Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Back to Fundamentals: What IS Interdisciplinary Computing?

Yesterday over coffee I had one of those really stimulating conversations with an acquaintance who works in a large software company. The topic was interdisciplinary computing. With hindsight, I now see this as a prelude to a larger conversation on the same topic ("what IS interdisciplinary computing?") that I expect to have late next week with a larger group of people from academia and industry.

It wasn't long into our meeting before I was reminded of the very fundamental excitement and challenges that start with just trying to define the term and jump off from there.

Some questions we enthusiastically tangled with:

What IS interdisciplinary computing? Is it... computer science embedded in other fields (e.g. earthquake simulation) where the people involved may have CS or other backgrounds (e.g. earth science or physics)?

If yes, does this count as "applied computing" and not "true computer science" (whatever that means, and we followed that conversational path for a while).

Is interdisciplinary computing the embedding of computational thinking in another field? (please define computational thinking....everyone is using it these days, but a commonly accepted definition is elusive)

Is interdisciplinary computing the equality of a merge between two fields - and within the educational system does this mean within a university computing department...or a cooperative endeavor b/w two departments (communications/digital media and computing for example), or a formal merge of two or more departments?

How do you successfully connect with the arts and humanities? When you move away from other STEM disciplines the challenge in establishing effective communication and trust magnifies, but so do the wonderful possibilities. We ran with this topic for a while.

What about K-12? This is a topic we did not delve into too deeply this time, but it looms large.

What does all of the above have to say about the content of a degree program in computing? The never ending question about the first year of coursework ... most of you are probably quite familiar with this line of discussion. Programming, not programming, programming with a new twist or theme or application, ... how to show the ubiquity of computing in that first year in an engaging way, which is the time period when we lose most of the students we lose?

What does industry want in its graduates in terms of interdisciplinary computing skills - it depends who you ask. In some meetings of the ACM Education Council a while back, we invited panels of industry speakers to talk about what they are looking for in graduates. The answers were all over the map and were influenced by such factors as size (large corporation vs. smaller company), corporate and divisional focus (product development, research, technical marketing etc).

If ideally, a liberal education is supposed to teach students to think critically, how does one's interpretation of interdisciplinary computing, the competing demands of those who might hire your graduates, and enrollment concerns tie in with philosophical stance on a computing education?

Speaking of philosophical stance...the question came up at one point: should computing departments even exist? Ooooo. So many holes to fall into in tackling that question.

If what form? If no, what should happen instead?

We considered these and other questions until the remains of my latte were cold and the foam solidifying in my mug. I suspect we could have kept talking had each of us not had other things to take care of yesterday.

Periodically being brought back to the fundamental questions of "what is" and "what does it imply" are very important when considering implementing large scale change - as many of us are either doing or considering doing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Charles Babbage the Interactive Auto GPS

Oddly enough, just 2 posts after I wrote about the development of s/w to recognize emotions that started out with a discussion of (imo) annoying auto GPSs, I find a short article and video about a British researcher named Peter Robinson who is developing a quite sophisticated auto GPS system (full story here). The video starts out by echoing my sentiment of how annoying and sometimes inaccurate a car GPS can be, and he actually tosses one in the back seat! I LOVED that moment. And he does it with such poise and non-violence. Just flips it behind him.

Then he discusses why it would be useful to have an interactive conversation with a computer - the computer can read your facial and bodily expressions, determine your emotional state and respond with its own emotion inflected conversation. That is both technically interesting and potentially useful in many areas of society.  I bet you can think of a few areas where this technology could be used productively?

But then he proceeds to discuss how he is testing the system on an auto GPS. Why oh why the fascination with the auto GPS??? Ok I accede to this as a useful example of holding a conversation, where important decisions have to be made on short notice, and there are unpredictable behaviors and circumstances to be dealt with. The creepy part is when Robinson pulls out a custom made head of Charles Babbage (looks a bit rubbery) and props it up at head level in the passenger seat of a car in a driving simulator. The two, Robinson and Babbage, carry on a very polite conversation about road conditions. Robinson ends by saying "Charles, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship".

I have mixed feelings about the idea of driving down the road talking to a life size rubber head with wires coming out the back of it.

Technical information is included in the short video, and there is an interesting bit about how it all works. There are definitely compelling issues of emotional intelligence, neuroscience, psychology, and physiology here to explore. Robinson sees this development as the future of how we will interact with computers. Maybe AI has a not too distant future in realistically simulating life? That would be great progress indeed after years of inching along.

But the rubber head... I don't know about the rubber head. If it made mistakes and the driver got irritated, and tossed it in the backseat, would it start complaining from its disembodied self face down on the seat?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Software and Art Authentication

I spent a few days up in the mountains unplugged. However, technology has an interesting way of creeping in even with the cellphone turned off (reception is unreliable anyway) and the laptop stowed. And I'm not going to talk about the visiting electrician who suggested that I test a 9V battery by licking it (he found this quite amusing, but I declined).

First, I was reading one of my alumni magazines and there was a story about a physicist who used software to examine highly controversial paintings that might or might not have been newly discovered Jackson Pollack works (full story here). The physicist, Richard Taylor, uses software to discover the presence of fractal patterns. Apparently, according to his research, true Pollack paintings are fractal filled. Benoit Mandelbrot agreed. Taylor also determined that fractal patterns reduce our stress levels. Interesting. (Has anyone investigated the effects of meditation while looking at fractals?)

There was a lot of money on the line in this particular situation, and apparently the politicking and public flame throwing were severe. As Taylor said in his article: "For the first time, computers were playing a significant role in determining the fate of artworks". The project was kept secret in order to protect its objectivity as well as Taylor himself. The full story reads a bit like a spy thriller. At one point he was advised not to go outdoors in case a bird dive bomb his head; at another point he was advised to he leave the country for a short while! Eventually his analysis, later supported by other evidence, determined the paintings were fakes. (This was about the time he was told to flee to New Zealand). The process of using software to analyse fractals in artwork is now legitimized and used by many researchers.

Reading this article caused me to think of a similar activity on a smaller scale and closer to home. My father (who passed away in 2009) was an archaeological chemist and spent hours on end sitting at his computer developing FORTRAN code to analyse art. Over the years, he was called upon to authenticate ancient ceramics, paintings from the Middle Ages, and was always glued to stamps (he'd appreciate the little joke). Although the culture of ceramics and artwork is interesting, it was his analysis of stamp forgeries that was most unique as far as I (in my admittedly biased position) could tell. He was always programming programming programming and peering at these little bits of lines and ink. I never got to see his code, and I suspect it is now lost, but I'd give a lot to know more about what he was doing. Over the years I would periodically be ordered off on a mission to obtain some obscure piece of software that he wanted to use, or to locate a specific piece of share-ware that he had somehow learned about. Fortunately he published more articles than I could ever read and a few books, so I can read his results even if I cannot see the code that produced it. If those subjects interest you too, here are a few books: on ceramics (here and here), stamps (here and here)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Do you want to have a fight with your car's software?

Perhaps because it is Sunday and I had promised myself not to work today, yet find myself on the computer (again :) a little bit of irreverence and levity. Besides missing out on the sunny skies to plop myself in this ergonomically correct chair, I am working with 9 fingers, having accidentally smashed one of them into a steel pipe last weekend. Typing has been a bit challenging. But not nearly as much as flossing. Try flossing without both pinkies. It can be done but it takes creativity that would make my dentist proud.

I just listened to the podcast from National Public Radio's Science Friday. The host interviewed the high school pair who won the grand prize in the Siemens Foundation Math, Science and Technology contest  in.... yes... computer science. (The grand prize also went to someone working in astrophysics. NPR did not mention this, but it is on the Siemens Foundation contest web site. See above link) The prize is $100,000.  The host noted afterwards with some regret that he forgot to ask the teenagers what they would do with the money. I don't know...when you were 16, what would you have done with $100,000? That's a lot of [fill in your own blank].

