Ballmer was focused on the bottom line Nadella, while not losing sight of the bottom line and still naïve in some ways (remember his gaffs about women getting ahead) looks at things differently, listens better, and is interested in the better good.

His decision to release Windows XP patches for the WannaCry virus for free is one I have to wonder if Ballmer would have made the same way. Maybe he would have but that I have to wonder is telling.

The book is not a difficult read. The language is non technical and technology is explained in layman’s terms. That is not to say that the book is only for non-technical people. I think technical people should read it. So should policy makers in both government and the private sector. It would make a great supplemental reading for an ethics course, especially for an ethics course for technical people.

One last interesting thought from the book. No one graduates from a US military academy without taking an ethics course but many people graduate with technical degrees without taking an ethics course. Maybe that should change.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Password Checking Tools

Neil Plotnick shared some Password Checking Tools on Facebook recently. I’ve used some of these in the past and find them useful and instructive.

The more security aware of my students always ask me how safe it is to use these websites. I tell them to use things they think are good passwords but not ones they actually use. Some of the sites make the same recommendation.

The first two sites above give an estimate for how long it would take a computer to brute force crack the password. The estimates don’t always agree. This is not surprising as they are probably based on some slightly different assumptions. The time scale is more important than the actual number though.

The third site explains why a password it strong or weak which is very useful. One thing that is interesting is the impact of special characters. I have run into a number of sites that don’t allow special characters in passwords. I find that surprising and wonder why that is. I’d rather require their inclusion.

Having students in a programming class write their own password checker is a great exercise by the way. It helps reinforce string manipulation, general parsing concepts, and password safety all at the same time.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

This is a great program for high school girls interested in technology. I have had several students get awards at the state level and they all say it has been a good thing for them.


Hello Educators! Applications for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing are now open! The deadline is November 5th, 2019. As an educator, you play a pivotal role in supporting the next generation of technologists. When 2018 AiC Award recipients were surveyed about their motivation to apply for the award, 65% of respondents named outside encouragement to apply. When asked about who most influenced the award recipient to apply, 62% of respondents named Teachers/Educators. Encourage your students to apply and spread the word!

When you endorse a student’s application, you are eligible and encouraged to apply for the NCWIT Educator Award. Applications are due December 2nd, 2019!

https://www.aspirations.org/participate/high-school

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Scratch Course For Teachers

This looks like a valuable free professional development course for teachers interested in incorporating Scratch into their curriculum.


"The Scratch Course" is a free, six week, online workshop style course for teachers interested in learning more about programming with Scratch. Originally created through funds from Google's CS4HS program, this course has served over 1000 teachers from around the world in the last five years. We are preparing to offer our fall 2019 section of the course starting on Monday, September 16. For more information about the course and to pre-register, visit: https://csed.uni.edu/scratch-intro/

Monday, August 26, 2019

Updating and Expanding Programming Projects

I’m always looking for new projects. I found an interesting example in the book “The Creativity Code” (Creativity Code review here). It was a poem generator that took random adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and nouns and fit them in “missing” spots in a template. It looked like fun but as I thought about it, it was really just a different version of a MadLibs type of game. It’s also similar in some ways to the Shakespearian insult project (have you seen the Shakespeare Insult Kit at MIT?)

What I would like to do is expand a project. That is to say I would like to take an existing project, like the Shakespeare Insult project and add something to it. Projects that grow and build as new knowledge is learned can be highly motivating.They mean students don’t have to start a project from scratch. This also reinforces the idea that programs can, and often are, modified and enhanced.

Currently my Shakespeare project teaches about parallel arrays. What I have been playing with is adding a class to this project later. An object of this class would store  array lists of strings and have a method to return a random string when asked. Retro fitting the new class should be fairly easy for most students. They will see how this simplifies code

insults.Next()

being easier than

insults[r.Next(0, 50), 0]

While simple at first I have realized that there are multiple constructors that should be created for this new class. An empty list and an object initialized with an array (or other list) at a minimum. Similarly there should be an Add method which would have several overlays – individual strings and an array of strings are two obvious examples. I am sure that student will think of others as we go along.

I’m optimistic that this idea will lead to some useful discussions about thinking ahead about how a class might be used and how it could be written to be useful in a number of different design cases. At the very least I had fun reviewing ArrayList as I wrote some code as a thought exercise.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

What I Want from Computer Science Education Professional Development

The CSTA 2020 Call for Proposals is out and as usual it has me thinking.   Two questions come to mind. One is, what can/should I propose to present? The other question is what do I want to learn? I think I have been to every CSTA conference (since it was the CS & IT conference) so I have attended a lot of sessions. I’ve presented quite a few times as well. So I have a lot of history to think about.

I don’t currently have any sessions or workshops I want to present. I keep asking myself is that is because I am not working hard enough to innovate or create new ideas. I suspect that a lot of people doubt if they are doing anything special enough to present. Some of those people are right but a lot of them are wrong. So I need to think about that.

I’m thinking more about birds of a feather sessions to propose and looking at my projects to see if I have something really nifty for the nifty project session. Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions are very interactive and are great for refining ideas. And nifty projects are, well, they’re nifty.

What do I want to see presented? That’s actually hard these days. Why? Because my brain is already full of more ideas than I could learn or teach in a lifetime. Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, Internet of Things, game development, virtual reality and on and on. Content! There is a lot of possible content out there.

What I really want to learn is how to teach better. I’m doing some reading (Computer Science Education is my current read) and I’ve been learning a lot from Mark Guzdial’s blog for a while. If you ever get a chance to hear Mark talk about how to teach computer science GO HEAR HIM! There are a number of his talks on YouTube BTW.

Lots of people want to promote a new tool (software or hardware) as a silver bullet for teaching. I’ve heard enough of them. Given a few myself. The more I teach though the more I think there is more to becoming a better teacher than a cool new robot, a fancy new IDE, a great new “educational toy.” or what ever.

Teaching is ultimately about establishing a relationship between teacher and student. It is about communicating well and sharing passion. That’s what I want to learn how to do better. And if you have research to back up what you are teaching about how to teach I really want to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Vicki Davis Interviews Alfred Thompson

Over the summer Vicki Davis interviewed me for her Ten Minute Podcast. Vicki and I have been friends for a number of years and it is always a pleasure to talk with her. We talked about a number of things including Project-based learning. Passion-based learning. Problem-based learning.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

And So It Begins–School year 2019 2020

Tomorrow (Monday) I will meet the new freshmen in my study hall. And I’ll finish getting my room ready for the new school year. First day of real classes is Tuesday. And I am not as ready as I would like.

I have a day by day plan for every day of the semester (even the year for my AP CS Principles class). Lesson plans last until they run into actual students so there will be adjustments. There always are. It’s my 5th or is it 6th year teaching honors programming so that is more settled than anything else. I still make changes as I go along because not every class in the same as any other. And who wants to do the same thing year after year anyway.

It’s my third year teaching AP CS Principles and I am making big adjustments in the schedule over last year. I am hopeful that I’m going to get it better this year but who really knows.

My third year for teaching Mobile Application Programming and I am switching from AppInventor to Thunkable. AppInventor has given me a lot of issues with the emulator and most of my students have iPhones and Apple is dragging their feet on allowing AppInventors iPhone software. Thunkable already works with iPhones, though without support for some features I would really like. Plus it seems to connect to phones more reliably. We’ll see how it goes. I’m adapting project ideas as I go along. That’s not completely new but it is not without risk.

At least I only have three preps. Last fall I had four. I also have more free periods as I am teaching a reduced load (at my request) and that should help a lot.

Are you ready? Have you begun already? Let’s do this thing!

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Book Review: The Creativity Code

I’ve been reading a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI) this year. Several of them have been pretty scary. It was recommended that I take a look at “The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI” by Marcus DuSautoy. It was a good recommendation. This book is different from the others I have read. Or tried to read. It’s focus is not on business or about intelligent weapons. The focused as the title suggests is on creativity.

The book discusses how computers, or rather AI software, is creating art, music, and new ideas in mathematics. The author is a renowned  mathematician so the sections on using AI in math, developing proofs for example are especially well done. One unexpected benefit of the book for me was a new appreciation for what mathematicians actually do and why they find some year joy in the field.

