NCWIT Aspirations in Computing

NCWIT

It is exciting this time of year because hundreds or even thousands of girls across the country will spend hours working on their applications for state and national level recognition by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Why is this important?

NCWIT is a national organization which is empowered to support, encourage, and recognize females at the high school level who are making Computer Science and technology a part of their academics both now in high school and possibly even at the college level. Hopefully those pursuits will lead to those same females finding their way into the wonderful world of technology as a career choice.

We are seeing Computer Science taking it’s place at the big kids table for the first time in it’s life. Schools and districts across the country are starting(finally!) to look at Computer Science as a core subject as valuable as math, language, and science. Funding and investment from the government, private and public organizations is in the millions of dollars. This is great in so many ways, but especially because more people with different backgrounds,different genders, different cultures, different interests will start to be part of this awesome world of technology.

Job Outlook

What we need is not necessarily more Computer Scientists, but more people who understand and can think like Computer Scientists. We need more people who love biology to also know how to write software. We need people who want to start their own company to also know how to design a website to promote their business. We need more people in research labs to also know how to write their own mobile apps to analyze their data. We need more people in politics to understand big data. We need more people in philanthropy to know how to troubleshoot their organization network. We need more environmentalists to know how to program their own sensors to read data.

In order to do this, the world of technology has to do a better job of being attractive to a wider variety of people. One way we do that is have classes which are not dominated by one single type of person. We need classrooms with students of all races, all religions, all interests, all talents, all ethnicities, and yes….. all genders.

As a teacher trying to hard to help bridge that gender gap in my own classes, I value organizations such as NCWIT who are taking that challenge HEAD ON and making huge strides forward.

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Reflections after the CSTA 2017 conference

I just spent 6 days in Baltimore at the annual #CSTA2017 conference(CSTA = Computer Science Teachers Association). We had 700+ attendees and a record number of ehbitors. All of which is an incredible increase since even last year. Why? What’s going on? (He’s going to tell…He’s going to tell…(name the movie?)) I have many thoughts on that and the current changing nature of Computer Science and Computer Science education. But if I communicate these ideas in text, I would HAVE TO USE ALL CAPS THE WHOLE TIME, and I did not want to. Sooooooooooooo, go grab some coffee, get cumfy in your favorite chair, and sit back and enjoy my video-blog. WARNING: I get pretty into this stuff, so I think it’s like 20 minutes long……WELL WORTH IT I promise.

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Capturing the Imagination

It it so exciting to be part of an educational transformation that I have been waiting on for a decade! “Computer Science” is finally making it’s way into mainstream education. Parents, students, administrators, teachers, politicians, and the world are finally starting to understand what it is, and what it is not. Some schools call keyboarding class “Computer Science”, while others misinterpret Desktop Publishing and word processing and video edit-ing as “Computer Science”. All valuable tool sets in life, but not Computer Science. So what then is “Computer Science?”

Great question.

First, why do I keep putting Computer Science in between “” ? I guess I could have put it in ALL CAPS? Ha!

Because the phrase itself is not accurate.

The definition of Computer Science is changing

Ask 100 teachers from K- 12 and also from the college level and you might get 101 different answers (one might answere twice). Over the last 3 decades, the world of technology and the tools that power and give life to that technology have changed more rapidly and dynamically than any industry in recent history. For starters, the phrase “Computer Science” itself we have been using to represent all computing and technology-related areas of study. And at one time it was a narrowly defined area specifically targeting a very select type of person as well as very specific skillset; it was targeting(and hit dead center) the hard core engineer-minded person. That is where the traditional stereotypes came from. But over the last 3 decades, we’ve seen “Computer Science” become the backbone for most industries, much like reading and writing. Think about it: experts in any industry who also know how to create new digital tools to solve their problems quickly become the leaders in those industries. So we have seen Computer Science expand into, contort with, morph through, and merge alongside areas that can take advantage of what it offers: artificial intelligence, biocomputation, engineering, graphics and animation, ,human-computer interaction, business information systems, networking, cybersecurity, media, social media, people, aerodynamics, modeling, and economics. Just to name a few

Why this sudden recent attention and fuss about Computer Science?

People are starting to understand what it is, and hence, its value. What parent doesn’t want their child to have leading edge skills of creation as they enter the world?!

It’s quite simple. “Computer Science” (representing the various areas I talked about above) is quite simply a way of thinking and set of tools that allow a person to “capture their imagination.”