The students developed code to identify emotions from your voice. The NPR host started off by describing how he would sometimes tell his automobile GPS to "shut up". And wondered if this technology would allow the car to adjust if it noted that he was pissed off. My first thought (remember, it is Sunday) was - so turn off the annoying GPS. It is bad enough when Google Maps takes me 5 miles out of my way and dumps me in the far end of a dead end parking lot when my desired destination was half a mile from where I originally got into my car in the first place. I have been in cars with people who cannot seem to drive without their GPS - brain, out the window. Annoying computer voice at the helm. ick....

So I'm not sure that I'd call that particular application of emotional recognition software socially beneficial. I might be more likely to get into an escalating argument with my car as it tried to be soothing and I became more and more annoyed at its cloying fakeness. Then I might find myself and my car in a ditch. Definitely not socially beneficial. Guess I should be clear that I'm pretty sure the car GPS application was the invention of the NPR host, not the students.

The students actually had something much more interesting in mind (assuming that your idea of fun and excitement does not involve fisticuffs with your dashboard). They are now considering creating a wristwatch that can be worn by Autistic children to help them in social situations. The watch will identify the emotion of the person being spoken to and show a picture (smiley face, frown, etc) to help the wearer correctly judge the mood of the other person. Now that is a bright idea and much more interesting I think. I hope they do it.

Meanwhile, I shall attempt to go back to not working....happy Sunday to all!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"You Can Do Whatever You Want, But You Can't"

That is what a high school student told me yesterday. I was sitting in a room speaking with a few of the students attending Coleman Tech Charter High School, which I first reported on last August. At that time, the walls were just up, the cables had only recently disappeared into the ceiling, and the technology infused curriculum was new and shiny and ready to be tested. Students were being recruited and excitement was in the air. Nearing the end of their first term, I decided it was time to see how things were going. So I made a visit to Coleman Tech and spent half a day watching class, speaking to Vice Principal Neil McCurdy ("Dr. McCurdy" to the students) and several of the teachers. And of course the students.

The consistent message I heard from everyone was that the school was special; it provided a personalization uncommon for a public school and everyone had a story to tell to prove it.

The student who made the statement above was summing up several stories about why he likes the school. He says that the teachers and administrators (who overlap, as the qualified administrators also teach) really are open to new ideas and suggestions and pay attention to what students have to say. He feels like a person, not a kid afloat in a mass of bodies. That is the "You can do whatever you want" part. Another student concurred, stating that the school she would have attended has a class size of 60. 60??? Not sure I believed I had heard correctly, I asked for confirmation and she said, yes, really, 60. Eek. This student, who had zero background in computing, is blossoming at Coleman Tech, taking among other things, Computing 2, and doing "extra things" at home with her laptop.

The "But you can't" referred to the way in which discipline and enforcement of respectful behavior are handled. One story, told by another student, illustrates this point. This student felt bullied by a classmate. In that student's old school, said the student, the approach to dealing with the situation would have been for the teacher to make a public display of disciplining the student. Here at Coleman Tech, the student related, nothing happened that instant (note that the situation was not endangering in any way) but over the next few days the perpetrator began to act increasingly respectful. So, the student inferred, something had occurred outside of class. The long term effect was that the student relating the story felt more comfortable and a "scene" had been avoided.

Beyond agreeing with the student's assessment that someone had spoken to the misbehaving student outside of class, I also inferred that one of the reasons that this approach was successful over the long term was because the perpetrator had not been publicly humiliated, which can lead to increased behavioral problems and possible retaliation in other settings. The student who felt threatened was not forced to deal with whatever his peers thought of him - which in high school is a very big deal.

Coleman Tech Charter School has attracted students from all over the region. Some students come from "North County" which is outside of San Diego city proper, whereas other students come from inner city areas in the heart of San Diego. The students are a good representative of San Diego: multi-racial, economically diverse, and, close to 50-50 gender split (the girls slightly outnumber the boys in this tech high school!). I watched an incident unfold that demonstrated another way that Coleman Tech is unique and personal. Everyone, students and teachers, eat lunch together in one large room. At one point an altercation almost broke out and Neil McCurdy, as Vice Principal, stepped in. It turned out that one student came from a background where the response to a perceived provocation was to become overtly aggressive. The other student, from a different background, felt that increased provocation was appropriate. When Neil stepped in, it became an opportunity not only to enforce discipline, but to discuss why each student's approach was not going to get the student what they wanted. Nearby students also heard the discussion. Neil told me later that part of what they try to do at Coleman Tech is consciously teach students about cultural differences among each other and to learn how to successfully interact with people from different backgrounds.

Ok...where is the computing? Everywhere. Every student, as promised, has their own laptop and every class uses the interactive white boards. One teacher in a non math/science discipline at first told me that he didn't really use technology in his class, but moments later was describing how the final project for his class was to create a digital movie! In addition, every 9th grader (approximately age 14) must take Computing 1, which is a programming based class using, guess what, Alice (the same system used in the APCS Principles class that I have been following all fall). There is also Computing 2, 3, 4 and 5. Currently two sections of Computing 2 are running and students are focusing on 3D graphics and animation although when I sat in, one section was discussing how the internet works at the level of IP addresses, packets and routing. Students were fascinated to see live, via a "ping" that a message sent from their school to UCSD a few miles up the road, was routed through Los Angeles. It made for fascinating conversation.

The other section of Computing 2 was engaged in analysis and debate of the WikiLeaks controversy - one group was "the western nations" and the other was WikiLeaks; they each had to decide what technical measures they would take to both attack the opposition and defend themselves. Although the ideas started off with some (to be expected) adolescent suggestions such as bribing North Korea to nuke the United States and its allies, the conversation began to become more serious as the students realized the serious flaws in this kind of argument. Unfortunately class ended just as things started to get really interesting and I wasn't able to hear how it all turned out - or rather will turn out, as this will be a multi-day exercise. I noticed that even amid the joyful chaos of a group of 9th and 10th graders throwing out ideas at random, students were constantly experiencing the "lightbulb effect". I saw several students, girls and boys, saying things like "oh! could that actually happen to my program?" "does the internet really work that way?" "you mean that they can do THAT to my computer???". Minds were engaged.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Socially Meaningful Student Projects

Yesterday I watched some of the student final projects for the APCS Principles pilot class. The students had been given the option of submitting their projects into a contest in which their classmates would vote on the best one. Participation in the contest was completely optional but quite a few students took the plunge. Ten projects were selected for viewing in class and being voted on. They were pretty darned cool if I say so.

This final class assignment (which all students had to do) asked them to create a digital project to communicate their views on some issue facing society; they were given a wide ranging list of topics to choose from and if they thought they had a better topic they could propose it. One topic, acknowledging the large number of psychology students in the class, was to design an interactive psychology experiment.

The contest proceeded in round robin pairings, with students using their by now well finger-smudged clickers to vote. They were able to see the results of each round live. To those who know Alice well it was clear that significant programming sophistication, such as complex looping and list structures, went into some of the projects . A few students figured out how to use concepts that the class did not introduce, such as variables and button input boxes.

One of my favorite projects involved a group of penguins who emerged from an igloo to play and pick up trash. They spun, circled, danced, flapped their little flippers (do penguins technically have wings?), sometimes in a chorus line and sometimes going off to express their individual selves. One happily slid around on its tummy over the ice. Along the way they picked up and tossed trash towards the trash can. Too cute. And there were clearly lists, parameters and other well designed code structures underneath the fun.

Another project was more serious, without being too heavy, which came through as instructor Beth Simon had the honor of "playing it". The tree she was trying to save from destruction did not make it. There were all these objects (zombies, flying anvils) attacking the healthy tree while little bunny rabbits hopped around it. The player had to shoot the nasty objects to save the tree. Unfortunately, the tree withered (i.e. the player missed too many fast moving objects) and the forces of environmental destruction won out ... this time.

One project replicated a famous real psychology experiment in which a group of seminary students on the way to a lecture about ethics and helping people mostly ignored a passerby in distress (it was a "plant" fortunately). The student brought the scenario up to date, using the setting of a student late for class who witnesses a disaster and has to decide if it is worth risking being late for class and possibly hurting their grade by calling for an ambulance. Beth acted as the psychology subject, and asked the class what to do. They ended up running the scenario with both decisions (help and not help).