The author shares some concerns about how AI might make mathematicians like himself obsolete. In the long run though he sees a place for human creativity in the world. AI routines are still being trained by people. They do go beyond what they are specifically trained but have to start with that training. Well, usually anyway. Will that change? Let’s just say that there are still a lot of unknowns. AI has moved in ways we haven’t expected already so there is that.

If you are interested in learning about AI in art (computers creating works in the style of famous artists for example, music (using existing styles or creating new ones), writing (fiction or non-fiction), mathematics, and several other fields we don’t usually associate with AI this is a good book for you.

It’s an interesting and usually easy read (I confess some of the math was a little deep for me). It an in interesting look at AI. Recommended.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

What Programming Concept Do I Use?

I’ve been programming a long time. I wrote my first computer program in 1972. I think the parents of some of my students were not even born yet. So it’s hard to remember what it is like to be a beginner. Late last school year it finally occurred to me that a lot of my students understood concepts in theory but were having trouble knowing which concept to use to solve problems. Honestly this was having trouble sinking it with me because this stuff is so obvious to me.

Lauren Margulieux helped me out here with her recent blog post I’ve been a Computing Education Researcher for 8 Years and just took my First Programming Course: Here are 5 Things I Learned. This is a must read post for anyone who teaches beginners. One of her five things was “Deciding which programming concept to use was harder” Just what I had been thinking about lately. I think her experience, background, and ability to self-analyze her own learning helped her to see  what I think are common beginner issues that I have had trouble seeing myself. Maybe other teachers have trouble seeing these things as well. Or maybe just me.

Suffice it to say, I have to really think about how to help students over these hurtles.  Helping students to see when to use various concepts is my first priority. Stories maybe the answer. Can I tell stories about the sorts of things various concepts are good for. I do some of that already but maybe more examples will help. It’s worth a try.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Too Little Time and Too Many People

Four years ago I was at a two day informal gathering of teachers. As much as I really enjoy conferences like CSTA, SIGCSE, ISTE and others there was some real magic about an informal gathering of about 12-14 teachers who cross age groups (individually and who they teach) and curriculum subjects. It was awesome. I really want to do it again.

Teachers don’t get enough time to share ideas informally. We have conferences and there are opportunities there but they are often one way conversations. We have sit and get sessions. We have panels where a chosen few share ideas in answer to pre-planned questions. None of this is bad but sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough. Unconferences are different and usually a lot more interactive than traditional conferences and I like them as well.

Perhaps the problem for me is a bit of FOMO – fear of missing out. There are too many interesting things going on. Too many side conversations No one can take it all in.

A lot of people like to talk about the hallway track at conferences. These are the conversations that talk place in hallways, spaces outside of conference rooms, at bars or restaurants, or just about any place not in a formal session. They take place because attendees often have little real life contact outside of conferences and yet share similar issue, problems, or other interests. The gathering I attended four years ago was basically a two day hallway track.

The problem with hallway tracks are conferences is size. By that I mean that some conversations would be better if there were more people involved and some would be better if fewer people were involved. Take conversations at dinner for example. You can get a dozen people or twenty people all at one table. Realistically you can talk to the people on either side of you and two or three across the table from you. So there are multiple conversations that start, run their course, and then reform. Now these conversations can be great and I love them. But FOMO rears its ugly head – what is that conversation going on at the other end of the table and should I be in that one? Silly perhaps. But I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way.

There is probably an optimum size that lets everyone talk, everyone listen, and makes everyone feel involved. The setting and seating arrangement probably has an impact. Chairs or tables around a circle allows to a lot more people involved than a long single table or small groups standing around. Someone has probably done some research on this.

Perhaps book clubs can be a model? In any case, I think teachers could really benefit from small in number but longer in time chances to share ideas. We can learn a lot from each other.

Links to the blog posts I wrote about that gathering a few years ago:







Friday, July 26, 2019

Big Complicated Programming Projects

Ria Galanos has a wonderful blog about her experiences moving from the classroom to a life as a professional software developer. It’s been a long time since I developed software for a living and her posts are bringing a lot of memories back. A recent post (Putting It All Together) talks about understanding a large code base. This is something professionals have to do often. They very seldom write code from scratch. usually they work enhancing, correcting, modifying, or otherwise working with large existing code bases. Understanding these complex  Ria talks about the Advanced Placement Computer Science A course which used to have a case study, a larger piece of code that students had to learn, understand, and modify. She wonders if bring that back might be a good idea to better prepare students for industry.

There are some interesting comments from experienced educators on that post. Mike Zamansky posted a follow up post (Big Code And Case Studies) where he talks in favor of large projects at the right time and that AP CS A might not be the right place for the type of case study required.  or at least not a specific and mandated case study that everyone uses.

We’re not trying to turn out professional software developers in high school. That is important to remember. There is a lot of value in learning how to understand large code bases though. I think there is value in it even for someone not planning on becoming a professional software developer.

So much of how we teach beginners lacks context. We focus on little bits is a sort of isolation. The projects we assign are simple and small. In some regards they have to be. The problem is that without real context understanding how things fit together is limited.

I’ve tried a number of things to give students involved in larger projects. I have given students larger, more complicated projects written by others. There are any number of professionally developed “samples” that are more complicated than the average beginner will write alone. I’ve also tried having students work in teams with different modules assigned to different students in the team. I’ve seen mixed results with both.

The trouble with large samples is that there is limited time to understand the code by the time students have enough base knowledge in a single semester course. Similarly in a one semester course there are limits to how complex a project student or group of students can build before time runs out.  APCSA is usually taught as a year long course and would seem to lend itself to either of these ideas, and the case study was a larger code base, there are still a lot of concepts required by the curriculum that can place time limits with some student bodies. This is especially the case when APCS A is a first course.

I’m starting to think that high schools need a sort of CS capstone course to follow up after AP CS or other foundational courses. Not ever student will have schedule room but I think that a lot of students who really fall in love with CS will find a way. Some schools will (or at least could) build at sequence that would include such a course. This course would allow students either individually or in a small group spend a whole semester (a year maybe) developing one large project. I think this could be a chance for students to work on learning a new (to them especially) technology.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Question Technology

One of the interesting t-shirts I saw at CSTA 2019 last week said “Question Technology.” That might seem to be a strange slogan at a computer science education conference but it really shouldn’t be.

Security of information, privacy, and the ethical use of technology was a constant topic as CSTA. From the Tuesday keynote by Natasha Singer from the New York Times to multiple sessions on cyber security to hallway conversations these were regular issues to discuss and to talk about how to teach. I don’t think there is any disagreement that we need to talk about these issues with our students.

We need a generation that asks “should me as often as can we” do things with technology.

Friday, July 12, 2019

It’s Really About the Teacher

CSTA 2019 gave me a lot to think about. Today I was thinking about what was impressive and I thought about the Tuesday lunch panel. Microsoft brought a panel of high school students to talk about how computer science education was changing their lives.

None of these students talked much about the programming languages they learned or really any of the technology. No talk of robots, or other gimmicks. What they talked most about was their teachers.

They talked about teachers who got to know them as people. Teachers who encouraged them to try new things. Teachers who supported them when they ran into obstacles. Teachers who valued them as people.

New programming languages are cool. Gadgets can help us make things more interesting. When you get right down to it though the key factor is student success is largely dependent in the teacher. I don’t know who said it but it is true – they may not remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

What do Companies Get Out of Supporting CS Education

After the announcement of a millions dollar grant by Google to CSTA and the new “Code with Google” program I was asked “what does a company get out of this sort of thing?” The answer can be complex.

In many cases, including this one from Google, there is no obvious monetary benefit to the company. In fact the closest thing to a balance sheet benefit is probably goodwill. Now goodwill can be very important to a company. Given the current political scrutiny on companies like Google (and Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon) one would be excused if they saw that as a motivation.
I’m not so naïve as to thing that goodwill doesn’t play into decisions like this one but I doubt it is the whole story.

Companies like Google. Amazon, Microsoft, and others live in an environment that includes many other companies. These huge companies will always attract top technical people but for many companies there is a real shortage of technology people for them to hire. These foundational companies need the companies who build on top of their foundations to also be able to hire technical people. Supporting CS education helps support that environment.

