A.I. in K-12

I just spent two days at a grassroots conference in Arlington, VA with people from around the country and overseas. It was called “Teaching A.I. in K-12”, a subgroup of AAAI 2019 Fall Symposium series. The 75 members at the conference were researchers, college professors, K-12 educators, industry experts, software developers, A.I. programmers, business owners, change agents in diversity, and non-profit leaders. Anyone who could bring added value to the conversation was there. Kudos to the AI4K12 Initiative team

  • David Touretzky, Carnegie Mellon University (chair)
  • Christina Gardner-McCune, University of Florida (co-chair)
  • Fred Martin, University of Masachusetts Lowell, past CSTA board chair
  • Deborah Seehorn, CSTA

that put this conference together. It was one of the most well run, well planned, and well received conferences I have attended.

A few interesting takeaways from the conference…..

A group of young women from Moldova, in Eastern Europe, built a crowd-sourcing app to help residents of their country access safe drinking water sources. In a country with a high rate of water-borne Hepatitis A, this app has the potential to make an enormous difference in the countrys public health.

Safe Drinking Water

Hal Abelson, creator of App Inventor talked about a new vocabulary word that has been missing from the conversation in Computer Science. Many of us in project-based learning Computer Science classes also believe in this: the idea of Computational Action….as an extension to Computational Thinking. The idea that producing an actual artifact using learned tools is as vital as the learning itself. Not that either is better than the other, but that they complement each other. He talked about some girls in school who developed an app for their community which helped local residents identify places where fresh water could be found.

That was cool because it addresses the pedagogical side of CS and A.I. education.

Inherent ethical issues with facial recognition. It assumes good training and model creation.

Now, let me describe the coolest lunch ever. Remember the kinds of people who I said was attending the conference? What that leads to is real conversations and discussions happening from sun up to sundown, all day long for 2 days. I sat there with 8 people from around the world (Brazil, France, US, Canada, and U.K. ) all from different backgrounds, jobs, cultures, educational philosophies, interpretations and understandings of A.I….and we talked about the ethics behind A.I., the practical applications, the strengths and weaknesses, what we were afraid of and what we were excited about. It was exactly the type of discussions we should behaving in all disciplines. For education in any discipline to have relevance, it has to be connected to the real world. The goal of this conference was to do just that: to figure out what A.I. looks like in K-12 education.

NSF Program Director, Chia Shen, jokingly put up an empty slide and said she wanted to share with us some details about the current research in A.I. K-12 education. Then she said, “Thank you”. There is no research. We need it. We need people to explore, experiment, create, build, define, understand…not only A.I. , but how we get A.I. into the hands and minds of the current generation. Microsoft presented about an amazing STEM collaboration with NASA they are letting students use live data and big data along with data science. Data Science is yet another discussion we need to be having but with our math teachers; it needs to be part of the core math curriculum.

In A.I. and M.L., we have a chance to help define what is taught, when it is taught, and why it is taught. But equally important, if not more important, is that we are also having the discussion of how it is taught. We are talking about pedagogy as a forethought, not as an afterthought.

What we have found out in K-12 with Computer Science is that it is received best when students are interacting with it through hands-on projects in student-centric learning environments. The various technologies that we use to are so engaging and interactive that students respond best when their learning reflects that same energy. The entire CS AP Principles, one of the most successful curricular rollouts ever, embraces this philosophy. We can extend that into A.I.

So where are we with A.I. in K12? It is clear that challenges we face involve the lack of tools, the high level of math needed to understand the algorithms, access by underrepresented student populations, a general understanding of what A.I. and M.L. (machine learning) are, the ethical dilemmas that are inherent in M.L., and the programming skills needed to implement A.I.

I am studying A.I. and M.L. every free moment I have. I am exploring it with my students in my CS classes at school. I am reading books, articles, taking classes, partnering with A.I. professionals, going to A.I. conferences, presenting about A.I. , and trying to understand something that was not really even accessible or even practical to know until a few years ago.

The AI4K12 Initiative has proposed a set of 5 big ideas in Artificial Intelligence modeled after the 7 Big ideas in Computer Science. A.I. and C.S. must be core subjects in our schools in the same ways as language, math, and science. And not just a senior elective, but as a regular part of school K-12. There has to be common knowledge and understanding that the average person understands; we cannot let A.I. be A.I. for the academic elite, it has to be A.I. for all(or at least many).

Some of the ideas I talk about here I also address in my book, if the topic of project-based CS interests you.

