Going beyond coding puzzles

Moving a robot through a maze or drawing a pre-defined shape are examples of well known coding puzzles available in every tool or curriculum. As a K-8 computer science teacher, I know we love handing out these structured exercises to our students. They are a perfect way to introduce programming concepts, and because they only have one solution, they provide a clear and definitive end to the lesson. It makes assessment easy, it takes away the stress of “what should I make” and it makes both teacher and student feel successful. It simplifies PD for new CS teachers and ensures that all students will learn the basics.

But K-8 computer science teachers need to go beyond these coding puzzles. We must show students that programming offers much more than a ‘one solution’ answer to a pre-defined problem. This can be messy, uncomfortable and it is not easy.  However, we also know it can be fun and deliver the “fall in love with coding” moment we hope to provide in these early CS classes.

When do we show our students that they can make anything with code?  Should we use K-8 as a time to focus on creative computing and make the first few projects completely exploratory?

I believe CS teachers must strike a delicate balance here.  While showing the students that there is so much more than mazes and shapes, we also want to give them constraints to ensure that they are still successful. In my own classroom, I see both excitement and fear when I tell  students they can make anything they want. Some students rush in – “I know exactly the kind of game I want to create.” However there are others who are frozen – they want suggestions, they want to look around for inspiration, they prefer to remix an existing project. To these students, the open ended project is a source of stress and can scare them away from coding. As teachers, our challenge is to find ways to be helpful but not limiting to these students, allowing them to explore their creative potential without fear.

During my days as an art student, I remember being given a blank white canvas and found myself in my own “make anything you want” moment. I felt that same fear many of my students have until my instructor gave me a wonderful tip – just paint a Burnt Sienna (brown) wash on it. Simply turning the canvas into something non-white made a difference. It gave me the courage to start, to experiment, and to make mistakes.

Writing code for a new project is a lot like starting a new painting. As a CS teacher, we have to be ready to give our students the help they need: a gentle suggestion, the first few lines of code, an exercise that could be extended. We must find the Sienna brown wash that will get them going.

Accessibility in Computer Science

During January 23-24, 2015, I attended an AccessComputing meeting (Alliance for Access to Computing Careers) that focused on ways to increase participation of students with disabilities in computing courses. As an educator, it was a useful meeting where I learned not only about the importance of focusing on meeting the needs of EVERY student, but also about the useful resources AccessComputing provides for CS educators. Richard Ladner, who leads the alliance makes a strong argument for why we should support all students stating, “when more citizens have access to computing opportunities, and when computing fields are enhanced by the perspectives of people with disabilities, we all benefit.”

AccessComputing offers a number of resources and tools that educators could incorporate in their classrooms. The website has resources on how to web pages accessible by following these 30 accessibility tips and how to apply the principles of universal design to make sure computing facilities are accessible. If you have students who need accommodations in your classroom, visit AccessComputing accommodations section to “find tools and resources for assessing the accessibility of your lab or department and developing accommodation strategies”. Another useful resources is the knowledge base, where you can learn about specific disability related issues.



Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII

I showed the film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII in 3 of my classes for CS Ed Week (although it was a different week due to exams – such the life of education).  I had heard good things about the film from several other computer science teachers and thought it would be a great history/cs topic.   I also found the website http://www.topsecretrosies.com/ very helpful for resources including a study guide and other reference links.  But enough about my decisions, it is the reactions to the film from my students that made this such a worthwhile experience.

The most profound remark occurred while the film was discussing how the women did not get credit for their work and it was showing how a picture was cropped so that it was just the man with the machine and not the women.  One of my male students remarked out loud “that’s not fair!”  I think he startled himself just as much as some around him because it was an impromptu emotional reaction. After the film this led to several comments about how none of them knew women did so much and why no one else knows about this.
During the film the students had questions to to fill out as well as opinions questions to answer.  Here are some of the best comments:
“I don’t get why they stopped and had a family instead of staying in computers”

“Why didn’t they stay in computers if they were doing well?”
“I think it is weird only one stayed in computers”
“Did men take back over all the jobs when the war was over?”