And it is not just tech companies who need these people. All companies need people who at least understand technology. So in many real ways one could call support for CS education enlightened self-interest.

Do companies want students to use their products? Of course and so you will see things like Swift Playgrounds which runs on Apple products and develops apps for Apple products. Or AWS Educate which uses AWS and will probably result in future paying customers for AWS. Again, there is some relationship building that companies hope will lead to future business but the concepts are far from limited to those specific products. There are no guaranties here but they are clearly more about building the company's environment than the specific companies.

Other products though don’t have as clear an path to profit though. Take MakeCode and Makecode arcade developed by Microsoft. These products don’t lead directly into revenue generating hardware or software sales. What they do is develop more people with a knowledge of programming and computer science. That helps the environment.

As I see it, companies are interested in building the CS environment, building goodwill, and possibly getting some business in the future. The degree and priority of those motivations vary by company and even time.

For me as an educator, my concern is about the concepts tools teach, how they motivate or not my students, and generally how they prepare my students for the future. Concerns about privacy and security are of course also concerns. If a company helps me do my job and prepare my students better I see that as a win. If companies get a benefit as well I hope that will encourage them to help more.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Random Thoughts on #CSTA2019

I’m pretty sure I have been to every CSTA conference going back to when it was the CS & IT conference and there was no CSTA organization. This year’s was by far the biggest and maybe even the best. But it does feel big. Not ISTE big or even SIGCSE big but big for a conference of CS teachers.

That’s great is many ways. I think there were up to 9 concurrent sessions in each time slot on Tuesday and Wednesday. I remember when there were two. On the plus side you are pretty certain to find a session you are interested in. On the down side you are also likely to find two or three you are interested in at the same time. It’s a fact of life.

It’s not so big that I can’t find most of my friends there but it is something I have to be more deliberate about. And of course on the plus there are many new friends to make. ISTE is too large and there are many people who I know were there but we just didn’t connect. How big does a conference have to be before it loses the closeness that I value so much about CSTA? I don’t know. I do hope the conference committee thinks about that though.

Volunteering was a good thing. I worked the registration desk. It was nice to see and meet people I know and didn’t know. The registration system seemed to work very well. The CSTA staff handled glitches and issues quickly and professionally. That seems to be developing fast enough to handle the size of the conference.

Sessions were all very good. Not everyone was everything I was hoping for but that is to be expected. The quality of the presenters was really high though. I think that the speaker quality is higher at CSTA than ISTE on average.

Comparing ISTE and CSTA is interesting if not exactly fair. CSTA has a specific focus – CS education and CS is one of many topics for ISTE. A number of companies were exhibiting at both and I would love to know how the two conferences compare for them. A couple of companies that were at ISTE were not at CSTA. I was surprised that Unity was at ISTE. I really was. A big booth as well. I suspect they could have reached more CS educators at CSTA for a lot less money. But maybe I don’t understand their goals.

Speaking of the exhibit hall, there was close to 60 exhibits this year. I think we had 6 the first year we had exhibits which wasn’t that long ago. I do feel they add to the value of the conference. Much of the materials being offered were free as well. Obviously not hardware but much of the curriculum and other teaching resources. Lots of it looks like it has been used successfully in a lot of classrooms. By contrast, much of what I saw at ISTE was both more expensive and with less of a track record.

Microsoft and Google both had significant presences at CSTA. They’ve both, though their charitable arms, donated a lot of money to CSTA in the last year plus as well.  Money indicates support but I feel like a physical presence speaks a lot of commitment and seriousness of interest as well. Amazon was there showing a couple of programs including there AWS Educate program and some of their other STEM efforts. Facebook had a small presence as well. It was low key and not at all about selling Facebook to people. The heavy hitters in technology seem to realize the importance of CS education and CS educators. No sign of Apple though. Sigh.

Next year is a day longer than this year. CSTA and CS & IT used to be one day. Then two. Five next year? I have no doubt at all that they can fill it with enough quality content. I do wonder about the expense of attending though. Airfare and conference fees don’t jump that fast for an extra day but hotel rooms can be a big expense.  I’ll wait to see what the schedule looks like and what the hotel costs are before I make my plans for next year. I do plan to go. The question is for how long. I suspect a lot of people will be doing those calculations.

Google and other companies have been helping with scholarships and I hope that continues. It’s especially important for first time attendees. I hope school districts see the value and step up for teachers as well. Arkansas had over 30 people at CSTA and I believe the state kicked in a lot of the money for that. With more and more states mandating more CS education will they also step up with professional development money? I hope so.

My big take away though is that CSTA is the conference K-12 CS teachers should attend if they can only attend one conference. Hope to see many of my readers at CSTA 2020 next July.

CSTA 2019 Day 3

So I missed the opening keynote which I am sure was amazing but I spent the time catching up with a good friend who I see too rarely. Time well spend. Leigh Ann Delyser from CS for All sometimes talks about the CS community as her grown up summer camp friends. I have to agree. The face to face time with friends at a conference makes the communication between in real life meetings much better.

My first session of the day was a panel about advancing equity and diversity. It really focused a lot on curriculum and how to teach to ALL students. Not a limited focus on girls or under represented minorities but a realization that diversity requires welcoming environments for ALL students. There was also some good discussion about creating projects that are open and inclusive for students of different abilities and backgrounds. This is just one time when curriculum in general and finding the right projects for the classroom. I need to think about writing up more on that topic.

My last session before lunch was a series of three mini sessions. The first was on Engage CS Edu. This is a curated site with projects of various types and concepts for CS educators. It is “Foster diversity in your introductory computer science courses with quality content and engaging pedagogy” This looks very helpful as I am always looking for engaging projects that work with diverse students.
The second mini-session was on How to effectively Manage a CS class and was mostly about how CodeHS helps this teacher manage his courses. If I were looking for a new curriculum I would take a serious look at CodeHS. CodeHS has both free and paid levels.

The third mini-session was Building a Cyber Center for Excellence. They seem to have a very impressive cyber security center at Grand Canyon University. I don’t think a lot of it is reproducible in a high school but some of it it. The speaker has a free guide containing High School Cybersecurity Education Websites and Resources which  I did download and a not free ($3.99) ebook called “Beginner’s Guide to Developing a High School Cybersecurity Program” so I can learn more.

Overall, a very good conference for me. I learned a lot and I have ideas for the new school year.

Oh and next year’s CSTA Conference will be July 11-15 in Arlington Virginia.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

CSTA 2019 Day 2

I’m always skeptical about celebrity keynotes at education conferences so my expectations for Natasha Singer from the New York Times.were not high. I was pleasantly surprised though. She gave me a lot to think about when teaching things like ethics, accountability, and privacy. Things like what the saved wi-fi networks our computers save and share to how companies track individuals and more. A good keynote should give attendees things to think about and things to act on and this one did that for me. So great start to the day.

There were any number of sessions I would have liked to have attended and I think information about them (videos maybe and hopefully others blogging) will show up. For now I am writing something about the sessions I am attending.

My first session of the day was “Soaring through the Cloud” by AWS Educate. If nothing else people are getting a good look at the vocabulary of the cloud. Vocabulary is something I see as key. I was impressed that AWS wants schools they partner with share their curriculum and programs with other schools. Diversity is important to them. The AWS Educate program includes free cloud accounts, online training, and badging for successes. There is a ton of content there. I could see a special course around this.

Also AWS has been very responsive to teacher and school worries about student privacy and security.  Very important!

I didn’t have to move for my second session of the day – Using GitHub as a Content Management System. Another packed house. This was a good walk through of GitHub for me. As a total beginner it was pretty helpful..I still have a lot of playing around to do but it does seem really usable.
Lunch had a set of trivial games that we surprisingly fun followed by a panel run by Microsoft. The panel was of high school students who were talking about the influence of taking computer science courses on their lives. The students were from schools supported by volunteer TEALS instructors.  These students were from schools in low economic areas that would probably not have CS without the work of TEALS volunteers – industry professionals giving their time to teach students. It was an inspiring session. Oh and the food was pretty good too.

