Archive for August, 2015

So you think you want to be a computer science teacher? Part 2.

August 23, 2015

Yesterday I spent four hours trying to get my computer clocks to sync with the domain controller.  I had a new dc built (the old one was Server 2003) and it would not sync with time.windows.com.  After an hour of Googling and tinkering the time sync started working.  Still not sure why.  Then tried to get the old dc to sync with the primary.  Another hour.  Again it works but I do not know what I did to start it.  Another hour to get my desk computer to sync with the dc.  I tried to manually sync one of my non-domain computers with time.windows.com.  No go.  I bring the laptop home and POOF, it syncs.  I think I have something funky going on with my firewall.  I have had two pros look at it and they see nothing wrong.  It could be the Charter modem doing something strange.  I will plug into it directly next week and see what happens.

Having the right time seems trivial.  It is not.  All sorts of things want the time to be the same through the network or nasty little warnings pop up.  The dcs have to be time syncing or they do not want to sync data.

Alfred Thompson had a post “So you think you want to be a computer science teacher?”  In a small school you do not just teach computer science.  You teach CS (and likely something else), you are maybe the IT department and you are possibly the person that knows all about everything related to computers.  Yup, everything.

You write the CS curriculum.  Think you are going to walk in the door and teach APCS out of the APCS cookbook to computer geeks that love computers and CS?  Think again.  Those APCS kids had to come from somewhere and there is no nifty freshman CS1 or CS2 or CS whatever cookbook for teachers.  Also not a large choice for textbooks.  If you wanted textbooks you should have become a math teacher.   You also have to decide what the heck CS even is.  It is not just teaching programming.  That would wayyy to easy.  What the rest is and how far you should go in high school is to be determined.  The present consensus is warm and fuzzy.  You spend a lot of time in Google looking for ideas and knowledgeable advice.  You take to blogging in the hope you make some good contacts that give you good ideas.  You get on a first name basis with people in the local university CS department in the hope you can get help from them creating a good direction for your courses and your students.  The Education department?  They showed you how to use a Smartboard didn’t they?  Isn’t that CS?

You are also the defacto computer expert (and if you are not careful the cell phone, school phones, copy machine, cable TV, VCR machine, school bells and anything else that uses electricity expert).  I do not care what your degree and transcripts say you did in college.  You are the IT person.  “Computer expert” means firewalls, servers, switches, wireless, anti-virus, content filters, grading software (hours of fun there) and anything else that might have to do with a computer.  You advise the administration on things that can be very expensive and critical for the future of the school.  (No pressure there!)  Oh, you are also the software expert.  You will be on a first name basis with a Quickbooks support guy named Fred with an Indian accent.  The IT training program consists of an intimate relationship with Google.

Oh, and forget about that 8 to 3:30 day.  Teaching CS take about 3 times as much prep time as any other subject (except maybe English but then English teachers are gluttons for punishment).  Remember you are designing almost all your own assignments.  And do not forget you are the IT department.  Things go haywire with computers during the day for no logical reason.  They get fixed after school or on the weekend.  And if the internet goes down just forget about anything in your life until it gets back up.  In the middle of class?  Tough, you are out the door.

There is no doubt about it, being a Computer Science teacher is fun.  You are never bored, you are always learning something new, there is always something you should be doing, you are usually the department head (usually there is just you in the department) so you can go almost any direction with your curriculum, there is always some new gadget to play with, there are great people out there that are interested in what you are doing and want to help you with what you are doing and, best of all, it is always changing.  Why would a teacher not want to teach CS?  OK, so there is a bit of an issue with job availability.  There is also a bit of a problem getting certified or getting an education in teaching CS.  And there is definitely no education program for school IT.  Details.

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Flipped Programming

August 9, 2015

Here is the first programming assignment of the year for my Programming II/III kids.  We are going to walk to the nearest traffic signal and discuss what it would take to write a program to simulate a traffic light functioning: 3 different color lights, crosswalk button, two directions, countdown timer on the crosswalk and whatever I and the kids see.  This idea sort of came to me last week in Oregon after a day of mountain biking.  One of the people I was with sort of just triggered it.  Initially I thought the exercise a bit trivial; a timer, a counter and a sensor.  I started thinking what I would write this in.  Then it hit me, the exercise should not be the traffic program, the exercise should be what to do it with in the way of a language or a hardware.  Initially I was thinking of using the Arduino; little LEDs and a button and actually make an operational signal, but then it hit me again, this can be done with all sorts of things.  Digital simulation with lights on a monitor and a keyboard press.  Inputs could be signal duration depending on speed limit of the streets at the signal and traffic volume.  Another solution could be with Lego Mindstorms and the old railroad semaphore type signals.  The problem has now changed from having a solution (a language the kids are supposed to learn) with me trying to dream up a problem to use it with, to here is a problem, now how should we solve it?  Want real lights?  What do we have that will give us real lights?  Want just a graphical simulation?  What do we need in a language to get an interesting graphic?