“I didn’t know women started all the programming”
“I think it would be hard to know your calculations killed people”
“Its cool that computers used to be knobs and levers.”
“I didn’t know computers was a name for people”
As you can see many students were surprised and actually upset that the women left computing for family and other opportunities.  The students collectively felt if the women started the job and were doing well then they should have stayed with it.  Some of them were also struck by the concept that what the women were doing with the calculations led to people being killed in the war.  This actually opened up a great conversation about understanding the consequences of your work and actions.  We discussed that people can have a far reaching effect when they are programming and it can be anything from bombs dropping to corporations making money, etc.  There were several other conversations centered around beginning computing, the people, the machines, and how different it is today.  Overall I would say this film had a much further impact that I would have thought.  The students learned history that included the women “computers” and also learned about the impact of war, computing, and jobs during that time period.
If you haven’t used this in your classes I would highly suggest it and my best advice would to not preface the film and just let them come to understandings and realizations on their own.  You might just be surprised what they say!

Teaching and learning with “gift code”

Last month I co-taught a two-and-a-half day workshop introducing students to building apps with MIT App Inventor. Some of our students had prior programming background, and others did not.

Here, our goal as teachers was to get our students engaged in their own original projects (rather than teaching any specific set of computing concepts).

I’ve done a bunch of workshops like this, with learners of all ages, and we’ve developed the concept of “gift code.” (Thanks, Michael Penta!)

With gift code, a student describes their idea to you, and you translate it back to them in the form of working code.

Ideally, gift code has the following properties:

  • It’s short. I’ll dictate the code and have the student type it in (or in the case of App Inventor, select and configure the code blocks). It really has to be small so neither of us gets impatient.
  • It works. The premise is that the student will understand the computational ideas in the code by seeing them work. Often the code will combine a bunch of concepts together—ideas that would be hard to explain individually, but make sense when combined into a working unit.
  • It’s the student’s idea. This is pretty important—the code should embody the student’s idea! But it’s OK to simplify what they said, as long as it demonstrates the essence of what they wanted.
  • It’s extensible. This is crucial. In a few minutes, I’m going to walk away and work with another student, and I want my student now to understand enough so that they can keep going. It’s fine if their next step is a copy-paste of the same code structure—e.g., adding a new condition-action rule.

It’s really fun when it works. Students are empowered because they can get complex things working quickly.

In the best case, an hour after receiving gift code, a student has full ownership over it. They understand it, they have added to it, and they don’t even remember that I gave it to them. (That’s totally fine with me.)

Do you use gift code in your own teaching?

Fred Martin
CSTA University Faculty Representative

A Resource for your Careers Unit

Probably at some time during the next semester, you will guide your students through a unit on “career explorations.” Certainly, there are lots of resources out there to learn about CS careers, job prospects, pay, and education. The challenge comes in putting together a cohesive…not to mention up-to-date… series of lessons.

While cleaning off my work desk (an annual end-of-the-year event in my life), I found a suggestion on a scrap of paper I had torn from Tech & Learning several month ago that might just fit the bill.

The site reference is econedlink (http://www.econedlink.org/) from the Council for Economic Education. The specific lesson plan is “The 411 on College Education” (http://www.econedlink.org/lessons/index.php?lid=1103&type=student).

The lesson includes objectives such as:

  • The relationship between level of education and the average unemployment rate
  • Level of education and median weekly income
  • Choosing and financing college
  • College as an investment in human capital

The online lesson is designed to be used by students and includes activities, assessments, and an extension activity—all with links to reliable sources of information. Take a look…it might be a resource to complement career exploration in your classroom.

New Entrepreneur Unit for CS Classes

At the New Mexico Computer Science for All wrap-up meeting held on January 3rd, 2015, Las Cruces High School CS teacher Elisa Cundiff shared an Entrepreneur Unit that she developed along with her co-teacher, Lauren Curry, and implemented last semester.  (Elisa also recently presented this “nifty assignment” at the NSF-sponsored 100 CS teachers workshop in Washington, DC during CSEdWeek.)

The Entrepreneur Unit was developed for CS classes “because we require a new generation of problem solvers.”  The unit, designed to run for a week but easily extendable, starts with research on current startups with the objective of identifying the problem that each startup is attempting to solve.  Students are then tasked with recording what they are doing at 15 minutes throughout a day and making note of inefficiencies or frustrations they encountered. These problems then become a bank of issues any one of which their startups could attempt to solve.

Next, students brainstorm and select a startup idea and develop an elevator pitch with the knowledge that they would need to pitch it to a real industry executive the following day!  Students finish the unit by researching their industry, their competition, and identifying their competitive advantage; creating a revenue model and discussing potential revenue sources.

