WeTeach_CS – Everyone Needs to be Digitally Literate

weteachcs-stacked-orange-largeAnother conference has come and gone.  I attend  a great many of these over the course of a year and one thing I have noticed is that most of them are too big.  TCEA is a wonderful place to share and learn but it is very easy to get lost. Bringing thousands of people together to share ideas, oddly enough, makes sharing those ideas much more difficult.  This is not the case with the WeTeach_CS Computer Science Summit, held each year in Austin at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus.  (That name appeals to me for some reason).

WeTeach_CS is a program sponsored through the Center for STEM Education by  the University of Texas in Austin with the express purpose of promoting Computer Science Education in Texas High Schools.  They are deeply involved in promoting Professional Development for Texas Computer Science Teachers and probably are best known for providing $1000 stipends for teachers who are willing to become certified in Computer Science and to teach it in the State of Texas.  WeTeach_CS provides training and resources in all aspects of Computer Science with a focus on helping teachers successfully pass the TEA 141 exam to become a certified Computer Science Teacher in Texas.  They provide support and resources for currently employed CS teachers to insure that students in Texas High Schools have the best access to Computer Technology and Education available.  They also act as advocates for Computer Science Teachers and educators in general.

To those ends, the staff of WeTeach_CS, led by Dr. Victor Sampson, Director of the Center for STEM Education, and Dr. Carol Fletcher, the Deputy Director of the Center for STEM Education, sponsor a summit meeting of interested Computer Science Teachers, Administrators, Technology Support Staff, and Vendors from across the State and around the Nation.  This event, ably organized behind the scenes by Amy Werst, Manager of Programmatic Operations for the Center, is a great opportunity for educators to share techniques and ideas with their peers from across the state as well as a place be become informed on the condition of Computer Science Education in Texas.

I have been privileged to attend this summit for the last two years (2015/16 and 2016/17) and I can say that, unlike many conference type events, this one is worth the time and effort to attend.  In the past I have attended trainings where the primary function seemed to be getting as many potential customers in front of as many vendors as possible.  Many of the “educator sessions” turned into sales pitches for whatever product the vendor was selling.  While I recognize the need for sponsors and that sponsors should receive benefits for the investment they make, it is very easy to take this to a level so extreme that it ceases to have any educational value at all.  (Advice to all event organizers of this type: Limit vendor/sponsors to the absolute minimum necessary to fund the event and make sure that the content they are providing in their sessions is actually useful to people who aren’t going to buy their products.)

I believe WeTeach_CS Summit organizers hit the balance perfectly.  Aside from main corporate sponsors (IBM and Oracle this year – Thank You Both Very Much!), there were only about 6 vendor sponsors in attendance.  This for a conference of a couple of hundred attendees.  The tables were located in the common break area and the vendors were not intrusive at all.  The sessions they presented were informative and useful, even to people with no intention of purchasing anything.  In short, they were an asset to the meeting and not a distraction.  It would have been very easy to fill the common area up with vendor tables and the organizers could possibly have made more money but I believe that the conference would have suffered.  Hats of the Amy, Carol, and everyone involved for doing a great job organizing.

The facilities provided by UT were, as usual for the university, top notch.  I am anUT Associate Faculty with the OnRamps program as well as a budding Bootstrap presenter and so I frequently attend meetings and presentations at various locations within the University of Texas.  I have never had a bad experience with any UT sponsored event.  The WeTeach_CS Summit for 2016/17 was an excellent reflection upon the University of Texas and the value it places on education in the State of Texas.  (I’m saying this even though I graduated out of the A&M system so you know it has to be true).

If Carol, Amy, and the other attendees of this conference are any indication, the future of Computer Science, and education in general, in Texas, is bright. Given the projected growth of the Computer Industry and all things digital, I would say that the future of the economy and the welfare of the people of Texas is also bright.  At least it will be if Carol Fletcher has anything to say about it.

Computer Science Tools Review

9ipArbkiEReviewing the live adaptation of Ghost in the Shell has put me in the mood to present some other reviews and so without further adieu I will be presenting my Top Ten for Computer Science Teaching Tools. These are presented in no particular order or ranking and I would be very happy to have someone add to the list in the comments section below if I miss one of your favorite tools or programs.

greenfootOne of my personal favorite programming tools will always be the Educational Java IDE Greenfoot.  I believe that this is one of the most comprehensive and useful combinations of curriculum and tools available for teaching Java and the basic concepts of Object Oriented Programming.  Notice I added both of those qualifiers.  There are certainly more effective programming interfaces and some tools that make learning the basics of programming simpler but to combine both of those things into a single application, Greenfoot can not be beaten.  The program creator, Michael Kölling, is first and foremost, an educator rather than simply a programmer, and this is apparent in the way that he designed the Greenfoot application to bring out the basic tenets of programming, and specifically Object Oriented design while hiding much of the complicated boiler-plate code that students will get to soon enough in Eclipse or Net Beans.  Rather than begin in a procedural mode teaching loops and variables and other constructs and then bringing class into it  (There I go…bringing class into it) Michael starts off with proper class design principles from the beginning and teaches constructs along with OOP design.  The best time to build a mind-set, in this case, for Object Oriented Programming, is in the beginning and that is exactly what Greenfoot does.

