Category Archives: Computer Science

Writing in Computer Science Classes

WRITING IN CS CLASSES
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by Richard White
—————-

2017-06-06
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In the new *Advanced Topics in Computer Science* course that I developed this year, I had the opportunity to introduce a new type of Computer Science assignment (at least new to me): a written report.

I stole the idea of a written report in Computer Science from Michael Lew, an AP Computer Science A instructor whose summer institute I attended last year, and it solved a problem that I’d seen in my CS teaching: computer science students tend to enjoy coding, often to the exclusion of other important aspects of the subject. Coding is fun, of course: give my students a few challenging CodingBat problems and they’ll happily ignore me for hours.

Once problems become larger in scope, however, it becomes important to sandwich the coding in-between two other important aspects of any significant project:

  1. planning/design at the beginning, with consideration given to how the project is going to proceed, and
  2. a culminating conclusion to the assignment, possibly in the form of evaluation of the product (by the student or teacher), reflection on the process, a presentation of the project, etc.

Both of these aspects of a larger-scale project require time, either in class or at home, and that is certainly one of the challenges in implementation. In my own teaching, I feel like I’ve developed the ability to build in time for project-planning in the course calendar. The culminating experience, however, is something I’ve often been weak on.

This year, in the *Advanced Topics* class, we were studying the performance of various sorting algorithms, the simplest ones of which are all O(n2). After a brief introduction to SelectionSort, Bubblesort, and InsertionSort, students were semi-randomly assigned a sorting algorithm from among the MergeSort, ShellSort, and QuickSort.

The first challenge for students consisted of simply getting a working algorithm running. Depending on the level of the student and the difficulty of the algorithm, this might have been the easiest or the hardest part of the assignment.

The second challenge was doing determining the performance of the algorithm, both empirically (by collecting time data for data sets of different sizes), and possible analytically (by counting the number of statements the algorithm would execute under different conditions).

Finally there was the writing of the report itself, something that students who are good in math and computer science don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to try. In this particular assignment, I gave them a concrete example of my expectations by briefly showing them in class a report that I’d written myself for one of the algorithms. (I didn’t want them to copy the format too closely, so I didn’t make it available for study online.)

By the end of the assignment, there were a number of goals that had been accomplished:

  1. Students each had a solid understanding of at least one of the sorting algorithms assigned.
  2. Students had a strong understanding of how algorithm performance, expressed in Big-Oh notation, is related to an algorithm.
  3. Students had a concrete document demonstrating their understanding of this material, suitable for presentation or inclusion in a portfolio.
  4. Colleagues had a better appreciation for some of the work we’re doing in the course. This was an unintended consequence, but a welcome one: with students turning in this assignment in a more traditional format, my fellow teachers were able to see evidence of the work my students do.

I only offered this assignment in my most advanced course this year, but I’ll be expanding it to my other computer science courses next year. (Download a PDF version of the assignment.)

What traditional assignments do you find translate well to non-traditional courses? Do students appreciate being able to leverage their familiarity with the format of a traditional assignment, or do they find it annoying?

Implementing a Post-AP Computer Science Course

Implementing a Post-AP Computer Science Course

by Richard White

2017–06–06

This past semester I began teaching an “Advanced Topics in Computer Science” elective that I’d developed for my school. It’s an interesting class for a number of reasons.

  1. Although it was a new class for me, the topics covered in the course aren’t new to longtime high-school teachers who taught the College Board’s old AP Computer Science AB course back in the day. The “B” part of that course included discussions of some of the topics covered in this elective, including various types of more complex data structures and algorithm analysis. The “B” part of the course was discontinued in 2009 in an effort to “focus resources on efforts that will provide a much greater degree of support for AP Computer Science teachers than ever before.” [1] (Yes, I don’t quite follow the logic there either.)

  2. The class was offered as a “post-AP” course. In the context of my school, there are a wide number of students who are interested in learning some computer science, and who are more-than-happy to earn some AP credit for it. Most of them are not going on to study CS, however, so this class filled a need for those students. The impetus to develop the class came mostly from me, informed by some encouraging prodding from alumni.

