Jump start

I kind of took yesterday off.  I had to go into school to take care of some things, and I had intended to do some work when I got home, but instead I sat on the couch and did nothing.  I had lunch, puttered around, went for a walk, and then Geeky Girl and I went to the pool.  I’ve worked almost every weekday this summer.  I felt I needed the day off.  My family has traveled a lot separately, so we haven’t really seen each other that much.  We had the week at the beach, but then after that, Geeky Girl was off visiting my dad; Mr. Geeky went to DC; I left for NH, then Chicago, and Geeky Boy went to Seattle.  We saw each other for a day, maybe in between all that.  We are trying to plan a family trip sometime before Geeky Boy heads back to school (he starts earlier than the rest of us).  So I’m kind of in a limbo mode of being sort of on vacation and sort of needing to do some work.

I’m going to try to jump start my work mode today by doing some fun things.  I have an origami garden thing I started with my students at the end of the school year that I’d really like to finish.  I think I’m going to use the Hummingbird Robotics Kit I have to finish it out.  We’ll see how it goes.  I also want to build a motion detector for our cat/dog door and see if I can calculate how many times the animals come in and out–just for fun. :)  Most of the work I’ve done so far this summer has been plotting out curriculum and lesson plans.  I enjoy doing that, but I need to play a bit before I dive into more of that.  In fact, what I really need to work on is my 8th grade elective, which I haven’t taught before.  I have a general plan, but need to see what will work.  I especially need to think through the plans for the physical aspects of the course.  The first 6-8 weeks, I think will focus on coding and digital skills.

The other thing I want to dive into is figuring out a badging system.  I want to use Mozilla‘s open badge system somehow in all my classes, and especially in the 8th grade class where, yes, I will have to grade some things, but want to use the badges as additional feedback and incentive.  Sounds like a much more fun plan than just writing lesson plans and maybe it will lead to writing those plans.  Here’s to getting a jump start!

The Limits of Data

I’m a big fan of data.  I read The Circle, which kind of creeped me out, but I also loved the access to data the book explored.  I often find that when I look at data, I see things I didn’t expect to see.  For example, I look at tests and how people answer questions.  The questions I think are hard sometimes have the most right answers.  It doesn’t mean the question isn’t hard; it means there’s another story there.

The data issue from my last post is a case in point.  That’s raw data there, but it’s been interpreted by someone (or group of someones) in a certain way.  Subjects and industries have been grouped arbitrarily.

Often people bring up data as a way to solve problems.  If we just have enough data, then we can fix X problem.  Think about data and students and schools.  We’ve been trying to use data to create better schools forever.  It’s hit or miss at best.  Data only tells us so much.  And what it does tell us is often our own interpretation.  It’s rare that you crunch some numbers and a graph appears and it’s suddenly clear what needs to be done.

I’ve been thinking about my own data lately as I try to lose the handful of pounds I’ve gained in the last few months.  I invested in a fitbit to help.  And I’ve gone back to tracking my calorie intake and my weight.   What my initial data tells me is that I’m pretty sedentary naturally, that I have to make myself move.  I don’t think that’s a desire on my part, just a factor of where and how I live.  I have to drive most places to get stuff.  To walk more than a couple of miles, I have to plan it.  It doesn’t happen naturally.  Also, I eat more than one might think.  I like food and cutting back is a challenge.

Looking at losing weight as just a numbers game can be helpful. It’s useful to know that I went 162 calories over today based on my intake and my activity.  But knowing that doesn’t necessarily make me want to get out of bed right now and go for a 2-mile walk (which is what I’d have to do to burn off those extra calories).   There’s a human element to all of this.  Yes, the data gives me valuable feedback, but I have to do something with that feedback.

Data can tell us all kinds of things, but it’s still up to us to either interpret the data or act on it or both.  And sometimes our interpretations or actions are wrong.  And then what?