For more information on this exciting unit for inclusion in CS classes, go to http://bit.ly/1zD9P7p where Elisa and Lauren have graciously shared all materials associated with this unit.  Thanks to Elisa and Lauren for providing inspirations to CS teachers and being innovators themselves!

Irene Lee, CSTA CT Task Force Chair


The Wonderful World of Wikimedia

Let’s face it: Wikipedia may still be lacking in academic credibility, but that hasn’t stopped us from resorting to the world’s free online encyclopedia time and time again when we need quick facts on a new concept.

What many people don’t know is that Wikipedia is only one of a total of fifteen projects under the Wikimedia Foundation “umbrella,” and which absolutely anyone can edit. In learning communities, teachers and students are encouraged to introduce Wikipedia editing to the learning process: there are a number of Wikipedia Education Programs involving schools and universities all over the world, with impressive results.

But what’s in it for students? Being a Wikipedia editor offers students a multitude of benefits:

  • Writing a Wikipedia article helps students develop their skills in spelling, vocabulary and grammar.
  • Properly referencing a Wikipedia article can be challenging: citations are necessary for even the simplest of articles (known to the Wikipedia community as “stubs”). This means that students need to learn how to identify valid sources, undoubtedly a useful skill for essay-writing.
  • You don’t need an account to edit Wikipedia, but if you do open an account you will soon find that you are a member of an exciting, multicultural community that values learning and volunteering. Editors are not paid for their work; what drives them is their passion for sharing knowledge.
  • Assignments don’t end up merely taking up space on a school shelf or hard disk: on Wikipedia they are dynamic content that can be expanded, translated, enhanced with multimedia etc. in spiraling progress… they may even have a chance at being nominated as featured articles!
  • A Wikipedia editor can proudly share the content he has created on social media, or monitor the popularity of the article she started or edited by viewing its statistics page (click the “View History” tab of an article and then “Page View Statistics”). She may be surprised by how many people found the article useful!
  • And much, much more…

What’s in it, especially for Computer Science students?

  • Using Wiki markup is an excellent introductory “exercise” to learning HTML (so long as you don’t opt-in to the Visual Editor). HTML is also used in wikitext: see the special “how-to” article here.
  • Wikimedia Commons – the Wikimedia Foundation’s multimedia repository – is a perfect place for aspiring computer scientists to share photos and/or videos of computer hardware, source code etc. and enhance Computer Science articles by introducing links to their  files (provided they are willing to share their work under a proper license)
  • Girls interested in pursuing a career in Computer Science may be excited to find out that Wikipedia has an article titled “Women in Computing,” with ever-growing content that they can browse and edit. In fact, numerous Wikipedia “editathons” were held all over the world to celebrate Ada Lovelace day last year. Writing a new article (or expanding an existing one) on a notable woman computer scientist is a great way to draw inspiration and contribute to the available online knowledge on women in STEM.

I have been using Wikipedia and Wikimedia editing in the classroom since 2007, and my students have contributed to over 50 articles on Wikipedia and uploaded over 200 files to Commons. It is a rich experience, which earned us a significant distinction at a European STEM conference: “Why the High School Student Became a Wikipedia Editor” won first prize in the 1st Scientix poster competition in Brussels, Belgium. We have worked on Greek Wikipedia, started two galleries on Wikimedia Commons and this year we’re adding local dialect words to Greek Wiktionary. If you decide to enter the wonderful world of Wikimedia and need guidance/inspiration, don’t hesitate to visit my user page and drop me a line!

Mina Theofilatou
CSTA International Representative
Kefalonia, Greece

Meet The Foos!

Posted on behalf of Grant Hosford, CEO and Co-Founder of codeSpark

Parents and policy makers are now recognizing the importance of teaching computer science to elementary school kids, especially over the past 18-24 months.  However, the tools and games appropriate for kids 5-9 are few in number.  codeSpark, a learning game company, has addressed this gap with a game called “The Foos” that teaches core computer science concepts in a cute virtual world.


The Foos is a self-directed game with a free teacher curriculum that covers core concepts like pattern recognition, sequencing, loops and conditionals. The curriculum uses both gameplay in The Foos and “unplugged” activities to teach key lessons. The game has no words, so pre-readers and non-English speakers can play.


