Monday, January 13, 2020

Having Fun With Computer Science

There is no question that there are a lot of ways to have fun with computer science. Some of them are inexpensive. Some of them cost a lot of money. You can do a lot for a little bit of money. But some interesting things cost more money for computer hardware (especially graphics cards and CPUs), for special software (not everyone offers free versions for schools) or special hardware (A Micro:Bit is pretty inexpensive but an Oculus Quest is serious money).

So what is a teacher to do? Well, there are grants out these. Often very competitive though. There is Donors Choose which is not an option if you are at a private school with a budget that makes public schools look rich. There is teacher spending their own money. Or there is just offering what your school can afford even is that is old hardware and free software.

Now you can do a lot on the cheap. No question. But what I wonder about, as with many things CS education related, is access. Who gets access to the state of the art, bleeding edge stuff and who gets to see “where we were 10 years ago?”

Who gets to program virtual reality stuff and who gets to program the next Pong? When we look at costs for computer science we tend to think mostly about teacher costs or finding room in the building or the schedule. Computers come next but someone who spends their who life on their phone or a web browser may not appreciate why students need a computer with a lot of memory, a fast CPU, and a late model graphics card. Maybe when today’s students become school administrators or school board members that will change but right now getting more money for hardware can be a tough sell.

We’re used to vocational students needing state of the art resources. Computers for reading diagnostics for the automotive students. The latest silkscreen equipment for the graphic artists. The latest medical learning tools (have you see the CPR training dummies lately?) for the medical prep students. But somehow we don’t always see the need for the latest for computer science students. Especially in comprehensive high schools. Some serious CS students might be better off in a career/technical high school for CS. Seriously, some of them are really good at getting the latest stuff for learning CS.

Which brings me back to access. CS is more than vocational. A lot more. How do we show students the real potential if they only have access to what is cheap?

Note: This post inspired in part by Garth Flint’s blog post (Computer Science on the Cheap does not always work), a comment on that post, and things David Renton is doing with his students and Virtual Reality.

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