  3. Although the standard AP Computer Science A course uses Java (currently), I wanted students in this elective to focus on the data structures themselves, without having to muck about with Java infrastructure. I elected to offer the course in Python, and this had a number of implications.

    1. For students who really were taking this after the AP CS course, they needed to learn Python, and fast. A year of Java had given them a solid grounding in object-oriented strategies, but the Python syntax and quirks like dynamic typing took some getting used to. The Advanced Topics class, then, began with a Python-based Boot Camp to bring everybody up to speed.

    2. There were a couple of students who chose to take this class after completing a single-semester Python class. This required a bit of a stretch on their part: although they were well-versed in Python syntax, they had been learning CS for a shorter period of time, and weren’t as well-grounded in object-oriented thinking. The Boot Camp strategy attempted to bring them up to speed, but was no substitute for the more extensive curriculum in the AP Computer Science A course.

  4. The class was initially developed as a way of returning to the curriculum that was originally offered by the College Board program, and can be viewed as supporting that model. I have since had a number of conversations with teachers and administrators who see this course as a potential model of what a rigorous class might look like as part of a non-AP program. That wasn’t my intention in creating this course–I actually appreciate the idea of a national-standard curriculum against which my students can gauge their mastery–but this course can certainly serve different needs, depending on context.

  5. As we worked our way through the curriculum, I tried to be sensitive to the experience of the students. Developing Python implementations of stacks, queues, trees, and graphs isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, so I worked to include offshoot activities that built on the skills they were learning. This can be especially challenging the first time a course is offered (and I was teaching this class as an overload), so I expect next year is going to be a much more satisfying experience for the students. Abstract structures may be developed with visual representation, for example, bringing a more graphic appreciation of the structures.

I wasn’t too unhappy with how things worked out this first time through, but I’m looking forward to refining some aspects of the course and smoothing out some of the rough edges in anticipation of offering it again next year. In the meantime, you can see the webpage for the course at Advanced Topics in Computer Science.

I’ll be writing a bit more about this course in the next month or so. Stay tuned.

Three Lines of Code

Three Lines of Code

2017-04-29

by Richard White

Earlier this week I was walking through a school hallway when one of my students called out to me. “Mr. White! I’ve got a program that calculates primes in only three lines of code!”

I laughed, and asked him to bring it to me later in the day so that we could look at it.

“It’s just three lines!” he exulted, as if I might not have heard it the first time, “and one of those is a print statement!

Jack had taken an introductory Python course from me during the first semester of the school year, and from there had decided that he wanted to take the post-AP “Advanced Topics in Computer Science” course, a more abstract computer science curriculum that focuses on various types of data structures. Enrolling in this course requires my approval, and I had some initial concerns about how Jack might do in the course: He just had a few months of experience, and the curriculum would be a significant step up for him. While I didn’t want to set him up for failure, I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for the subject either. In these situations, I try to err on the side of saying ‘yes.’

This semester Jack has had occasional struggles in the course, but so have most of the students, a fact that one could easily chalk that up to this being the first time I’ve taught the class. In any event, he’s making fine progress, and this prime-finder activity that he’d taken on for himself wasn’t the first time I’d seen him take something from outside the class and turn it into a piece of code.

Jack tracked me down again after school, laptop already open, ready to show his code. And sure enough, there it was, a tiny little Python program of just three lines. And it worked!

“What kind of algorithm is this?” I asked. It wasn’t the standard introductory comp sci treatment of primes I used in my teaching.

“This is ‘Wilson’s Theorem,'” he explained. “I learned about it on YouTube. It’s not very good for large prime numbers because it requires calculating factorials, but still… three lines of code!”

I thought about it for a moment.

“I bet we could get it down to one!”

“How?”

“Do you remember Python’s ‘list comprehension’ syntax? I bet we can use that to make this a one line program that calculates primes!”