“……capture their imagination….”

Powerful.

What the heck does that even mean?

I’m not talking about simply jotting down your ideas on a piece of paper (although that is part of the process). I am not talking about getting a paint brush and drawing that image in your mind (although that is part of the process). I am not talking about making notes in the margins of the book you are reading. I am talking about taking your interactive & dynamic imagination and ideas(crazy ones accepted!) and bringing that to life on the screen or device in front of you.

In English class, a teacher asks you to think about something and perhaps write an essay or a poem. After you write that down, it can be read by others. In an art workshop, your teacher asks you to draw a picture of something beautiful and so you add color and lines to a canvas. And those are certainly beautiful, but they are also permanent; they are not interactive.(well, except for those cool 3D illusions things where the picture comes into focus, or those New York sidewalk paintings where you look from a certain angle to see the scene.)

Digital tools are interactive. They allow the tools themselves to become fully customizable by whoever is using them. They allow tools to even create other tools. Software can be designed to allow the user to have as many choices, selections, and options as wanted. And it can be used differently every time it is used. And it can be modified to expand it’s functionality. A smartphone app can incorporate the environment through sensors such location, temperature, angle, proximity, radio waves, and force…… and then also user-controlled elements such as touch screen, voice, selections, eye direction, even thoughts. A device can be an autonomous car, robotic arm, a Hololens, scientific instrument, a drone, or a camera. When times change, or demand changes, or ideas change, or needs change….so can the software. But maybe the software is fine, but the hardware changes? Maybe someone imagines a better, slicker, cheaper, nicer, different, or newer widget. Awesome. Now, we have have captured imaginations, even as they change in real time.

It never ends.

That is one reason why Computer Science is becoming mainstream. It never ends. Your project can always be updated, enhanced, and redesigned. New devices can always be incorporated. Fresh and even off-the-wall ideas can always be incorporated. Computer Science is the environment and set of tools that allows for that. In my own classes, we design apps, games, and simulations. I tell students, “…you will never be done with it, but you can get to a point where it is your best work at the time and it does what you wanted it to do at that time. There is always something you can add or a feature you can implement or improve. So go ahead and turn it in now, but continue to work on it on your own time long after it is submitted….” Many do just that.

In the project-based Computer Science class, there is no chapter that we have to finish. There is no lesson that signifies the “end of the learning.” There is no specific skillset or language that is all you need. It’s just time that is the bounds. The end of the quarter, semester, or school year are what determine the “end.” But because of the technology itself, they can continue to work on their project on their own phone, laptop, tablet, or smartTV at home, from anywhere on the planet (oh yeah, and also in a plane with wi-fi). Oter subject areas might stop for the summer or spring break, but Computer Science tends to keep on keepin’ on.

Different tools…..same goal

Apparently the saying and book, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” really holds true even in, especially in, this world of technology. When we are 5 years old, the teacher asks us to draw pictures in our sketchbook, build things during craft time, use the colored markers to draw on the whiteboard. They are developing the skills that “capture imaginations.” Those tools were colored pencils, pipe cleaners, glue, glitter(ugh!) ,markers, stencils, and easels. Now in Computer Science we are doing the same thing, “capturing their imagination”, but doing so with a different set of tools, where the tools are constantly changing to handle the real world problems that are also constantly changing. The tools themselves are created through Computer Science.

Awesome.

That’s why Computer Science is at the forefront of educational conversations today.

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The education of Computer Science

It is soooooo exciting to see Computer Science starting to really take root in the U.S. education system. Through the efforts of national level organizations such as Code.org, CSTA, NCWIT. Through products and initiatives of innovative companies such as Lego, Microsoft, CoDrone….they are helping pave the way to getting Computer Science into classrooms. Professors and faculty from colleges, universities, high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools are creating resources, partnering, putting on workshops, writing articles, and talking about it. Across private and public schools, rural and urban, and spanning socio-economic, religious, and gender boundaries as well. That is what is takes.

Why are we seeing this sudden “welcome”?

Robolink was established in order to encourage students to learn about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in an engaging way with robotics kits.

Well, part of this huge wave is just people simply starting to finally understand and accept that technology and the ability to understand, program,control, re-program, and create software and hardware is fundamentally crucial in a society which is virtually 100% dependent upon technology, regardless of the industry.

Parents are starting to demand that the schools in their districts include Computer Science, not disguised as a typing course, easy senior elective, or desktop publishing course, but as true rigorous Computer Science.