Afternoon took me to a session on Machine Learning. Teachers talked about teaching machine learning both as a concept and at a technical level. There are a couple of neural network “playgrounds” including the tensor flow website from Google that I want to use to introduce the ideas to students. There is a link to resources (http://bit.ly/ML-HS-Resources ) that I plan to explore.

Last session of the day for me was Nifty Assignments. We could have used a bigger room. This session was worth getting there early for.The new CSTA Nifty Assignments page has all of the references to the sessions. Five interesting projects with something for everyone. from K-5, to 6 – 8 to 9-12. I’m inspired to have my students do more graphics by the digital coloring book projects and have some great ideas about using letter frequency counts. Oh and last year’s nifty assignments (which I missed) are also linked there. This is only going to be a better and better resource as time goes on.

For me the day finished with dinner with David Renton who taught college is Scotland for years and who now teaches high school in the US. Great conversation about teaching and differences and similarities in education in two different countries. You really can meet the best people at CSTA.

Monday, July 08, 2019

CSTA 2019–Day 1

As planned I spent most of the morning helping at registration. And talking to a lot of people as they came in. After lunch the exhibit hall opened and I was in there early. A few highlights:

A virtual reality version of Alice is coming in the fall. I had a demo wearing an Oculus headset riding through an Alice world. Very awesome. Virtual Reality and Alice – Wow!

I signed up for GitHub for educators. GitHub classroom looks like a good way to send starter projects to students. I have a lot of exploring to do but there is online training for teachers so I’ll start there.

I had a demo of CodeSpace from FiriaLabs for teaching Python. They have a robot that looks pretty cool as well. Still not sure robots are my think but their connection to Micro:bit looks pretty nice as well.

Code Jumper is a program developed by Microsoft for blind and visually impaired students. It involves physical devices that are a coding language. Think block languages where the blocks are actual physical blocks The teacher who showed it to me tells me that she has used these devices (not available yet but she is in a pilot) with ADHD students  They get very engaged.  I can really see this useful in a lot of situations. Availability is some time in the fall. I have no idea of pricing.

The welcome reception was top notch.  I ate my fill and have no need to a later dinner. Better still was the opportunity to talk to even more people.

BTW, in my last post I mentioned Google’s new Code With Google program. It’s a good collection of resources for teaching computer science. Check it out at https://edu.google.com/code-with-google/

CSTA 2019 Day 0

Sunday was the start of CSTA 2019 with workshops and the Chapter Leadership Summit. I wasn’t part of the summit and I didn’t get to any workshops but I still had a good day. I did crash the reception Google hosted for the chapter leadership summit though. Jake Baskin announced a million dollar grant to CSTA from Google and Google’s new “Code with Google” program. I expect to learn more about both as the conference goes on.

The highlight of the day was spending time with friends. I’ve been to every previous conference (going back before there was a CSTA) and in the early days it was much smaller so I made a lot of friends back then. I’ve made still more friends by being involved – volunteering in different ways. I had dinner with 10-11 friends almost all of whom had been on the conference committee with me, the CSTA board with me, or both. Besides helping the CS community, volunteering with CSTA is a great way to make friends.

I wonder how it is for people new to CSTA. It’s so much bigger today and while that is wonderful in many ways I can see it being overwhelming for some as well. My hope is that people expand their connections beyond people they may have come with or know from elsewhere.  Diversity is really important. Part of what made last night’s dinner so interesting for me was people from a number of different states and two countries other than the US.

Diversity came up in a number of contexts yesterday both in conversation and in he Google announcements of yesterday.  Companies in the industry are starting to really appreciate the importance of it but I really believe that as educators we have an important role in fostering diversity from the start.

Today, Monday, I will be working the registration desk for a while this morning, visiting the exhibit hall in the afternoon, and trying to connect with as many people as I can. Learn from the best I often say. If you’re around come find me. I am wearing my hat and I have “I Follow @AlfredTwo” ribbons if you’re interested.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Pre-conference Thoughts–CSTA 2019

I’m on my way to Phoenix AZ for the CSTA conference.  For years I would get there early and leave late. This was especially true when I was on the CSTA Board and there were Board meetings to attend. Traveling on my own dime and my own schedule this trip. This afternoon I will be helping at the registration desk. I’ll also be helping there tomorrow. Volunteering at CSTA is a small thing in some ways but I think it is really important to make some contributions. Plus it means I get a jumpstart on the “Hallway Track” that is part of what makes CSTA so wonderful.

Sunday and Monday are workshops and I didn’t sign up for any. That’s new for me but Monday afternoon the exhibit hall will be open and I really want to get to that. Almost 60 exhibitors this year. I think we had 6 the first year we had exhibitors. This shows how important CSTA is to so many companies, universities, and other groups supporting CS educators. Plus it is a great opportunity for educators to learn and have one on one personal conversations with exhibitors.  I’m a big fan of exhibit halls at conferences though I know not everyone is.

Unlike ISTE, where I was recently, the focus on CSTA is all computer science and the exhibit hall reflects that. One doesn’t have to search for relevant booths and it is still small enough that you are unlikely to miss something.

Tuesday and Wednesday I have lots of sessions in my app. I’m looking forward t o Mike Zamansky’s session on using GitHub as a CMS. There is also a session from Amazon Web Services on introducing the Cloud to students. Another key technology there! And a Nifty Assignments session to cap of  the day.

I’m still deciding on Tuesday. There are several sessions I’m interested in that are at the same time. A common problem, but a good one to have at a conference.

I have no idea what the “hallway track” will bring. I have so many friends at CSTA and they are doing so many interesting things. Learning from other teachers is really awesome. CSTA almost feels like a family reunion sometimes.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

ISTE 2019 Trip Report

There was a time when I would have written a blog post every night of ISTE. Apparently I’m getting older or something and that is not a priority for me any more. Be that as it may I got some good stuff at ISTE this year. ISTE is not all about computer science the way CSTA (next week) or SIGCSE are but there is more CS than their used to be. You have to hunt for it a bit though.

Robots were big again this year. It seems like everyone is pushing robots as the silver bullet for teaching CS. I’m not so convinced and most of the robot stuff was aimed at younger students. K-6 or K-8 were big. Lots of people promoting their drag and drop Blockly-like programming tools. If you push you hear about Python and other text based languages.  I didn’t spend much time with robots. I don’t want to build my course around them. If others do that is fine. It’s just not me.

On the other hand I am interested in internet of things and integrating that into some of my courses. Plezmo has some interesting products in that space. I missed them in my walk through the exhibit hall but Alark Joshi, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco, sent me an email suggesting I check them out.  I’ve got a core kit ordered. I plan to use it for some experimentation on my own but also as a way to introduce IoT to my students in several courses. Should make for some good demos. Later I may add it to my curriculum. A lot depends on my experimentation.

Doug Bergman gave a presentation on using Artificial Intelligence in projects using some tools from Amazon Web Services (AWS). Doug demonstrated using these services from Thunkable  This may be the piece that really makes my mobile application development course take off. You can learn more about AWS Educate at this link.

Unity also had a surprisingly big booth at ISTE. They have some free online courses which would be usable in the classroom. If I were to have a game development course I would go there first. As it is I plan to take some coursework myself and see how it might fit in to an existing course or perhaps into a new project course I want to propose at my school.

This relates to something else I found interesting at ISTE. Steve Demo presented on Virtual Reality in education. The Oculus Quest (which I got to try out) is pretty awesome and it is programable using Unity and C#. This combination might be awesome in a course after my Programming Honors or our AP CS A course. First I’ll learn some Unity and then I will look at AR/VR/MR devices to see what is practical in the classroom.

I did talk to someone from the Azure (Microsoft’s cloud offering) at the Microsoft booth. I will follow up to learn more about their options as well.  GitHub is something I really want to bring into my Programming Honors course next year and Microsoft owns GitHub now. GitHub for education will be at CSTA and Mike Zamansky is presenting a session on using GitHub so I’ll be in better shape there after CSTA.

So I enjoyed ISTE and I got some good value out of it. But because ISTE is so large a lot of the CS stuff (and people) get lost. CSTA will be a whole other story. Can’t wait to get there.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

In Honor of BASIC

I found an interesting article today New Hampshire installs first historical marker to honor computer programming The BASIC programming language was invented at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Today it gets a bad rap and perhaps the original version deserve it compared to modern programming languages. For its time though it was pretty important.