There were so many more fascinating projects. One used creative graphics to teach quadratic equations, another challenged the user to decide if they should respond to provocation aggressively or attempt reconciliation, another had a kangaroo trying to hop over a tree as it answered questions about tuberculosis, a snowman trying to eat only healthy food, a plea to help out at this holiday time by donating toys to children in poverty, and a fun question and answer animation about sharks facts (ever seen a shark spin around on itself?) and finally a darkly amusing story about a basement hacker who goes phishing and lures in an unsuspecting victim to perform identify theft. This story won the overall class vote, although the stage by stage competition was at times quite close.

Very very few students were texting, or using Facebook in class. This was fun and informational for everyone and a great way to approach the end of the term.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Alice -> Excel in the APCS Principles Pilot

Midterm follow up, but I'm afraid there isn't anything earth shatteringly new to add. As Beth Simon had promised, the (34) questions on the midterm looked very much like the in-class quiz questions. If you have been following the podcasts, then you know exactly what those questions look like. There were exam questions on virtually all the major topics covered in the course.

Having started to tally the types of topic questions, I began to decide that this effort probably wasn't going to help out those of you who are still interested in details about the excellent midterm results. I believe that the varied analyses of the project that will take place after the course concludes may produce more engaging information than if I list out a topic frequency count.

It is more interesting to briefly discuss what happened in the class sessions in which Beth discussed Excel. As mentioned in a previous post, she went to great lengths to make a smooth transition between Alice and Excel, showing the relationships between two seemingly disparate programs. Alice is an animation oriented programming system and Excel is a spreadsheet program, albeit a now quite sophisticated piece of software. However, in working through complex concepts such as relative vs. absolute addressing (often a tricky distinction for learners), Beth demonstrated through example how an Alice exercise (such as a singing group called The Beetles - no that is not a typo, they were insects) had underlying code similar to formulas they could create in Excel. She discussed similarities and differences in concepts such as loops and conditionals. All very creatively.

This type of teaching supports what the learning literature describes as Transfer - the ability of a learner to successfully apply understanding from one learning experience to another and to rapidly learn new related information. Observing the class it appeared that transfer was likely occurring because students asked intelligent and thoughtful questions about the Excel exercises and remained engaged throughout the lectures.

This is also a good time to note that the course has been supporting two other types of well researched learning that I have not specifically referred to previously:  problem based learning and collaborative learning. If you are not familiar with the research in these areas, an excellent read is How People Learn put out by the National Academies Press. It has become a classic and very accessible reference on learning in educational settings. Well worth the read.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Visiting Scholar Quintin Cutts & the APCS Principles pilot (part 1)

For those of us in the States who, as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday, may feel we do not need any caloric intake for the next week, exercise is a good thing. Most of my exercise today came in the form of talking (wondering how many calories are burned by vocalization - anyone studied that?) to Quintin Cutts, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow. Quintin is here in San Diego on sabbatical to work with Beth Simon on the APCS Principles pilot class. Quintin, showing good form, rode his bike to our meeting, facing a daunting straight up hill on the way back. So extra points for Quintin on this post-holiday day. For agreeing to meet with me, and for exercising at the same time.

Choosing to take his sabbatical here made perfect sense. Quintin has been teaching computing with Peer Instruction and clickers himself for some time, and has just finished 4+ years work on a large grant-funded outreach project to the pre-college schools in Scotland. Quintin has extensive experience with project development and curricular issues that bridge university and pre-college computing, and he has taught classes for both non computing and mixed majors for nearly 15 years. He is also involved with revisions to Scotland's computing curriculum (those of us in the States might sigh wistfully to learn that there is a national computing curriculum in Scotland and all secondary schools teach computing).

Asked about his interests and how they relate to working on this particular class, Quintin didn't pause for more than a second before saying: a focus on finding blockages in learning; getting feedback to students as quickly as possible; keeping students engaged. These three items are clearly present in the structure of the class:

One of the pedagogical approaches Quintin has used in the past and which he helped implement in his collaboration with Beth Simon, he refers to as "turning the teaching model on its head".  In a common form of the "traditional model" the student does the "easy" part first: attend lecture. Not to imply that the material in a traditional lecture is necessarily easy - not at all. Content may be seriously complex and challenging from both the student and lecturer point of view. What is meant by "easy" is that in many lecture situations, the typical student is passive. She or he listens, takes notes, perhaps asks a question, perhaps not.

Later comes the "hard" part, where the student goes off and works by themselves on homework, lab assignments etc. Blockages in understanding may become show stoppers and timely helpful feedback difficult to obtain.

This class implements a different approach. Students do a homework assignment *before* attending lecture. The homework is a prerequisite for success in class, and the assignment is part of their grade - hence a two-fold motivation to take it seriously. When students arrive in class Beth engages with them, and they with each other, participating in "hard stuff" with the presence and support of the instructor, the teaching assistants, and their peers. These activities include the interactive quizzes, group discussions, and other activities that keep them sitting up and engaged (ok, good posture is neither always present nor required). With that experience and immediate feedback about their understanding under their belts, the students do additional reinforcement activities  in their labs.

Quintin and Beth are gathering real-time data about this new process to monitor how well it is working. In addition to the typical measures of scored assignments and exams, the pair are regularly collecting feedback sheets from students. They are also audio recording (with student knowledge) class discussions, in order to understand what is happening in all those group conversations about the clicker quiz questions. There are 4 audio recorders circulating through the class during each lecture period.

When asked how he felt the course objectives were going so far, Quintin was quite optimistic, citing many of the same items mentioned in this past Tuesday's post: the increasing scores on clicker quiz questions, the midterm scores, and the sense he is has from various other sources that students are picking up on complex concepts. He is looking forward to digging into and further analyzing the data as it comes in.

Part 2 of our talk to come....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The APCS Principles pilot flies into the last few weeks

The APCS Principles pilot class is moving right along into its final weeks. Several people have been asking how the midterm went - so consider this "part 1" of a response to you.

The midterm grades came back and they were quite good. The average score on the midterm was 86% even though there is evidence that the exam was not particularly easy. In one of my next posts I hope to have some information about the topics and their frequency  on the test to bolster this statement and provide additional information. For now I am able to report that of the well over 500 students in the class, only 4 got a perfect score and approximately 50 scored over 95%. I do not have a statistical standard deviation at this time, but have been told that there was a tight clustering of grades with almost no students falling into the traditional "failure" range.  

In recent weeks Beth Simon has added a new tactic to her exam preparation techniques. After a quiz question and discussion of the correct and incorrect answers she often says: "Write down what you need to remember about this question - for the final exam".  She pauses while they do so. In other words she is helping them prepare by progressively building a study sheet each day during lecture. In addition, to bolster the quality of what goes on these study sheets, part of the class and quiz discussions include asking students to "debug" their choices - to form the habit of mind of learning to problem solve when dealing with a computer, whether it is code or a different type of computing problem.

Students are now well into working on their final project, which will be presented late next week. There will be a contest in which students will get to vote for best projects. The projects should be interesting as there is room for significant student creativity. More on that when it happens.

Finally, and this will also be the subject of a fuller posting, the class has shifted into using Excel. Rather than having a clean break, Beth is making connections between "coding" that students can do in Excel and what they learned in Alice programming. More on that to come as well.

Ok, that wasn't really "finally". There will also be a report soon about a conversation with another visiting scholar. That is truly finally the last item in this post!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stunned by Programming Beauty in Biology

I am agog. Stunned. Speechless (a rare thing). Caught in an endless loop "wowwwwwww" moment.

I was going to write today about something else but that something else got abruptly shoved off into oblivion after a friend sent me a link to a New York Times article with the most lovely video of computer generated cellular biology in it. It is perhaps programming at the most lovely I have seen (ok, I'm drooling).

So, away with the planned topic and here is a link to the article on molecular animation and be sure to watch the video about half way down.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Alice Expert Steve Cooper Makes a Visit

Last week one of the creators of the Alice program, and one of the authors of the most popular textbook on using Alice, Steve Cooper came to San Diego for a visit. He may have thought he was coming for the nice November weather, however he chose the two days when temperatures soared well over 100F : the outdoor thermometer on my cement (heat reflecting) deck read 50C, and the humidity dove to 2 percent.  Welcome to San Diego Steve!

