Archive for June, 2021

Rules work as a way of communicating computation at a mechanistic level without teaching programming

Sometimes as a reviewer, you get to read a paper that you wish was published immediately. That’s how I felt when I got to review Eliane Wiese and Marcia Linn’s paper “It Must Include Rules”: Middle School Students’ Computational Thinking with Computer Models in Science. It was published in ACM TOCHI in April (see link here).

Eliane and Marcia offer a solution to a problem that teachers face when they want to teach about computational models, but they don’t want to teach programming. How do you get students to reason about the models underlying the simulations they’re exploring without talking about program code? And if you do talk about some notation, some representation of the model, what can you expect students to reason about without teaching them the notation or representation first?

Eliane and Marcia show that rules work. They have students interact with simulations, and then show them rules that might be in that model. Like in a simulation of light, photosynthesis, and glucose levels in plants, a rule might be: When light is on, total glucose made increases.. Eliane and Marcia show rules to students and ask “Are these in the model?” In their abstract, they write:

In our sample, 99% of students identified at least one key rule underlying a model, but only 14% identified all key rules; 65% believed that model rules can contradict; and 98% could not distinguish between emergent patterns and behaviors that directly resulted from model rules. Despite these misconceptions, compared to the “typical” questions about the science content alone, questions about model rules elicited deeper science thinking, with 2–10 times more responses including reasoning about scientific mechanisms. These results suggest that incorporating computational thinking instruction into middle school science courses might yield deeper learning and more precise assessments around scientific models.

The misconceptions don’t bother me. Students will have misconceptions about models — that’s part of teaching science with models. What’s fascinating to me is that the rules worked. Students reasoned mechanistically about the computational models.

My favorite result in this study was where they asked students to predict what would happen if they added a new rule to the model. Basically, “What happens if we change the program like this?” Students were way better at playing these what-if games if the question was posed as a rule. Quoting from the paper:

Asking students to make predictions about the implementation of incorrect rules led to more scientific reasoning about mechanisms than simply asking students about a causal relationship portrayed in a correct model. This pattern was evident for both model contexts, with twice as many workgroups proposing mechanisms with the New Rule question compared to the Typical question for Global Climate (29% vs. 14%) and ten times as many workgroups doing so for Chemical Reactions (53% vs. 5%).

Students can reason about computational models described as rules, even without instruction on rules. That’s a terrific result. It’s one that I’m thinking about how to use in my task-specific programming languages.

Now, this isn’t saying that students can’t reason with function or with imperative statements. Maybe functional or procedural programming paradigms would work, too. Eliane and Marcia have found one approach that does work. They offer us a way to integrate computational modeling into science education, with real discussion of the mechanism of the models, without teaching programming first.

June 28, 2021 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Katie Cunningham’s Purpose-first Programming: Glass box scaffolding for learning to code for authentic contexts

Last month, Katie Cunningham presented her CHI 2021 paper “Avoiding the Turing Tarpit: Learning Conversational Programming by Starting from Code’s Purpose.” The video of her presentation is available here. This is the final study from her dissertation work, about which I blogged here.

Katie is trying to support the kinds of programming learners whom she discovered in her work on tracing — students who want to write programs, but have no interest in understanding the details of how programs work. As one said to her (which became the title of her ICLS 2020 paper), “I’m not a computer.” Block-based programming won’t work for her learners because, like most conversational programmers, the authenticity of the language they’re learning matters. They don’t want to use blocks. They want to see the code that developers see — a form of what Cindy Hmelo-Silver and I called “glass-box scaffolding.”

Katie focused on one particular purpose: writing Python code to scrape Web pages using Beautiful Soup. She and Rahul Bejarano dug into Beautiful Soup code on Github and identified a set of code chunks (“plans”) that were really used for this purpose and which could be recombined in useful ways. She then developed a curriculum as a Runestone ebook for teaching those plans where she taught students how to combine them (using Parsons Problems) and, importantly, how to tailor them for specific needs. Here’s a figure from her paper with an example plan with a description of the “slots” for tailoring.

My favorite part of this study is her analysis of how students debugged using these plans. They did make mistakes, and they fixed them. They reasoned about their programs in terms of the plans. In a think aloud, they talked about the names of the plans and the slots, and where they tailored the plan wrong. It’s not that they were just copying and pasting chunks of Python code. They were reasoning about the chunks — but they were not doing much reasoning about Python. In some sense, she defined a task-specific programming language whose components happened to be defined in terms of visible lines of Python code.

My favorite outcome of the study is that students came away excited and felt that they were doing something “realistic” — from a half hour lesson. One participant asked if she could do this kind of learning for different purposes every week, a kind of DuoLingo for programming. Those are strong results from a short intervention. It is a pretty amazing intervention.

I blogged for CACM this month on how we we predict about knowledge transferring between programming languages may be based on an assumption of mathematics background which might have been true in the 1970’s but is less likely to be true today (see post here). I suggest that we need to develop ways of teaching programming that doesn’t relate to mathematics, that instead connect to the programmer’s purpose and task. Katie’s work is what I had in mind as an example.

June 21, 2021 at 7:00 am 8 comments

Call for Nominations for Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Computing Education

Call for Nominations: Editor-In-Chief, ACM Transactions on Computing Education

The term of the current Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of the ACM Transactions on Computing Education (TOCE) is coming to an end, and the ACM Publications Board has set up a nominating committee to assist the Board in selecting the next EiC.  TOCE was established in 2001 and is a premier journal for computing education, publishing over 30 papers annually.

Nominations, including self nominations, are invited for a three-year term as TOCE EiC, beginning on September 1, 2021.  The EiC appointment may be renewed at most one time. This is an entirely voluntary position, but ACM will provide appropriate administrative support.

Appointed by the ACM Publications Board, Editors-in-Chief (EiCs) of ACM journals are delegated full responsibility for the editorial management of the journal consistent with the journal’s charter and general ACM policies. The Board relies on EiCs to ensure that the content of the journal is of high quality and that the editorial review process is both timely and fair. He/she has final say on acceptance of papers, size of the Editorial Board, and appointment of Associate Editors. A complete list of responsibilities is found in the ACM Volunteer Editors Position Descriptions. Additional information can be found in the following documents:

·                 Rights and Responsibilities in ACM Publishing

·                ACM’s Evaluation Criteria for Editors-in-Chief

Nominations should include a vita along with a brief statement of why the nominee should be considered. Self-nominations are encouraged. Nominations should include a statement of the candidate’s vision for the future development of TOCE. The deadline for submitting nominations is July 21, 2021, although nominations will continue to be accepted until the position is filled.

Please send all nominations to the nominating committee chairs, Mark Guzdial (mjguz@umich.edu) and Betsy DiSalvo (bdisalvo@cc.gatech.edu).

The search committee members are:

  • Betsy DiSalvo (Georgia Institute of Technology), co-chair
  • Mark Guzdial (University of Michigan), co-chair
  • Diana Franklin (University of Chicago)
  • Andrew Luxton-Reilly (University of Auckland)
  • Aman Yadav (Michigan State University)

Louiqa Raschid (University of Maryland) will serve as the ACM Publications Board Liaison

June 14, 2021 at 7:00 am Leave a comment


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