The early personal computers all came with some version of BASIC.There were books one could buy that has listings of BASIC programs that we used to enter and play with. A lot of people got their start in computer science by teaching themselves BASIC.

The first language  I learned was FORTRAN but the next year my university got a Digital Equipment PDP-11 running the RSTS/E operating system. It cam with a great version of BASIC called Basic-Plus. I taught myself that on my spare time. As an interpreted language on a time sharing system, unlike the compiled FORTRAN on a batch system, this allowed a lot more and more frequent experimentation.  That really opened things up for me.

After university, knowing Basic-Plus got me my first professional software development job.

Later I learned Visual Basic and then Visual Basic .Net. Today’s Visual Basic is a far cry from the original BASIC of course but a lot of the basics are the same. There isn’t much you can do in C-family languages that you can’t also do with Visual Basic. And it is still more friendly for beginners than Java or C++ or C#.

It is still looked down upon by many and yet as the same time it still shows up on lists of most used languages (https://fossbytes.com/most-popular-programming-languages/)

These days I use C# for a lot of my personal programming but I still like to use Visual Basic (as I did for a quick hack today) Over my career versions of BASIC have been very important to me.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Teaching Students to Yearn to Learn

Summer time is time for me to do a lot of thinking about my teaching practice. I've been doing a lot of reading and a couple of quotes have helped me in my thinking. Two of them are about leadership and I see them as having applicability in education. A good teacher is a leader - trying to lead students to learn. The first quote is about using coercion.

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Grades are, or can be, a bludgeon. Sometimes teachers use grades as a way to force students to do work. I hate doing that. It feels like a metaphoric "hitting over the head." It may get students to do some work or at least to hand in something but it seldom really leads to real learning. That leads to the second quote I have been pondering.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Leadership is largely about teaching students to yearn to learn. A good teacher leader develops internal motivation in their students so that they want to develop the knowledge and tools one is trying to teach.

One of the things I have observed is that students who have a say in the projects they take on are much more motivated to learn the things they need to know to complete them. Getting students to want to learn is much more effective than trying to force them to learn so that they can get good grades.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Different Kinds of Professional Development for Computer Science Teachers

What to teach and how t teach are different questions. The first is all about content knowledge and the second is about pedagogy. For the most part it feels like professional development for CS educators is focused almost completely on content knowledge. A great many teachers are coming to computer science from teaching other subjects. There is this idea that a good teacher can teach any subject once they have the content knowledge. I’m skeptical. Computer science is not quite like other subjects. It’s more like teaching vocabulary and novel writing at the same time. We’re teaching how to write a novel to people who not only have never read a novel they don’t even know what the words mean.

Do I exaggerate? perhaps a little but the point is that we probably shouldn’t assume that teaching CS is the same as teaching other subjects. There is not a lot of professional development on how to teach CS.  We sure could use more of that.

Although if I am honest, we could use some deeper content knowledge training as well. It seems like most of what we see is pretty basic and designed for beginning teachers. But we all need more research based knowledge about how to teach what we do know.

BTW, Garth Flint had a nicely related post on his blog https://gflint.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/cs-professional-development-in-montana-where-should-it-go/

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Join the Online #CSed Conversations

At it’s best, social computing is a conversation that moves in a positive direction. The more people who participate the better the conversation and the more benefit for everyone involved. For computer science teachers, who are often alone in their school. opening and participating in online conversation can be a real benefit. These conversations can cross boundaries of time, space, and even online environments.

A recent example. Garth Flint wrote an end of year post (Last Day of School And Done with Java) that I lead to a post of my own. (How Well Can You Code the Projects You Assign Students?) Mike Zamansky wrote a follow up post of his own. (Do It First ) All of these posts were also discussed in Facebook and Twitter. And of course there are comments left on the various posts. So there are multiple ways to participate in the conversation.

No one has to participate in all the conversations or all online tools/communities to benefit though. Things, especially good ideas, tend to propagate across paths. That’s how networks work after all. There are enough people who act as transmission nodes that the best knowledge and the best ideas tend to move around pretty widely. Everyone benefits from this. People who lurk (read and don’t respond) learn a lot which is an almost invisible benefit. At least it is usually invisible to the people who are writing but it is probably pretty visible to the students whose teachers take what they learn and use it to better their own practice.

Still I wish more people took an active part in the conversation. Be it a comment on a blog or Facebooks post. A tweet with a link and a comments.Tweets in a Twitter chat.  Or an original blog post of their own. (I REALLY wish more CS teachers blogged about what they are doing.) How ever people participate we all benefit.

Computer science educators tend to be a very supportive community. Jump in with both feet.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Change the Programming Language, Change the Course

A recent Facebook post suggested changing the language for Advanced Placement Computer Science A (what some of us annoy others by calling AP Java). This comes up regularly with lots of people suggesting their favorite language. Changing the programming languages means changing a lot more than the language though.

Different programming languages have their own idioms. Their own way of doing things. Programming languages and the concepts one can teach with them are closely related.The change to Java (and to some extent C++ before it) was based on a desire to teach more object oriented programming and design. The language was picked after the concepts to teach were chosen.

I wonder how often we (CS teachers) pick a language first though. DO we pick the concepts to teach based on the languages and the programming idiom we are familiar with or do we  think wider?

My honors programming course is largely a warm up for AP CS A and preparing students with the concepts they’ll need is a goal. I use C# rather than Java though because it seems to me (without the sort of research based evidence I should probably look for) that it has a lower cognitive load than Java. It seems to work for us.

My APCS Principles class is using the curriculum and tools developed by code.org. It uses their block based App Lab with the option to use/view JavaScript. This language and tool does appear to be based on the concepts rather than fitting the concepts in after the fact. So I’m happy with that.

One thing I will be pondering over the summer is what concepts should I teach. Am I teaching the right concepts or should I change them? What about cognitive load? I was re-reading How to choose programming languages for learners: Reviewing JavaScript and Ready by Mark Guzdial and his points about cognitive load really resonate with me.

Block languages do seem, based on evidence, to have lower cognitive load for beginners. I’m less comfortable with them; probably because I’m so old school. Student attitudes towards them are mixed with some really loving the low cognitive load and some having trouble taking them seriously. I have to keep in mind the concepts I want to teach as well.

No matter how I look at it though it is never as easy as “just teach the same things the same way but with a different programming language.”

Friday, June 07, 2019

How Well Can You Code the Projects You Assign Students?

Garth Flint had another good post today (Last Day of School And Done with Java) He lists some interesting projects he assigned and writes about some lessons learned. Any time a teacher learns from student projects I count that as a double win. But one of his comments really resonated with me. Garth writes “I did only two of the six assignments myself.  With the others I saw the solution so did not code them up.  I should have coded them up just so I could answer questions better for the students. “ Highlight mine.

Some years ago I wrote a couple of editions of project books for both C# and Visual Basic. (I may update them this summer if I have time.) People seemed to like them and I received numerous requests for coded solutions. I had them and usually provided them. I really think that teachers should always write their own solutions though. In fact, the less you know about programming the more you should code up your own solutions. As Garth pointed out in his post, when you code your own solutions you can better help students.

And if a project is a good learning experience for students it will also be a good learning experience for a teacher who is working on their own skill and knowledge base.

I’ve got a ton of programming experience and know a lot of tricks techniques that I would never expect beginners to know. So I try to write solutions using the tools and language constructs my students will have at their disposal. This helps me understand what issues students are likely to come across. It saves me time later.

Of course students are clever and think of ways to do things that an experienced coder would never come up with so I learn some new things from them. And the smart kids look up features we don’t cover in class and build “interesting” solutions. That’s all good. Better than good really. I’ve actually come up with several new to me ideas from students.

To be clear, I don’t want every student to write their solution the same way I write mine. I want to see some creativity and imagination. But I also don’t want to have to admit I have no idea how to implement a solution of my own. Well, not often anyway.