Students are realizing that regardless of the major you choose in college, or the career you choose to explore afterwards….Computer Science is part of the backbone of that discipline and any industry. Many of the physical tools, devices, communication tools, promotion tools, analytical tools, sensors, controls, and even client acquisition tools….all of those at some level are resting on a layer of Computer Science. In some of the the same ways as language , math , and science.

So looking forward, we now need to think about how we actually implement this in our schools. Districts simply giving marching orders to bring Computer Science into the curriculum might sound good for a newspaper article, brochure, admissions tour stop, or campaign speech, but the devil is in the details.

Our vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science.

I’ll argue that we have to really think about what an awesome opportunity we have here. The “textbook” of Computer Science is not the same as a textbook in a history class. The way to learn Computer Science is not to sit back and listen to a teacher talk about it. We do not want to have classes in Computer Science that do not embrace and reflect that dynamic engaging world of digital technology outside school walls. Think of the excitement kids get when they get a new laptop, smart phone, or gadget. There is a reason they love that. There was a time where only the super nerds got excited about those things, now you are considered a nerd if you DO NOT get excited about them. How far we have come.

Multiple choice tests, traditional lecture and note taking, the questions at the back of the chapter, and doing the odd problems for homework are not going to capture the essence of what we are after.

Equally as important in knowing what Computer Science is…..is what Computer Science can do….and then DOING it.

We have a chance to invent the Computer Science classroom exactly as we want it. We can look at how we have done it over the last several decades and consider what worked and did not work so well. We have a chance to realize that the audience that is attracted to Computer Science classroom NOW is not the same as the audience of 20 years ago. We are not just targeting our hard core techies; we are targeting students who are interested in exploring Computer Science as a way of thinking and as a set of tools/skills that allow them to address and solve the problems in the areas they have passion for.

TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) helps high schools build and grow sustainable computer science programs.

I am so excited to be a forefront of this movement. Building out what the educational side of the new Computer Science can be as engaging and dynamic as the industry/ discipline itself.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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Needing and Wanting to Learn: What we do NOT do in our classrooms well

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know that I am passionate about student-led, project-based learning environments. I believe in active learning where the students are actively acquiring knowledge and are proactive in their own learning and understanding….as well as applying that knowledge. The traditional lecture model of learning with students passively receiving information from the teacher in 45 minute chunks for 7 hours a day is something I don’t believe has a place in the school of 2016.

I am not suggesting that there is never a time for information to be given to a student, possibly even in lecture format.

“Wait. What? You just contradicted yourself!”, the world said.

Motivation in people is something that is internal. Sure, there can be incentives to get someone to do something, but ultimately, a person does something because they either want something or they need something. It is as simply as that.

Consider the traditional lecture & note-taking classroom experience. The teacher is giving the students a large quantity of information that is neither wanted, nor needed beyond getting ready for the upcoming test. But there has to be a reason for learning other than the upcoming test or Algebra 2 next year.

They need to know the parts of a computer in order to build one

They need to know the parts of a computer in order to build one

Students neither NEED or WANT what the teacher is “giving” them. Perhaps they could. They definitely should. Is there a way we can setup the classroom such that they DO want and need knowledge.

Consider the project-based classroom where students are building something, making something, writing something, programming something, researching something, calculating something, drawing something, and so on. The point is they are doing something. Now…in a well crafted project, the teacher has students propose projects where the teacher knows that a certain skillset, vocabulary, understanding, or ability will be needed in order to accomplish that project well. In that well crafted project, the students had direct input on the project they are proposing(very important!) So, now because students have buy-in of their own project, there are things they WANT to do to make it better. Right? Now is when it makes sense to GIVE the students something. Now might be when you might lecture to get an idea across, show them what something means, explain a relationship, or introduce a new skill. But don’t give them to everyone, and don’t take too long. In order to complete the project completely, the requirements of the project they proposed have them demonstrating, displaying, other otherwise using certain skills, ideas, concepts, or methodologies. Now, they NEED that “stuff” in order to complete the project. And they want to complete the project because it is something they care about.

Could it be that simple?

I’ll warn you…….you might find that once students take a hold of their own learning, they might not want to wait. They might learn online and with each other without you. They might figure stuff out on their own in order to get where they are NEEDING and WANTING to go.