And so we did.


Last login: Sat Apr 29 09:05:01 on ttys000
rwhite@MotteRouge$ python
Python 3.5.2 |Continuum Analytics, Inc.| (default, Jul 2 2016, 17:52:12)
[GCC 4.2.1 Compatible Apple LLVM 4.2 (clang-425.0.28)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import math
>>> [x for x in range(2,1001) if (math.factorial(x-1) + 1) % x == 0]
[2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127, 131, 137, 139, 149, 151, 157, 163, 167, 173, 179, 181, 191, 193, 197, 199, 211, 223, 227, 229, 233, 239, 241, 251, 257, 263, 269, 271, 277, 281, 283, 293, 307, 311, 313, 317, 331, 337, 347, 349, 353, 359, 367, 373, 379, 383, 389, 397, 401, 409, 419, 421, 431, 433, 439, 443, 449, 457, 461, 463, 467, 479, 487, 491, 499, 503, 509, 521, 523, 541, 547, 557, 563, 569, 571, 577, 587, 593, 599, 601, 607, 613, 617, 619, 631, 641, 643, 647, 653, 659, 661, 673, 677, 683, 691, 701, 709, 719, 727, 733, 739, 743, 751, 757, 761, 769, 773, 787, 797, 809, 811, 821, 823, 827, 829, 839, 853, 857, 859, 863, 877, 881, 883, 887, 907, 911, 919, 929, 937, 941, 947, 953, 967, 971, 977, 983, 991, 997]
>>>

Just about every teacher I know would have his or her own lesson to be learned from this anecdote. It could point to the need for more free time in school so that students can find their passion. It could be a call for more open access to teachers before and after school. It might be a testimony to more open access to advanced classes, or an encouragement to allow more students to take academic risks. A math teacher might read it as a need for us to teach more computer science in our math classes, and a computer science teacher might claim that this demonstrates the utility of Python as an educational programming language.

There’s some truth in all of those, I think. Every educator would like to find more ways to empower our students to find and follow the interests that inspire them. Some students find their passion more quickly or easily then others, but every parent knows the secret to helping kids flourish and grow: throw stuff at them and see what sticks. Comic books. T-ball. Educational television. Piano lessons. Board games. AYSO soccer. Summertime concerts. Bedtime reading. Camping trips. Scissors, tape, and construction paper. Play dates. Museum visits. An allowance and an introduction to budgeting. An electric guitar. A woodworking class. Batteries and wire. Dance lessons…

Give students time, space, exposure to new ideas, and the tools to build on those ideas, and they’ll find something that inspires them.

Differentiated Instruction, Part 2

DIFFERENTIATION, part 2

2017-03-11

by Richard White

I was recently asked by our IT director John Yen how I handle differentiated instruction in the classroom: what strategies do I employ to try to ensure that students of widely varying abilities and skill levels are all appropriately challenged in my courses?

It’s a question that public school teachers face all the time, and independent school teachers arguably somewhat less. Technology teachers at both types of institutions have the biggest challenge here, because:

  1. there isn’t (yet?) a standardized curriculum path that has been developed and accepted around computational thinking and computer science, and
  2. there is a large, and perhaps growing, “digital divide” between those students who have nearly unlimited access to technology and training (even informal training via YouTube videos and the internet) and those who don’t.

My reply to John’s question took a little while to narrow down to a response to his questions, but here are my remarks, lightly edited for clarity.

=====Beginning of Email=====

  • That’s one of the million-dollar questions right now: How do I bring students with widely-varying experience into the curriculum?
  • The 2-million dollar question is: What CS curriculum do we want to offer/require? This varies depending on the school population, the goal of the curriculum (CS for managers? Coding for vocation?), the instructors available, the budgeting, salaries…
  • The 3-million dollar question is: Who is going to teach this curriculum? At this point, that is going to have an overwhelming influence on the other questions. CS people don’t do much with game design, and Game Designers don’t know a lot about Linux, and software engineers may or may not know about networking or control systems…

In Computer Science courses, I’ve found that I often have to provide up to five different kinds of differentiation, given at different times according to the idealized schedule given here.

