Archive for December, 2009

Selling electricity

My wife’s grandfather died last Wednesday. He was 96, and though he had been fading for years, he had lived an amazing life. The memorial service, with many of his 20+  grandchildren and 40+ great-grandchildren attending, felt less like mourning and more like a celebration of his life. Many wonderful stories were shared.

Barb’s grandfather had worked for Thumb Electric (look at a map of Michigan, and the rural area called the “Thumb” sticks out like a sore one). Barb’s grandfather was part of a crew that literally brought electricity to this part of Michigan.  One of his jobs was to get farmers to “sign up” for electricity. If he could get a whole street to sign up, then the wires would be brought in.

I remember him telling me stories about how hard it was to convince farmers to buy into electricity. What did they need electricity for? Their farms worked, just as they had for years. Some farmers might have heard about some new-fangled device (say, a milking machine) that they wanted.  But most farmers were happy with what they had.  He was selling a dream of what things might be like if they had electricity.

It seems hard to believe, in hindsight, that farmers might not want electricity. Until it was ubiquitous, there weren’t that many devices that needed it.  Until the devices came along, it’s usefulness was unproven.  Buying into electricity was paying a cost with uncertain benefit. Grandpa Hund was selling a dream.

Selling real computing education to teachers at the high school level or as part of a general education requirement in college feels like a similar challenge.  Andy diSessa has been talking for years about what it would be like if there was ubiquitous real computer literacy.  Seymour Papert had a vision for “mathland,” realized through computation, where students would learn math naturally, with the involvement of a community of elders (like in a Samba school).

The first challenge to overcome, like with electricity, is to show that there’s something more to be gained.  “My students make their own Excel spreadsheets. Some of my kids make Flash animations.”  How do we convince that teacher that real computation is so much more powerful?  How do we show that knowing how to program, not at a professional level but with real understanding, allows students to explore ideas in ways that no application will ever support?

The second challenge, again like electricity, is to show that the price is affordable.  “Programming is too hard.  My students can’t stand all that syntax. Programming is a menial task that is being off-shored.”  This challenge is made greater by computer scientists who encourage the view that real computer science is  reserved for the wizards.  Only those who know the mystic arts of diagrams (like UML) and archetypes of spells (like design patterns) should be allowed to speak the magic words (as arcane as we can make them, like “public static void main.”)

Really knowing computing can be as powerful as electricity.  Selling it can be as hard.  Since Grandpa Hund’s funeral was lit up with electric lights and warmed with electric heating, he showed that there is a way to sell it.

December 28, 2009 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

What’s practice for CS1 before CS1? Explaining talent for computing

Talent is the desire to practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, via The Corsair.

I have met with a lot of CS faculty over the last four years of  “Georgia Computes!” They tell me about their high failure rates and low student performance.  When I ask them what they think explains these results, the answers are surprisingly consistent, “Some students just get it, and others just don’t.”  I don’t buy the explanation — I see it as another symptom.  Some students do just get computing, and others don’t. But why?

Michael Caspersen has done several reviews of the studies trying to predict success in CS.  There’s not much conclusive out there.  Math ability is sometimes a predictor, and sometimes not.  Access to computing is sometimes a predictor, and sometimes not.  Perhaps the best predictor of success in CS1 is a previous attempt at CS1.  Fewer people fail it the second time?

I recently found the above quote from Malcolm Gladwell, and really liked it.  Let’s assume that Gladwell is right, that the “talent” that some students have is a willingness to practice. What kind of “practice” might some students get, that other students don’t? Let’s make one other assumption, based on what the faculty are telling me.  If some students “get it” and others  “don’t,” then let’s assume that whatever is going on in the class is not making the difference.  If faculty aren’t seeing what’s making a difference, it’s reasonable to believe that the difference is practice happening before the class or outside the class.

Maybe the worked examples literature helps to explain what’s going on.  When I was first learning computing, I read a lot of programs.  I read books like David Ahl’s Basic Computer Games with a hundred interesting programs.  Every issue of Byte and Dr Dobbs (“Running light without overbyte!”) had a half dozen or more complete programs in it.  Today’s Dr Dobbs contains hardly a single complete program.

Maybe the difference between those students who “get it” and those who “don’t” has less to do with writing programs than reading programs.  How much reading do we ask students to do these days?  How much do students read programs outside of class?  Maybe some do, and maybe that makes a difference.

