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.



  1. Sounds like a terrific first class! Keep the posts coming!

  2. Can you please tell us something about the content? It's hard to know whether to be excited about this structure if we don't know what learning it's supporting!

    As far as I can tell this course is entirely behind a Moodle password wall?

  3. Hi Helene,
    (apologies for the lack of accents on your name. Blogger, my browser, OS or some combination thereof are not cooperating yet).

    The course is using Alice. In earlier posts I provided some information about that, and links to the official Alice site, which contains lots of information about how the system works.

    Currently the course is on Chapter 4 of the official Alice text, which covers OO and Event-Driven programming concepts and incorporates material from previous chapters on Control Structures, Functions, Parameters, and Expressions.

    As the class moves forward, the CS content will continue to follow material from the Alice text. Later on, Excel will be introduced to demonstrate additional related concepts.

    The course is exciting because these non CS students are engaged and actively participating in learning programming concepts and computational thinking in a way that I have never seen before, especially in a large lecture hall.

    This behavior continues to occur since the time I wrote this post. Students appear to be having fun; indications are that they are learning the material too.

    Peer Instruction seems to be working at its best. When instructor Beth Simon puts a question up for students to answer, I hear them actively and animatedly discussing the possible correct and incorrect answers. They are also volunteering to share their rationale and thought processes about their decisions in front of the entire class.

    Yes, the class is behind a locked Moodle. Moodle provides an excellent environment for the types of activities and course management Beth Simon wants to incorporate, such as video, links to various resources, the ability to create group wikis, to name just a few.

    When the course is complete, there are plans to make the materials more widely available, although at this time Beth has not revealed details of what, when, who, how.