Saturday, April 1, 2017

Getting More Students Engaged with Programming

I love the new project that I gave students on this Typing Game.  I love that every student is doing the "same" thing but it is different.  My students who were doing Python can do it, my students who were doing C can do it, and the students using App Lab can do it.  It's awesome.

There are 3 things I did that I think helped with student engagement here:

  1. Shake up the group dynamics.  I forced all students to show their thinking on a white board space first.  It made students formulate a plan, got students off their seats, and ensured that everyone had access to the ideas.  There is something about physically re-arranging spaces that causes a disruption in student's actions.  By making them move, I could shake up the dynamic.
  2. Create a space that promoted collaboration.  I was able to bring in larger monitors.  Thanks to a colleague who wasn't using them, this was HUGE at the end of the project when students are combining code and working out kinks.  I had students who worked on a larger display in the library the whole time which worked for them.  Ideally, I think if every group had that opportunity each day that would have been best, but it worked for now.


  3. The prompt.  Students had so much space to make it their own AND since it was a game, they wanted to make sure they could be fun.  One group got "done" with theirs and then started racing each other for who could get the highest score.  One person in the group said "We could add more words, or make it so that there was sound also, or a high score board, or... There is SO much more we can do with this!".  When two of them were racing, one student said "that's not fair 'remote control' came up like 3 times for me, and you had the word 'kid' and 'hat' pop up a ton, 'remote control' is WAY harder to do".  It's these sort of problems that now students WANT to resolve to make the game better. 
I gave students a week to do this and one thing that has come up is, when do you want students to have a "finished" project and when is it ok to be in more of a prototype format?  Up to now, much of the Apps students have created have been a bit more prototype-y.  I am still trying to figure out what the pros and cons are for each.  What happens to engagement?  How does it help them with programming content knowledge?  How does it change the UI part of the app?  What value is there in making sure that users actually know how to use the app? Etc.

Also, now I need to figure out a way to structure the share-out.  I think I want students to demo it for students and then also play each others and give feedback.

A New Project - typing game

I had an extra week of time for my AP CSP students this year.  I wanted them to explore the Post-AP database unit, but I knew doing more "stages" wasn't the right approach.  The stages are a little too quiet, not enough collaboration, and students aren't always super motivated to get it right.  They are good, but I didn't want to come back from spring break and put them on that.  

Instead, I decided to have students make a game that would have a high scoring screen which would force them to get used to creating and reading a database.   This would get at the database content without forcing all students to do all stages of the database unit.  Realistically, I think most students would need to do the stages to be successful in the task, but by giving them the task first, they had a motivation for wanting to learn how databases work.  Additionally, students LOVE making games.  Games usually have winners or losers, so a winner board screen is a not a "forced" concept.

The difficult piece is that students just finished an independent open-ended project. SO there were TONS of games that students had already made so I needed to find a new type of game that the project revolved around.

After brainstorming with KSTF's POET (Principal Officer of Educational Technology), I decided that a "typing game" would be a good vehicle for students.  Thinking of the "learn to type" games out there, students could design a game that tested how well someone could type and then score that person's abilities. 

I started looking into creating the database, I felt a little unprepared myself and a little concerned that one week wouldn't be enough time for students... SO... this was the prompt I gave students:

To get a C it MUST:
- Be play-able
- Have scoring mechanism
- Have a way to "end" the game (you shouldn't be able to play forever)
- Use two functions that are used to create a third algorithm*

Anything else - is the Razzle Dazzle Factor.  Consider:
- Top scorers screen
- Different ways to check if the input is correct
- Animation of the words
- Using colors to describe if a person got something right or wrong
- Timers
- Different levels

The starred requirement was just so students get a feel for how they need to write up their "Create" task and to force them into using functions a bit more.  

This "rubric" was intentionally designed to give students freedom and encourage divergent thinking between groups.  The "rubric for a C" idea was something I learned from  Rebecca at a code.org conference.  I actually really like it, especially for this class there is no "cap" to student creativity AND it keeps my trolls going.  It ensures that students are constantly working in class and pushing themselves. 