Since I teach several level of CS from our freshmen course which only has a few weeks of programming to our APCP P course with Programming Honors in the middle I sometimes code up several solutions. Some things that are possible with limited tools are much easier with more advanced tools. Arrays for example can be a powerful tool. I wrote about this a couple of years ago at Taking Things To Another Level  where I talked about revisiting a popular freshmen project later in Programming Honors.

It’s summer break and I’ll be doing some coding. Trying new projects to see what students will need to know to code them themselves. I’ve been looking forward to having the time to do this for moneys.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Helping Doesn’t Always Help

My programming students are working on their final/semester projects. As is typical some of them are doing extra work on their projects at home. Normally that is pretty great. They get better projects and they learn that they can continue learning and coding on their own. Some students get help from parents. We’re in a pretty high tech area and lots of parents are software professionals.

I don’t blame parents for helping. Parents are a students first and best teachers. Most times parents work within the scope of what their students are learning in school and do a good job of explaining what they are showing. But occasionally we see some code that really begs for a discussion with the student to see if they actually understand the code they are using.

Usually the clue is that the code includes features that are not covered in class. The Ternary operator ( ?: ) in C-family languages for example. This is not something we really have time for in a single semester first programming course. It’s pretty cool and really useful in the right circumstances but it can be an extra cognitive load for beginners.

Again, teaching this operator is a great thing. Having a student include it in their code without understanding it is another thing completely.

It’s not just parents that do this. Students do it even more often. One student discovers something cool or useful and shares it with others. The first student usually has a pretty good handle on it but don’t always do a good job of helping the other student understand it. Students, like the parents I see helping, mean well.

It drives teachers crazy though because it makes it hard to tell what a student understand and what they included just because someone told them it would solve their problem. This is one reason I still do quizzes and plan to do more next year.

Society tells students that the result – a good grade – is the important thing. For many students, and a few too many parents, grades and learning are independent. Teachers mostly see their job as teaching and not grading. It would be easy to just give everyone an A and make them happy. In the long run though we wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Learning From Today and Planning For Tomorrow

It’s the end of the school year for me. Next week is our final exam week and my students are working on their semester projects. I use projects rather than an exam because I think students learn more from projects. Writing an exam would be easier in some ways but I am more about learning than grading. It seems like my students are learning a lot. Many of them are really grokking how to put all the concepts we have been learning together for the first time. Others are stretching themselves to learn new concepts beyond what I taught in class. And I’m seeing some new (to me) ways of addressing old (to me) problems. It’s win win.

Semester projects reminds me in a serious way that diversity of thought, of looking at a problem, and at putting tools together is really important. I’ve gotten a couple of new design patterns to add to my toolbox that were driven by students seeing different ways to do things. This is not unusual. It seems like every semester I learn something new from my students. Sometimes it is errors I have never seen before and sometimes it is new ways of solving problems but it is all good. It’s never the same course twice.

And that brings me to planning for next year. I created a number of new demonstrations this year. Some worked great. Some not as well. I’ll spend time evaluating them this summer. I’ll also spend some time thinking about new projects for next year. It is difficult to find the time to come up with new things during the school year. There is too much grading, adjusting the schedule to match what is going on in school, and just plain teaching. And maybe I’ll record some short talks or demos to make available to my students for review.

While I am mainly a project oriented person I have seen some value in quizzes for formative evaluations. They are faster for one thing. And they help determine who really gets the concept and who is getting a bit more peer assistance on projects than they really should. So I plan to write a bunch of them over the summer. Not full period exams but 15 minute quizzes. Automated grading speeds things up and I am finding that the tools for seeing what questions are gotten wrong and correct is helpful to me.

I’ve got a good bit of work planned for the summer. I’m also attending ISTE and the annual CSTA conference. I expect both of them to provide me with some new ideas to incorporating into my teaching next year. If you’re at either of these conferences I hope you’ll look me up. I love connecting in real life with other teachers.

I also hope to learn some new things this summer. I’ve ordered a copy of GitHub For Dummies. I figure it is about time I learned GitHub. Maybe I will use it with students. I think that would be very valuable for them but it depends on me learning enough to get them started. I plan to continue trying to figure out how to format apps for my Android phone using Xamarin and Visual Studio. Code is easy (C# for the win) but the UI APIs are a bit more of a learning curve. I’m not planning on using it with students right now but I want to write my own apps for me.

SO what are your summer professional development plans?

Friday, May 17, 2019

ACM CompEd Conference

Brett Becker has been blogging about the ACM CompEd conference now taking place in China. See his blog post at ACM CompEd daily update 1: Day 1 for example.  Looks to be a great conference. Not a lot of high school teachers have travel budget to attend of course and a lot of us are wrapping up the school year so it would be hard to get away anyway. But there is good news.

On his post you will find a link to the ACM Digital Library where the conference proceedings are currently open.

Reading the papers is not quite as good as hearing the talks but it is a lot better than missing out completely. There are things of interest to middle and high school teachers as well as some papers about integrating CS into other subjects. Like I said, things to a wide range of CS education interests.

I've downloaded about 18 papers to read. Hopefully once the school year is over in a couple of weeks I'll be able to give them the right amount of attention. But grab them now as they will not be available to people without a subscription to the ACM digital library for long!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Computer Science And x

For most of my teaching career I have been focused on teaching computer science in stand alone computer science classes. And  I really like teaching computer science as a standalone class. But lately I have been thinking more about where CS can/should fit into the greater education process. This is not completely new thinking for me. I’ve always thought that computing tools are great for teaching other disciplines.

Spreadsheets are awesome for dealing with data in science classes, math classes, and even social studies (think graphing population growth) for example. Even early in my teaching time I said that there is a time for teaching tools to learn the tool but eventually using the tool to learn other things is or should be the goal.

We teaching reading as an independent subject in the early years but over time it become less an independent subject and more a tool for learning other things. The same is largely true of mathematics.  I believe that computer science in academia will be at its best when we reach a point where it is more and more a tool for learning other subjects.

CS teachers like to believe that somehow the knowledge and problem solving schools in CS transfer magically to other disciplines. Research show that any transfer is minimal at best. We in computer science have to stop ignoring that research is we really want to add value to education. Helping teachers on other disciplines learn to use CS in their teaching has to be part of that.

Mark Guzdial, who has taught me more about how to teach computer science than any other individual, is focusing his current research on to help teachers in other disciplines integrate computing into their teaching. This is important research in my not so humble opinion. I think that a lot of us who are already teaching CS need to start thinking about this as well.

At one point I thought technology integration specialists would carry this load. Many of these people are computer science people but many more are not. SO far I see computer science being integrated across the curriculum mostly in elementary and some middle schools. I really admire the K-8 teachers who have taken on the task of learning CS, largely on their own, and finding ways to incorporate it in to their teaching. There is little if any room for an independent CS course in elementary schools. There is a bit more in middle schools but the time is limited in most of them.

I don’t see much work on integrating CS in high school courses. The Physics department at my school would like to see us teach Python as they are seeing more of that in use by physicists. That my be an opening and we may add Python to our program at some point. Change is slow in education. Even sometimes in computer science.

Still, change has to happen. Change has to happen not just in standalone courses but who computer science departments in schools support other departments. For transfer of skills and knowledge to transfer it has to have context. And context doesn’t just happen. We have to make it happen.


PS: I really should have included this from the start. Bootstrap has courses aimed at algebra, statistics, business, social studies, science AND physics. GO check it out. It’s the sort of thing we really need.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Migrating to Android–an early trip report

One of the reasons I held on to my Windows Phone as long as I did is that it was so easy to program apps for it. I had come to depend on one particular app I wrote to help with with the rotating schedule we run where I teach. I finally gave it (too many apps I could not run on the Windows Phone) and got a Google Pixel. Programming an iPhone would mean I also have to buy a Mac and that was a bridge far to far for me. Of course the first thing I wanted to do was to migrate my app to the Android platform. Visual Studio, Xamarin, and C# seemed the way to go.

The code and logic moved almost transparently. The user interface not so much.

One thing that complicates things is that the tools change so quickly. UI code that I created with Visual Studio 2019 Preview seems different from what was created by Visual Studio 2017. This also means that a lot of videos and tutorials are already aged out of usefulness for me. I’m still looking for some videos that work both with beginners to the Android API and Visual Studio 2019.