arduinoMy next favorite tool is the combination programming environment and hardware that make up the Arduino system. In order to get students interested in programming and code creation we need to get them engaged. Nothing creates interest and focuses attention better than creating something that works. Lights flash. servos turn. robots move. All of these things tie the attention of the young programmer onto the task in a manner that does not seem at all tedious or difficult. With the Arduino programming environment concepts like functions, methods, variables, loops, and program logic can be taught in bite-sized portions that don’t overwhelm the young programmer. Also Arduino provides an avenue to teach fundamentals of engineering, circuit design, and making in general. Considering the price of the hardware, this is an excellent investment for a part of your classroom budget each year.

With that, the first edition of my Top Ten Computer Science Teaching Tools comes to a close.  I will continue the list tomorrow and try to finish by the end of the week.  If you have suggestions or comments, please list them below.  Also, “likes” are appreciated.

Thanks.

TCEA 2016: Here We Go Again

tcea2016Here I come again now Babaaayy!  I never knew what In a gad da davita meant and I was afraid to Google it just in case it was something bad and I had to quit listening to Iron Butterfly.  Anyhow, TCEA is already posting the web site for TCEA2016.  I had an outstanding time at the expo this year, and with any luck we will be taking another group in February ’16.

My 2015 presentation was a great success.  A member of TCCA was in the audience and he invited me to apply to present at the TCCA conference in October.  With any luck I will be introducing those folks to the wonder of Greenfoot next year.  The TCEA 2016 presentation window should also be opening pretty soon.  This year I am proposing two half day presentations: Modding Minecraft Made Easy and Getting Green Again: Greenfoot Java. It would be nice to have two days of presenting for next year.

Why do I care about educational technology and Computer Science you may ask. I see the opportunities that kids today have and I think back to my own educational experience. The year I graduated college, our university put in the first computer lab for general student use. I took programming with Basic and was hooked. I suspect my life would have been quite different if the current level of technology had been available to me then.  Regardless, it is important that we do everything we can to encourage student interest in technology and development in particular. Not everyone has the knack for programming but for those who do, it is better that they start early. I look forward each year to introducing students to the satisfaction that comes with seeing something they build run and work as expected.

If you are a teacher, find a reason to introduce coding into your curriculum. HourOfCode.org is a great place to start.  If you are a student, get involved, learn,  buy in.  If you are an administrator, find a teacher that is willing to try this and support them.  Give them the latitude to work technology into the curriculum.  If you are a parent, give your kids the opportunity to learn something besides facebook and twitter and instagram.  Encourage them to learn, to explore, and grow on their own.  Sign them up for a camp, let them join a club,  buy them a computer and get involved.  You never know…You might learn something as well.

OneNote: The Best Kept Secret in Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office has long been a staple in business.  It is the standard for text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.  Recently it hasonenoteicon been making inroads into the educational community as well with the advent of Office 365 and OneDrive.  Nearly everyone is familiar with Word, Access, Excel, PowerPoint, and the like but there is a little known application that most people decline to install that can provide as much if not more educational benefits than all the others combined.  Microsoft OneNote for Education is an amazing tool for teachers and students alike.

I had not considered this a truly useful education program even though I have been using it personally for years.  It makes an excellent journal and a great way to document class events but it just didn’t seem interactive enough.  I had never considered, for example, putting PowerPoint slides or Excel Spreadsheets into a notebook, but both of those things are easily done with OneNote.

Rather than try to go through all the special features designed for education, I have included a link directly to the OneNote for Teachers Toolkit.  The file opens in OneNote and it goes through every possible use that you can think of for education.  You can share, create interactive lessons, in short, its a great tool.  I encourage you to download the toolkit and check it out.  The price is certainly right.  OneNote is available for free.  It is especially effective when paired with the Microsoft One Drive.  That will be my next application.

I am currently at the Texas Computer Educator’s Association Conference in Austin, TX.  If you have the opportunity to attend a TCEA conference, I highly recommend it.  You can learn more about educational technology here in an hour than you can anywhere else.  #TCEA2015 #learnanywhere

App Smashing: Working with Combinations

Thus far I have been concerned with reporting on programs for teachers and students to use in the education process.  Now I gimpfootam going to mention a pair of programs that work together with an energy much greater than the sum of their parts.  The hardest part of game development is creating the assets to use in the game.  The code syntax is fairly easy to master but creating the sprites or images to be used in the game as well as backgrounds and character design is tough.  This package provides all the tools you need to completely design and build games that can be shared online or compiled into a desktop application.  I’m talking Greenfoot and GIMP.  Introducing GIMPFOOT.  Both of these applications are portable.  It is possible to create a game or simulation from start to finish with these applications installed on a flash drive.  This is very convenient when one is unable to install applications on a PC or when using a public computer that is incapable of having software added.