The conversation has started. Go get a book, take a class, read an article, watch a Youtube video, type in a few lines of code, or simply ask a question. Get started….


A few cool things you can check out

What ethical dilemmas are in A.I? http://moralmachine.mit.edu/ and https://towardsdatascience.com/how-ethical-is-facial-recognition-technology-8104db2cb81b

What is A.I. and can I explore and experiment with it? https://teachablemachine.withgoogle.com/

Wanna really dive deep in Neural networks? Yep, check this out.


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Black Friday in Computer Science: 50% off!

This CS post is for non-Computer Science folks who are stuck on the couch ‘cause they ate too much and are tired from shopping.

So, in addition to the new smart TV you bought at Walmart for 50% off, did you know 50% off also applies to COMPUTER SCIENCE?

Get your CS nerd hat on, sit back, and enjoy a few moments.

One of the cool things we do in programming is something called sorting and searching. It is used behind the scenes in many of the activities YOU use daily. For example, when you search something on Amazon and then you can sort the results by price, quality, or ratings. When you go to the library and look up the new Jack Ryan book in the online search tool. Old timers will remember we used to use a card catalog in the library to look those up! Those same old timers also remember when we sent holiday cards, we had an address deck where we could scroll through our list of addresses. CD music lovers might sort their music collections by band name or album total. Teenagers scroll (i.e. search) through the music tracks on their phone looking for their favorite tune while studying. My brother has every Disney DVD movie EVER made in a huge bookcase in the playroom. I am sure he sorts it alphabetically.

For faster searching, the fact that the things we are searching are in order makes a difference, otherwise we are just going through randomly 1 by 1 asking repeatedly “is this it?” “No”, “is this it?” “No”, “is this it?” “No”, “is this it?” “No”, “is this it?” “No”. If they are in no particular order, we might find it on the first try, or it might take us until the last one. Right?

Let’s go one step further….if my brother is looking for the Frozen DVD, he can scan the movies and quickly zero in on that DVD. If he sees Cinderella, he knows Frozen is to the RIGHT. If he sees Maleficent, he knows it is to the LEFT.

Does that make sense?

Lets get even more efficient

Searching for your Frozen DVD should not take too long

Say my brother has 1000 DVD movies. And I challenged him to only look at 10 titles TOTAL, while searching(in other words, he can’t just scan across all 1000-–that would take forever), could he find the movie he is looking for quickly?

Well, yes he can. In fact, mathematically speaking, it should NEVER take more than 10 “looks”.

This is the idea behind binary searching. Each time we ask “is this it?”, we can eliminate a bunch of ones that we know are not it.

In fact, each time we can reduce by 50% ! OH YEAH!! It’s Black Friday in Nerdtown

Here is how it works (aka: the algorithm):

Within the collection of (pre-sorted) DVD movies, always find and look at the title in the exact middle. If the title is “less than” that middle title, then we know that all the titles to the RIGHT are not it, so we can “discard” them. If the title is “greater than” that middle title, then we know that all the titles to the LEFT are not it, so we can “discard” them. So each time we “look”, we can discard 50% of the titles. Repeat that process with the remaining DVDs, discarding 50% each time. You will find it quickly.

If you think about it…

1000(titles to start with) -> 500 -> 250 -> 125 -> 64 -> 32 -> 16 -> 8 -> 4 -> 2 -> 1(found it)

This algorithm will work for any quantity of DVDs, each time you “look”, just keep reducing by 50% until you are down to 1. Yes, it is possible you find it before the 1.

And this is not just true at Thanksgiving, it also works at Easter time.

And old timers will recognize the phone book in this example

Anyway, just a little CS to brighten you weekend, and to save you 50%!

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NCWIT Aspirations in Computing


We are in one of the most exciting times of year in K-12 education 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 and why am I so excited?

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 academic career in high school, possibly even at the college level, and better yet in the business world.

Schools and districts across the country are looking at Computer Science as a vital subject as valuable as math, language, and science. Funding promotion, and investment from the government is really starting to happen. Private and public organizations like Google, Code, and Microsoft are putting their networks and resources behind the movement. 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. For decades, those voices were not part of the landscape.

Job Outlook

What we need is not necessarily more Computer Scientists, but more people who understand and can think like Computer Scientists—and are able to create with technology, not just use it. 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 buy and program their own sensors to read data. And our students in school right now are those leaders in the very near future. That is why this is so important RIGHT NOW!

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.