Currently an Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University, Steve has been very active for years in the computing education community. He also spent two years as a National Science Foundation program officer.

Steve came to San Diego to see for himself how the APCS Principles pilot course here was being implemented. He wanted to visit with Beth Simon (the instructor), with the Teaching Assistants, watch a class, and be in the environment. Steve was impressed by what he saw and heard - he pointed out that it is a challenging environment to teach a large number of students, with no definition of "typical" student. He was excited by the ambitious approach to the class that he has been following in many ways, including through this blog.

Steve and I have known each other for many years so I was able to spend some time with him talking about interdisciplinary computing and how he sees Alice contributing to a wider public understanding of what computing is and can be all about.

Steves describes the philosophy of Alice as ideal for computing students, whether they are majors or taking their one and only course in the field. Originally Alice was targeted at Pre-CS1 at-risk students. As a pedagogical tool it was envisioned as an innovative way to help students develop intuitions about programming concepts through graphic visualization and animation. Since those early years in the mid 1990s, classes using Alice have spread nationwide and now appear in non-majors classes, pre-CS classes and CS1 classes. Formal research studies have examined the effectiveness of the course. Steve has kept on top of these developments and with his colleagues and team have striven to see that the Alice software meets the broadening needs of the user community.

In addition to use within college and university settings, Alice is used with younger students. Alice has been migrating downwards from 12th grade and Steve is very excited that 9th graders (approximately age 14) are now using it. Steve believes that once Alice is being used regularly in middle school (~ age 12-14) then the broad potential of computing will hit the critical age group where students make decisions about courses to take that ultimately direct their college or other career options. Approximately 1500 K-12 (the pre-college years in the US) teachers belong to the "Alice community" and the number is growing. Community members participate in a listserv, receive special announcements and other opportunities.

As an interdisciplinary tool, Steve talks about how Alice is either being integrated into, or plans are in the works to integrate it into, classes in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics - courses that are ripe for the use of animation and simulation and that increasingly rely upon solid programming skills. Steve was very animated when he discussed his vision of Alice as a cross-disciplinary tool. In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) classes, he points out, Alice can be used for specific units within a broader content course. Creating objects and manipulating them will bring topics alive. For example, Steve suggested that the process of how a desert changes over time can be animated. To create such an animation the student would need to use loops, work with moving objects on top of, in to, and around other objects in the desert environment.  Most of the basic intro programming topics would have a place (functions, methods, event handling, conditionals etc). Therefore, as they create these animations or slide shows, students will learn the computational thinking skills that they need to create robust computer code.

It is all about problem solving, says Steve. Developing intuitions for difficult concepts as opposed to relying on surface level tactics. Learning to speak different languages (the language of computing along with the language of different content fields).

Steve continues to work on the development of curricular materials for Alice and is very excited about the broadening use of it across discipline and age. He is particularly enthusiastic about the possible tie-ins between the goals of the new APCS Principles project,  the new APCS Principles AP exam itself and the ability to introduce the exciting world of computing to younger students.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Interdisciplinary Potential in Academia - New Zealand

Coincidences, coincidences. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report on the potential for interdisciplinary work in academia in New Zealand. QUITE the contrast with the information in the US centered article I posted last time. Very cool to run these back to back and more food for thought!

Here, again, is an excerpt, with the full link below (also accessible without a subscription):

"The Conference was organised by two groups of early and mid-stage career researchers, the Oxygen Group and He Waka Tangata, with the explicit aim of mixing together the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities together productively and fostering dialogue between them. I know – we’ve all heard that ambition before. But what was remarkable about this conference is that it was working.  People from very different backgrounds mingled together quite happily without the usual tensions and petty snobberies that can typify attempts to bring different branches of knowledge together, all in the name of producing more innovative work."

The URL is ferociously long, so I hide it behind this nice little link to the article

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Material for Thought on Interdisciplinary Work in Academia

There is an interesting interview/commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the constraints faced by academia in instituting true interdisciplinary teaching and research. This article should be viewable even without a subscription. Here is a sample from it (full link at bottom):

"Even interdisciplinary work relies on the concept of disciplines, and when it relates to teaching, it usually involves pulling together two professors from different departments to teach a single course. Each brings their own disciplinary expertise to bear on the subject, while respecting the boundaries of their colleague’s discipline. This seems like more of a disciplinary constraint than an administrative one.

However, when we go beyond the level of a course, we are talking about a more serious institutional investment. At the end of the day, I have to present a balanced budget to my dean or provost, and if I add another program — particularly one that will not pay for itself — I need to show that I have made cuts elsewhere. The easiest place to make these cuts is in the interdisciplinary faculty member’s “home” department, particularly when this balancing is done at the dean’s-office level. That creates hostility within the department and further resentment of a faculty member who may already be at the margins. For a junior faculty member, this means angering the senior folks who will be voting on their tenure case. Most assistant professors I know are not willing to take that risk."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Catching up with the APCS Principles Class

Where to start. I think it makes sense to do a fast catchup across several related areas and a preview of what is coming down the pike (that's short for "turnpike" - a term that seems to be used more on the east coast of the US than elsewhere).

Catchup Post: The APCS Principles class:

Students took their midterm Tuesday. No results on that yet. Prior to that, as I mentioned before the presumed virus temporarily but very painfully brought my computer to its knees and suspended postings, Beth had reminded the students that the midterm would look very much (very much) like the clicker questions they work with in class every day. Just prior to the exam the percentage of correct answers on these in-class questions rose to 90% .

Also prior to the midterm, students were polled anonymously about their interest in taking another computing class next term. The most logical class, and the one referred to in the question, was the first programming class in the degree program. Approximately 184 students responded with positive replies - nice numbers to see. This doesn't guarantee enrollment but it certainly sends a message that the class and material are encouraging many students to consider additional computing study. And to think positively about computing in general.

Important contextual material when considering the above items, and thus worth noting, is that the course has gradually been doing less "hand holding" on the assignments. This process started as early as the second week of class. The resources and support continue as available as ever, but meanwhile the labs and homeworks have been gradually increasing the amount that students are asked to reflect for themselves and make decisions based upon their own analysis. There is also a built in mechanism for students to fully express their creativity and go the extra mile if they want to.

A quick example of how this works.

All programming based assignments clearly lay out goals, objectives and program requirements. For example, the first lab, following the early chapters of the Alice textbook, focused on Objects, Methods, the concept of an instruction, and of a control structure.  In this lab students were provided a step by step set of instructions that helped them learn the Alice world as they simultaneously learned the programming concepts.

In a more recent lab, the goals, objectives and requirements focused on the use of functions, conditionals, and logical operators. Again, a list clearly laid out the programming requirements, e.g. "You must use as least 3 functions in your program, one of which must be new (e.g. you create it)". However, the approach for completing the assignment had evolved as follows:

There were two options for completing the assignment - one option allowed the student to create their own Alice world (program) using any scenario they desired, as long as it incorporated the listed requirements. The idea was to encourage creative expression.

The second option listed the same program requirements as for option 1 but provided a scenario to get them going. The scenario in this case was: Help fish clean up polluted water while avoiding swimming into the pollution. Although behavior suggestions were given for the Objects that would help the students meet the objectives, there was no step by step set of instructions on how to complete the assignment. Thus students had to perform the same kind of planning and analysis as students who chose option 1.

Finally, for those who really wanted to go the extra mile, there was an extra credit assignment. Students programmed the calculation for the power of an ocean wave - while keeping a surfer on top of the wave. This is San Diego after all - surfing is big time here. If you can't surf you can always get a boogie board.

Coming Down the Pike: visiting dignitaries, more on mobile applications, medical bio-informatics. And a few other things.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

No the world has not come to a halt...

A nasty little virus put a kink in things....hope to catch up on the postings soon! There is plenty to report.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Apple Store iPod & Educational Apps Investigation

A little over a week ago I reported on my hair pulling attempt to learn about Android by a visit to a Verizon store. Shortly thereafter I visited the local Apple store to compare apples to ... err...

