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.

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