## Archive for May 10, 2011

### A Computer Science Fair without Computer Science

(Thanks to Kevin Karplus for this link.)  I agree with the author quoted below, that it is alarming that the “Computer Science Fair” he’s describing doesn’t have a single example of computer science.  However, I’m not as hung up over the lack of coding.  I can imagine some really interesting projects at the middle school level science fair level that might be about digital representation or computation without being about programming.  I’m just making these up, but here are some examples:

• Given the same picture, is JPEG bigger than PNG, or vice versa?  Does it matter what’s in the picture? Why might the sizes differ?
• My Senior Design students built me a gadget I’ve been wanting for awhile: A spreadsheet to picture converter.  I’ll write more about it later. I could imagine using something like that to ask, “When I ‘remove red eye,’ what actually happens to the pixels in the picture?”
• For some activities that are like what we see computers doing (e.g., putting objects in bins, finding something in a pile, sorting numbered cards in increasing order, solving large-multi-digit arithmetic problems), can we figure out ways of doing those tasks faster with two people than with only one? (I am thinking about CS Unplugged-like activities here, but making it a science fair challenge.)
• Using only binary (only 0’s and 1’s), can I encode text? What is the smallest number of bits I can use to encode some text so that someone else, told the encoding, could get the text back out of the bits?
I have a middle schooler at home right now.  She’s curious and smart, but so far, she’s not shown much interest in programming.  But puzzles and how-things-work questions interest her — I think she could do things like these, and would like to do them.  She enjoys the puzzles that Barb poses to her, like how high can you count with the fingers of one hand (31, if you shift to binary).  It’s computer science, but it’s not programming.

Not a single category, it would seem, for actual computer programming. No sense that computer programming involves anything more that the consumption and marketing of computer technology. No sense of the tremendous analytical skills that go into the coding that makes all the rest of this possible.

And yet another area that has been hijacked away from the most left-brained of our students.

Perhaps there’s some virtue in this contest, but could we possibly call it something other than a “Computer Science” fair?

And could we possibly have a city-wide Computer Science Fair that’s actually worthy of the name–i.e., one that showcases the work of those who do actual programming?