Hmmmmm……

So, now the students both NEED and WANT something as part of their educational experience. Their internal motivation has been inspired. Perhaps that student who had not connected before DOES NOW. Perhaps that section of class which has just really had any pizzazz DOES NOW. Perhaps those abstract ideas that they never really got they DO NOW.

Students teaching students an Hour of Code

Students teaching students an Hour of Code

The result was the same…that they “got” the stuff you wanted them to get. The difference was how and when you gave it to them. Interesting enough, it is also possible you did not “give” it to them at all. They discovered it. They figured it out. They found out. The learned without you. Awesome if so.

That is my point about project based learning. In a well crafted project, it can help you accomplish things you had not before. And it might even allow your students to interact with your subject area in ways they had not before.

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It’s Time: COMPUTER SCIENCE

http://www.livescience.com/56587-how-ddos-cyberattack-caused-internet-outage.html

Hey world. This happened today and my guess is 50% of the people out there read the article and don’t really know what it means. 40% didn’t read the article. WE HAVE TO CHANGE THIS. Most of us are 100% (not 90%…100%) reliant on technology for our daily life, social life, and work life. If we lost our internet, many people would be lost, on many different levels.

DDOS Attacks LIVEIf that doesn’t get your attention, spend 1 minute watching hack-attacks happens live around the world here: http://map.norsecorp.com/#/

It is officially time to make Computer Science with its many subcategories (robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber-security, software development, network security)…..it is time to make it a core class starting in pre-school and continuing throughout elementary, middle, high school, college, and beyond.

We live in a digital world. We live in the infancy of that world. Most people are clueless about the power of the technologies right in front of them.

We have to be better at understanding the tools in which we are using. We have to be able to make our own tools. We have to be able to fix tools that break. We have to be able to improve existing tools. And we have to be able to make better tools to defend ourselves against the bad guys.

“But that won’t happen to me”. Uhm, yes it will. It did today.

What are we waiting for?

Hey school leaders, parents, community leaders….We need YOU to be instruments of change

Begin the discussions that are needed to get our school to not just offer, but understand, realize, and embrace the various components of Computer Science.

Those who command technology and are in command of the technology will be the leaders in our world. Who do we want to be leaders?

Us or them?

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NCWIT: Recognizing females in high school in Computer Science

It’s that time of the year where NCWIT, National Council for Women in Technology, takes time to recognize girls across the country for their accomplishments and interest in Computer Science.

Over the decades as technology, gadgets, networks, computers, and software have been becoming mainstream, it is the males of the industry who have received all the credit for that movement. While there have certainly been women who have been tremendously important for our current digital and technical age, it has tended to be driven by males.

Why is that important to notice?

What that means is that all design decisions were considered by males and addressed by mainly males. The questions being thought of and asked are by primarily males. The answers to those questions were generated by mostly males. The research of the technology itself was being done primarily by males. The software that interacts with the hardware was being written by primarily males. The professors teaching most of the classes in Computer Science (and related topics) were male. The curriculum to train students in Computer Science was being written by primarily males. All the assignments and projects that students did in school were designed primarily by males. Needless to say, that resulted in lots of males being attracted to the world of technology because it has been directly and indirectly marketed towards them.

You see my point. What we are seeing now in our world is the result of a male driven industry. Thankfully that is changing, but that change is coming ssssslllllllloooooooowwwww.

As we are seeing more females go into the various fields related to technology, I think we will see a new digital technology age and perhaps even a new technology revolution. Why? Because as females really begin becoming larger integral parts of the industry, assume leadership roles in the industry, command respect from their male counterparts in the industry, and start software and hardware companies….females will become an integral part of asking new questions, researching in new ways, writing code from new perspectives, brainstorming with new insights, and building and creating new products with new motivations.

We are starting to see some first steps towards this. Congratulations to The Association for Computing Machinery, Code.org, Computer Science Teachers Association, Cyber Innovation Center, and National Math and Science Initiative for creating a definition of what Computer Science is, and that definition explanation starts with this inclusion I am discussing here.

We the people in the world get to reap the benefits of this movement. Think of how much we love (and hate) our laptops, our watches, our phones, our GPS, our smartTVs, our sports technology….we can’t wait for the new wave of technology to take us to the next level!

Not sure exactly that the “next level” means? Go ask one of the girls in your high school Computer Science class…she’ll know.

Hey girls in high school: You’ve got a couple weeks left before the submission deadline. This might be a life changing opportunity towards your future.

Check it out: https://www.aspirations.org/participate/high-school

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That’s Computer Science?