It took two visits to be sure that what I experienced the first time was for real. Let's put it this way: Apple wins the prize. Hands down. The first visit had a straightforward plan: go listen to one of their "workshops" on the iPod Touch and play with one to compare it to the Android devices. Look at the educational applications. It was a relatively calm weekday evening at the mall.

Over two hours later (at least) I stumbled brain dead out of the store... it wasn't just the hoards of massively friendly and knowledgeable blue shirted squadrons that politely offered to assist me, left me alone if I wanted to just play, and used technology (!) to summon expertise if they didn't know the answer to one of my questions. But the guy who had the honor of leading the workshop let me quiz him for an hour and a half about the iPod, the apple developer program, the hardware platforms, the applications, the functionality.... he looked a bit worn out by the end, but carried it off well.

It became clear that another trip was in order. So this time I hit the store on a weekend afternoon - busiest time. Clipboard, pen and water bottle in hand. Same customer service experience.  A swarm of knowledgeable blue Apple people, and in spite of having to tactfully elbow lots of kids away from me who wanted "my" iPod to play with, I managed to take 5 pages of detailed notes virtually unmolested. And then I hit the iPads for comparison.

But let's get down to the main point, before you think I've been totally dazzled by glitz and all the friendly faces. (Not that I have anything against friendly faces and fun gadgets)

Compared to the Android online app store, I found the Apple online store easy to use, and I found not only a whole section dedicated to Educational applications, but today they were highlighting Special Education applications. I pored over them. Read reviews. Compared content. Tried to find out how many were in the library, but that is the one question no one could tell me.  A lot obviously. Although the search engine doesn't support boolean operators, it does a credible job if you have some idea what you would like to find. Most of the educational apps were so cheap I found myself thinking: how does anyone make a living off of .99 cent applications? or $1.99. or $2.99.

Then I remembered the educational (and other) app developers I've chatted with in the last week or so. They don't make a living off these apps. Well, none of the ones I spoke to anyway. They create them because they enjoy the challenge, and feel it is a good thing to be helping other people at the same time. Sure, they get PR from their work, which no doubt they put to good use in some other endeavor, but that seems only fair.

Suddenly a Buzz Word hit me: digital literacy. There is lots of talk about the need to get the public more digitally literate. Well. When using an educational application (as opposed to a shoot-em up game) these kids are becoming fluent with modern technology, sophisticated technology. HA!  In the hands of pre-schoolers and elementary school children. This is putting the hardware to good use. And the surface of the possibilities here, to use cutting edge devices with creative applications, is only just being touched (oh.....that is a bad pun.....sorry).

I am reminded that it doesn't take big projects, corporations and scads of people to make a difference. Very small scale (I looked them up) app developers who sell .99 cent applications, are working at the grassroots level. Their efforts add up - all those applications and I don't have space to copy in many of the happy reviews posted by users (words like "love" and "thrilled" and "can't wait for more" abound). People want educational applications. Good ones. So as to the comment in my prior post that one researcher claimed that people don't think highly of educational applications - my anecdotal evidence is telling me that yes, they do, if there are good ones to choose from.  Kids learn some content (alphabet, foreign language, math, motor skills etc), kids start on the road to becoming digitally literate without knowing that is what they are doing. Good stuff.

I've got some school administrators and teachers lined up to talk to soon about their perspective of using iPod and iPad applications in the classroom. Can't wait.

Oh...the same guy who let me frizzle his neurons for so long on my first visit was not only in the store again today, but came up to me to say "hi" and "how are you doing" and could he help me and...well....a lot more brain cells were worn out between the two of us after that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mini-monsoon does not stop attendance at APCS Principles Class; Podcasts available too

For those of you still curious about details of the content of the APCS Principles pilot course, I am very pleased to be able to point you to where you can see and hear podcasts of every lecture. Go to the podcast site at UCSD and look under the course list for CSE3 - Fluency/Information Technology. You can click through to a listing of all of the course lectures and pick which one you want. You are able to hear instructor Beth Simon and see the slides she puts up, complete with her interactive note-taking on them during class. You can experience some of the interesting and innovative pedagogic techniques I have been discussing.  

If you have never listened to a Podcast there are instructions available for you to read about how to do it. Generally class podcasts come down shortly after the course completes to make room for new course podcasts, so if these interest you, don't wait until January!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. In two weeks the students will be taking their midterm. One of the pedagogic goals Beth has is to do everything possible to help students prepare for the midterm. She is thinking about, and has begun to implement, some strategies.

Beth has been encouraging students to utilize all the resources available to help them since the beginning of class, and yesterday she took things one step further. She used the technique of clicker questions to ask the students to click in about how they  felt they were doing in the course - with the promise that no one was going to look at the individual responses. She asked them [brief paraphrase] "How are you doing?" and the choices were [also slightly paraphrased for brevity]:

a) Doing fine, I totally understand this stuff
b) Doing fine, I have had to work at it, but I'm pretty sure I get the concepts
c) Not sure I know the concepts as well as expected
d) Pretty lost
e) Have no idea

Note that grades had been posted a few days before so that students could see their personal cumulative progress from the point of view of their instructor. They were also able to see the course distribution and compare where they were in relation to the rest of the class. Armed with that information, they were now asked to report spontaneously how they felt they were doing.

The responses, as percentages, were as follows:
a) 8%
b) 36%
c) 39%
d) 10%
e) 7%

Though these percentages are opinions, which are influenced by various factors (confidence, self expectations, were they paying attention to the question?) they give everyone something to mull over.

Beth would like to see an additional 20% in the b range on this question. So she reinforced then and there the resources available to students - of which there are many. Many alive and breathing resources. Beth spoke more about the best ways to prepare for the exam - practically giving it away by telling them (not for the first time) that the exam would be based in great part on the interactive clicker questions they worked on during every class. These questions cover content, as well as design, debugging and abstract thinking skills. Students are able to return (via the podcasts and hardcopy access to slides) to the clicker questions and re-take them live.  Not just look at the question and answer. Clicker success rates on questions are going up although Beth would like to see them consistently at the 90% success range. Beth even said that she would be lonely in office hours if no one came - which created smiles across the lecture hall.

This brings up another point. All the evidence indicates that the students love coming to class. We are having very weird weather for October in San Diego. Normally at this time of year we are dealing with the famous Santa Ana winds and threat of wildfire. It rarely rains in October. Well, it has been raining. And raining. And raining. Yesterday there was a deluge reminiscent of living in the Pacific Northwest (I feel qualified to say that, having lived there). Umbrellas? Who has umbrellas here? Nonetheless, the lecture hall was filled - Beth can verify this numerically because she can see on her personal display how many students are in the lecture halls via the clicker registrations. Students came out for class and were as dynamic and engaged as ever (although damp).

While she works on the issue herself, Beth would also love to hear any creative advice (via this Blog) about what to tell students to do to help themselves prepare for the midterm.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Technology & Society Assignment #1, Digital Responsibility: How Students Responded

AN ASIDE: just recently someone posed a question on one of my earlier posts about the course content of the APCS Principles pilot class that has (and will continue to) appear as a regular discussion topic here.  I responded via  comment. If you want to see that information yourself, read the post and comments from September 30 .

And now back to our featured topic of today.

The students in the APCS pilot class completed their first Technology & Society (T & S) assignment. The instructor (Beth Simon) is very pleased with the results and is at work on plans to build upon the positive outcome as part of the next T & S assignment.

As a prelude to that plan, I want to give you some additional information about the results of this first assignment  which concerned Digital Responsibility. Students were asked to locate an article that address a topic in this area. They provided a brief summary of the article and listed some "non obvious issues of digital responsibility". Other students responded to their peers' posts.

The breadth of posts and responses even in this large class was impressive. Students did a very good job, especially for a first assignment, in starting to reflect on complex issues.

Many students commented on articles about the Assistant Attorney General in Michigan, USA, who has been posting attacks on his personal blog aimed at a gay student leader at the Univ. of Michigan.

Another very popular topic concerned a girl who was cyber bullied not only in life, but after she died as well.
One of the most active sets of conversations concerned online gaming, in particular the situation where a South Korean student apparently was so addicted that he died of exhaustion and possible heart failure. I include the article link.
This topic really seems to have hit home for many students as dozens weighed in with opinions.