Where do STEM Grads Go

This is a cool graphic of what fields various majors end up in, but I have some issues with it (of course).  I find it problematic that computers, math, and stats are lumped together.  Those are very different fields.  I would also like to see engineering broken down a bit.  Someone majoring in biomedical engineering has very different career aspirations than someone majoring in mechanical engineering.  A biomedical engineer is likely to end up in the health or education sector doing research.  I’m sure someone will use the graphic to say, see? majors in STEM don’t end up in STEM.  We don’t need anymore majors.  But the graphic says nothing about why they don’t end up in STEM.  Maybe it was their choice.  And, if you major in math and end up teaching math, you’re in the education field, which is not STEM, but I’d argue you’re still in your field.

If you look at the non-stem majors, the same story can be told.  An awful lot of people do not end up in the same field they major in.  I’d venture that most students do not major in something they expect to be employed in.  They major in something that gives them a general skill set and a solid knowledge base to work from.  It’s work experience that likely matters.  Also, the graph does not show advanced degrees.  Someone who majored in English might have had enough Computer Science to go on to a Master’s in CS.  Or someone who majored in CS might have gone on to an MBA and ended up with a business job.  Frankly, I think we need more detail here in order to really see some granularity.  While the graphic is cool and shows us something about where people end up, it’s not the whole story, I don’t think.

A Day Off

Wednesday, I took the day off.  I had a leisurely breakfast with a new-found colleague.  Then I scheduled a massage and wandered the hotel complex.  In my wanderings, I bumped into a fellow CSTA board member and we made dinner plans.  I had a luxurious massage, worked out, and then went out for an early dinner.  I was asleep before 10.  It was much needed.  I was in meetings all day yesterday, and will be for most of the day today.  I plan to spend some time in the pool today.  I head home tomorrow morning and plan to take the whole weekend off.  At some point soon, I’m going to take a few more days off with the family before school starts.  I enjoy my work, but it is good to pause and not do anything for a while.  I always feel ready to tackle the next thing after some down time.  Here’s to taking a few days of doing nothing!

CSTA: Learning, Programming, and Making

The closing keynote at CSTA was by Michael Kölling, creator of Greenfoot and BlueJ.  The gist of his talk was that learning to program is not the same as being a professional programmer and the tools one uses for each should be different. In fact, he said that the tools you need to learn are the opposite are what you need when you’re programming professionally.  Block-based programming languages are great for learning, but the tools for text-based programming tend to move quickly into the professional programming area and are too hard to use for learners.   There’s not much in between.

Kölling then demoed a new tool that is that in between space.  It eliminates the issues of missing curly braces and semicolons and automatically groups blocks of code together (boolean statements, for example).  It seems like a very promising direction. I enjoyed much of what he said, and have been arguing for years (sometimes with programming parents) that learning to CS is not learning software engineering.

Four years ago at my first CSTA conference, I had lunch with a woman who claimed that every CS teacher should work in industry for 2 years before they teach CS.  I found it very frustrating because I believed that teaching CS is very different thing and requires different skills than what one might get from working in industry.  The tools change and depend on what part of industry you’re in.  If you’re building apps, your tools are going to be different from someone in web development.  It doesn’t make sense to me to teach those tools to a freshman in high school.

In evening, I hosted a #makered chat where we discussed the intersection between CS and Making.  It was a lively discussion.  My sense of things is that Makers use coding a lot and in fact, we sometimes hear that those who don’t code much feel like they’re not doing “real” making.  I don’t think that’s true.  Many maker programs (like mine) have come out of CS programs or are incorporated into it.  However I’ve heard some CS people not want to deal with hardware or electronics (much less paper, glue, and glitter).   I was thinking about this intersection more, and here’s how I think it works:

Intersection of CS,coding, makered and computational thinking

Intersection of CS,coding, makered and computational thinking

Computer science and making both include coding, but Computational Thinking is the umbrella for both, I think. CT doesn’t need coding necessarily.  The Rube Goldberg machine we made involved a lot of computational thinking (the logic alone was quite challenging), but no real coding.  Thinking broadly makes the relationships make sense and eliminates some of the territorial-ness some people feel about both CS and Making.  Maybe there’s an even broader category we could use, but computational thinking makes the most sense to me.