I finally got something working. It’s ugly but it works. The next step is to learn how to do decent screen design with the Android API. It is not as intuitive as Windows Forms was/is. Not even close. I feel like I am back in the 1980s. It feels like we are regressing in making user interface programming.

At least we still separate form and function. As long as the UI objects have the same names all my C# code seems to work quite nicely. This wasn’t the case in the 1970s and early 1980s. Back then UI code was usually integral with the logic code. That changed over time and the idea of separating form and function moved from new to controversial to the way things were done. It’s the idea that lead to front end and back end developers. But I digress.

Being able to drag objects where ever I want them is a wonderful thing about Windows Forms Design. Microsoft seems to be moving away from that easy to use tool to making programmers write more code by hand. I’m not a fan. Like I said, a return to the distant past.

At this point I have confirmed that coding Android apps is easy and all my C# knowledge is still usable. I’ve also confirmed that I have a lot to learn about creating an Android UI. I’m starting to look for a good book or some up to date videos that are not just marketing demos. Marketing videos focus on showing off features rather than teaching. Teaching videos are a completely different emphasis.

Anyone want to recommend a book or a set of videos that worked for them?

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

With Great Code Comes Great Responsibility

Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies recently announced the winners of the Responsible Computer Science Challenge. The challenge, and grants of up to $150,000, go to universities but the programs might have some use in high schools. Maybe. At some point.

The winners’ proposed curricula are novel: They include in-class role-playing games to explore the impact of technology on society. They embed philosophy experts and social scientists in computer science classes. They feature “red teams” that probe students’ projects for possible negative societal impacts. And they have computer science students partner with local nonprofits and government agencies.

Of course it is wonderful that these universities are integrating ethics into their courses. Society will benefit more as these universities package, promote, and see their programs expanded into other universities. That is the goal of the Responsible Computer Science Challenge. There is a second round of grants with that as the prime goal. It makes sense to develop and test programs before expanding them.

I hope that these institutions will seriously consider helping to adapt these programs, tools, methods, and other resources so that they can be incorporated in high school (maybe even lower grades) in the future.

Responsible Computer Science Challenge banner with logos

Monday, April 29, 2019

Game of Thrones and Computer Science

I confess that I have not watched a single episode of Game of Thrones.  That doesn’t mean I am oblivious to the social impact of the show. My online social media is full of it. So when Rita Tillson Vasak linked to this Slate article explaining why a recent episode was so hard to view I jumped to read it. The article talks about data compression and how a lot of compression made it hard for a lot of people to really view the scenes.

It talks about data compression in a way that assumes the reader has a clue as to what they are talking about. It uses the term “lossy video compression” and talks about the layers of compression involved in getting the digital image to your screen. I wonder how many people read that article without comprehending it very well. Hopefully my Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students would get it all.

We talk about compression in AP CS P. I’ve also played with lossy compression with my Programming Honors students (Lossy Text Compression Project ). I talk about compression in terms of text, images, video, and music. I think students mostly get it.

Rita suggested this article as part of review for the APCSP exam (coming in less than two weeks!) and I think that is a great suggestion. I may use it next year when we talk about compression as well. I think it is a good visual and discussion as to what can go wrong in our attempts to get the most data through the smallest “pipe” in the least amount of time.

Showing specific examples of the effects, positive and negative, of computer science technology when it also ties into a social event can make a great impression.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

More Than One Way To Code a Solution (to a programming project)

Garth Flint has an interesting post about grading programming projects (It is never easy) in which he talks about the interesting solutions students come up with. It struck a cord with me on a couple of levels. Yes, it makes grading more difficult but it also means that students are thinking for themselves.  Or so I chose to believe. Sure some of them look up solutions on the internet but they have to understand them well enough to explain them and make them their own.

I figure that on average a class full of students will come up with three different ways of doing things. Sometimes only two but sometimes more than three. Sometimes I will take samples of the various solutions (with no names) and discuss them with the class. It gives me a chance to show that there is more than one way to do things AND to discuss optimization a little bit.

Occasionally students have come up with solutions that I had never thought of and were even better than how I had done it. I love it when that happens. I love new solutions. To it also emphasizes the value of a diverse group of people looking at a problem.

As Garth mentioned in his post, student ideas move quickly through a computer lab.  I struggle with that a bit. How much help is too much help? Where is the line between “he helped me with it” and “I copied it from her?” And how do you tell where the students are around that line? I could get pretty fanatical about it. I’m not sure how productive that is though. It probably adds as much stress on me as it does for students. I toss in quizzes as well and students who understand what they are doing do a lot better on then than students of get too much “help” with their projects. Using multiple forms of evaluation is a good practice anyway I’ve been told.

Generally I see projects as more effective as a learning experience than as an evaluative tool. Sure they help evaluate learning but a practice, an exploration of ideas, and a way to learn things is their highest value. If students come up with implementations differently for what I would come up with I see that as a learning win.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What is in a name?

It’s been said that the three hardest things in programming are naming things and off by one errors. For some reason, this semester, my students are having the most trouble with naming things. Specifically, they seem to have trouble making the connection between names and objects.

For example, they will use the name of what looks like a text box but without actually instantiating the text box firs Or they will use a different name for the textbox than the name the textbox actually has. And they’ll be surprised at getting an error message that says “the name ‘x’ does not exist in the current context.” The same is true with undeclared variables. Often this is caused by not paying attention. I will set the name of an object while live coding and then use that name later in the code. If they were not paying attention any of the three times I point out the name declaration they may not use the same name in their own code but expect it to work later. After all, it worked when Mr. Thompson did it.

Now of course I have explained all of this numerous times. I think many times students are just expecting the system to fill in the blanks for them. It would be nice if the system would. Maybe one day we’ll have artificial intelligence built into development environments that will help with this sort of thing. But we are not there yet.

Our IDEs do a lot for us (developers) that they didn’t do for us back in the day. No autocorrect in punch cards. I know that some educators believe that using a fancy IDE with automatic features is a bad idea. Students should learn without them. They may have something of a point but I resist the idea because I don’t want to make programming to hard. I don’t run a weed out course. Plus these modern tools open the door for students to experiment. Intellisence in Visual Studio lets students see a lot more options then I have time to cover in class.

I keep coming back to naming things though. Selecting meaningful names is important. Making the connection between declaring and defining objects/variables and the names themselves is important.

Spring break started tonight. Figuring out how to address this is something to think on in a couple of days when I’m relaxed.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Teach Programming or Teach a Programming Language

For me, teaching is all about the concepts. Programming languages change. My first programming language was FORTRAN. This was the big language with I was in university. Today? Not so much. But loops and decision structures still exist. Over my career, I have learned a bunch of programming languages. I’m not sure I want to know how many but its a lot.

This morning I was reading Mark Guzdial’s blog as one does (Why we should explore more than one programming language across the curriculum) which comes as I am looking hard at my school’s computer science curriculum.  We teach several programming languages. Visual Basic in our freshmen course, App Inventor for our mobile app development course, C# in honors programming, JavaScript in AP CS Principles, and Java in AP CS A. SO potentially students can learn a bunch of languages during their time here.

Is this good or bad? Are there too many languages? Are these even the right languages? I believe that much is dependent on ones goals. Is our goal (in HS CS) to teach a programming language or to teach how to program (programming concepts).

As I started off this post, I believe that in the real world people who develop software, professionally or other wise, will need to learn new languages as time goes on. Mark has been writing a lot about task-specific languages (Task-specific programming languages: People aren’t dumb. Programming is hard.) and it is pretty clear to me that is a coming thing.

Teaching all programming classes using one programming language is probably a great way to teach that language but to quote Mark’s blog “We have no evidence currently that language-specific programming knowledge will transfer” So how do we prepare students who will have to learn new languages for new tasks?

Someone once said that the second programming language is the hardest one to learn. I can see how that could be the case. On the other hand learning programming languages does seem to get easier after that second one. I believe it is because learning a second language forces one to think beyond the syntax.

In one class, some years ago, I started showing my AP students who to do the same loop in a number of languages, including assembly language, and one student claimed later that was the most valuable lesson of the course. I still try to show multiple languages at times but since most of our students have already been exposed to several by the time they get to Advanced Placement that seems less necessary today.