Encourage the females in your high schools to consider applying today.

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A.I. in the CS classroom

Over the last year, I have researched, studied, pondered, and explored what Artificial Intelligence is and what it looks like…but from the perspective in a high school Computer Science classroom. It was exciting to see several A.I. related sessions at both ISTE and CSTA, two of the leading ED Tech and CS conferences focused on K-12. In my Birds of a Feather session for AI, there were 20+ teachers interested in bringing this into their CS classes. Very promising and exciting. I’ll be anxious to see if some of the other major conferences, such as FETC,CUE, TCEA, and BETT accept A.I. in CS proposals.

So, let me first just state for the record, I am certainly not an authority in this area, so my observations are limited and my interpretations perhaps incorrect. However, I am an experienced educator comfortable and confident in exploring new technologies and developing project-based “curriculum”. Expanding that understanding is my main motivation for this post.

Detecting actual text within an image

When I looked out over the various sites, resources, books, and programs related to teaching AI in the CS classroom….what I noticed was that there is an extreme polarization. On one side, you have easy-accessible A.I. demonstrations and sampling; these are the sites that have sample AI “Demos” for you to explore such as uploading an image and it describing the contents for you, or uploading an image of a street scene, and it returning the text of all the street signs, or just picking up your iPhone and talking into it.

Determining the scene based on content objects. Is it a library, classroom, or restaurant?

We experience this type of AI interaction every day: type in any phrase into Google search and it will figure out what you meant to say and what you most likely want. Login to NetFLix and it accurately recommends other movies you might enjoy. My point being that we can USE AI now as easily as we can buy chewing gum at the gas station.

A.I. is one of those “technologies” (or use of technology) that has the potential to disrupt civilization as we know it, in the same way that air travel , the internet, and penicillin changed life and culture and possibilities. And yet here we are using it as easily as we make a phone call. But few people “get it”. Few people get the decades of math and Computer Science that have culminated in arguably the most powerful tool known to mankind in our time. We use the word “A.I.” as a punchline to a joke or a catchall phrase in a sitcom or best seller book. And yet ask 99% of the population anything about A.I. and they have no idea.

This cannot be. We cannot have a tool which we all use, yet none of us know its power, the ethical issues that are inherent, the moral issues that arise, its limitations, and its incorrectness. We don’t really know how to build things using it. We just know how to use it. And that is dangerous on so many levels.

A bit of vital background: This was exactly where we were 5 years ago with Computer Science. Since then we have made tremendous strides in getting CS to the forefront of educational discussions and policy. Schools, districts, states, and even countries are embracing the awesomeness of (and value of knowing) CS and incorporating it into their schools, in the same ways that history, math, language, and science are part. What this means is that there is finally starting to be a common vocabulary and understanding among ordinary non-cs people as well. And that is important because it is vital that the leaders and change-makers in the various industries and governments on the planet have a grasp of how CS can impact, enhance, and extend their industries and countries. We need the experts of those industries to also have an understanding of the tools and the tool-making skills needed to use technology to address and solve the problems specific to their world.

In the same way that Computer Science and technology have becomes the backbone of most industries and economies on the planet, A.I. is quickly becoming an integral part of all aspects of business and everyday life across the globe. It is crucial that leaders and contributors also have an intelligent understanding of the tools. For this to happen, that knowledge and understanding must be part of our educational system. The reason that Computer Science was inaccessible to most people for decades was because it was really built and used by the “elite.” If you were not an engineer or mathematician, then there was little chance you would have access or even the ability to use the technology. Over the decades, what truly brought computing to the desktop was the accessibility—the fact that the tools were able to be accessed by the non-elite. Educated people in a wide variety of industries and cultures started to use CS in their daily life.

Which brings us back to A.I.

We love our IPhones with Siri, but can we truly appreciate it?

This is exactly where we need A.I. to be, but not over 2 decades. We need it NOW. Yesterday, in fact. While A.I. has been around for a long time, it has really only recently become the front and center powerful tool that it is in companies. Organizations that are thriving and innovating are taking advantage of the incredible (and even amazing) capabilities of A.I. It is not a wave that is coming– it is a wave that is already around us. It’s like we’re floating around on rafts wondering why were are moving this way and that way and sometimes even flipping over, and none of us have an understanding of how currents or waves work. We are just bouncing around randomly.