For teachers the best part of The Foos is the flexibility it gives you for lesson planning.  You can choose to stop game play regularly to drive home specific points or just let the kids play and explore on their own.  The game is designed to walk kids down a tightly scaffolded learning path, even if teacher involvement is light.


codeSpark has received some nice recognition lately as the LEGO Foundation recently named codeSpark one of 30 companies Re-imagining Play and Learning. And last week The Foos received an Editor’s Choice award and one of the highest ratings of the year from Children’s Technology Review.


The Foos is free for Hour of Code and can be played on iOS, Android, Kindle Fire and the web.  To learn more visit http://thefoos.com.   Interested teachers can download free curriculum here – http://thefoos.com/hourofcode/.


Celebrate CS Ed Week, Celebrate You!

CS Ed Week is December 8-14th this year. Here are just a few ways as CSTA members you can get involved.

Faces of Computing Contest: You’ve still got time to submit a video entry for the Faces of Computing Contest. The deadline for submissions is November 20.

CS Ed Week CS Teachers Site: Check out this new resource for CS teachers. You’ll find examples of different events you can host, access to presentations, competitions, and more! Don’t forget to upload your events as well!

State Proclamations: For our members in the United States, don’t forget to ask your Governor to declare December 8-14th Computer Science Education Week.

Participate in Hour of Code: Short on time? There are lots of great activities to do with students and community members that only take one hour. Sign up and join in the Hour of Code.

Get Twitty With IT: Be sure to use the hashtag #CSEdWeek on Twitter to talk about your events, thoughts, and ideas. You can engage parents, community leaders, and even your students in why computer science education is a necessity in our world.

Engage Other CSTA Members: Start a conversation on the CSTA Membership listserv. Not yet a member of the listserv? Join here. You must be a CSTA member to join, but individual membership remains FREE, thanks to CSTA’s generous corporate sponsors: BirdBrain Technologies, the College Board, Google, Microsoft, Certiport, Oracle Academy, and Code.org.

Additional CS Ed Week Resources: Check out more CS Ed Week resources available to CSTA members on our CS Ed Week page. Download a poster, watch a video, or listen to an audio announcement that you can recreate in your own school.

CS Ed Week is really all about celebrating YOU, our CS educators, and all that you do to engage students in learning about computer science and the magic of the discipline. So go out and showcase your skills!

Speak Up: Do Your Part to Support CS Education and Educators

With people starting to make plans for CS Ed Week and the recent spotlight on making CS count for graduation I think it is important to remember the needs of the teachers. In order for CS to count and for there to be CS ED Week activities you need to have teachers who are teaching CS and/or who are raising awareness for it. You also need K-8 teachers who are given the freedom to incorporate CS into their elementary and middle grades curriculum. You need teachers.

While we need teachers, the teachers need the administration and the local, state, and national governance boards to recognize certifications, preparatory programs, and many other form of professional development for CS. Until CS teachers are recognized and supported as other content areas are, we will run the gamut of types of CS programs in our schools from full curriculum to nothing.

We have made much headway with CS but we still need stronger support through certifications and legislation. I think that sometimes we need to better educate ourselves of the landscape of CS and use successes to our advantage. For example, Ohio has had a computer science certification for many years. I have been teaching for 16 years and it was in place way before me. Others could use the example of our certification as a starting point for conversation with their state education boards. It is completely plausible to ask your state why Ohio recognizes CS certification, has for a long time, and yours does not. Okay so it may not be that easy but you never know. Last year CSTA put out a document that took a look at all of the states, what they recognize, and information about CS. It was called Bugs in the System:Computer Science Teacher Certification in the U.S. and is a fantastic resource if you are trying to raise CS awareness in your state.

So maybe you are thinking that you are not in a position to talk to your state education board and that is fine. However, with resources from other states you can also go to your local administration and board and propose that you start CS or improve your CS offerings. Use the states around you with CS certifications or programs as a selling point. If the states near you are doing something, you can propose that your school get ahead of the rest of your state and begin a CS program/ increase your program. The idea of being “first” at offering something or getting ahead of other places appeals to many schools.

I think as we approach CS ED Week we need to take a look around us at what is going on in classrooms and states around the nation. Even look at other countries and the CS curriculum they are creating. Use this information to show someone, whether local or on a bigger stage, that CS is happening, it is on the move, and it will be a part of our futures. How fast it becomes a part of our schools’ future depends largely on us. It depends on our passion, our resources, and how many people we can reach.

So spend some time on the CSTA website and find some resources that you can use as you are planning events and talking to your administration. There is a whole organization (CSTA) supporting you and standing with you as you advocate for CS.

Good LUCK!