Archive for May, 2014

Computer Science in Montana Schools

May 27, 2014

This is by far my favorite topic to get excited about.  Getting things set up for the CSCI 135 Java dual-credit course for next year got me started again.  The person I am coordinating this class with is a friend from the university.  He is just starting to delve into the issue of CS in Montana high schools and asked my opinion on the topic.  Let’s poke the hornets’ nest.  I positioned myself into my usual meditative state (recline in chair and look at ceiling) and thunk a bit.

I see three major issues with CS in Montana high schools, and I think these carry to any high school in the US.

  1. Incentive for the schools to offer the course.
  2. Place in an already full curriculum.
  3. Shortage of teachers.

1. What incentive is there for a high school to offer a CS course?  Many administrations and teachers think of CS as a trade similar to auto shop or accounting.  Job training and not academics.  The argument is the high school claims they are preparing their students for a liberal arts college and not for a technical school.  To some extent this is true.  Most high school courses teach primarily programming.  Programming is a trade.

How about the argument that CS teaches problem solving skills?  So there is nothing else in the present curriculum that does this?  As a math teacher I beg to differ.

Some folk argue that an incentive would be that there are a lot of high paying jobs in CS.  Very few courses in high school prepare students for the job market, except for maybe auto shop and wood shop.  None of the math I teach prepares students for the job market.  They learned job math back in about the third grade.  It is fairly obvious looking at high school curriculums that high schools have very little interest in preparing kids for the job market.  If they were there would be less literature or history and more welding and computer tech.

My argument for CS sort of ties in with “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  “Those who do not know any Computer Science are doomed to be taken advantage of by those who do.”  Computers have become ubiquitous throughout the world.  They are starting to control the world.  People should know something about an element of their life with so much power over them.  Studying CS helps control the thought behind a favorite quote of mine from Arthur C. Clark, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  We cannot let American society believe in magic.

2. The list of required courses varies from school to school.  My high school requires 4 years of English, 3 Math, 3 sciences, 1 practical art (tech or business) and some odds and ends (history, art, theology).  We are considering requiring 4 years of math.  Public schools usually require 2 math and 2 science, depending on state requirements.  But how many kids interested in CS are only taking the minimums?  CS kids are usually the calculus track gang.  They are the 4 years of math, 4 science, music, etc, etc.  Squeezing another course in an already crammed schedule can be a challenge.  Kids of the caliber to take CS are usually buried course-wise and the councilor will point out to them that CS is not a requirement for any college.  Pretty much a course killer.

In Montana the majority of the schools are small, less than two hundred kids.  It is pretty hard to justify opening a new course when only 4 or 5 kids are going to take the class.  The same can be said for using valuable and scarce staff time for the course.

The only solution I can see is a shift in priority and realize that one year of CS is more important than 4 years of English or Math or Science.  With the lack of CS emphasis on University entrance requirements that is going to be fairly impossible to implement.  Heck, even as a CS proponent I am not convinced that losing one of those 4 years is a good way to go except for kids looking at CS as a college major or minor.

3. Teachers.  There are no CS teachers.  There is very little inclination by college education departments to offer a CS certification.  After all, high schools are not clamoring for CS teachers, colleges are not requiring CS from high schools for entry and there is nobody to teach the course if universities did decide to offer it.  There is also very little incentive for a prospective teacher to seek a CS certification, there are no jobs in it.

A solution is in-service training but there is the same shortage of instructors.  I do see that CS4HS ( is starting some interesting in-service like courses to get teachers that are interested in teaching CS started.  There is also a CS Principals for teachers on-line course that looks very useful.  I signed up for both since there is no in-service for CS in the state of Montana.  It seems most CS teachers learned CS on-the-fly, staying a day or two ahead of the kids (if lucky) so walking into a class with nothing but an online in-service is nothing to be scared about.  I do not think trying to teach an APCS course with this type of background is a good idea but a Scratch, Small Basic and beginning Python type course is perfectly feasible.  Give it a couple of years before diving into an APCS type course.


Getting CS into schools seems to be a very grassroots movement.  There are some political mumblings at the high government levels but it is all words, not actions.  The independent nature of the US education system pretty much guarantees any high level government decisions are lost in the system.  Grassroots movements are slow.  I really do not think the US has time for a grassroots movement.  There are too many countries with a centralized education system that have major government support for computer science education.  Unless we can get some major fertilizer on that grass the US will fall out of the competition (mowed down?) for being a CS power in the world.  That would be bad.

A true CS course for next year

May 16, 2014

Next year I would like to shift my programming course to a true computer science course.  This means finding some guidelines.  If I were doing this for a math or science course I would typically round up some textbooks and pick through them to find the stuff I like and build the course around that core.  For CS this means finding a course outline, modifying it to fit my knowledge comfort level, maybe finding a textbook to use as a guide and deciding on some objectives.  CS has a little problem; textbooks are scarce and no one can seem to agree on what ”Computer Science” consists of.   I have never really taught a CS course, it has always been a programming course.  The reason I am looking at this now is I will be offering a dual-credit Java course next year.  The university course is one semester, I will do the same course in one year.  So this gives me lots of time to do a real CS course.  The extra time is because the average university student carries a much lighter load than one of my school’s students and therefore the college course is much higher paced.  A college student may have 3 to 5 classes, one or two of which may be basket weaving and underwater basket weaving.  Our kids are carrying 8 classes with again 1 or 2 that are not time intensive.  So I have to go course hunting.  I am hoping Google will be good to me.