I understand many people in the world don’t really know what Computer Science is. First let me explain clearly what it is not: It is not Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or Google Apps. It is not photo editing. It is not making a movie. It is certainly not keyboarding. Those are all wonderful tools to learn and YES they are practical and helpful , but-—NO–they are not Computer Science.

Learning to type is NOT Computer Science

So, what then is Computer Science? Probably not what you think. And certainly not what it was 25 years ago, 15 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It has a dynamic property of being redefined, and in some cases reinvented continuously. The world of technology changes so rapidly, the science(and art) that has been developing around that continues to develop as well. But, we do know that there are ways to bring together creativity, puzzles, imagination, software and hardware, algorithms, and hard work to help solve problems. Some of those problems are simple and local, and some are world wide and life changing. That’s Computer Science.

So, how does that look when it’s implemented in schools?

Be careful, this is probably not how class looked like when you were in school and it very well may not be how most schools look today. And it does not involve multiple choice tests and the questions at the end of chapter. My classroom has no “front”, so it is not possible to lecture to the class while they wait for knowledge to come to them. All chairs and tables have wheels so they can move into any configuration needed. Whiteboards are on every wall, so students and teachers can discuss ideas together where-ever they are.

All desks and chairs move. White boards on all walls. No center or front in the room.

Student do not have to raise their hand to talk and they are encouraged to get up out of their seat anytime they like. Class is loud, not quiet–and that’s all on purpose. You see…knowledge and understanding is not mine to give to them. My role is simply to connect them to it. They’ll have to earn it, work for it, figure it out, and apply it to their own efforts. Enough of my ideas…let’s take a look at what’s happening every day:

In high school, all athletes must take an online concussion test; Trey developed another concussion test. While standing in front of the Kinect camera, the athlete is led through 3 sequential tests of balance that are analyzed by his program as you do them. The results are recorded for future comparison.

Carter developed a digital cheerleader routine tutorial. Standing in front of the Kinect camera, the athlete is led through the experience of an actual complex cheer sequence. As the camera “detects” the person has correctly completed each step, there is confirmation on the screen.

Elen developed a virtual chemistry lab that leads students through a series of activities, practices, procedure directions, including putting on your lab coat. The student does this all while standing in front of the Kinect camera.

Students demonstrate their final projects to judges and parents

Courtney developed a virtual crime scene analysis program for her AP Biology class. Standing in front of the Kinect camera, students collect potential DNA evidence, go to the lab and actually extract the DNA, and finally compare it to other samples to discover the culprit.

Katherine developed a cartwheel tumbling analysis. While in front of the Kinect camera, you actually perform a real cartwheel, 3 snapshots are taken: one before, one during, and one after the cartwheel to allow you to analyze your motion and position.

McLean developed an interactively practice for learning the English language. As you stand in front of the Kinect camera, random words fall from above you, your challenge is to determine the part of speech of each falling word, actually “grab” it with your hand and “drop” it into the appropriate bucket.

David developed a program that allows the human body, standing in front of the Kinect camera, to generate angles and geometric shapes.

Benjamin developed an interactive language learning experience. Standing in front of Kinect camera, the human body can be used to highlight & unhighlight words, move phrases around, and interact with words on the “air” around you.

Ryan developed a geologic time discovery activity. Standing in front of the Kinect, students must grab various animals and place them in the correct geologic period.

Merritt developed an interactive SAT vocabulary practicing activity. Standing on a dance pad, students control all the activity using their feet. Be ready for the high energy intense speed bonus round.

Richard developed a history learning activity that combined his love of track practice and history. As you literally run and jump hurdles in front of the Kinect camera, you have the chance to respond to questions…all before you make a mad dash for the finish line.

Wyatt programmed his tablet to take GPS satellite readings in order to command a robot to move towards it’s destination.

Travis and Jacob created a voice controlled currency converter app for their mobile phone.

Elizabeth took her part time cashier job experience and put it on the screen to allow younger kids to learn how to calculate correct payment amount when buying things. Using the game controller, the customer pays the exact amount of bills and coins by dragging them onto the coin tray.