I am trying to get my programming classes to evolve from strictly a programming class with a selected language to more of a computer science class with a set of problems that need solutions that computers can help with.  I am finding this is not easy.  A Programming I class simply does not have a clue as to what tools are available to work with or how difficult some tools are to use.  At the moment Programming 1 is “Here is Scratch, here is what we are going to do with it.”  I want to reverse that.  I want “Here is what we want to do, now let’s find something to do it with.” The list of possible somethings at this level limits the possibilities.  I think I need to focus more on the pseudo-code approach at this level.  I just need a way to make it interesting.  Simple games like Lights Out are very good for pseudo-coding and just plain thinking about.  A very simple game to play and yet requires some excellent problem solving.

Over the years my usual strategy to get kids interested in programming, and as an off shoot CS, was through games and game writing languages.  Overall I still think this is a good strategy for some kids.  The problem solving I am after is there but I still want to broaden their thinking, especially in the upper level kids.  I still have to keep the class interesting to attract kids, it is still an elective that can die if it gets a reputation of being boring or excessively difficult.  With the upper level kids I have a bit more flexibility, they are already invested and hooked.

Now I need to start looking at exercise ideas for kids to consider and build on.  I have a few that I have used previously but they are a bit geeky; one involves searching Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the nth Sonnet or how many times the word xxx is used (uber-geeky but cross curricular), another involves computing the nth term of various Taylor expansions (real geeky but again cross curricular).  I need to get ideas that are not quite so geeky.

 

Mountain biking this week

August 5, 2015

I am in Oregon this week mountain biking.  Three friends and I are doing the McKenzie River Trail and some of the other area trails.  The McKenzie river trail is a bucket list trail for mountain bikers.  We did it today.  The first 5 miles is this flowy, smooth high speed thing.  Absolute heaven.  The middle 10 miles had moments of heaven and moments of hell.  The McKenzie river area is volcanic.  For long stretches the trail is lots and lots of very nasty sharp volcanic rock.  Extremely technical riding.  If you fall you bleed a lot.  Lots of hike-a-bike for those of us not into bleeding.  The last 15 miles is back into heaven.  We did 30 miles today in about 6 hours.  Wasted is the word.  The last 15 miles was so fun I simply did not want to stop.  I should have stopped more.  Explains the wasted.  I am so tired from trying to keep up with the 20 something speed demon that is with us I am falling asleep typing this.  I really need to learn to act my age.  Nah.  No fun in that.  Ibuprofen is cheap and has only a few bad side effects.  I only have to survive 2 more days of riding and one of my friends can drive home while I am passed out in the back seat.

When I get back it is back to the techie world again.  Tuesday I have a consultant building a new domain controller for the school.  The old one is Server 2003 and is starting to have issues.  The new one will be Server 2012 and getting the two to share may be fun to watch.  I also have to figure out what I am going to do with my programing classes and figure out what Math II is all about.  I taught Math II several years ago but cannot remember exactly what is in the course.  Math II should be easy to plan.  We have a curriculum.  Programming is another issue completely.  We have no curriculum.  I wing it depending on who is in the class.  A couple of the kids took my Python course as sophomores.  They are going to retake it for college credit.  (Sophomore are not eligible for college credit in dual credit courses.)  So I need to rewrite the course so they are not doing the same stuff we already did.  This wil require that I think and plan.  No fun.  The fact that they are already ahead of the game will let me do some off the wall stuff (Project Spark anyone?) so I think we can have some directed fun.  Teaching programming just allows so many directions.  It is really hard to do something that is not worthwhile for the kids going on to college with it.  Make them think and solve.  That is all I have to do.

Time to pass out.  Old men need their sleep.

Fly fishing

August 2, 2015

The wife and I went fly fishing on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River yesterday.  The Middle Fork is the southern border of Glacier National Park.  One of the teachers I work with is a professional guide during the summer and she offered us a float.  The wife is getting into fly fishing, she is in charge of the Trout Unlimited kid’s camp here in western Montana.  So of course off we went.  The wife had a blast.  I had fun.  The fish were not big but they were hitting and good fighters.  The wife landed maybe 15, I was more in the 8 count but I had the biggest.  Now I like fly fishing but I am not psycho about it.  The wife and our guide are near psycho about it.  Our guide teaches so she can fly fish.  My wife wants to retire and fish across the nation.  Me, I would rather go mountain biking.

The scenery was cool, the river was cool and being with the wife when she was having so much fun was even cooler.