Archive for February, 2010

Pilot testing the new AP CS definition

Here at the AP CS Advisory Group meeting this weekend, the first five curriculum developers, teachers, and pilot testers of the “Computer Science: Principles” course definition were named.

  • Beth Simon of University of California at San Diego will be teaching 900 students (!) in Fall 2010 using the new AP CS  definition.  She’ll use Alice with the book by Wanda Dann, Steve Cooper, and Randy Pausch. She’s also planning to use Excel. She’s planning to use a peer instruction model.
  • Jody Paul will be teaching this class at Metropolitan State College of Denver. His is an open-enrollment school, so he has no control on pre-requisites of students.  He’s planning to focus on connecting students’ life experiences with the learning objectives about computing.  He is going to use Scratch and visualization tools.
  • Larry Snyder of University of Washington, Seattle, is going to create a new course to parallel his successful fluency with information technology course. His new course will be in Python and will have a heavy emphasis on the Web, to relate computing concepts to a computational phenomenon that students care about.
  • Dan Garcia is going to continue develop his course on “Beauty, Joy, and Awe of Computer Science.” His course uses a new version of Scratch called “BYOB” for “Build Your Own Blocks.”  BYOB-Scratch uses a Lisp-like computational metaphor, e.g., where lists can contain blocks, and a “Run” block can execute a piece of block/data in a list.  Dan’s course already hits most of the items in the new AP CS requirements.
  • The fifth pilot tester is Tiffany Barnes of University of North Carolina at Charlotte who wasn’t able to attend the meeting, so I can’t report on her plans.  (She’s on leave this semester.)

It’s exciting that the five pilot-testers are going in such different directions, which in itself emphasizes the flexibility in the new requirements.  The overall curricular definition is up around 70 pages now — there’s a lot of definition to live up to.  What happens next with the AP CS depends a lot on these five.  God and the devil are both in the details.

February 27, 2010 at 9:41 pm 11 comments

Undergraduates as America’s only Leisure Class

I commented a few weeks ago about Dick Lipton’s interesting blog post about the extinction of universities. The thread has continued there, and the most recent comment is absolutely fascinating — especially the bottom line.  This isn’t a new problem. I’m presenting a shortened version here:

excerpts from Everett Dean Martin’s “The Meaning of Liberal Education”:

“The motives which lead people to seek college education divide the students into three types. First there are the few who love learning. …

A second type of student attends college and university in large numbers. The motive is preparation for a professional career. Many of the best students belong to this type. …

“The third type, the majority of undergraduate students, are for the most part pleasant young men and women of the upper middle class. Their parents are “putting them through college” because it is the expected thing to do. Students of this type enjoy four happy years, largely at public expense, with other young people of their own age in an environment designed to keep them out of mischief. I have no doubt this grown-up kindergarten life is good for them; most of them seem to appreciate it. In later years they remain enthusiastically loyal to Alma Mater, coming back to football games and class reunions and contributing to the support of the college. As alumni their influence is not always on the side of progress in education, but perhaps they make up for this failure in other ways.”

Now about the only leisure class we have in America is the undergraduate student body. It is bad for the morale of any institution to sail under false colors, and colleges are popularly supposed to be educational institutions. The college faculties themselves must to some extent share this popular delusion, or else they would not permit the public to go on believing it. ….”

Martin’s book was published in 1926.

via An Educational Extinction Event? « Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP.

February 27, 2010 at 10:44 am 3 comments

The economic benefits of reducing drop-outs

Alan Kay just asked in another comment thread about the motivations for getting more students through CS education courses, perhaps with less than threshold understanding of computing.  I’ve had this piece queued up to post in my blog for some time — it’s an article arguing that there are enormous economic impacts of getting more kids through high school.  David Brooks has argued similarly that there are enormous impacts for getting more kids through undergraduate.  I think Alan’s point is well-taken — what is the threshold below which graduating someone is just dumping someone with a sophomoric level of knowledge on society?  Or is graduating someone with some level of knowledge better than graduating fewer (who are above threshold) and flunking out those who are below?