As instructor Beth Simon weighs options for following up on this assignment she is reflecting herself on a variety of issues. She would like to not only present another timely societal topic but help students to introspect even more deeply - all students. What are some good ways to do so?
One idea under consideration is to provide students with examples from this assignment of "good" and "better" responses. This approach validates the students' work on the first T&S assignment while scaffolding them to take their thoughts and analysis to the next level. Another idea under consideration is to present students with two very different large scale digital approaches to bringing people together for a worthy cause, yet are based upon very different philosophies. Then ask them to in some way consider the implications and outcomes of each.
Stay tuned.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Android, iOS, Educational Software Investigations

Continuing my background reading about the use of mobile apps in education, today I finished a book on the development and history of children's software ("Engineering Play", author: Mizuo Ito, MIT Press, 2009).

At the same time, yesterday I visited a Verizon Corporate store to get my hands on some Android phones and a personal feel for what an app running on one of those phones might be like. What would a developer be working with from a usability point of view?

The two events (book reading and store visit) intersected in an interesting way. First of all, my visit to the Verizon store was an exercise in patiently experiencing absolutely terrible customer service - I howled about that on Facebook. Nonetheless I discovered a few interesting things. Most notably, in searching through the Android Market, I found no category for Education. Hmmmm. Access to the internet through their store phones was highly restricted, so I went home and tried again. Still nothing. The few educational apps I found were spread around here and there. And there was a note that said to see additional applications I needed to use my mobile device. Well, that wasn't exactly helpful.

Then this morning, in the Ito book, I came across a line (page 156) in which he quoted another publication "people have a low opinion of educational software".

They do?
Do they?

There is some great software out there. Interestingly enough though, I found evidence that the greatest selling "edutainment" software ever created is the Simcity line. Not originally created as educational, many educators have appropriated it for educational use. (Hence the name edutainment)

If you search online, you can find lots of cool software being developed for educational purposes.  Real cross cutting applications - math, science, art ... One of my earlier posts pointed to a company producing software for children with disabilities (DevelopEase).

In a few days I am going to an Apple store to do a similar activity as at the Verizon Store - get my hands on the iX devices and learn about their development program. I want to learn about the iOS from the Apple people. How do their devices support educational apps compared to the Android platform for example. The phones at the Verizon store struck me as not at all well set up for educational applications. Resolution was terrible even on their highest end phone. But since I can't actually use any apps without borrowing or stealing a friend's Android phone, I'm hypothesizing here. I must add though, that Google puts all their developer information online which is very nice.

I'm also going to make a point of finding out if Apple has a app category for "Education" and if not, why; and if so, what is in it. Not owning an "i" device I need to pounce on the store. It should be an interesting comparison of customer service experience too.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Designing for Inclusiveness

As part of some background research into the use of mobile devices in education, this morning I was reading a book called "design meets disability". The lack of capitalization is how the title is written. The author is Graham Pullin, publisher is MIT Press (2009).

There is a chapter that I found disturbing and I'm processing it aloud here. The chapter is called "expression meets information". The author makes several claims, which I paraphrase (hopefully I have not inadvertently mangled his intent - if so the fault is mine):

  • The design of assistive devices for disabled people is often focused on the technology and coming up with a "one size fits all" device.
  • Mainstream culture on the other hand now demands flexibility and customizability in electronic devices.
  • Notions of the individual self, culture, and other factors are not sufficiently addressed in the design of assistive devices.
  • Using assistive devices to communicate as *individuals* - which the mainstream community takes for granted (facial expression, tone of voice, body posture, choice of word and gesture) is not integrated into design as a primary requirement. Perhaps at all.
  • The creation of assistive devices is or should be a very interdisciplinary activity: intercultural communications and diversity, attitudes, qualitative design methods, ethnography, computer science, engineering, and others.
One of Pullin's main points seems to be that while we as a culture value diversity, and design for it in many technological devices (sometimes rising to the level of becoming Bloatware), we toss all thought of encouraging individuality out the window when it comes to devices for the disabled. 

And to muddy the waters, he points out that the notion of individuality is very personal (hopefully that phrase is clearly redundant) and sometimes people don't want the latest and greatest "improvement". He uses Stephen Hawking as an example, claiming that the ultra famous physicist has declined an update to his voice synthesizing software, stating that the robotic voice has become "his voice". 

Pullin supports a paradigm shift, that comes back around to the role that computing professionals can play. The author suggests that there is no clear divide between the disabled and not disabled, but that we all exist on a continuum of ability - and that that understanding is what should drive our designs. It isn't just HCI Expanded. (HCI = Human Computer Interaction)

I'm still not sure why I was so disturbed reading this chapter. Perhaps it is the idea that as we work harder to create the "best" assistive devices, we may be doing more damage than good? The author doesn't say that, but that is something I read out of his discussion. I'm going to have to wrestle with this one. There are a lot of things that Pullin does not say outright, but dangles in front of you to consider.

However, and Meanwhile, there is a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary minded computing professionals who want to work in the field of device creation, whether for fun, work or daily living. Software engineering Reqs and Specs would screech to a stop and reconsider traditional approaches to data gathering. It means a whole new way of thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries for inclusiveness. 

The author provides an interesting example to demonstrate that the desired end result is reasonable and doable. He points out that audio books were originally created for the vision impaired, but have now become wildly popular with the mainstream community. Many people like the medium of listening to books. This application crossed over. Whether by accident or intent I do not know. But, what if we always created our work with this idea in mind? 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Weaving Social Issues into the APCS Principles Course

Integrating social issues into the curriculum is, imo (that's "in my opinion" for anyone who doesn't know the lingo), the most effective way to help students consider the fact that computing, and people who use or work with computing, effect the world around them - for good or bad. Social issues are part and parcel of every field (not just computing), every endeavor. Societal impacts need to be thought about, discussed and evaluated. Today's students will someday be running our corporations, serving in government and in countless other ways making decisions that affect the world around them. Sounds a bit cliche but it is very very true.

(Btw  - and that is "by the way" - does anyone know how to make blogger access accented letters? Changing my entire system to French doesn't seem to do it. Grrr)

So it is very gratifying (and exciting) to see that "technology and society" issues are an integral part of the APCS Principles course at UCSD. They show up in several ways.  A certain percentage of each student's grade comes from specific Technology and Society assignments. Each assignment has a short, manageable investigative component, followed by a forum posting about what the student found. Following this there is a thoughtful online discussion between the students on each others postings (visible to the class members but not the general public, for obvious privacy reasons).

So far the results are looking good. Students are actively engaging with the assignments. Given last week's terrible student suicide, it is not surprising that there have been quite a few postings about cyber bullying. I find this a healthy opportunity to encourage students to express themselves on this topic if they wish, in the way that they wish. Their remarks remain within the confines of the course, and the pedagogical goal of encouraging serious contemplation about how technology can be used or abused is met.

Also interesting to me, there have been some postings about the possible ramifications of blogging! Students have been considering the effects of putting one's words out there for the whole world to see - considering the issues surrounding speaking your mind, sometimes in different cultures with different expectations. All of this is exciting and fascinating; students are looking at the use of social media from multiple perspectives. The pros and cons and potential pitfalls. The thoughtfulness of student commentary is sometimes moving and makes me pause.

It is important to point out that these assignments tie into current content discussion in the course, and so in another way demonstrate the linkages between the technical and the social.

Finally, interdisciplinary social issues are being regularly woven into lectures and labs. These occurrences are more subtle but they reinforce the embodiment of the idea that people, the world, the environment are part of design and implementation of programming code.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

APCS Principles Pilot Off to a Great Start

There are so many interesting things to talk about....

I sat in and observed the APCS Principles pilot class kickoff at UCSD and it was pretty darned amazing. A large lecture hall of (non computing major) students fully engaged with the class and participating. Beth Simon (instructor) ran the class like a pro. As previously discussed in this blog, she is using Peer Instruction in order to get students actively involved and boy did it ever work.

Hanging out in the back of the room I could both see and hear what was going on and the students were talking talking  - about the material. A typical sequence of events was that after discussing some material which the students had done work on prior to class, Beth flipped a question up on the screen  and started a count down timer everyone could see - GO! Students had about a minute to use their clicker to respond with their answer - which Beth could see coming in.  Virtually every eye was glued to the screen thinking about the question and then making their selection.