Steps in Assigning/Conducting a Computer Science activity or project

  1. I prepare the assignment, preferably on paper or online so I can check that the idea and the process are fully articulated. NOTE: When looking through some online references a few years ago I stumbled upon an assignment format used by professors at Michigan State University, and I’ve adopted it for many of my CS courses. An example is attached here.
  2. During the preparation of the assignment, I try to prepare 1-3 Extension activities that are more complex or require application of the project to a new context. This is the first differentiation that I’ll use with some of my more advanced students who would otherwise complete the assignment too quickly. On the assignment I also often include a section called “Questions for you to consider (not hand in)” which ask the students to think about other aspects of the subject that may not be directly related to the assignment. These can be a nice jumping-off point for a conversation with more advanced students.
  3. Also for the assignment, I prepare a few “Notes on Getting Started” that are included with the instructions. These notes include suggested work strategies and/or questions that might help clarify the direction their problem-solving process should take. This is the second differentiation.
  4. Deliver the assignment (paper or online) in class, with whatever introductory remarks are appropriate. Students begin working.
  5. After students have been working on the assignment for some length of time, I’ll usually check in with them to see how things are proceeding so far. If there’s a stumbling block in the assignment that I’m aware of, I may bring it up at that time, and ask them what they think about it. I’ll usually write some amount of code on the board here, developing ideas with those students who have become stuck. This is the third differentiation strategy. ( Example: This video (narrated) of me working with students in class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ3z51n1Ndo )

    If I notice that a number of students are having difficulties with a concept or problem, I may prepare a small video for them going over the issue in more detail. I’ll post the video and send the link to them so they can take another crack at it. This is the fourth differentiation strategy. ( Example: This video, covering the topic of website permissions for some students’ websites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEES_N3ZQHk )

  6. Ultimately some students will need more individualized attention, sometimes down to the point of sitting down with them individually and picking through their code line by line. This is the most challenging and time-intensive differentiation strategy, and not something that I’m able to do with every student every time. Fortunately, if I’m doing my job well, I don’t need to do it very often.

=====End of Email=====

What strategies do you have for providing differentiated instruction for your students? What evidence do you have that those strategies are successful (or not?)

Is the Digital Divide something that needs to be addressed by CS teachers? If so, what steps do you take towards ameliorating that problem?

Teaching CS: Am I doing it right?

Teaching CS: Am I doing it right?
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by Richard White

2016-11-10

I’ve been teaching Computer Science in one way or another for a decent part of my teaching career, from courses using BASIC and Pascal on standalone PCs (pre-Internet!) back in the 80s to courses using Python and Java currently. I’d like to think I mostly know what I’m doing by this point.

It’s interesting to note, however, that there is a wide variation on how teachers work with students in a computer science classroom. From the AP Computer Science teaching community, I’ve heard of teachers who:

* have their students use Linux workstations exclusively
* have their students learn Java exclusively through graphics programming (Processing language)
* have their student use web-based Java compilers/interpreters
* have their students learn how to interact with a server
* have their students turn in all assignments on paper only
* have their students retrieve lessons and submit assignments using GitHub
* teach Java by having their student write mobile apps

It’s a stunning variety of strategies given that we’re all teaching the exact same course with the exact same curriculum.

And maybe that’s a strength of computer science, that there are lots of ways to make it happen. Whether you use Linux or OS X or Windows, whether you program using a terminal or an IDE, whether your programs interfaces are text-based or graphical… we’re all teaching computer science.

If there’s a downside to this variety, it’s that we may be tempted to feel that some of the other strategies–old ones that we haven’t had time to consider, or new ones that have just been recommended to us–might be better (more interesting? more effective? more appealing to students?) than what we’re currently doing. And so we feel compelled to give these new strategies some consideration.

