Computer Science on the Cheap does not always work

I teach at a Catholic school.  We are small (158 in the high school) and for a private high school we are fairly cheap ($10200 is the highest tuition but it is prorated on income) so our budget is a bit challenged.  As a result the budget for my CS program is $0. All my computers are donations or come from the Montana State recycle warehouse. All the software I teach with is free or has a free version, i.e.  Python, Visual Studio, Unity and whatever else I use. This has worked for years with very few limitations on what I teach.  

This year I have hit the hardware limit wall twice, hard. The first time was with Android Studio.  It runs on the old i3 and i5 towers and laptops I have but the emulator is dead slow. Since most of the kids have iPhones I have to use the emulator to test an app.  So the app building class I was thinking of using Android Studio in is out. No great loss, I was not looking forward to having to learn AS as it seems to be a real steep learning curve.  Still, it would have been interesting.

Yesterday I hit the second wall.  The local university’s Graphic Design department loaned me an Oculus Rift S for my Unity game class.  One of the instructors is a friend and arranged it for me. The video card requirements far surpass anything the school owns.  Bummer. I was hoping I could get a little luck and it would run on some of the older cards I have but it is not looking good. The Oculus uses Displayport.  The few cards that have Displayport are really cheap and old. But I have a solution. I thought of having a bake sale but I am a terrible baker and do not want to poison staff or students so I have to get more clever than that.  So I am going to ask for money. I suck at asking for money because I have gotten really good at patching things together with old hardware. It had become sort of a weird personal goal, how cheap can I do a quality CS program. (I actually do a presentation at education conferences titled “CS on the Cheap” where I talk about how cheap it is to get a CS program going with free software and the Montana State recycle warehouse hardware.)  If the school does not have it I am going to hit the richer parents. I have a number of parents that work in the tech field and I consider rich. I hate hitting up parents for something like this, after all these parents are already paying the maximum tuition, but I really do not see a better solution at the moment. I will see what happens.

All of this does show the weakness of my present hardware acquisition system.  It is looking like a lot of the newer tech I want to work with takes newer tech to work.  Ten year old i5s work fine with a standard programming class, but as soon as I want to do something with modern hardware; cellphones, VR, AR, and whatever, I am hurting.  For next year’s budget I had requested six $1000 computers. All fine and good except I really need those computers tomorrow.

Is it all that critical that I teach a course involving the Oculus?  No, but I do think AR and VR are very important and besides it looks like a lot of fun.  And it is very important to find fun things for students to do in high school.

One Response to “Computer Science on the Cheap does not always work”

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    There are cheaper ways to have fun with programming—building stuff that interacts with the real world. Sensors, motors, and motor controllers that interface with Arduinos, microbits, or (my favorite) Teensy boards can be bought very cheaply, and a lot of motors and mechanical parts can be salvaged from junked printers, scanners, and other ewaste.

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