CSTA 14: Day 2

Yesterday was the meat of the conference.  There were lots of sessions, all good things.  I especially liked the two keynotes.  The first was by Yasmin Mafai, who’s right down the road from me at UPenn.  I’ve been watching her work for a while.  She talked about deepening participation, thinking about the contexts within which the teaching of computer science occurs.    Here are just a few of the Tweets from the session, which should give you a taste of it:

After the keynote, I headed to a session on game design, where I saw some interesting aspects of GameMaker. I’ve tinkered with GameMaker, but haven’t really dug into it. It looks pretty fun. I’ll have to think about using it. Then I went to a session on recruiting students to CS. Lots of interesting ideas. An important take-home: use students to recruit students. Also, if you’re struggling with underrepresented groups, go where those groups are. Go to the sports teams or the clubs and recruit there. Very interesting.

Then, I had lunch, where this picture was taken. I met Ben at CMK and Alfred I’ve known for years. His blog is one that has always guided me in my thinking about teaching CS.

After that, I proctored a couple of sessions, one on using the CSTA curriculum, which was actually very helpful. I’ve used the curriculum a lot, and I plan to have my department take a look at it in the fall to use as a benchmark for our work. Then, I attended a session about how the UK is building a professional development network to prepare teachers for the new computing curriculum. It’s a really impressive system they’ve built, which is completely face-to-face and makes use of intimate, local workshops to prepare teachers. We could learn a lot from their work.

I have a bit more to say about the closing keynote and a #makered chat from the hotel bar, but I’ll save that for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

CSTA Day 1: Workshops

CSTA Registration

CSTA Registration (Photo credit: lorda)

Day one of the CSTA is dedicated to workshops.  Attendees sign up for  up to two workshops, one morning and one afternoon.  I didn’t sign up for any (long story), so I popped in to Mark Guzdial and Barb Ericsson’s Python and Media Comp session.  I use some of their materials in my class, so it was good to see some different things.  I had to duck out and call back in to work, but came back after.  I also heard a bit of the Big Data session next door.  And people talked about many of the sessions being really helpful.

In the afternoon, I wandered around the exhibit hall, where I chatted with the folks from NCWIT, Mark and his ECEP program, the Touch Develop folks from Microsoft, who are also sponsoring a cool code challenge, Google folks, and Oracle Academy.  All of them have some interesting programs going on.

One of the things that’s a challenge as a CS teacher these days is that there are so many options, it’s hard to decide what to do.  Touch Develop does look cool, and I might introduce it to my Mobile Computing students this year, but I’ve already mostly planned that class out but I had planned on talking about different ways of coding mobile apps, so I’ll add this to my list.  Oracle has been in touch to see if I was interested in their program.  At first, I turned them down, but after talking to their rep for a while, I see some possible uses of their program.  So I’m going to give it another look when I get back.

Google’s program is an after-school club aimed at Middle School, which might work for those who don’t have CS in their schools yet, but which seems like it wouldn’t be a good fit for those that do.  I’m always skeptical about whether having CS after school is a good idea.  It means that administrators might not be inclined to include it in the curriculum and it means that CS is seen as “extra” and not as something crucial to the school curriculum.

Hot Rods 2

Hot Rods 2 (Photo credit: lorda)

In the evening, we went to Universal Technical Institute to see what they do.  They are a trade school for the automotive industry and we got to see what they do.  They were only loosely connected to CS, given that most of the computing they do is about using software, but I could see someone with CS skills might be interested in the problem solving involved with auto repair.  The systems are quite complex and many times, probably require a fair about of thinking to solve a problem.  For me, personally, my students might aim to design and engineer cars, but not repair them.  It was an interesting look at an industry I don’t know much about.

Glowing drink and cupcake

Glowing drink and cupcake (Photo credit: lorda)

Chris Stephenson gave a 10 year retrospective of CSTA, which was great.  Hard to believe CSTA is just 10 years old.  I don’t know what people did without CSTA.  Having a professional organization is important to feeling like a professional.  I’m looking forward to the sessions today.  They all look pretty interesting.  I always learn something from this conference.  I’m sure that will be true today.