In the last few years there has been an explosion of interest in Coding (which is not quite the same thing as Computer Science, but we’ll take what we can get, eh?). Hadi Partovi’s Hour of Code, MIT’s block-based Scratch language, the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino, the College Board’s new AP Computer Science Principles curriculum… and these are just the most popular of the recent technology and CS-based innovations that might merit some consideration by me, with an eye toward possibly incorporating some of them into my teaching toolbox.

How much should I stay the course and stick with what I think works best? How much of my limited professional time should I invest in consider these other possibilities?

More than teachers in any other subject area, we teachers of Computer Science need to wrestle with these questions. It’s a de facto part of our job description.

What is your specialty in teaching CS/technology? What topics do you add to your courses, because those topics work, or they’re part of your pre-existing skill set? Do you feel pressure to always be looking at The Next Big Thing?

For related reading: http://blog.acthompson.net/2016/11/too-many-cs-teaching-resources.html

The Poor Person’s Guide to Differentiated Instruction

The Poor Person’s Guide to Differentiated Instruction
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by Richard White

2016-10-28

I’m a classroom teacher, and I’m a busy man.

I prep lessons, I develop and coordinate assignments for my students, and post homework assignments on the school website. I collect work, set up labs, write, administer, and grade tests. I develop caring relationships with my students.

It’s the best job in the world… and I come home *exhausted* most days.

One of the many challenges we teachers face is providing learning opportunities that are appropriate for the level of our students. In classes with an especially wide range of abilities, these can become problematic, logistically speaking.

In my Computer Science classes I typically have at least three ability levels in the same class:

1. students who have already had some experience with programming, possibly in a different language, and who are able to accomplish most assignments very quickly.
2. students who may be new to programming, but who are making reasonable progress. They quickly learn that programming requires attention to detail, and they typically pick up patterns—syntactical, logistical, procedural—after one or two exposures.
3. students who struggle to recognize the patterns, or who find themselves more easily frustrated by the puzzles posed by programming assignments.

I’ve experimented with a few different strategies over the years. Here are three that I’ve tried that have met with some success.

1. Below the Fold Progression
In this type of differentiation, students are provided with a text file (usually online) that contains a statement of the problem at the very top of the file. The file itself is actually a working copy of the problem, with the initial problem statement written as a multi-line comment near the beginning of the file. Much farther down on the page, where students can’t easily see it without scrolling, is another multi-line comment containing a pseudocode analysis of the problem. And finally, much farther down again, is the solution code itself. Students who want to work out the program without any hints are free to do so, while students who need a bit of help from the pseudocode can look at that as needed. Students who need much more support may find themselves looking at the actual program for assistance, and that’s okay if that’s where they are in their own learning process.

Example: ch06ex03.py (Right-click or Ctrl-click to download)

2. Page 2 Solution
In this strategy, something similar to the “Below the Fold” method is used, but now, the problem statement and its solution are printed on paper to be distributed to the students. The front side of the paper has the problem statement, and a complete working version of the code is on the back side (page 2) of the same piece of paper. This has the advantage of giving the students a concrete document to scribble on, and giving the teacher some ability to see which side of the paper students are looking at as they work on the program.

Example: four_functions.py (PDF format, Right-click or Ctrl-click to download)

3. Progressive Lecture
The final strategy is much more interactive. Students are assigned a problem in class and instructed to begin developing a solution. At the front of the room, after some reasonable amount of time has passed, the teacher begins writing out a rough outline of the program, perhaps with comments highlighting significant sections of code. Students who have developed their own solutions to the program will continue working on their own, while those who may be struggling to organize a solution will get some hints from what is written on the board.After a few more minutes have passed, the instructor may continue fleshing out the solution to the problem using the framework already developed. Students who still aren’t sure about some aspects of the program are free to ask questions as actual code is presented on the board.