But, those who succeed using technology learn to control the place of that technology by intentionally thinking about, planning, testing, researching, and implementing systems that incorporate it. That is exact opposite of just letting the technology “happen” to them. I fear we are in a place where most small businesses, and many large business, have no idea how to bring A.I. into their business models. So, with the power and speed at which A.I. is powering its way into society, we don’t really have a choice. Whether we understand it or not, it is coming. It is happening to us , and to them. It is not a matter of if, and not even a matter of when, but just a matter of fact. In some cases, it is even yesterday’s news.

The math behind A.I. can be complicated

Now, back to the current landscape of AI in CS education. The other extreme of what I see with A.I. is the highly technical “mathy” side of it. It is far beyond the typical high school student, and perhaps even beyond many college students. The point being that it is too far in the other direction to be accessible to the general population. I tried several of the tutorials and sample code sessions that let you dabble with A.I. (for example this and this) Frequently, I found myself blindly typing in code, or changing the values of some important variables, but really not knowing what I was doing, even though I had the descriptions and explanation. That experience does not translate into a high school classroom well. Students blindly typing in code with such heavy math will be of little value. One of our top math students at the school spent several months in an independent study scenario learning to program true A.I. He was our top math student and even he said he was at the edge of his understanding. I asked him to present a lesson to his CS-4 Honors class, and even lead them through a sample project. While a couple were able to keep up, for most it was a fly by.

So, what I am looking for is something in between. I am excited because at ISTE and CSTA, I found several people on that same journey. I learned of some tools which might be part of this “middle ware” that is needed. I explored some tools which let you visualize what these variables mean(Tensorflow playground). AI4K12 is leading some excellent conversations. AI-4-all is also advancing the path. Companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and IBM are making connections in the K-12 space to let these ideas be part of our academic discussions about BEFORE students are off to college. Sites such as https://machinelearningforkids.co.uk/ are the first of their kind to let students explore this world in ways that are accessible to ordinary people.(i.e. not only super techies). Companies like DeepAI and DeepStack are bridging this gap at the corporate level as well.

And this brings us back to me and my classroom for the ’19-20 academic year. What am I going to do? I am definitely going to introduce A.I. through some of those cool demos. Google Experiments has some amazing and wide-varied A.I. projects that are sure to inspire minds from any background and interest. That helps build the diversity and inclusion we seek in CS as well. Then I will let the students move along that line between the front end and back end. We will explore some of ideas and principles behind A.I. , looking at what training means, what models are and how to configure programs to create and use them. We’ll look at different types of models and the differences between them, the advantages and strengths of different types of model creation… as well as how students can manipulate the parameters that impact how those models are created. We will move from just giving students access to some of the tools that can do that….to actually writing their own code that incorporates the modeling and models they built, then use those models to make predictions/results that enable to them to create an actual product. I believe that if a student goes through an experience like that, at least they have a grasp of what this technology is, its strengths and weakness, it’ power and limitations, and its potential. I’ll tweak and modify and add and remove as I figure out what works, and as I find new and better resources.

If you see yourself anywhere along this path, let’s connect. It may be that those venturing in A.I. right now can help build what eventually others in K-12 might use in their own schools.

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We need as many Computer Science minors as we need Computer Science majors.

First, let’s recognize that there are variety of majors that fall under what I am referring to as Computer Science. Decades ago, when CS first came onto the college scene, there were few choices…maybe Computer Information Systems, Computer Science, and a few select others.

In my book, I actually listed 20+ majors that fit into what I am talking about here.

Not only has the definition of Computer Science changed, but what it is, what it is used for, how it is approached, who approaches it, how it is taught, what content is taught, and how it fits into pretty much every discipline, industry, and culture on the planet. If you ask 10 CS teachers across the world, you’ll get 10 different definitions of Computer Science. If you ask them what should be taught in Computer Science courses, you’ll also get 10 different answers. If you ask elementary school teachers what CS looks like at that level, it is dramatically different than it looks like in middle school, which s dramatically different than it look at the high school level, and then again at the college level. That is not a bad thing…in fact…I am suggesting that is a great thing! Lots of potential to reach a wide variety of people.

We need a wide variety of people studying Computer Science, especailly experts in other areas

We need diversity and inclusion in Computer Science(in fact, go watch my last BLOG post video). But more so than the obvious, we need people who think differently, think about different things, ask different questions, have different preferences, like different things, have different priorities, approach things in different ways, problem solve differently, and break down problems in different ways. We need people from different walks of life, different views points, different backgrounds, and different perspectives.

How do we do that?