When time was up (a big colored "DONE" appeared just to make things more fun), Beth announced that they should now turn to their pre-assigned team of 3 and discuss a group answer - consensus required - GO! And the talking burst forth as each group discussed among themselves what they thought was the right answer. Up front on the screen the timer was counting down adding a certain degree of excitement (I kid you not). Before time was up each group had to submit their group response. Again, Beth could see the answers coming in and encourage groups to respond if they had not yet done so.

To make things even more interesting, a group of coaches had been assigned to the student teams and they were zipping up and down the aisles checking in to see if anyone was stuck or had questions. Not only that, they carried wireless microphones and if a student had a burning question, the coach was able to register to Beth the request to speak.

The interaction was so dynamic that it was fascinating. Listening in, I heard serious conversations about why such and such an answer was correct.

Finally, when group response time was up, Beth flipped up onto the screen a histogram of the class responses. There was virtual silence as every eye was glued to the diagram to see if they had chosen the correct answer. Beth asked the class to  volunteer comments, questions, and to defend what their team had chosen (not having yet shared the correct answer). And the requests for microphone time shot up - an incredible number of students wanted to speak.

Students were handed a microphone, and everyone could hear them. Beth discussed whatever they had to say and once again virtually everyone was listening.

As needed, Beth took the time to go over a question that many students had answered incorrectly and by writing on the overhead in her brightly colored pen (swoops, swirls, notes, arrows, diagrams) tried to make sure everyone understood the point.

And then it was on to the next round....

A lot of material was covered - certainly enough to keep anyone's brain processing away. Yet there was a feeling of "if we need to talk about it we will take the time and do so".

I did not see the usual "start to pack your bags 5 minutes early" activity that can signal students are ready to move on at the end of class. In fact, Beth and the coaches were swarmed after class with students wanting to keep talking.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Bicycle That Helps People and the Environment

The September issue of CACM (Communications of the ACM) has an interesting article on the development of a computing driven bicycle that helps people, cities and the environment. It has truly interdisciplinary application, including roles as an augmented exercise device, rider safety enhancer, social networking tool, aid to urban planning and a possible tool to help fight climate change. The bike, which recharges itself when the rider brakes, is loaded with technical goodies.

There is a Bluetooth device in the wheel hub and a smartphone on the handlebars. Information can be communicated to the rider about different routes, problem areas to avoid, potholes, etc. The rider can also communicate with other riders who are using the same type of bike - mobile computing goes mobile in a whole new way.

But the really cool technology is a group of sensors that collect information on carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, temperature, humidity and noise. The data is stored for review later (presumably so the rider doesn't crash from trying to read it while moving).  The data can be transmitted to city planners, urban designers and scientists working on climate change. Here is a brief snippet giving a glimpse of how the data can be used:

"The data can be cross referenced with information about land use at various points along the urban planners identify heat islands...pinpoint areas suffering from noise pollution or a concentration of exhaust fumes"

Not coincidentally, the bike, which is currently being piloted in Copenhagen, was introduced at the Copenhagen Climate Conference as part of a project to decrease auto ridership and increase bicycle commuting. It is very exciting to see that one of the primary concerns of the developers is to address an environmental problem.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

APCS Principles Pilot: Ready to Go!

Day 1 of the pilot APCS Principles class is tomorrow and things are pretty much ready to go. This leaves instructor Beth Simon with a moment or two to reflect and wonder about something: just how are students in this unique and exciting class going to experience the class? In other words, where will the easy and tough spots be?

Other ways that Beth is thinking about this issue are - there is a wide demographic of students in her class. Some may major in ... well, you name it, someone will surely major in it! The student body is very different from what one finds in a standard CS1 course. It is a very interdisciplinary group. What will the best resources turn out to be for these students? The key items to make this the best computing experience they have ever had? (It may also be their first experience, which would make a very nice double win for  all).

It is easy to keep thinking about these questions from different angles. Aside from many in-place methods of getting to know students, working with them, and encouraging their efforts, Beth is considering having a student conduct some random interviews with members of the class, especially right at the beginning of the term, to see what she can learn. Within a few weeks, the use of Peer Instruction and the clickers will start identifying some of the places to pay additional attention to, but meanwhile, holding some friendly low key interviews student to student seems like a good way to get the word on the ground.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Do You Understand if Students Understand???

Wow. Class starts in six days and we are down to the wire on some hard questions for our APCS  Principles pilot course. We have some very nice labs shaping up (we think. we hope). We have some very nice homework assignments shaping up (we think. we hope). We have some awesome lectures shaping up (we think and hope). But arrrrggggggggg. We will want to know, really want to know, if the students understand what they are doing! And we want to know it right away. Silly desire huh? Why would we care about THAT?

There are going to be some well tested uses of Peer Instruction in lecture, which will provide one mode of rapid feedback to us and them (and some other nifty lecture related in-class assessment activities). Good. Good. Good.


But what about those labs and homeworks? Let's just talk labs although a similar principle applies to homework. There was a loooooooong and painful** discussion today about how to assess the labs not just for a grade, but to really understand and to help the student understand if they understand. Do they understand the "while loop" construct or not? Conditional expressions - understand or no? or parameters - understand?

Especially for the purpose of this pilot offering we want to find out what is going on cognitively - immediately.  Not just after an exam or a week or so later. But while it is still fresh. And to transmit that in a formative way to the students. So a score or a checkoff sheet may produce a grade (recall: 4 assistants per 40-46 students in a 2 hour lab) but we want more. In itself this is not new - it is always a pedagogical goal to have assignments not only produce a grade, but produce deep learning that both student and instructor can be aware of.

For our project data gathering purposes the goal is even more important. We are considering asking a set of questions as the last part of each lab that will serve as formative feedback and thought provocation for the student and give us some concrete info to pore over.

Set aside the large numbers of students for a moment. What exactly do we ask in this short list of questions? This is not the kind of question we ask our CS1 students. ("Do you really and truly and in a deep and meaningful way understand what you just did? Write an answer that thoroughly convinces us one way or the other please")

We are in uncharted territory. But we understand that.

** PAIN: definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary b : acute mental or emotional distress or suffering

Monday, September 13, 2010

APCS Principles Pilot Course: Designing Meaningful Labs for Humungous Classes

In the ongoing conversation about the APCS Principles course pilot project, today I am thinking about labs. I have been creating away... Lab creation, when a goal is to encourage creativity and exploration while making sure that design and coding content is covered  appropriately, in a given time frame, and in a way that can be assessed  (all of those 750 students....). Labs last two hours and pretty much run 5 days a week, all day. There will be 14 lab sections, with a 40-46 : 4 student - assistant ratio. The "assistants" are 1 graduate Teaching Assistant and 3 undergraduate tutors per lab. Students must attend the lab that they are registered for (no floating) which will help with keeping track of student progress and also with students getting to know their assistants. In a large class, that relationship can prove invaluable and needs to be encouraged. I envision a logistical nightmare if students were able to attend any lab on any given day or week. (Migraine anyone?)

With these kinds of numbers, every little detail has to be taken into consideration when writing the lab. Lab assignments are being designed with the intent that they be completed during the two hours. However, in discussing learning style issues, we are debating the pros and cons of posting the lab assignments in advance - what subtle messages would that send and is that productive or not? Is it fair?.....Does it make life easier or more stressful for the student?.....

Some students will  more readily "run with the ball" than others - a learning style issue rather than an ability issue. So the labs are being designed with two options of equal difficulty. One option will list the program code minimum requirements and let them loose, with a few reminders and suggestions about how to stay on task and not get lost in the technical weeds. The second option will provide a backdrop for the students to work within, and a scenario to use (for example: help a person to escape from a Southern California wildfire). The program code requirements are the same as with Option 1. We are taking great care to make each option be equally difficult/easy. And we want it to be FUN. (another scenario involves having fish swim around neutralizing ocean pollution).