Example: Differentiated Instruction (YouTube video)

Strategy 3 requires the most from me in the classroom. I’m moving around the room, actively monitoring students’ progress, and trying to determine the *decisive moment* (thank you, Henri Cartier-Bresson) when I should begin reaching out to assist students who need some additional guidance. Strategies 1 and 2 have the benefit of being delivered by computer or paper, with assistance immediately available to students when they decided they want to take advantage of it. The downside of those two strategies, of course, is that students do have access to solutions, and may be tempted to avail themselves of those materials before they’ve had a chance to wrestle with the material… and it’s in that wrestling that they really get to learn things.

As I say, I’ve used all three of these strategies on one occasion or another, and they work pretty well in Computer Science courses. I’ve adapted similar strategies to some of the science courses I teach.

As a teacher, do you use any of these strategies, or something similar? How do you reach out to the students of varying ability levels in your classroom?

The Lone Wolf… Rides Alone

The Lone Wolf… Rides Alone

Richard White, 2016-10-15

Computer Science teachers at the 9-12 grade level are a lonely group of individuals in many cases. Some of us have colleagues nearby with whom we can converse with on a regular basis–there might even be a computer science program or department at our school–but many of us work alone, and represent the sole face of *Computer Science instructor* at our schools.

Some people enjoy the freedom that comes with being the “lone wolf” of the school’s Computer Science program. You have a bit more control of the curriculum you teach, perhaps, and conflict resolution with peers goes a whole lot easier when you don’t *have* any peers.

But there are challenges as well. Many of us are responsible for wearing multiple hats simultaneously, managing hardware, software, and curriculum, for example. Or we teach separate classes in widely varying topics: computer science, networking, web design, and mobile application development. In addition to our courses, we mentor robotics teams, we advise Girls Who Code clubs, and we organize “Hour of Code” events for the larger community. We promote Computer Science as a subject internally to our peers and administrators, and act as *de facto* Public Relations representatives to the wider community.

It’s no wonder we get a little tired sometimes.

With an increased interest in computer science, computer principles, and computer programming, there’s a call for more computer science teachers nationwide.

For me, it can’t happen to soon. As much as I’ve enjoyed developing and teaching computer science classes at my school, I could use a little company.

What’s your preference? Do you enjoy working alone, or is the idea of bringing in someone else to share ideas and share the labor appeal to you?

My Vision

MY VISION

by Richard White

2016-03-24

You almost certainly heard that a couple of months ago, President Obama called for “Computer Science for All” in a program of the same name. From the Fact Sheet for that initiative:

Providing access to CS is a critical step for ensuring that our nation remains competitive in the global economy and strengthens its cybersecurity.

We’ll set aside (for the moment) Obama’s more recent call to weaken that cybersecurity that he’s such a fan of. In the larger perspective, Obama is correct: we need to provide more opportunities for students to learn Computer Science.

I think he gets this just right. This statement doesn’t say students must take CS classes. This is not necessarily a requirement. But the vast majority of students probably should take one or two CS classes, and certainly everybody should have the opportunity to take CS classes.

When people ask me about it now—the Vision question—this is part of my thinking:

I don’t think every student should be required to take Computer Science. But every student should take Computer Science.

They should recognize that computers, technology, the internet, social networks, online advertising, and cybersecurity have an enormous influence on how they live their daily lives.

It’s certainly possible for a student to educate themselves, but we shouldn’t expect them to take that on alone any more than we expect students to teach themselves calculus or how to write a research paper. Schools offer instruction in these areas because well-educated citizens need to know about these things, or at least need to have been exposed to them in a structured setting.

What do you think? Should schools require students to take a CS course, or should they just offer the curriculum and see who shows up?

SCaLE14x

21-24 January 2016

This weekend, the Southern California Linux Expo came to Pasadena. I’d met my brother Kevin at SCaLE 12x at the LAX Hilton two years ago, but the convention had outgrown that hotel, and a tech-friendly Pasadena councilmember thought that bringing them here to the Pasadena Convention Center would be a good idea.

It was. There were 3000+ hardcore geeks who descended on the town for the weekend.