Few people realize the impact that high school dropouts have on a community’s economic, social, and civic health. Business owners and residents—in particular, those without school-aged children—may not be aware that they have much at stake in the success of their local high schools. Indeed, everyone—from car dealers and realtors to bank managers and local business owners—benefits when more students graduate from high school.

via The Economic Benefits from Halving the Dropout Rate: A Boom to Businesses in the Nation’s Largest Metropolitan Areas | Alliance for Excellent Education.

February 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm 3 comments

Fighting Engineers: Robots, Anecdotes, and Data

Got into a fight yesterday with an engineer.  We were both at an advisory board meeting for a new project here at Georgia Tech about teaching middle school science with Lego robotics.  It’s a great project — very careful in assessment, using Janet Kolodner’s Learning By Design classroom structures and rituals, with a national advisory board including several engineering faculty who work with Lego robots in outreach programs.  I raised the issue of girls and Lego at several points during the day, and at the end of the day, I asked, “Is it too late to consider something other than Lego?  Or are we bought in now?  Could we use another form of robotics?”

At that point, one of the engineers said, “Wait, I have to call him on this.” Then turned to me, “You seem to be under the misperception that girls don’t like Lego robots.  You’re wrong!”

Something in “misperception” and “wrong” got my dander up.  I snapped back, “And I’ve got an n of 1500 that says that you’re wrong!”  At this point, people between us literally stepped back to avoid the cross-fire.

Janet inserted a comment here, “Well, wait a minute, it all depends on what you do and your approach…” I interrupted her and explained.  “We’ve been doing Lego Robots with girls for four years now with Georgia Computes! We find that Lego Robots don’t change girls attitudes about computing, doesn’t make them more interested in STEM fields, and doesn’t make them see themselves as doing computing.  We find that PICO Crickets and Scratch do. ” It’s all about increasing the odds of success.

After the exchange, several engineers came up to me to tell me how their outreach program really works, and how their FIRST Robotics team has 30% females.  I asked how they knew it was working.  “You can just tell!” or “The girls keep coming back!”  How can you tell?  Why do they keep coming back?  Maybe it has nothing to do with the robots?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m the School of Interactive Computing.  We do a lot of qualitative analysis around here.  A commonly heard phrase in our hallways is, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”  We’re pretty careful with our data collection in “Georgia Computes!” We do surveys before and after each activity.  We use an external evaluator, to try to avoid the kids telling us what they think we want to hear.  We regularly use focus groups to spot check our findings.

Janet’s right, of course.  Some of the engineers are probably right, and their programs are really working.  From what I can tell, none of them that I spoke with know that for sure because they are not trying to evaluate things carefully.  They have a bunch of anecdotes.

I do believe that one can create an excellent Lego Robotics outreach program that engages girls.  Our data suggest that it doesn’t happen automatically with the default curriculum.  You have to do something special, and it would be great if someone would do the studies to figure out what that something special is so that we could all be doing it.  Let’s change the default curriculum.

The question I’m raising here about Lego Robotics for girls is the same one that I raised earlier about CS1.  How would you know if it’s a bad idea? How do you know that it’s just not working, given any random set of students, teacher, classroom, textbook, and curriculum? The data on CS1 support the claim that any particular offering of CS1, with any popular and well-used textbook and curriculum, will probably result in a 30-50% failure rate.  You have to do something unusual to beat those numbers. Further, I think that the data support the claim: “Given the number of studies, and the large number of subjects, the probability of engaging girls with Lego Robotics is low.”  Is it possible? Sure!  It would be great to do it right at scale!  But any one person’s experience with their outreach program or FIRST Robotics team is not going to change that statement.