These programs took anywhere from a month to 3 months to develop. And they all involved some pretty serious Computer Science to figure out how to implement. But they also required artistic design, storytelling, marketing and sales, math, logical algorithms, some advanced physics, and face to face presentations. They all involved collaboration with other students. Students were evaluated by their day to day work, by their completed program, by their weekly BLOG posts, by their peers, and also by an “unknown” panel of judges. I did not administer any pop quizzes or tests…and yet not once did I ever have any issues with students working hard, learning very challenging topics and skills, pushing the envelope, or losing interest. We had many speakers in class including a copyright lawyer, an executive manager at an international game website, the CEO and entire game design team of a major game design firm, staff from a marketing department, a visit by the head of school to discuss mission statements, and even employees in the Xbox division of Microsoft.

Presentations to others are one of the ways students are evaluated.

The final presentations were done for 2 hours in the library by demonstrating their completed project to a panel of judges ranging from a professional game designer to Computer Science teachers to hard core game players to Computer Science college students to fellow high schoolers to a head of school to a national board certified teacher. You see my point: students had to consider their audience as each judge came to see their project. How you present to a Computer Science teacher is very different to how you present to a college student and even more so different than how you present to corporate marketing manager and yet different again to how you present to a person who designs games for a living. I am 100% certain that this type of experience is more valuable than any paper exam I could give.

Learning Computer Science early on is crucial to our future as leaders in the world

Learning Computer Science early on is crucial to our future as leaders in the world


I am firm believer that Computer Science should be a core subject area from the time students can read and write and express themselves. Those who command the technology of the time will be the leaders of business, entertainment, philanthropy, research, and academia. We cannot wait until students have already developed their learning styles and passions to introduce Computer Science. It must be incorporated into that learning throughout their entire educational path. This is crucial and fundamental to the United States maintaining its place as one of the world’s leading producers of thinkers, great minds, and game changers.
There is a different way to approach education. If something I said in this post makes sense to you, please browse my other posts…you will most likely find that we have a tremendous amount in common–in which case we should connect.

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Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

(Please note, this idea was also the idea that I submitted for my application to the Microsoft Expert Educator Program for which I was selected. Here is the video I submitted as part of that application. I presented about this topic in Barcelona, Spain in March)

Ahhhhhhhh, it’s that time of year, and if you’ve read my BLOG posts over the years you know I am not big on standardized tests and exams, but instead of dreading the upcoming exam “season”, I am so excited because it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

WHAT?! Better let me explain

I do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, and hardware.

In my 9th grade classes, students pair up and put on a demonstration/presentation table for two of the topics that we studied this semester in class. They prepare an entire table display area as well as an engaging hands-on presentations to show-describe-present about-explain-teach what they’ve learned. They dress professionally and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. So, we’ll have 40+ parents and 20+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers piece by piece. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged by us to ask lots of questions and find out “why” as often as “what”, but also to enjoy their own hands-on experience with their children as teachers. Parents wander around and interact with other students, parents, board members, and other teachers. Truly a wonderful night! What a great chance to finally find out the real answer to the dinner-time question, “What did you do in school today?,” “nothin”. Uhm, I beg to differ. And, you know what the hidden secret here is: They spend so many more hours preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for a normal exam. And I’ll argue that most students forget within hours what they crammed in their head for exams….yet my students will remember their presentation for years(and for some a lifetime).

Finally, students really do know more than their parents

In my 10th grade class, students will again have their parents involved in their final exam, but this time the students will actually be leading their parents through an learning workshop. Each student will choose to lead their parent(s) through the entire process of either 1) building a small XBox game , or 2) building a small website with SQL database and data entry form. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. As any teacher will vouch, it’s one thing to do something; it’s an entirely different thing to teach someone else to do it. In preparation for the event, students spend the week before designing the entire project and practice “teaching” the entire project to a fellow student–that way when mom and dad get there, it’s not their first time. When students start to realize that they have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets, they start to dig in! And because they are all “in this together”, the collaboration that occurs during that week before is amazing. As in the previous year, students spend so much more time preparing for this than they ever would for a paper exam. The look on the faces of mom and dad when they complete the project is worth all the time and energy that goes into this. Now, when dad asks, “What did you do in Computer Science today”, he gets a dramatically different answer. That’s what I’m talking ‘about. This year, I added a small component which I really liked: students are allowed to bring in a TweetCheat: 140 characters of anything they want to have at their fingertips during the workshop…otherwise they have to lead the entire project from their head. Some use it to list steps, others to jot down hard to remember code samples, some use it for notes.

A student demonstrates her Kinect interactive simulation: a CSI crime scene investigation where you collect evidence, extract DNA, process the DNA and use that data to determine the culprit.