Still I toy with the idea of writing a parallel programming book using several languages.  This is an idea borrowed from parallel translation Bibles where several translations of the Bible appear side by side on the page. A great study tool for religion that might work in programming as well.

Coming back to goals, I can see teaching a lot about one and only programming language as a somewhat reasonable way to prepare for a job but not for a career. I still remember getting my first programming job because I knew one language pretty well. Six months later I was handed a project specification and a language reference manual for a language I had never heard of and told “go to it.”

I truly believe that having a background in multiple languages was the difference between success and failure for me.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Debugging Student Code for Fun and Learning

Students are really good at creating strange hard to solve bugs in their code. I am convinced that the code of a raw beginner can easily be harder to debug than that of a professional coder.

I had a couple of good ones today. One was actually pretty easy once I realized the cause. I have some international students. Great kids, very smart, hard workers. English is not their first language though. In fact, English letters are not their first character set. In one class I have boys from Cambodia and Viet Nam. The character sets they grew up with are very different from English characters. This means that sometimes English characters confuse them. l, I and 1 can all look alike to them especially in some fonts. Like this one. So I had some non obvious "spelling errors." They and I have a better idea of what to look for next time.

The other one was harder. We’re using C# and Windows Forms. Now normally this makes things easy. But you can also cause some very puzzling errors. In this case, the code seemed to be doing everything it was supposed to do EXCEPT showing the results in a list box. I tried a lot of my bag of tricks. Single stepping through code, displaying intermediate results (that didn’t work because nothing was displaying in the list box). I copied the code into a new project. I created new objects. I tried a lot of things.

Finally, I did a side by side comparison with a project that worked and that showed me the problem. For the curious, Windows Forms projects run a subroutine to initialize and instantiate the objects on the form. Some how, probably a copy paste error, this student was calling it twice. Without going into detail, this resulted in two sets of objects with one of them covering the set that was actually being acted upon for the display.

I try to look on the bright side of things. In this case, I have new things to look for that I didn’t have before, I have gained insight into issues that my international students have (and may change some variable names I use), and I got to demonstrate debugging techniques to some students. That’s a win right?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Interesting Links for Computer Science Educators 19 March 2019

I haven’t done one of these for a while. I still Tweet or retweet a lot at @AlfredTwo but I needed a break. I’m not sure I will do this every week but I think I will shoot to do it from time to time.

Microsoft Education posted a bunch of resources on Ways to encourage girls to keep pursuing STEM this Women’s History Month There are some posters I think will show up in my computer lab soon there as well as other helpful links.

David Renton is doing some amazing things with his students who are programming virtual reality applications. Currently he is having Students Build International VR Prototypes for Children This is more than about computing. It is a multi-national effort with some support from Microsoft in the UK and deployment at a hospital in Sweden.


Mike Zamansky has a  great post about Adapting A Nifty Assignment  You may or may not be familiar with the SIGCSE Nifty Assignments sessions, check them out if not, but they are pretty nifty but many of them really do benefit from adaptation to a particular environment.

I found this on the Blog at CACM I don’t know about you but calculating with Roman numerals (what no zero?) was something I wondered about. This article explains it all. I wonder if this might make a nifty project? Calculating With Roman Numerals is Not So Difficult 


Speaking of SIGCSE, Bryan Twarek provides a nice list of K-12 Teacher Takeaways from SIGCSE 2019  on the CSTA Blog. Not as good as being there but Brian includes a bunch of related links.


Under my list of things to keep an eye on, Microsoft had a post called Achieve more with Microsoft Game Stack It looks mostly like a repackaging or rebranding of a number of new and existing resources for game developers. Will it have application for schools? Maybe in game development courses but even there it seems like Game Stack is more for professionals than beginners. But we’ll see if anyone in education takes it on and provides information.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Awards I Wish We Didn’t Need

Last week my school was told we had earned the College Board’s Female Diversity award for both Advanced Placement Computer Science A and Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles based on how many female students we had in those courses last school year. Yeah!

We’re one of two schools in the state to get this recognition. That’s a bit disappointing. The more I thought about it the more I thought how sad that getting to adequate female representation was so rare that schools were getting special recognition for it. Are there similar awards for other AP courses? Are their awards for schools for getting to Male Diversity numbers in courses were male students are underrepresented? Is that even a thing?

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled that we have good representation of female students in our AP CS courses. And I’m not shy about sharing news of the College Board's recognition. 

It’s hard to get solid APCS enrolment period. I teach at a private Catholic school that requires four full years of religion. That has a serious impact on electives. We have even better female representation in our lower level CS courses because we require a full year of CS for graduation. AP CS is going to be an elective so we have to have a good environment to get students to want to fit it in.

With cultural norms the way there are, a lot of female students are encouraged to follow other academic paths. World languages, for example, fit the stereotype and it often feels like that is a more common, if not natural, path for female students. And the boys seem to be less excited about languages.

Our goal at my school is to ensure that all students are comfortable and feel like they belong in computer science courses. We are careful about room decorations. You’ll see women in computing highlighted in posters and bulletin board items for example. I think the most effective effort it that teachers encourage all students, reassure them that they mistakes they make don’t mean they are stupid or incapable, and include projects that are not gender biased. You know, be a good teacher.

For now we all need to make efforts to include a more diverse set of students. And it is nice to be recognized for the success of those efforts. But I’ll tell you, having a diverse group of students is all the reward I really need.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

High School CS Education: Where Do We Start and Where Do We Go?

There are a number of sets of standards with most based on the CSTA standards (https://www.csteachers.org/general/custom.asp?page=standards) and the K-12 CS Framework (https://k12cs.org/). A lot of really smart people (and me in the case of the framework) worked on them but I've been thinking about creating my own set to use.

Why? Difficult to explain but in large part to get things clear in my own head. What do I see as the concepts and ideas I should be teaching in my high school? How do I want to express my thoughts – the same as the existing standard or will putting them in my own words help me understand them better? An open question.

Now one might think this is easy with the standards already written. But it is more complicated than that. High school is very much in the middle for computer science. We’re not yet college/university but we want students to be prepared for that level of education. At the same time, there is no standard of knowledge that universities are expecting all incoming students to have. That makes their lives difficult but they have been living with that as long as there have been CS courses. It’s leaves us in high school a little more free to determine our own output goals though.

On the other end, there is no standard set of CS knowledge that high schools can expect all students to have. That is especially true for a school like mine that takes in students from over a score of different middle schools and two different states. Like the universities, our curriculum has to start assuming no background at all. Oh sure students are somewhat tech savvy compared to many of their parents but I still spend time teaching how to move files from one folder to another. Being great with Instagram doesn’t translate to computer science knowledge.

We see some students who come in more advanced as well. They may have done a lot of programming in middle school. Many in an enrichment course, a summer program, or FIRST Lego League or some other opportunity. They may even be programming in higher level languages. Can they skip the first course? Sure, as long as we have something more advanced to help them continue to grow and learn. It would be a shame if they were effectively done before high school and spent 4 years forgetting things before university.

As I think about high school computer science curriculum holistically I think about the Computer Science Curricula 2013 (CS2013) document. One key take away for me there was the three levels for university curriculum. Basically it was things all CS departments should offer, a level that all departments should offer “all or almost all”  and electives. For high school I don’t know that I want three levels. Maybe two would be enough. Things that all high school curriculum should offer and electives. Earlier version of the CS Curricula had only two levels. I am not sure there is room in the schedule for three levels in high school. Electives should be offered in schools where there is more room.

I hesitate to specify standard or required or even recommended electives for high schools. Gradually CS, and other subjects, move down from universities but there is no clear vision for what will move down from universities to high schools in the near future.
An other idea I like from the CS 2013 document in the Knowledge Area breakdown of concepts. This sort of breakdown is also included in the CSTA Standards of course. Do I want to come up with my own breakdown or use the CSTA version? I’m undecided.

Seems like a big task and it is. But I really feel like I need an expression of my personal (well researched and thought out) ideas of what should be taught. Anyone else feel like this?

[Note: I was on the CS 2013 ACM/IEEE Task Force and the K12 CS Framework writing team. And I still think I need to think about this stuff.]