Annual self review of my Python course

May 14, 2014

It is the annual self-review time.  How good do I feel I did this year?  The teaching load was light, only two classes of Programming II with a total of 19 kids.  The rest of the time is spent doing IT work.  The second semester would have been an easy semester except for the little detail of having to learn Python faster than most of the kids.  (I say most because there are a couple that were learning it faster than I was.  One of the things I have learned with experience is that there are kids out there that are smarter than me.  The trick is to just get out of the way and let them go.)

Lessons learned:

  1. Unique assignments for each kid is a pain to grade.  I tried this in an attempt to reduce “sharing”.  It sort of worked but not enough to justify the added grading time.
  2. Most of the kids understand a lot less than you think they do.  Proper questioning technique is a solution but that still will miss some key knowledge.
  3. The kids are not as excited about programming as I am.  This is the hardest thing for me when teaching programming.  I do programming because it is fun, like doing puzzles.  Most of the kids are there because there was not another elective offered at the time slot.  One out of ten think programming is fun.  Most are not puzzle solvers.
  4. Small programming assignments with a single teaching lesson works better than a large assignment/project broken into smaller parts.  I can make a bunch of small but similar programming assignments pretty easily.  Sort of drill and practice.
  5. Do not assume that the kids remember what they did yesterday.  Most do not.
  6. Python is easy to learn but is a boring language.  I like Corona better but Corona is more difficult to learn and has considerably more overhead.  With Corona you can make a colored ball bounce around the screen.  Hypnotizing.
  7. In a dual-credit class do not attempt to keep up with the university teacher.  Most university students have a lighter work load than high school kids.
  8. Learning the language and an editor just ahead of the kids is not a good strategy.  It can be done but there are gaps that can grab you.  I had a number of “If you find out how, let me know” moments.
  9. DO NOT assume Python code is the same on Windows and Mac.  Next year no Macs in the Python course.  I had to learn two languages (very similar but different enough to really mess things up) and two editors.  Never again.
  10. A working projector is a must.  Trying to write code on the board is not so hot, especially with my hand writing.

Many items in the list are well known.  It just helps to write them down again so they get refreshed in my head again.

Right now I am considering offering a dual-credit Java course.  The dual-credit Python course gave the kids 3 General college credits.  The Java course would be 3 CS credits.  I have the text the university uses and it is extremely boring.  I am not sure I can do another semester of boring.  I want the kids to make a silly little game for their cell phone.  It is amazing how hard they will work if the objective is cool.  Making Hang-man in Python is nowhere near as cool as making Whack-a-Mole with Corona.  Right now I am considering the game “Don’t step on the white tile”.  (Look in the iTunes store.)  Looks like a Corona project candidate.  Of course this violates #4 above.  Nuts on #4.

Over all the year was a success.  Every semester I teach programming I try something different.  A new language or a new assignment or a new strategy.  Someday I will get the perfect course designed and then retire.

Professional Development and some other weird stuff.

May 9, 2014

Out of curiosity I asked one of our student teachers what the local Dept of Ed is doing in the way of computer training for prospective teachers.  He said it was a joke.  In the one class he had he was taught how to make a PowerPoint, how to do a pod cast and how to run a Smart board.  I know the teacher he had.  She has not been in a classroom in 30 years and is definitely not a tech person.  We are doomed.  I got on line and checked the other two teacher producing schools in Montana thinking that U of M might be an exception.  Nope.  MSU has a required “Society and Computers” type course and Western has a “Technology in the Classroom” required course.  Both have very warm and fuzzy course descriptions.

This little bit of query and research came about from a school tech coordinators meeting I had just attended.  Every month the school techies get together and chat about issues, some relevant, some just BS.  The topic of training our teachers to handle some of their own tech issues came up.  From there we went to teacher professional development and the lack there of.  My elementary school is purchasing Smart projectors.  At $2000 each this is a major budget out lay for us.  By the start of next year we will have 13 of them in the elementary building, which is most of the classrooms.  Now you would think that spending $2000 per device per teacher would justify spending for some teacher time for professional development.  Nope.  From the conversation with the other techs in the group this lack of budget for PD is the norm in this area, not the exception.  Why is it that administrations are so reluctant to pay for PD?  Especially tech PD?  They just spent a fortune on the hardware and now expect it to perform magic in the classroom all by itself?  Fascinating concept.  From here we wandered to state of teacher training in the area of tech.  Since there is none all we could do was complain about the lack but we actually did come up with a solution.  The solution is hire some teaching professors that have actually taught with technology and fire a bunch that have not.  Opps, tenure.  Nuts.  That plan will not work.

Now let’s do a little thinking here.  To be a university professor and teach in the education department you need a PhD of some kind, usually in Education.  Most good classroom teachers do not get PhDs because a PhD will take them away from the classroom and cost money most teachers do not have.  Teachers do not recoup that money because most school district pay scales top out at a master’s degree.  So very few teachers experienced with teaching with technology end up with PhDs teaching at a university.  So we are pretty much guaranteed that there will be little teacher tech training for prospective teachers.

Is there a solution?  Sure.  Eliminate tenure.  Retire some of the teacher ed professors who have not seen the inside of an elementary or high school classroom in 20 years.  Hire some experienced teachers through a sabbatical program to teach from classroom experience for one year.

Teacher education seems to be frozen in time.  And that time is somewhere around the 1970s.  Teacher education programs need constant updates and those updates should come from experience classroom teachers, not research oriented professors who do not know how to use teaching technology or who do not know what to do when a fight breaks out in the classroom.

And I am starting to wander something terrible here.  Must be that 12% beer I had last night.  Nectar of the Gods.  I better post this before I get started on the present state of school funding.