Students needed to work with at least three other people for this project.  I am excited to see how all of their projects will be "the same but different" when we are all done and I think students themselves might be surprised to see how other teams solved the same problem as themselves. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

What does a good CS class look like?

This question came up in a meeting I had with someone from the Upperline School in NY.  Really it is what I have continued to struggle with since transitioning to teach more CS than math.

When I think about teaching math, I know what a good math lesson looks like.  It has all students collaboratively solving problems.  But when it comes to CS, I haven't necessarily seen a lot of "WOW! that was a good CS lesson" in other classes - in fact, I've only observed one other person's CS class, and it seemed like an average class.  Nothing I was dying to replicate in my own class.

In my class, so much of the programming tasks are pretty individual - people working by them selves to learn a new aspect of programming.  They talk to one another when they run into problems, but I don't see students wrestling with content the same way I see students in math wrestle with content.

Our class-code-alongs provide a bit of a glimpse into that, but still there is this awkward timing thing that I don't have quite down.

Where I did see collaborative problem solving in my CS class recently was when we did the brainstorming for our Simon game.   I think that can be expanded on to give students a task and see what they come up with.

Next, I want to give students a challenge to make another game - maybe 2048 the game, or a memory game?  I think this could be a fun, collaborative, and rigorous challenge for students.  I could even create my own code to give students who need a bit more scaffolding after they struggle a bit.

I keep coming back to the question of "who is learning in my class, when, and how do I know?"  Here's  how I have identified my "learners" in my class thus far:

  • I have a few students who are constantly asking questions - it shows that they are thinking about processing what they are taking in and making sense of it.  
  • My students who "go rogue" and decide to do their own projects are other students I would identify as my "learners" also - they are creatively arriving at solutions.
  • My students who can look at someone elses' code and troubleshoot it.
  • My students who create things they are proud of... you can see it on their face - they are happy and satisfied with their work.
  • Students who see the need to define the problem - again, they are asking questions and keeping the big picture and the small picture in mind.
  • My students who re-read their code before asking me - have looked at the errors and tried to make sense of them.  I have noticed a gap between students who know how to read code and those who don't.  This was especially true when we took a break from programming and then came back to it.  Some students were writing some funky things like if (x = 6 or 7) - logically I know what they were trying to do, but they were pretty far off the mark from a syntax perspective.  I suppose this is much like PEMDAS in math - they might be capable of thinking about a problem from a big picture, but when it comes to computation, it can be rough.  

When looking at this list, I am noticing that a lot of these things are happening when we do projects - not just the little stages in CodeStudio.  It is so hard to see the learning when they are "plugged" in to the computer...  obviously there is a time and a space for this type of learning, but I am wondering if I need to move to peer programming models or replace it with some more open ended-esque projects.

I really wish there was someone out there doing CS education research much like Jo Boaler is doing maths education research.

Friday, February 17, 2017

DDR re-make - brainstorming and a gallery walk

I started this lesson by having students brainstorm how they would build the app.  In groups they had to answer the questions:

  1. What would the UI include?
  2. What variables do you think you will need?
  3. What functions will you need?
In my first hour, I had them do this as a table on mini-whiteboards, but inevitably one person did the majority of the writing and the other students couldn't really see what was being written since the board was the opposite direction of them.  SO, I moved to a "Harkness" style method and had students in my next class do their work on the whiteboards around the room which got more students involved in the brainstorming process.  Then we did a gallery walk so they could look at other students's work.  

Here is some of the work:





I actually loved this structure.  All students were up and engaged, they were making sense of eachothers' ideas, and problem solving.   I had created a UI for all students to start with along with comments for what the code should include.  I found this structure useful during the ColorSleuth app so we all had the same ID names while we were programming.  I had also seen this commented out skeleton in some of the MOOCs I have been exploring and found it to be a good way to almost literally put in scaffolding in place.  I didn't show this to students ahead of time, but I almost wish I would have given them a screen shot of the UI so they could focus a bit more on logic during this time.  Here is what the starter document looked like.