CSTA 14: Here we go

Yes, I went basically straight from CMK to CSTA.  I know I’m not the only one!  Workshops start today, and frankly, they all look good.  I’m planning to pop in to as many as I can while I don’t have other duties just to see all the various ways people are approaching teaching CS.  This will be the first year in a while I haven’t signed up for one–long story as to why I didn’t–but in a way, I’m glad because I’ll have an opportunity as a CSTA board member to get a glimpse of them all. I promise to report back.

I’ve already seen friends and far away colleagues and have met some new people and I’m looking forward to more of that.  I honestly have no idea what day it is and am definitely tired at the end of every day, but it’s a good kind of tired.  I’m looking forward to what CSTA has to offer.  I always learn something here and enjoy the conversations.  Many of these teachers are the only ones in their schools, so sharing war stories is an important part of the experience.  I love sharing teaching experiences, struggles getting CS recognized within school programs and more.  As I said of CMK, it’s the people that make a conference, and there are some good people here.

CMK 14: Some Final Thoughts on Learning

CMK Motto?

CMK Motto? (Photo credit: lorda)

I’m on my way to the next conference, CSTA, but I wanted to get some final thoughts down about CMK and learning. Everyone learned something at CMK. They learned what they needed to know to get their project done. And often they learned things they didn’t even know they needed to know. That was certainly true for me. Sure, I knew how to program, but I didn’t know how to use an API. And each API is different, so even if I’d used one before, that knowledge wouldn’t necessarily apply to the one I was currently using. And it turned out I had to learn about different formats for latitude and longitude. The API used decimal degrees while most maps show them in degrees, minutes, and seconds. I had to learn to mathematically map one range of numbers onto another range. I had to map, for example, humidity that ranges from 0-105ish to colors that range from 0-255. I did all the math for that, but ended up using a built-in function to make things a little simpler (since I had to map about 5 different sets).

And I built some existing skills. I used objects to keep track of all my different locations and their associated data. I had to build my own class for that and figure out the best structure. That’s something I don’t get much practice at. I also ended up storing the data in a flat file, which I’ve done a lot in the past, but it’s always a challenge getting it just right.

When you teach (or learn) in a project-based way, this is how learning goes. You can’t lay out everything you need ahead of time because you don’t know what you’re going to need. Even if you read a whole book on programming before you start programming, it’s going to miss lots of key stuff. As teachers, we can’t hope to lecture in a way that lays all that ground work before kids start getting their hands dirty. The way to do it is to let them get their hands dirty, and then figure out concepts as they go. The way I do this in class is to do short, small quick things. I explain a concept for maybe 5 minutes, then we spend the rest of the class building something to demonstrate that concept. Then we review. Larger projects we just dive into because the small, quick bits have hopefully laid enough groundwork. CMK modelled this approach, and let us experience it first hand. Now we need to model it for our students.

(posted at 10,000 feet)

CMK Day 4: People and Inspiration

I just have to say that I think the most important thing about CMK was the people.  I met some very cool and interesting folks that I look forward to keeping up with via social media and hopefully in person. A shout-out to Heather, whom I hung out with a lot and who kindly let me bunk with her on the last night.  I owe her a big favor.  I also met two great Dans, one a faculty member and one a teammate who created a drawing robot.  I had a great time talking to Ben, a fellow CS traveller and all-round interesting guy.  Jeff, Jaymes, Tracy, Kendra, Donna, Joe, Bart, Angi and so many others that I sat next to at meals or while I worked.  It was a huge pleasure meeting them all.

Most of all, I was inspired by these people.  Below is a playlist of short videos of many of the projects.  And below that is a photo montage of the whole event, with more projects.  I was truly amazed at what people created.  Many of the videos I had to splice together because in my amazement, I stopped paying attention to my filming and just watched in awe.  I think you’ll be inspired to, so go watch them!