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.