Taking time to do the gallery walk was important for the class, too.  Doing this I learned, from a teacher perspective, that the problem needed to be well defined if we were going to do this as a class.  Things like, how scoring would work, does the pattern get longer over time, etc. are all questions for which we needed to agree on answers.    I think the brainstorming may have been even more useful had we developed these answers before going to the whiteboards.  BUT, I also think we could have introduced the big problem of "make a Simon game", had students develop these answers and questions themselves, worked for a few days, and then done a reveal of the different approaches to the problem.  For the stuff we were doing together though, we wanted to have the same vision.

A lot of students also brainstormed things that I had decided we wouldn't focus on together (like score, for example).  It was helpful to write these down as "possible extensions" inside the code so students could work on that extension at the end of our time together.  By the end of two days, this is what our program looked like.

Our possible extension list got quite long too, including:

// - Make it auto-check the solution after you are done hitting the keys
// - Make the "Play Again" button work
// - Make a cooler "you win/lose" screen
// - Make the pattern longer as the game goes on
// - Keep a score
// - Add other possible key presses
// - Add sounds
// - Make the pattern go faster as the game goes on
// - Make it wait for the series to play BEFORE someone can enter arrows
// - Protect against trolls so that they cannot "check your work" BEFORE pressing the "start" button (since both arrays are empty, it will say the won)


I also learned that by brainstorming with other people, students developed some creative and elegant solutions, solutions that I hadn't considered when developing the code myself.  This makes me even more excited to try the "big problem" approach later on in the course.

Next, I want to use this problem we did together as a lens for the writing involved with the Create task for CSP.  We should be able to answer a lot of the questions about abstraction and development with what we have done here.

CS Teacher First: I made my own lesson!

I suppose this is not the first lesson I have made for my CS classes but it was by-far the most extensive one I had made myself.  Here is how it went:

In a previous code.org lesson, I had the class incrementally develop a ColorSleuth App.  I really liked the format of the lesson.  It was a bit of brainstorming, it was a bit of independent work, a bit of full-class work, and then students could decide how to enhance the app even further.  I liked the discussions that took place and the problem solving.  Students liked making a game (they all love games)!

I was looking for a similar project but couldn't really adapt anything from the code.org progression of CSP to fit my needs.  I wanted students to get comfortable with using arrays, having keyboard data, and also testing out their code.  Maybe I am the only person who programs with an obnoxious amount of "console.log" statements, but to me, console.log's are to computer science as checking your answer is to math.  YET many of my students would code up a huge section of code, run it, and then get mad when it didn't work.  I wanted students to be able to identify how/when to test things.

While brainstorming for this project, I knew I wanted to figure out a way to make the end project a game.  Initially I thought about doing a "memory" game which would have the added benefit of allowing students to find images that they liked themselves.  The UI seemed a little clunky for something like that, and I wasn't exactly sure how I would use arrays, but I would like to re-visit this idea a little later - or maybe challenge a student to figure it out.

After searching around, I decided to try and make a "Simon" type game.  I thought of using colors, but wanted to incorporate the keyboard element so I changed it to arrows.  I wanted a game where arrows would flash on the screen and you had to repeat that sequence with the keyboard.  When I showed this idea to students, they thought of it more as DDR, which totally worked too.

I was able to get the UI set up, and the arrays in place and understood how I could code up the logic.  It seemed so close to being "there" but animating was a bit more than I was ready for.  Thankfully I was also able to get some support from GT at code.org to help me understand the "setTimeout" command and then applied it into the code.

THEN I took it to the students...

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Concept Mapping after Break

Coming back from break is hard for everyone.  Instead of jumping back into the Harkness methods I had been using, we took the first day to develop a concept map of ideas around quadratics.  We had to do a little skill building behind what is a concept map or what makes a concept map good.

