by Selena Woodward

You might remember that, just over a month ago, we were approached by the organisers of CS4HS who wanted us to let you know about a free training course.  The course was sponsored by Google and was held at the University of Adelaide this week.  I went along to the first day and thought i’d share with you what I learnt.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 14:  Artwork of th...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The CS4HS projectstarted in America and this year was the very first year it has ever been held in Australia and New Zealand.  The idea behind the project is to encourage more young people, particularly females, in to the Computer Science profession.  In fact, Computer Science degrees seem to have lost their lustre.  According to the opening speaker at the event enrolments onto undergraduate computer science courses are declining.

In contrast, jobs involving computer science are rising and. as a result, we are beginning to see a real skills shortage.  In  a tweet this morning, Nett App even described this gap as an “IT skills crisis”. I suspect it is a a result,   that in the UK, the entire, compulsory, ICT curriculum is up for renewal so as to include a more computer science based focus.  At the recent BETT show,  the UK’s Education Secretary talked about a change in perception of the way in which ICT is being taught.

“Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations,”

It’s even more concerning perhaps, that, despite some of the excellent work going on in schools, here in Australia neither ICT or IT is likely to even have its own curriculum.

For some students the ideas behind computer science are left for SACE.  Google wonder whether that’s just too late? As a result,  companies (like Google) feel the need to help schools, to help teachers inspire a future generation of developers and other computer scientists.

What interested me most about the talk we given about the problems in recruiting our future computer scientists were the statements made about how children see computers.    We were reminded that Arthur C Clarke said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (1961).  We were also reminded how, if asked, a student would probably be able to give us a run down of the basic mechanics of objects we use every day like the toilet or the car.   Would they be able to explain how their Tablet, Smart Phone or Laptop works? Would they care?   Perhaps that’s the point.   If we’re spending so much time teaching children how to use technology that they never want the technology to be demystified then there’s every chance that we really are cutting off our nose to spite our face!

The aim of the CS4HS project is to help teachers to demystify computers, to encourage students to program and learn what programming is, to ask students to think critically and solve problems and to question the way forward.  Google’s funding allows teachers and educators to gather together and share good practice, tools and inspiration to support that important learning.

So, What Tools, Tricks and Tips did I Pick up?

Understanding Alice

This was the first piece of software we explored together.  In many ways, it’s like scratch in that students are given a drag and drop development UI (user interface) to work with.  They can create games and animations and learn some important coding basics along the way.  There’s the opportunity to explore and work with:

  • methods
  • classes
  • parameters
  • strings  and more

 

We Spent a good few hours playing with the software, running through the lesson plans that were shared with us and given to us to take away.  I had great fun using parameters and strings to create quick code to make a car drive around a building and then a cat chase a mouse until he caught it and then…  ate it.

Alice will become even more appealing to teens once the SIMS make an appearance.  Even without those highly popular gaming characters making an appearance there are plenty to keep students engaged as they learn the basics of programming.

 

Puzzle Based Learning

This section of the day was very interesting and quite challenging.  We were presented with a series of puzzle and not only did we have to answer them, we explored HOW we answered them.  We were asked to consider the way in which we approached problem solving.  We were told that the advantage to puzzles was that they don’t presume prior knowledge, that you bring your experience into them.  Not being a maths graduate, I was a little stuck when the maths started look complicated but I could see what the instructor was getting at.

When we work on a process we can either “learn it as a ‘press the button’ calculation or we can  learn it as a concept.  A way of working.  If we can think before we start pressing buttons we might surprise ourselves and get to the answer sooner and than we expect.    If we understand the concept that we’re trying to achieve we’ll be able to explain it to others and as a result, get their help to build it.    He talked about brute force (which if I’m honest I recognise as my way of working).  We’re the people who see a problem and use trial and error until it isn’t a problem anymore.  Sometimes that work fine but, obviously, “Smarter is better”.

We were given a series of puzzles to solve the first “Caesar’s Breath” in which were asked to actually work out what the probability was that were breathing in a molecule of Julius Caesar’s last breath.   We were given visual puzzles, puzzles which asked us to simplify, integrate and increment, enumerate and eliminate, build a model, Guess but verify.. etc.  Some of these puzzles had connections with programming.  For example, how does the following relate to the process required when conducting a search through a mass of data?

Build a Model.

Given two eggs, for a 100 storey building, what would be an optimal way to determine the highest floor, above which an egg would break if dropped? What assumptions do you need to make?”

These puzzles can be found via puzzlebasedlearning.edu.au

Thanks CS4HS

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who were involved in the workshop.  I hope that they re-apply next year and that we all get an opportunity to attend.  Members of the team are always interested to know what you’d like covered and would also love to know your preference for the timing of the event.  Unfortunately, they have to get it all done by February so the only options are December (before the holidays) or Jan (before the start of term). Leave your comments below and I’ll pass them on.

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