An interesting part of this hypothesis is that it suggests something that we might do in classes.  We could ask students to read more.  I once built a case library called STABLE filled with Smalltalk programs. We found that students who read all those additional designs learned more about design and performed better on design tasks. Asking students to read might be a kind of practice that will help, and maybe talent in CS is a willingness to do that reading.

December 23, 2009 at 11:36 am 17 comments

NYTimes: It’s about blending computing + X

Really nice piece in the New York Times (quoting Jan Cuny of NSF) describing the 10K teachers project, the new AP CS effort, but most of all, arguing the growing importance of jobs that blend computing and other disciplines (“X” as in “Computing + X”).

Hybrid careers like Dr. Halamka’s that combine computing with other fields will increasingly be the new American jobs of the future, labor experts say. In other words, the nation’s economy is going to need more cool nerds. But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds.

via New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs –

December 22, 2009 at 10:11 pm 4 comments

Going Beyond Good: Computing4Good Considered Harmful

My colleague, Beki Grinter, has just posted to her blog her concerns about the term Computing4Good that I’ve written about previously (e.g., how could education not be “good”?).  I really like her issues about religion (is it good or is it so important, complex, and worthy of study that we are naive to use that label?) and about how others view us for labelling something “good.”  (I guess this is what faculty with blogs do when on furlough — write posts! 🙂

Third, there’s an intellectual risk. Words like good (and modern FWIW) suggest a naivety about the intellectual agendas that frame our research. The research communities who are the targets for the products of our intellectual efforts as well as the source of our intellectual inspirations, have developed a rich understanding the transfer of technologies from one place to another. … Intellectual discussion within these communities does not begin or include good (bad or evil), but focuses on the rich detailed interactions of these contexts and how they are embodied in technologies and the methods, practices, theories and commercial contexts in which those systems are made, as well as how they flow from their source to their destination, and then how they are not just adopted but appropriated into people’s lives.

via Going Beyond Good: Computing4Good Considered Harmful « Beki’s Blog (there’s an original name).

December 21, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Fewer high school students taking computer science classes –

If it’s still dropping in high school, hard to believe that the undergraduate enrollment crisis is over.

It would be hard to find a student at Stone Bridge High School who has never used the Internet for a research assignment, socialized with Facebook or played a video game.

But few know much about how computers and the Web actually work.

via Fewer high school students taking computer science classes –

December 21, 2009 at 10:23 am Leave a comment

How deep are video games?

I’m excited about the article in this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution about games courses in college, with references to two of my colleagues, Blair MacIntyre and Ian Bogost.  I was particularly struck by Ian’s comments.

Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost teaches students and is co-founder of Persuasive Games, which focuses on social and political issues such as airport security, flu epidemics and tort reform.

Students, he said, are looking for ways to match games with their life passions. One student is trying to meld religious activity with games, he said.

“Games are like folk music of the 1960s,” Bogost said. “They grew up with it. They identify with it. And it isn’t something really co-opted by institutions of power.”

via Gaming courses popular in Georgia colleges  |

Another article in Parade magazine this weekend, Can video games teach kids? includes this quote:

“We’re starting to see agreement that video games are the new liberal arts,” says Kurt Squire, a professor in education communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin. “This school is the first implementation.”

I have Ian’s Persuasive Games but haven’t finished it yet.  Games are “the new liberal arts”?  Games as the “folk music of the 1960s”?  My experience with games don’t go that deep.  I find if I think about them too hard, there’s nothing there but the assumptions and world-view of the game author.  A great example of the bottom not being too deep is the SimCity game player who famously told Sherry Turkle in The Second Self, “If you raise taxes, people riot.” Can games really be as deep as great literature, or great music?  I suppose it’s possible, but I haven’t seen it yet.

December 21, 2009 at 10:20 am 10 comments

Going on Furlough and Holiday Traveling

Georgia Tech is on furlough Dec. 21-24. According to official policy, “Employees are prohibited from working or otherwise provide services on a furlough day. It is a violation of Institute policy to do so.” I’m not sure if posting to this blog constitutes a “provided service.” But in any case, I’ll be heading up to visit family and snow in Michigan, so I’ll post rarely this week. Since I kept up a steady pace of posts this last week, I hope that I’ve left you some things to read and think about during this week before Christmas. Happy Holidays!