In the 11th grade classes, students present yet again, but this time it is to a panel of expert Venture Capitalist judges who will hear their presentations, run the projects themselves, and evaluate each student’s performance, code, and project. Students spend an entire semester working on one project (a game, activity, or simulation for the Xbox game system using Kinect, Dancepad, and/or hand controller) In a science fair-like scenario, judges tour the room spending time with each student, where students can present however they see fit depending on who the judge is. The presentation they give to a successful entrepreneur business executive is very different than the one they give to the Marketing Director of a company and even more different than the one they would give to a professional game designer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will be investing money into the projects in which they saw potential. Each judge gets $5000 that they can distribute as they like. (The panel consists of one high school senior, one alumni from our Computer Science program, one professional game designer, one game design firm marketing director, one Computer Science teacher, one math teacher, one Microsoft executive, 1 professional from the IT industry, and two successful entrepreneurs from the community. Throughout the semester, we also discuss about the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and phsycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project. Because each judge is looking for something different, students have to determine the best way to present and demonstrate. The Computer Science teacher wants to hear about the challenges they faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the storyline of the project, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the game, the college student wants to hear how they programmed their game, etc. At the end of the evening, just for fun, we announce how much venture capital investment money each project received. What we see is that an average project with a great presentation can be effective…and in the same sense a really great project with a mediocre presentation can be ineffective. We try to help students have well-done, unique projects and that they determine the best way to present to each judge.

Some of the most amazing projects we’ve had over the year are:

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • Track and Field simulation with the player actually running down the track as they answer questions about history.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • SAT Vocabulary Practice using the Dancepad.
  • A discus throwing motion analysis program complete with demonstration videos.
  • A bow and arrow hunting game where you are hunting math problems as they fly across the sky.
  • A air piano style of music maker where you use your hands in the space around your body to play music

But, were these really exams?

Well, if we define exam as a culminating experience that requires students to bring in what they’ve learned and apply that to use it in new ways; if we define exams as a rigorous experience which really “tests” to see if students have learned the material and requires them to demonstrate that understanding; if we define exams as a chance to synthesize a large quantity of information….if the allow ourselves to let the exam itself be a learning experience which is actually something students look forward to and enjoy and take great pride in….

Then I’ll argue our exam not only meets all those criterion, but exceeds them. Students will spend 2-3 times longer preparing for this kind of effort than they would “studying” for a traditional exam. And because they cannot cram for this; because they can’t fake it; because we are not asking them to regurgitate a bunch of words but use them as a vocabulary to demonstrate , teach, and explain; because they are forced to create an entire presentation , it allows us to bring creativity, expression, visual, presentation, written, motion, language arts, fine arts, and Computer Science together in true cross curricular nature

The exam itself is a learning experience on its own.

Imagine if every exam they took was like that? I imagine the impression people have of exams would be very different than what most people have.

I’m getting a few hundred hits per day on this BLOG, so I know there are people from around the country (or world) reading this right now steaming with disagreement and anger, full of reasons why their objective multiple choice exam is better than this…still grasping onto the coat-tails of a long since outdated & shredded & broken & ineffective exam process. And this in-your-face BLOG post like this is not going to persuade them.

But, do I believe there are teachers, administrators, political leaders, community members,……even students out there who think there is a different way to look at education.

If something you read here makes sense, we should connect.

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The Changing of the Nerd

Finally being a nerd is cool. Being a nerd is marketable, profitable, and even sexy. It’s also finally realistic and advantageous and certainly needed by society.

oldcomputerThere was a time where access to electronic and digital tools was non-existent for “regular” folk; using electronic tools to collect and analyze information was not something you or I could reasonably do; the cost of gadgets and digital equipment was so high that only elite scientists, hard core engineers, prestigious universities, government agencies, and large corporations could even afford it, much less use it. Being part of the world of science, research, and discovery was just not possible for the layman.