Each student was given a different colored marker in their team so each person had to contribute a equal amount (in a visible way).  At the end, we did a gallery walk of the posters which was rough.  I think I needed some sort of activity guide for the gallery walk - students didn't really know what they were supposed to be doing despite being asked to add to posters there was no real accountability for that portion of the class.

However, it was a good way to refresh vocabulary and reconnect ideas that they learned about before break.  Below is one group's work.




Monday, November 21, 2016

Using QFT to prepare students for new experiences

I first learned about Question Formulation Technique (QFT) when I attended the Exeter conference in the summer of 2015 and then was re-introduced to it at the Knowles fall meeting 2015.  QFT is a process that encourages students to ask many questions, categorize the questions, improve the questions, and then rank the importance of these questions.  QFT was developed in the medical field to help patients ask better questions, however since questions are valuable in many contexts, QFT has been modified for many different contexts.  

I have struggled to find a way to incorporate QFT into my teaching routines especially when the learning targets for a specific day in my geometry classroom are so specific - there is just not a lot of room for a wide open exploration of ideas.  However, in my computer science classroom, part of the goals each day is to increase student interest in the topic matter.  When an opportunity came along to have students visit Target HQ in Minneapolis to work with the engineers and scientists there in their technologies departments, I needed a way to get students ready to engage with these engineers.  Enter QFT.

For a starting point for students, I put together a short paragraph of text from e-mails I had exchanged with my partner at Target as well as snippets from his team members’ LinkedIn profiles.   Students were given 5 minutes to read the paragraph of text and then 2 minutes to summarize what they read or pull out key pieces of information in that text.  From there students were put into groups of 4 students and then were given 12 minutes to generate questions.  12 FULL minutes.  One person documented these questions in a google doc while (in small groups) while their team continued to ask questions.  While some of these questions got off task in unproductive ways, other questions showed how students were making connections to the work Target was doing and their own learning or lives.  

At the end of this time we discussed the difference between open ended and closed questions and students color-coded their questions based on these two distinctions and changed two of their closed questions to be open-ended.  Finally they prioritized their questions to determine what their top 3 questions were and I sent the list of questions to my partner at Target to help him understand what my students were already thinking about before the trip.

At the field trip, students met 5 individuals who worked in different roles related to technology in Target stores.  These people shared their paths to where they were (from planning on being a pilot to a nurse, etc.) and why they like their job that they have now.  Then students broke up into two groups and saw new technologies Target was using (or hoping to use) in their stores to improve the guest experiences.  At the end of the time, students engaged in a short brainstorming activity with the Target engineers who used the student ideas to generate more ideas.  While the experience was fast, because we had gone through the QFT process before the trip, students were ready to hear what the engineers were sharing and students were ready to ask questions throughout the experience.

While I know funds and enthusiasm for field trips is limited, I do see a few opportunities to use QFT in my classroom in the future.
  1. In preparation for any guest speaker.  Guest speakers can be a very valuable part of a course and this is especially true in my computer science class where I am trying to get students to see the many different options a career in technology has to offer.  While I do my best to prep guest speakers, I should also prep my students as much as possible.  Furthermore, it can be difficult to know exactly what points the speakers are going to want to touch on more than others.  By preparing students, students can contribute more to the presentation and perhaps guide it with their questions.  With Target, I shared the questions ahead of time with the presenters but in the future, I don’t know if that is necessary or if it takes away some of the authenticity of the experience.
  2. Last time I struggled with finding a “data source” for these questions to be generated from.  The paragraph from e-mails I pieced together was a good start.  However, the data source was a bit contrived since I picked what information was shared with students.  I think I could have students look at other data sources more broadly.  For example, I could have students look at a company’s website to generate questions or view a guest speaker’s LinkedIn profile.  Since websites and social media are something that students are accustomed to consuming, so generating questions around these data sources may be a good practice for students to build.