December 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm Leave a comment

Can Robotics Help Kids Learn Science?

A new project at Georgia Tech (I’m an advisor, so only peripherally involved) is exploring the role of robotics in helping kids learn science.  They’re asking the right kinds of questions — how do we design so that the focus is on science, and how do cross gender boundaries and school setting/context?  Our track record with robots and girls isn’t great, though the IPRE effort has had great results with undergraduate women.  What are the curriculum and pedagogical design principles that make it work?

Turning kids on to science and math with robotics has become routine, at least since the FIRST Robotics Competition began in 1992. But there is currently very little evidence about whether robots can actually teach students science, or whether they just serve to excite students already interested in science and engineering. Given the right context and design challenge, can robotics-based activities engage girls as much as boys? Are there differences in the way rural students engage in these types of materials, compared with urban or suburban students?

via GT | Can Robotics Help Kids Learn Science?.

December 20, 2009 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

Report on the MediaComp horse race

We just got our adoption reports on the Media Computation books, which lists all schools whose bookstores have purchased a class/section’s worth of a given book (which may only be 3-5 copies).  Barb and I have a bit of a horse race going on between the Java and Python books.  While we’re both co-authors on both books, Barb is rooting for the Java book, while I’d like to see Python pull ahead of Java in popularity.  According to this report, the Java book is now in 85 schools.  The Python book is in…85 schools!  Neck and neck!  (The number of individual books sold is not significantly different.)  That’s the first edition Python book — the second edition just came out and only has 31 schools adopting so-far.  FYI.

December 19, 2009 at 10:41 am Leave a comment

NCWIT seeking support for pushing CS Ed in DC

NCWIT has launched an interesting campaign, focusing on “Reading, writing, arithmetic, and…computer science.”  They’re seeking support to make a push in Congress for more attention to CS education.

It’s time to reform computer science education. Let’s take it to the Hill.

Reform in computer science education doesn’t just happen classroom-by-classroom; it starts on Capitol Hill, by educating our congressional representatives. We can provide them with the facts and information they need to ensure that computer science education is a priority for all students in the 21st century, but we need your help.

via Reading, writing, arithmetic, and … computer science..

December 19, 2009 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

A bit of learning can go a long way

That study about how environment can influence stereotypes has really attracted attention!  It’s showing up all over the Internet.  I was just interviewed for a piece at Discovery News this week (quoted below) where I argued that the stereotypes might be addressed with real computer science classes.  More of the interview appears in the reporter’s blog post, where I argue that actual environments are probably not influencing those stereotypes so much — how many high school kids have ever been to the office or lab of a real computer scientist?  It’s the perception painted by media, in lieu of actual experience.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial agrees with Cheryan’s findings, but stresses that computer-science stereotypes can be overcome easily.

“We are finding that the stereotypes are prevalent, but not entrenched as you might think,” Guzdial told Discovery News. “In general, there is very little computer science in middle and high schools today. We find that a little bit of real information and experience can influence those stereotypes dramatically.”

via Nerdiness Turns Women Off to Computer Science : Discovery News.

December 19, 2009 at 9:28 am Leave a comment

Options for a totally blind CS1 student

Clare Congdon at University of Southern Maine posted a query to the SIGCSE members list which I quote here:

Turns out, I have a totally blind student registered for my CS1 next
semester. This is a plea for any information you might have on
assistive technologies.

Relevant factors:
The class is in Java
We use Dr. Java as the IDE
The class meets entirely in the lab (it is very “hands on”)
The programming assignments are all graphical
(The student is TOTALLY blind)

I know there are blind programmers, but also that generally they are
doing text-based programming.

If you are aware of any assistive technology that would help a blind
student interpret what’s being drawn on the screen (and actually able
to take this class), please let me know.

It was pretty amazing synchronicity that this post came out the same day as my blog post on accessibility concerns for CS education.  Leigh Ann Sudol made some terrific suggestions for how to help the student succeed in a graphics-based class, e.g., using a glue gun to “show” the student the graphics to be drawn or what the program currently was doing, and pipe cleaners for demonstrations.  I offered some suggestions about using Media Computation, which I’m offering here (as a cheap blog post :-).