You know it’s a Linux convention when the nervous nerd walking on the sidewalk looks up at you, takes note of your event badge, and actually says ‘hi’ to you.

On Saturday, Jan 23, eleven students from Polytechnic School—M Yen, K Callero, M Flannery, G Hashimoto, C Hicks, D Magsarili, J Wong, M Xu, C Strassle, M Berke, and J Lang—attended the event, including the SCaLE Youth Track, various other sessions, and the Expo. We learned about the Open Source movement in general, Linux in particular, and met some great people.

It was awesome.

Since the Expo:

  • I’ve been contacted by multiple parents saying how much their kids enjoyed the event, and asking for further info/opportunities like this.
  • I’ve been in email contact with Tom Callaway about a new CS course I’m writing.
  • I appear to have stumbled into a mentoring relationship with a local teacher-in-training with whom I struck up a conversation while leaving Callaway’s talk Sunday morning.

Photo Jan 23, 14 55 47

Southern California Linux Expo comes to Pasadena

Photo Jan 23, 13 15 43

The Hewlett-Packard Pavilion

Photo Jan 23, 11 43 04

Poly student, hoping to win a penguin

Photo Jan 23, 14 18 11

Roaming the Expo

Photo Jan 23, 14 26 29

Poly students grill the System76 representative

Photo Jan 23, 14 18 04

Poly students getting the sales pitch

Photo Jan 25, 16 40 27

Mr. White’s swag

We’ll definitely be back.

Inspiring Students

INSPIRING STUDENTS

2015-03-07

by Richard White

Earlier in my teaching career I worked at a high school that had a depressingly low rate of its graduates going on to college. It’s the desire of every teacher to encourage students to continue their learning, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean college for everyone, for most people it should. Encouraging my students to apply themselves and to strive for something big was a noble challenge, and an exhausting one.

At my current school, I have the benefit of getting to work with a different population, and one that is almost always appreciative of the advantages that they’ve been afforded in life. In addition to taking full advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given, some of them push even farther, and in so doing, inspire me to be better myself.

apcs_project

A couple of days ago, I received this email out of the blue from a student who’d graduated last year:

Hi Mr. White!

In my CS106A lecture right now, and we’re learning about passwords. Reminded me of that one time you spent physics class telling us to back up our hard drives and how to make passwords :) hope everything’s going well at Poly!

The next thing I did, of course, was search for the website for Stanford’s CS106A course to see how what they were doing compared to what I do in my own CS courses, and three hours later, I’ve got some new ideas to consider for how I run things next year.

It wasn’t this student’s intention to provide me with an opportunity to reflect on what I’m doing—she’d just wanted to say hi, and I appreciated that and responded in kind. But it was the perfect excuse for me to see what my former students are moving on to, and to reflect on how I might better prepare them for what awaits after they leave my care.

Another example: a current student has been working with me for a couple of years now, and after enrolling in his second computer science course in as many years, he approached me about the possibility of helping him with an idea he had for a Python program that would:

  1. allow him to enter the title of a song
  2. search YouTube for a recording of that song
  3. automatically download that song to his computer

There is certainly the possibility of making something like this happen, but it’s a bit beyond his (and my) skill set at this point. I couldn’t help him with this particular project… but I could prepare a couple of smaller programs that might provide some first steps along that path. I spent an hour or so setting up a Python program that would automatically send an email to someone from his Gmail account, and another one that checks a NOAA webpage to identify the current temperature, and then reports that temperature back to whomever is running the program.

These are relatively small programs, but for a new programmer, they’re the first step in writing code that interacts with the world outside his/her own machine. And thanks to this student’s request, I’m considering including a small project on this very thing as part of my own Introductory Computer Science course.

Teaching at my current school is a refreshing change from the days when I had to lead my students through classes that they had difficulty appreciating. Now, it’s often my own students, current and former, leading me in my ongoing goal of becoming a better teacher.

I’m lucky to be able to work with these young men and women.