Both of these applications are open source.  They may be downloaded and distributed for free.  This is a huge plus when starting up a development class because it is possible to put professional quality tools in the hands of students at no charge.  In fact, given the cost of a flash drive, it is possible to provide students with multiple copies of the software, one for school and one to take home.  The programs will run on just about any flavor of Windows and it is possible to build flash drives for Linux and Mac as well.  All in all, this is a great way to get kids started developing for almost no investment.

This is not a perfect solution.  While Greenfoot is easy and intuitive to learn, GIMP requires a bit of practice.  It will, given appropriate training and effort, rival Photoshop in its capabilities.  There are plenty of tutorials and training material available on the Internet to bring anyone, teacher or student, up to speed.  Greenfoot may be downloaded from http://www.greenfoot.org  While GIMP is available in portable format from Major Geeks.  Both may be downloaded and install on any flashdrive and both take up no more than about 400 M of space.  They will seem a bit slow to run the first time they are activated from the flash drive but will speed up considerably after that.

Sing of Song of Linux, Wouldn’t ya like to try; A tiny debian system baked into a Pi

piOk…so I’m not a poet. Part of the Fundamentals of Engineering and Technology will include an introduction to Linux and all things Penguin. I have several systems running Debian which, to my limited experience, seems to be the most stable and easiest to get started with, Linux distro. (There again…IMHO). The question before the committee tonight is…Does the Raspberry Pi have any place in education? I have one. It’s hooked up to my TV set so when I feel the need to investigate something or am suddenly inspired to write Python code during Duck Dynasty (I know…but it COULD happen) I can just change inputs and there in Linux and the Internet and everything I could want. The issue I am having as far as introducing it into the educational mix is that basically, the performance is not all that great. It is what it is. A tiny system with very little RAM and precious little space. I’m not sure I want my students seeing that as Linux. First impressions being what they are I think I want my kids to see a real Linux desktop first. Does anyone else think that the Pi is basically a curiosity? I know it was designed with education in mind and would certainly be a cheap alternative if you had a Python class you had to run on the cheap but it is just NOT fast. Once again…it is what it is. I view it as more of a curiosity. I intended to pull it into my robot making hobby as a replacement or supplement for my various PIC/Arduino/Netduinos but another drawback to the system is that it requires MUCH more power to run, especially if you use the wireless USB network adapter. You have to have a powered hub etc. All in all, not that useful for a robot if you don’t want it tethered with an extension cord. Just curious to see if anyone else is using these little guys for anything beyond just having a tiny little slightly slow Linux system around. On the plus side, it is a real live Linux distro with a terminal that uses SUDO and all the other commands. I really want these guys to get the idea that there are other things in the world besides Windows so maybe, as a curiosity, the Pi will fill the bill. It is interesting and unique looking, especially in the snappy pink/purple case I have it in with all the LEDs going. At this point in their IT careers, these guys need to have their interest piqued more than anything else. I have to keep them interested to keep them moving forward in Computer Science. Well…I am going to try using it anyhow. Wish me luck. Of course comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Introducing….ME!

loverobotsYeah right…like I have time to run TWO blogs. This one may not see much traffic, or it may get the most. I am tasked with beginning a computer science program at the High School where I currently teach Biology and Robotics. I will be teaching Java programming as well as basic Computer tech and an introduction to technology. I am alone in my endeavor and this will act as a journal of my efforts to get this thing off the ground. Right now I am sending out the call to other High School Computer Science teachers (and there are way too few of them) who might be willing to offer their opinions on my issues as I post them. As it stands now I will be teaching Basic Programming, Introduction to Computer Tech. (Step 1 of the A+ certification), introduction to technology (a basic overview course for all things tech), as well as my old standby Basic Robotics and Automation (using the Lego NXT Mindstorm System running RobotC). I will also have one period working as a support tech in the school (our guy is already running himself to death and we just instituted a 1 to 1 with Chromebooks).

This blog will also serve as a sounding board for opinions, both mine and yours, on the use, abuse, or general suitability of all things techno as they apply to secondary education. I do not hold with the accepted opinion in education today that children are “uber-technical”. My experience has been that most of them can turn on a computer or tablet. They can farm on Facebook, flap a bird through some pipes, dig a hole, or post a “selfie” but very few of them actually generate digital content of any value. Computer science is without doubt, the fastest growing employment opportunity for today and the foreseeable future. We need to STOP sending perfectly good tech. and programming jobs overseas just because we don’t have the people to fill them. We need to get students OFF social media and ON to creating content and generating code. Without solid programming skills to create the outlets and portals, social media is nothing but another annoying advertising medium. Without maintenance and hardware people to keep it all running, social media stops all together.

Oh well…that seems like a good place to stop for the night. I have a lab tomorrow and we are recreating the Great DARPA desert race down the main hall of our school with lego’bots.