After the very early labs that are fairly structured, the labs tasks will open up and encourage more and more freedom and creativity. The idea here is to support the general Alice philosophical approach of encouraging experimentation and "play" while learning. That makes creating them  both a challenge and fun. If it takes me 4 hours to complete my own lab idea, well then...hmmm. Too difficult. If I find Option 1 easier than Option 2, is that an accurate perception? hmmmmmm How many hints are appropriate and where to place them? hmmmmmmmmmmm.

There will also be an extra credit option for any student who whizzes through the primary part of the lab and has time to spare. The extra credit will put the pedal to the metal so to speak: add in something unusual, new, thought provoking. These exercises will not necessarily be harder in content; sometimes they may be harder in terms of design, or some other factor that we are trying to emphasize.

It will be interesting to see how students react to these two options. We intend to keep track of which labs students choose, if there is any pattern, if our intent for the level of challenge and "fun factor" plays out as intended.

This afternoon I was tasked with taking some time out to think again and more about assessing these labs. So now, I'm off going hmmmmmmmmmm about that. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Post That Almost Didn't Get Written

So it seems a little weird to be writing a post about curriculum development on the anniversary of 9/11. I am thinking that in the greater scheme of things the AP exams are so...not important. And yes, that is true, they are not.

But ... There has been heavy media coverage about the rise of religious and racial prejudice. And recently (as I posted in Facebook) someone called me (in an intended to be nasty way) a "socialist" for suggesting to a third person that there was a historical reason why social safety net programs were put in place in the United States in the 1930s. Name calling is a traditional, old as history, method to intimidate someone and try to shut them up. There seems to be way too much ignorance. So I am writing a post today. Because today is *not* the day to separate my profession from bigger global issues.

One of my goals in life, professionally and personally, is to make the world a better place. That isn't news - I put it in my Blog Header. Thus I work to infuse social issues into curriculum development. In an academically sound and defensible way that aligns with content and standards goals.

The anniversary of 9/11 reminds me of a lot - including how important it is for those of us who teach to not silo off our content and ignore the world around us. What good is being the slickest programmer on earth if you have no clue what is going on in the world and how your code (whatever it is) affects it? What good is it to be able to develop the most sophisticated architectural designs if you have not thought about the different ways that they can potentially be used? I'm not saying don't code; don't design. I'm saying: think about the bigger picture too.

This is all about not sticking our heads in the sand. The next time someone infers (or out right states) that social issues are separate or secondary to technical academic content, I hope that whoever they say it to reminds them that it is technology, computing technology, that underlies almost every mode of transport (subways, airplanes, cars) we depend upon. Generally, these are good items, but as we painfully know, each can be compromised. And I just picked on transportation, because of what today is and what it makes me think of.

So what do we do? That is the point - we need to talk about it as part of our courses. And not just on the anniversary of a terrible event. So that each person can become more informed and then develop their own awareness and make professional decisions with that breadth of knowledge.

Computing can be used to help overcome barriers to communication between cultures, and to keep people informed about what is really going on in the world so that they don't have to rely upon anecdote and name calling.

Enough said.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

UCSD APCS Principles Pilot Course: Lectures

Following up on my previous post about the UCSD implementation of the pilot APCS Principles course under Beth Simon, here is an on the ground report into some of our most recent discussions about lecture development, and with that, more background material about the approach the course will take:

Lectures: As I reported, Beth will be delivering interactive clicker based Peer Instruction (she reminds me that I can refer the interested reader to additional information on the use of clickers).  Beth is looking at different ways to integrate societal concerns into her lectures - this is going to be fun and challenging at the same time. You see, ideally, the lectures will include excellent examples of computing applications (among other possibilities) that are being used for good or ill (balance is desired) and that will plug into the course content on a given day. Beth has been doing some digging into previously published material. Another area that we may draw upon is the research I have been doing recently into computing centric, socially beneficial "real world" projects. Alternately, we may look for inspiration to other schools' curricular implementation of projects in "Computers and Society" courses. you can see, the conversation is just beginning. What is the most fruitful way to smoothly integrate societally interesting (from the students pov) issues into the lecture material?

Speaking of the material, I should mention that our base applications will be Alice for about 2/3 of the term, followed by Excel for approximately the last 1/3 of the term. These applications were chosen after several years worth of meetings (started prior to the APCS Principles project coming into existence) with the divisions who traditionally require this course for their students.  Psychology specifically requested Excel for their majors, and representatives from a wide range of perspectives that represent the freshmen decided that Alice should work nicely for the non computing (so far :)  first-years. Alice, smoothly transitioning into Excel while following the ideals of the APCS Principles project. And don't forget those 750 students :)

Next posts will continue most likely, with some discussion of labs and assessment development.

Friday, September 3, 2010

APCS Principles Course Development at UCSD

In an earlier post I discussed the new APCS Principles Course and the terrific opportunities it provides for integrating interdisciplinary subject matter and social issues with computing - aimed at a broad audience.  One of the pilots of the course is being conducted this year by Beth Simon at The University of California San Diego. I have agreed to work with Beth on this project. Although I will be collaborating wherever needed, my particular emphases are currently in two areas: lab development and evaluation / assessment.

This pilot poses some exciting challenges. First of all, Beth will be delivering twice weekly lectures to approximately 750 students. Yes, 750. The students will be from two very different audiences: one group will be upper division Psychology students and the other will be freshmen who may end up majoring in any area.  Most have not currently expressed a preference for computing (otherwise they would likely be enrolled in the CS1 course). All of the students are required to take this course. Students will be seated in three adjacent lecture halls. Using various pedagogical techniques that Beth has been refining over several years, including innovative use of clickers to create dynamic interchanges between student and instructor, this pilot will aim to demonstrate that the Principles course can be scaled to the largest of classroom audiences.

Among other things, Beth and I have discussed the need to integrate social and ethical issues into the course rather than take a typical and known to be ineffective approach of tacking them on somewhere such as the last week of class. This is an area where I will be heavily involved, starting with the labs I am developing. I intend to write a weekly update of our progress with this course. Although I will discuss anything interesting that comes up, I shall often focus on our progress with including interdisciplinary and societal issues within the course.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cool Idea: Online Exchanges That Build Community

I'm not sure how often anyone aside from sociologists think about the negative effects of a society where people don't know their neighbors and aren't involved in their local community. That is us - we are often fractured. I'm sure the effects range from economic to psychological (this got me thinking....) I just read about a way that computing is being used in a really ingenious way to  engender and encourage community.

The idea is online gadget and service exchange, share, rental services. But not from some unknown entity that drops out of the virtual sky from who knows where. You sign up for something you'd like to borrow, or a service you'd like, and then you connect with someone local who has that to offer. For a small fee you get the object (or service) for a short period of time - to use, to test out. Then you return it (the object or the person :).  In the process you meet people who live near  you because you have to meet F2F to exchange the item or arrange for the service to take place. This nifty arrangement serves a need (obtain an item or service much cheaper than if you bought it outright) and in the process gets people to meet other people. There is incentive for everyone to be friendly - we both win.

I think that this is a very creative idea. It tackles a societal problem that many of us just take as "the way life is" because we are so busy. (Who lives downstairs? When was the last time I talked with people in my neighborhood?)

I'd love to have a Roomba for a day. Get this place clean and have fun at the same time. In fact I could use a Roomba, a Blackberry, an iPod, an iPhone, a newer model printer, a Kindle... I would love to check them out and play with them  to see how they  work real time. And who knows what fascinating people I'd meet! Much more fun and productive than reading a bunch of online reviews. Cool Idea!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Journalists and Coders Combine Forces

Right after my last somewhat downbeat post about the possible  future of Skype, I ran across this post that lifted my spirits. This looks like collaboration in a new and possibly very fertile way. It is supported in part by the Mozilla Foundation which really caught my attention:

"Hacks/Hackers, Mozilla, the Medill School of Journalism, The Media Consortium and others are teaming up to develop a solid six-week online curriculum that will benefit both "hacks" and hackers (that's journalists & programmers, in plain English). Each week the course will focus on a different topic, and each week the participants will be joined by a different subject-matter expert (or two) from the field of news innovation. The course readings, online participation, and a seminar are expected to require roughly 4-6 hours per week."

The full story is here.