We design Computer Science programs that are also attractive to people who are not Computer Scientists. We find out what motivates them and we try to incorporate that into our CS classes. Creative CS teachers know they can teach CS skills through any context using projects and examples from any topic area. Students are free to bring whatever passions they have to the CS classroom. For-loops, boolean variables, arrays, gui events, and conditional statements do not discriminate. They will help any person, from any background, address and perhaps solve any problem in any industry.

Hence my statement that we need more Computer Science minors. Hear me on this: Not in place of Computer Science majors…IN ADDITION TO. With technology and technology tools literally at the backbone core of most industries now, it becomes even more crucial that the leaders, experts, and change makers in those industries also “get” how technology works under hood. I am not talking about knowing how to install a program and click a mouse, I am talking about developing your own programs, developing your own apps, programming your own devices…..ultimately creating your own tools. I am talking about commanding the technology to do what you need it to. Folks who are drawn to those industries are the people who know the inner workings, the priorities, the hidden meanings, the rough spots, the highlights, the bumps along the road, the mountains to climb, and the hills to speed down.

We need more nurses, accountants, fitness experts, small business owners, retail managers, lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, artists, musicians, mechanics, and real estate agents…to THINK LIKE Computer Scientists. These are the people who are the experts in their fields. Highly unlikely that a Computer Scientists can come into their space and understand it at the depth needed to really solve the problems that need breakthrough digital solutions. But, what if these people had the skills and tool sets themselves?! Hmmmmmmmmmm.

And so we are right back where we started… We need as many Computer Science minors as we need Computer Science majors.

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Should we be afraid of automation?

I ran across a really interesting article, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/the-skills-needed-to-survive-the-robot-invasion-of-the-workplace/ , about the possible future of our civilization, especially due to the automation that technology is likely going to bring us.

So, there are several questions we can be asking about this as well as numerous decisions we, as as species, will need to address.

There is a term in technology called Moore’s Law, which in essence basically says that technology is going to double in power(for the same price, or even lower) every 18 months or so. And if you look at the last couple decades, we have probably even exceeded that rate. We have seen (are seeing) technology become not only a part of, but a fundamental backbone of pretty much every facet of society.

This is not necessarily a negative thing. We are able to detect, understand, fix, survive, interpret, solve, and build things in ways never thought possible. Certainly we have problems to address, but we are also bringing the standard of living, length of life, and quality of life to new levels.

But, as with anything, there are negatives as well. One of the issues that we have seen is that technology progresses at a much faster rate than humans and society. So, in some areas….what that translates to is: people(and some systems) are still years, if not decades, behind where technology is. We have good folks still doing what they have always done, in the ways they have always done it, even though technology has made tremendous advances. We have systems which used to be incredible efficient, now far outdated and to the point where they are almost irrelevant.

Am I being a bit dramatic?

Well, let’s look at a few areas as examples. How dependent upon technology are restaurants, fire departments, supermarkets, schools, and banks? If you walked into a bank and the cashier wrote your transaction on a piece of paper and took your deposit money, would you not look around questionably? If you walked into your child’s classroom and there was a chalkboard on the wall and the teacher communicated that technology is not something (s)he is interested in, would you not be asking how to transfer classes? If you walked into the New York Stock Exchange and you saw a bunch of people down on the floor waving pieces of paper over their heads, wouldn’t you look for a hidden practical joke camera? Even something as simple as eating in a restaurant, you know if your waiter brought you an old carbon copy of your credit card paperwork with handwritten prices, you would question the place.

So, we all accept, and in some cases even support, technology when it helps. When my father was in the hospital with all kinds of machines, wires, and god knows what else, there was a certain amount of comfort in knowing that his health was being monitored. In fact, the only thing he complained about was the food, which by the way was prepared by a human, and for what it’s worth, what was ordered(on a piece of paper with checkboxes) was not always the same as what was delivered.

Humans are not the best drivers

Turn on the local news in the evening and most likely you will hear a story of a terrible car accident where multiple people were injured or even killed. And that happens pretty much every night. In fact, over a million people every year die in car crashes, and a cool 20+ million suffer injuries. And yet when an autonomous car has a single accident, with a frequency thousands of times less than humans, we go crazy. Why? Interesting. Are we afraid to admit that there are some things that technology simply has a better solution than humans?

When things like artificial intelligence(A.I.) and machine learning(M.L.) enter the picture, we do have to rethink how we think about this.