Hi Clare!

I have heard from some Media Computation teachers who have had blind students in their classes.  When the rest of the class is manipulating pixels in a picture, the blind students manipulate samples in a sound.  Ben Schafer at UNI has reported in our workshops that he challenges his whole class (visually impaired or not) to come up with analogies — for each effect that one can implement in one modality, what is the analogous effect in the other modality?  For example, what’s the effect on a sound when you “blur” samples the way that you blur pixels (e.g., set the value in a given pixel to the average of its neighbors).  The goal is to get students to think about algorithms in a general way, and to explore how the same algorithm has a similar yet different effect in different modalities.

In our MediaComp data structures class, we teach linked lists and trees using MIDI and sampled sounds in the nodes.  Traversing the data structure constructs a tune or a sound composition.  When we repeatedly copy a node (containing a MIDI phrase) into a list, and then weave new nodes into the list, we are doing Western music composition, where a motif is presented and recapitulated, with other motifs woven between. Different traversals of the tree lead to different compositions.

I realize that these options involve making changes to your class, while Leigh Ann’s innovative suggestions (with hot glue gun and pipe cleaners) let you do the same graphics assignments with the blind student.  These are some additional options.  The advantage of using sound, too, is that the whole class can work on the same assignments, and the blind student needs no assistance to perceive the program output.

Our Java libraries for manipulating WAV files are available at  We use the wonderful JMusic package for MIDI (, and there are links from, too.  All the Powerpoint slides from the classes are available on the site, too.

Happy Holidays!

December 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm 1 comment

Berkeley’s CS Course on Beauty and Joy

Berkeley is teaching a new course using Scratch that emphasizes the Beauty and Joy of computing. The goal is to draw students into computing and for them to see the breadth of what is computer science.

CS39N features more than just programming. Earlier in the month, the class discussed the effect of computing on privacy, from the pros and cons of national ID cards to the whole-body imaging machines that have been accused of giving air travelers a virtual strip search. By facilitating these discussions, instructors hope to draw a direct line between the abstraction of computing and young people’s daily lives.

via Oh! The Beauty and Joy of Computing — UC Berkeley College of Engineering.

December 18, 2009 at 11:30 am 1 comment

CS1 for Google Cell Phones

Article on the first CS1’s that use cell-phone programming in App Inventor for Android as their context.

“Computing no longer has to be on abstract things going on or deep concepts … but it can be about your life,” said Hal Abelson, an MIT professor who developed App Inventor as a visiting faculty member at Google.

via Google brings app-making to the masses.

December 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

Accessibility concerns for computing education

If you haven’t read Susan Gerhart’s challenging comment on my post about Scratch, I encourage you to do so.  Follow her link (there or below) to see her blog with her wonderful, thought-provoking post about the challenges for disabled students to participate in computing education.

When we talk about making computing education more inviting and engaging at younger ages, where we lose students the most, we most often talk about tools like Alice, Scratch, and Microsoft Kodu which are all visual programming languages! Her concerns are well-placed.  What do we offer the visually disabled?

I’ve been learning from people here at Georgia Tech about universal design. Now I’m trying to take those issues into consideration for the new instructional materials we’re designing for high school teachers — but I’m late to the game.  I don’t think I’m alone.  As a computing education community, we’re not doing enough to build tools that help disabled students learn computing, too.  There are some great resources, like Richard Ladner and the AccessComputing BPC Alliance.  I’m just starting to explore what’s out there.  Thanks to Susan for raising the issue here!

Action: On the home front, pedagogical advances claimed for visual programming languages like Alice are not equally available to visually impaired students and teachers. first, is this a true assertion? How does this situation fit the definition of equal or equivalent access to educational opportunities? should the platform and implementation be redone for accessibility? Note: I’ve personally seen a student rapidly learn OO concepts and sat in on Cs1 courses with Alice, but I am totally helpless with only a bright, silent blob on the screen after download. Yes, I’ve spoken to SIGCSE and Alice personnel, suggested accessibility options, but never received a response on what happens to the blind student who signs up for an Alice-based CS course. Please comment if you have relevant experience with accommodations and Alice or other direct manipulation techniques.

via As Your World Changes.

December 17, 2009 at 11:41 am 3 comments

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