February 26, 2010 at 11:43 am 9 comments

A Computing Education Debate in CACM

The March 2010 Communications of the ACM (CACM) includes publication of two Blog@CACM pieces, a sort of point-counterpoint.  CACM published my piece about “How we teach computer science is wrong,” where I argued that dumping students in front of a speeding compiler is not the best way to ramp students up into computing, and that we might think about instructional design mechanisms liked worked examples.  CACM also published Judy Robertson’s piece “Introductory Computer Science Lessons — Take Heart!” where she argued that what we actually do introductory computing actually has the right pieces that good instructional design research recommends.  When I heard that they were going to publish these two pieces together, I thought it was a great idea.

The title they chose was, “Too much programming too soon.”  I think it’s really about the definition of “programming.” I do think a novice facing an empty edit buffer in an IDE is an awful and scary way to get started with computing.  However, I deeply believe that programming is a wonderful part of computer science, but programming more broadly than “Debugging a blank sheet of paper.” It’s creative, powerful, awesome, and often surprising.  There are lots of ways of getting started with programming that are much less scary, such as Squeak Etoys, Alice, and Scratch.  I also think that we should explore reading examples, modifying existing code, debugging code, and new kinds of activities where students do limited text programming, some form of “reduced cognitive load” activities.  We need broader definitions of what “programming” means.

February 25, 2010 at 10:36 pm 11 comments

Technology is not masculine

I first learned that information technology in Malaysia is female-dominated at an NCWIT meeting last year, which I blogged on last May. (A blog post about which Skud was pretty unhappy.)  Now, a new book is out describing this phenomenon: “Masculinity, Power and Technology: A Malaysian Ethnography,” What I find most interesting about this is the sharp contrast with prevailing attitudes here. We in the West often see technology as obviously masculine — even our pre-teen Girl Scouts tell us that.  Yet, the Malaysian experience points out that the relationship is constructed, not innate.  This gives me hope that we can correct the misperception.  A relationship constructed can also be re-constructed.

“In the U.S., technology and masculinity are very connected, which is not the case in Malaysia,” said Ulf Mellstrom, a professor of gender and technology at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and a Clayman faculty research fellow, who discussed the topic at a presentation called The Intersection of Gender, Race and Cultural Boundaries: or Why is Computer Science in Malaysia Dominated by Women? “In a short time, booming industrialization has created new opportunities for women while transforming and reforming established society.”

via Malaysian women redefine gender roles in technology | Gender News.

February 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm 2 comments

Are there jobs or aren’t there?

Network World News had an article that several people sent to me, about the enormous growth of jobs for graduates with CS degrees.

“I think the job market is what’s driving the growth,” says Professor Bruce Porter, Chair of the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, which has seen its enrollment increase more than 5% this year. “The government has made it clear that computer science is a growth field, and I think that message is getting back to students and their parents.”

Corporate recruitment of top computer science grads has remained steady throughout the economic downturn. Last spring, at the height of the recession, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing had the highest job placement rate of any major on campus and the highest starting salary.

via Want a job? Get a computer science degree.

This morning, my colleague Aaron Lanterman sent me a link to a blog he follows, by an engineer working for NASA, whose job it is to make sure that the fuel tank doesn’t blow up the shuttle when the tank drops away.  He’s about to lose his job, due to the end of the shuttle program, and he’s upset with the focus on engineer education.

Coming down from on high today, in a different but nonetheless highly-public venue/context, is the word from Corporate:

It’s terribly important that something be done about the dire state of engineering education. This country (and thus, by extension this engineering-heavy enormous American corporation) is suffering from a terrible engineering shortage.

Huh? Run that by me again, please? And this time try to spin it so it makes sense using Earth Logic(tm) rather than Corporate Logic?

Are there jobs out there, or aren’t there?  Or is it all a bit of spin?  Note that the Network World News article talks about enrollment being up.  It’s up for us, too — in comparison.  Today, we have 800-900 BS in CS majors (depending on how you count), and about 300 BS in CM majors, for a total of (at most) 1200.  In 2001, we had 1500 BS in CS majors.  We’re “up” in comparison with how “down” we were.  I believe that new graduates are getting jobs, and those jobs have good salaries.  All graduates?  And what happens after that?

February 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm 7 comments

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