The Davinci robot can perform surgery with accuracy beyond human capability

So, how do we balance this? What about all the jobs that are going to be lost to robots?(“they” say) What about all the outdated systems, technologies, and protocols that are becoming irrelevant? Do we like than an A.I. system can detect a faint hint of cancer, long before it becomes fatal? Do we value A.I. and M.L. that can detect trends in huge amounts of data that might lead to finding a cure, locating a source, understanding why, or simply improving a system? Would it be nice to be able to stop some crimes before they happen? Would it help society if we could reroute airlines in an instant when an airport has to close? If we could guide people to safer routes during evacuations and natural disasters better, is that a good thing?

So, this technology is really not so evil after all.

Just as we have throughout human history, we, the humans, have to evolve. We have to notice what is going on in the world around us, and respond. We know from history, that if it can happen, it will. If it is possible, it may very well be a reality in your lifetime. This is not Murphy’s Law, it is simply human nature…to be better, faster, stronger, more intelligent, more accurate, and more efficient.

….and that is where we have to focus.

As technology “takes away” those jobs which it can, other markets and industries open up. Other technologies come onto the scene. New protocols arise. New systems need to be designed. People have to be trained. People have to discover. People have to design. People have to research. People have to make. People have to sell. People have to buy. People have to market. People have to fix. People have to teach. Yes, it might involve us reaching out a bit from our comfort zone.

People have to evolve as we have always done…and always will

We get to be human!

So, we don’t have to be fearful of automation. It is coming…uhm….it is already here. We get to decide how to incorporate that into our lives. We get to decide how we react and respond to our world. You see, that is the key…we get to decide! We get to be creative; we get to have intuitions and gut-feelings; we get to take things into consideration that others might not notice; we get to use our emotions; we get to try crazy ideas; we get to interpret and imagine; we get to ask questions; we get to ignore something if we choose to; we get to take a chance on something; we get to ponder and wonder we get; we get to choose how and if we react.

Yep, we get to be human. Technology can never do that.

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Pockets of Awesomeness

If you only read the newspaper, watched the TV news, and listened to politicians, you’d think our schools are failing miserably and that we are not reaching our students in any of our subject areas, especially Computer Science.

I am here to say otherwise.

Now, I’m not an idiot(friends: do NOT respond to that), I get that there are some things we need to be doing differently in some areas and there are some schools that do need some new directions, but I am here to tell you that there is AWESOMENESS happening in our schools.

How do I know this?

Well, if you are an educator, then you likely take advantage of some much needed summer downtime to go to conferences and workshops to connect with colleagues and peers, hear some new ideas, share best practices, explore some new ways of thinking, learn something new and refreshing, and check out new technologies.

As a board member of CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association), I get to help with our annual conference and so have been in Omaha, Nebraska (by the way, a very cool place….I would have never have known that) for a few days interacting with fellow teachers from across the world. As with many conferences….there are a few days of great sessions, panels, and workshops to choose from. I have heard success stories, seen demonstrations, experimented with new technologies, shared email addresses, tried new products, and interacted with leaders in education.
There are several things in common with pretty much everyone I have interacted with here:
They are so excited to be here
They are so eager to connect with fellow CS educators
They are eager to give send you any materials, curriculum, or research that they have created
They are so interested in engaging with students in new and different ways
They are full of ideas and love to talk about them
They want to hear your ideas and help you brainstorm
They are eager to share successes (and yes, failures as well)
They are excited to show you how something works
They are more than happy to explain something to you
They are doing amazing things in their classrooms and schools
They are proud to be part of a huge movement called Computer Science…yes it is actually a movement as much as it is a discipline

So, there are over 700 educators at this conference, which means that there are hundreds of schools across the country and overseas that have awesome teachers, doing awesome things, with no other agenda than to educate the students in our schools.
So, instead of listening to news anchor tell you a story of some terrible situation at a school, find a real teacher that you know and ask him/her to tell you about some of the cool things they are doing in their classroom. But, make yourself comfortable…we teachers love to talk about our students.

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Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

I am not big on standardized tests and traditional paper 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 actually do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, app 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 demonstrate-show-describe-present about what they’ve learned. They dress business professional and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. We usually get 100% parental attendance! So, we’ll have 50+ parents and 30+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, apps using audio and voice recognition, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged to ask lots of questions and find out “why” in addition to the “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, community leaders, 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 many more time and energy preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for an 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). Ask any student in our CS program about their 9th grade presentation.