But over the last few decades, our world had changed. You can send in a swab and get a DNA analysis in 2 weeks. Most people have more electronic gadgetry in their houses than the US Government had total in 1945. My phone can analyze my brainwaves while I sleep. Your wristwatch has more capacity than the computers that helped get us to the moon in the 1960s. We’ve gotten better at manufacturing, which means the quality and quantity of instruments, toys, tools, and gadgets are better, cheaper, and easier to find. So more and more people suddenly have access to a world they never did before. So we’ve seen what used to be only found in university research labs now available at Best Buy and Walmart.

tech gadgetsAs I look around my house as I write this, I see a 32” LCD TV, an Apple TV, a computerized telescope that can pinpoint a galaxy 200,000,000 light-years away, and my son playing FIFA soccer on his smartphone on a screen that is clearer than his eye can actually interpret. I see a cable modem which connects my house to a network that goes across the entire globe called the World Wide Web (that still amazes me!). I see a device which lets me change the channel or volume of my TV without any physical wiring. I see a camera which records 4 hours of live video as I run my obstacle-course races. I see 3 laptops that can each hold over 1 TB of data which, by the way, is more than the entire internet in 1991. In just 15 years the internet has gone from a single webpage to hundreds of millions of websites today. My 11-year old daughter commands her own digital device with more confidence than her 2 grandparents.

My point? Science and technology is main stream. Anyone can see it, afford it, buy it, make something with it, design/redesign with it, sell it, and use it to learn and discover. And because of this–everyone does! It’s normal to have the same gadgets which, in another time, would qualify you to be king/queen of the nerds but now it just makes you cool…I mean normal.

Think about it. Kids all over the world woke up Christmas morning and screamed with joy when they opened up their new smartphones under the tree. Dad smiled enthusiastically at his new 10” tablet with an accelerometer. Mom loved her new GPS unit for her electric car, and grandparents took hundreds of pictures with their new wireless digital cameras which posted automatically to their Facebook account. It’s cool to be excited about nerd toys.

interMy son Cade and I went to go see a movie, Interstellar, built around the idea of time dilation due to gravity near a black hole. He says it was the best movie he’s seen in 5 years. (If you also loved that, read THIS best selling book.) Most people don’t even know who Alan Turing is, yet there is a top movie The Imitation Game made about his life. Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most talented scientists in history, has a movie made about his life. He did not invent the car or airplane or some other item which we can all relate to–he studies black hole event horizons and theoretical physics. And who did not either read the biography of or see the movie about Steve Jobs, CEO of a big software hardware company we all know as Apple? Bill Gates might be more popular than the most famous professional athlete. Mark Zuckerberg broke out of the nerd shell by being the focus of a blockbuster “The Social Network” which was seen mostly by non-nerds. Barnes and Nobles has an entire section in the magazine area dedicated to gadgets and devices. girls with technology(comons wikipedia) I know several of my non-techy-friends’ kids got Lego Robotics kits to explore and they were on cloud 9 (get it? Heehee). My daughter loved spending some of her Christmas money on the professional version of Minecraft for her iPhone, so she could design interactive 3D worlds on her iPhone to share with her friends. Uhm…hello…did I just say a socially minded 6th grade girl spent her money on an app that she used to design interactive 3D worlds? Yes I did. That’s my girl. minecraft-v2My department’s middle school teacher, Bob Irving, is bringing Minecraft programming into his 7th and 8th grade curriculum this spring. In fact, his Minecraft club is the largest club in the middle school and they are currently designing our entire school campus in Minecraft. Over 90,000,000 people in 180+ countries joined the Hour of Code movement and wrote their first computer program.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are there. The world is officially different. Kids of today for the first time ever are truly living in a world that is fundamentally unlike the world in which we grew up. What used to be the world of the nerds is now called life of a typical person.

Why is that important? Because it means that we are now going to have a wide variety of people entering the world of science and discovery who may not have before. The gadgets we have had over the last several decades were created by one type of stereotypical person, but now we are seeing people of all colors, religions, races, and genders enter this world thinking differently. They will find things we have not yet found. They will look at problems with a new twist. They will create and design with different goals. They will bring into the world that which has not yet been brought simply because they CAN.

In the beginnings of the digital age, we saw the world of users of technology. Now, we enter into a new world of creators. If you thought that the world had changed dramatically in your own lifetime—get ready…we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

The world of the nerds has just become the normal everyday world that we are all part of it. Our schools are finally starting to embrace this instead of fighting it. STEM education is becoming something that is not just extracurricular, but a core component of education. Parents are starting to demand that schools have this as a fundamental part of their child’s education. Computer Science is finding its way into classrooms in every country, at every grade level. Students are signing up for classes and entering degree programs in engineering, technology, and science fields unlike any other time in history.

Yep. We have arrived. And as a Computer Science teacher in high school and at the leading edge of the charge, I am loving every second of it.

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better. If something I said here makes sense to you, then we should probably connect. Find me.

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