Archive for October, 2017

MEA days: The aftermath

October 24, 2017

I lived!  My “Teaching with Blender and Unity” presentation had 4 attendees.  About what I expected.  The number of people in Montana high schools that know want Unity is is a bit limited.  Those that know it do not need to go to a sectional about it.  The five of us had a great discussion about using tools like Unity as a method to teach with.  Good stuff.  The “Computer Programming : Free stuff is Everywhere” presentation had a full house, about 30 teachers.  Again a very interactive session.  I attended four sessions.  One of them made a major impression and is something I plan to examine in great detail.  It was on a series of CS teaching materials found at podpi.com.  The author of the program, Stephane Come, came up from Sacramento to do this presentation.  What he has written is a series of comic books (more like a magazine) on using the Arduino.  The attempt is to get away from the traditional step 1 through 10 tutorials to a more investigative approach.  I looked through a couple of the books and they look like they have major possibilities.  A kit includes a magazine and all the Arduino hardware to do the task in the particular magazine.  You start with Module “0” which includes the Arduino with components.  Each subsequent module includes the Arduino components required for the module.  At $39 per module I thought it would be worth looking at one closely.  I ordered Module “0”.  About 60 seconds after I placed the order I got an email from Stephane asking if I was in the Friday morning session.  He remembered me and said he would send Module “1” also just for me to look at.  Cool.  I want to look at these for an afterschool coding club for the 4-8 grades.  Hands on stuff and a comic book format.  What more could I want?  Less typing at the computer, more tinkering with actual hardware.

I also attended a “VR in the Classroom” session.  The presenter was a tech teacher in Missoula who has gotten into the HTC Vive VR device.  He also teaches architectural drawing and has incorporated the Vive in to his class.  The students convert their 2-D drawing into SketchUp 3-D and then import the SketchUp into a game engine so it is possible to actually walk through the house they are designing.  $600 for the Vive and another $350 for a decent video card for the computer is too rich for my blood but it does get me thinking about what is becoming possible.  I am going to have to try the SketchUp to Unity import.

One of the best and worst things about teaching CS is there is always something new and cool that is worth teaching.  Yes, teaching programming can be pretty traditional and, although languages may change, the theme is pretty much the same.  Broadfield CS on the other hand with hardware, programming, integration of software and getting things to work together that may not have originally been meant to work together is always new and exciting.  If a teacher is bored teaching CS then they are either a terrible teacher or they need to retire.  Teaching CS is more fun than a box full of puppies.

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MEA this week: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

October 17, 2017

Thursday and Friday is the Montana Educators Association (MEA) convention.  For the first time in a long time it is here in Missoula.  I rarely do out of town wingdings like this, simply not worth the travel and motel expense.    My school does not pay for any event like this.  I am presenting two sectionals.  One is “Computer Programming: Free Stuff is Everywhere”, the other is “Game Programming with Blender and Unity”.  I have given the Free Stuff presentation twice before and have it wired.  If I do not hesitate or wander too much I get it done in 55 minutes.  I get some good responses from this presentation.  It is amazing how much schools think you have to spend to teach a course in programming.  They seem to like to spend money for a mediocre programs for teaching programming when there is good free stuff out there.

This will be a first time for the “Game Programming” presentation.  It is just a summary of my observations and experiences from the last year of giving it a try.  I hope that a few more teachers will “give it a try”.  Teaching anything new in CS is always “giving it a try”.  For the Unity and Blender it is not like some kind soul has written a high school level textbook that is more than a “follow the bouncing ball and type the following” textbook.  There are a lot of tutorials like that out there and some are excellent tutorials but tutorials rarely explain in any detail why you just typed what you just typed.  And tutorials never explain any of the design behind the plan.  I just plan to discuss “here is what seemed to work and here is what did not”.  Of course I have a lot more “did nots” than “dids”.    Perhaps the biggest thing I want to point out is that a gaming course with Unity is not a good way to go if a teacher wants to teach programming.  It is more in the direction of problem solving and research (finding the right tutorial to explain what you want to do in a manner you can understand) type objective.  I sort of throw projects out there and we sort of dig up solutions.  My last project was for the kids to write a simple Google Cardboard “game” and then control the motion with a Bluetooth controller.  That is all I said.  We then look for solutions together and show each other what we found.  Like I said, not a lot of formal programming but a lot of hair pulling with trial and error.

Doing these presentations is somewhat interesting.  The first time I did the Free Stuff I was expecting like 5 attendees.  I got more like 45.  The second time I did it I figured the first time was a fluke.  Nope, I got about 30, mostly administrators.  This time I am thinking the 75 people in the state that were interested have come and gone.  I will get 5 attendees.  I will bring 45 handouts just in case.  The Free Stuff is also an 8:00 session.  That should thin out the crowd.  The 45 was a bit much.  Small room, many people, PTSD, not a good mixture.  I survived.  I like it best when teachers come and ask questions.  It keeps my mind off many people in a small room.

Montana is pretty much a CS desert.  The number of schools that offer anything other than an apps course can be counted on fingers and toes.  I hope that I can help the small schools and the teachers inexperienced in CS to “give it a try”.

CS, woodshop for intellectuals

October 12, 2017

I attended the Montana Tech Summit Monday.  Very interesting.  I have never seen so many millionaires in one room.  A Montana US Senator was running the show and the Montana US Congressman (we can only afford one) was one of the panelists.  It was not an event for teachers, it was for entrepreneurs and tech companies but there was enough there to get me thinking about my CS curriculum.  There was a number of interesting panel discussions with some threads that would apply to a high school CS teacher.  I got two big threads.  The first was the extreme shortage of tech proficient job applicants.  They cannot find enough employees anywhere that are willing to learn the skills they were offering.  These companies were not after people already trained, but after people who were trainable.  They were not after high tech skills, they were after people with the basics they could train up.  They were all offering excellent starting salaries but the people were just not there.  The second thread was they wanted people with writing skills.  That is sort of a no brainer but to have these tech companies actually say it surprised me.  They understand the importance of good communication.

This is not going to make me run out and start trying to produce professional coders out of high school but it does make me think about maybe trying to make my school’s technology requirements a bit more directed towards programming and networking.  We require two semesters of technology but if a kid takes the apps course and then the library research class they will never see coding, programming or basic hardware.  Would this be like requiring woodshop?  Sure, but why not if a basic woodshop class would open up a really large job market for the kids?  “CS, woodshop for intellectuals.”  I kind of like it.

Yes, this would be catering to the pressures of industry but maybe a little of that would not hurt.  After hearing from these high tech companies and the long-term futures they have to offer employees I need to consider the possibilities.  Somehow get more kids looking at tech majors in college.

One solution I am thinking of involves internships.  Last summer six students from my school, sophomores and juniors, did an internship with a local tech company partially owned by an alum.  Only one of the six was a techie geek.  They came back with major attitude changes in regards to what a “tech” company needs in the way of employees.  I am hoping the word may spread.  After the summit was over a number of the tech companies at the event set up tables.  I hit the lines.  I talked to four companies about high school interns.  In all four cases it was “Hum, never thought about it.  Here is my number.  Call me and let’s see what we can get set up”.  I think once kids see that a tech job does not mean becoming a code gnome in a dark room eating Cheetos in from of a computer monitor for life, interest might pick up.

Arggg, no rest for the wicked.