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 in C#, or 2) building a small website with HTML and CSS. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so the pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. In fact, they have to submit a sample of their teaching for part of their exam. 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. They have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets! 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 actually 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.

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, test 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. But 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 or engineer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will invest $5000 as they like. (The panel consists of community leaders, academic institution leaders, alumni, professional game designers, marketing directors, Computer Science and math teachers, business executives, and other professionals from industry. Throughout the semester, we also discuss the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and psycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project and industry. 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 faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics and user interface of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the back story, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the experience, 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. For the judges, this may be the first time they have experienced a true 3D interactive motion controlled simulation, so students have to be excellent teachers as well.

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

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • A interactive music maker where you use your hands to play and actually hear different instruments
  • A program which monitors subtle body gestures as a person practices a speech
  • A system that leads a person through a series of physical tests to be used in concussion analysis
  • A physical therapy & self-rehabilitation system that leads a person through a series of specific stretches and injury recovery movements.

But, were these really exams, you might ask?

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.

Interestingly enough, pretty much every vocabulary word, concept, and skill that we learned and used during the semester is a part of these interactive experiences. In order to present to their truly authentic audiences, they HAVE to KNOW it! Isn’t that what we say we want in our exams?

The un-engaging multiple choice, fill-in-the blank, true-false exam is a long since outdated, shredded, broken, and ineffective tool. It doe not serve our students well. And saying it prepares them for college is simply passing the buck. But that can’t be why we give exams. So, why then do we actually give exams?

As an educator of 20+ years in public and private education, I am certain of 1 thing :

What we say we do in our exams is far different than what we actually do.

Here is what we say we do: Our exams allow students to consolidate the knowledge and learning from the whole class, synthesize and interpret it. They are able to look at the content as a whole instead of individual chapters. They will use the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy to apply their learning.

Here is what we do: Study the old tests and quizzes. Here is the study guide.

Why would we even need to give an exam study guide? Anything ever discussed, read, or done as a part of class is what students need to understand. Everything is therefore important. Hopefully all along the journey it has been cumulative, in both our evaluation and application; an exam should not be their first experience with lots of content.

Why are we so stuck on traditional paper exams? What are we afraid of?

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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Computer Science K-12: Imagining the Possibilties

Whew! It has been a long year. While I have enjoyed the journey, it has been a great deal of work. If you know me, I have a lot of ideas, so trying to get them all into a single book was a HUUUUUUGGGGGGGEEEE challenge! But, alas, it came together and Amazon posted the book live! Who might value reading it?

Here is a video version of this post

I see 3 main target audiences

1) Teachers new to CS or who have found themselves being asked to teach a CS class. In the book are lots of resources and ideas for you to think about as you make those first steps. Lots of examples and even some case studies from other teachers

2) Schools and decision makers who are still trying to figure out if/when/how Computer Science even fits into their offerings. I spend time in the book describing exactly what Computer Science is, citing numerous examples of what it looks like in the real world, as well as what it might look like in education. Part of the reason why we are struggling to figure this out is simply lack of understanding, or misunderstanding. I think once people see what it really is, they will “get” why it is crucial.

3) The experienced CS teacher who is just not getting the response from students and not seeing the engagement that he/she knows he/she should be getting. Our CS classrooms should reflect the same dynamic, interactive, and involved spirit as the technologies we are using. This is where my program has had tremendous success and we have seen our program grow 6X in size!

OK, who is this guy, Doug Bergman? Is he even qualified to write a book? (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaxjWSotoZo

What exactly is the book about(podcast): https://www.teachercast.net/mie-podcast-s2e3-doug-bergman/

Where can I buy the book?

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The Elephant in the room.

Like many of you, I watched the CEO of Facebook, Marl Zuckerberg, respond to questions from a series of politicians on Capitol Hill. I was embarrassed for my country on several levels. First, the grandstanding “big words” by the politicians towards Facebook and Zuckerberg was disgusting and laughable. The lack of technological intelligence and understanding displayed by our leaders was shocking and at times, even sad. These are the men and women elected that we are supposed to look up to, to look to for guidance, policy and leadership in politics, business, and economics. Most did not even know what questions to ask.

It is 2018. Technology is no longer this “new thing” that the older generation can’t figure out. It is no longer a trend that is going to “destroy society.” It is no longer something that is going to warp the minds of our youth. It Is no longer OK for us to talk about whether or not to incorporate it into our classrooms. It is as fundamental to our culture and society as electricity, transportation, and water.

What we saw on TV during the last couple days on Capitol Hill was a wakeup call.

Yes, there were some members of Congress who were informed and knowledgeable but most were not. There were times Mark had to water down his answers so the audience behind the microphones could understand his points. He had to explain what his answers meant several times. There was an elephant sitting right there. I am pretty sure Mark saw it, but most people wandered through the discussion with blinders on.

People. Stop. Just Stop it. Right Now! Stop!

Yes, Facebook was guilty of serious ethical and possible legal (?) violations. And while it was not Mark who signed off on the privacy right infringements, ultimately, it is his company and his fault (as he said). And I am glad that there is accountability and action and investigation so that this type of event might not happen again. Yes, FB screwed up. As others have and others will.

That is not my point.

My point is that we, as a country, must understand more about the devices that we have in our hands, on our desks, and in our offices. Technology in all of its various forms, and the Computer Science that drives that technology MUST start to become “common” vocabulary. Most of the people in that room, especially the ones with ‘tough” questions and ultimatums, had no idea what most of the terms meant were that were being used.
How about all of you? How technological “intelligent” are you? Did you understand the business and technological verbiage being used? Are you a user of technology who barely understands it? Do you just use whatever is popular and what icons come up first? When that technology breaks, do you look helplessly around the room hoping something there is someone there who “gets this new technology?” When the sound does not play on your laptop, do you just suffer without audio until a tech savvy friend comes to your rescue? When the projector in your room says “no input”, do you toss your hands up and tell students that you hate technology? When Wi-Fi goes out at your house, do you have to wait a week for Comcast or AT&T to come out to fix it? When you get that new printer, do you have to pay Uncle Joe or Aunt Cindy to install it? Is the only time when you read books when the TV screen is broken? Do you know what Cloud computing really is?

As a people—as a community—as a country— we have to do better. We have to take ownership of our technology. We need to better know what it is, what it is capable of, what is amazing about it and also of course why we should be careful. We need to understand how it works, what we can do with it, how we can maximize its benefit, but also know it’s limitations. We need to be able to modify, upgrade, program, downgrade, enhance, fix, reset, and yes—even turn on and off our technology. We need to be able to talk about our technology with others in the same ways we talk about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs; in the same way we talk about the cell, an amoeba, and photosynthesis; in the same ways we talk about the Great Wall of China, Civil War, and Great Depression. In the same ways we talk about x = 3, Pythagorean theorem, and area of a circle; in the same ways we talk about deficit and surplus.

Some of you might say, “I don’t understand how my car works, and yet I get around just fine. Why is technology any different?” Yes, but if your car breaks down in the driveway, it just means to have to get a ride to work while Precision Tune fixes your car by lunchtime. Life will go on uneventfully. If our technology fails, or the technology company fails us, or our access to the technology is severed…our business come to a complete standstill. Airplanes don’t fly. Presentations do not happen. Votes are not counted. Transactions are not processed. Products are not made. Vital communication is not sent. Boxes are not delivered. Information is lost. Identities are stolen. It matters.

So where does it start?

In addition to students of today being users of technology, we need them to be creators who build things with technology, who use that technology to create new tools to identify problems that we were not even aware of and solve those problems in ways we could never imagine.

In our schools. Computer Science needs to be a core and integral part of education from the moment students walk into the school house. They are learning to operate and command their technology in the same ways they command a pencil to help them write sentences. They need to be writing as many software programs and apps as they are essays. As often as they are experimenting with test tubes in the chemistry lab and dissecting various critters in the biology lab, they need to be experimenting with robotic sensors and figuring out how to increase the storage capacity of their laptop. In addition to charting the data they collected in their physics lab, they need to figuring how to store and process the billions of bytes of data collected from their project.

We don’t need them to become Computer Scientists, in the same ways we don’t expect them to be become museum curators or poets, but yet we study poetry and history. But we can help them think like Computer Scientists. This wave of Computer Science is not some distant ripple out in the lagoon that may or may not make landfall. It is here. It is all around us. And we need not be afraid of this. We can embrace it. We can surf this wave for decades. But, first we need to understand what Computer Science it, so we can then figure out where and how it fits into education.

In the coming weeks, I have a book coming out called “Defining and Imagining Computer Science K-12” that might just be what we need to take those first steps to be a more intelligent audience, so that Mark Zuckerberg does not have to dumb down his answers so the general public can understand them.

In the meantime, enjoy Mark’s testimony on Capitol Hill.

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