From Unity back to Python

March 2, 2018

My sophomore Unity students were getting bored watching the Unity education series of videos I had them working through.  I was identifying.  I was bored watching videos also.  We had pretty much proved to ourselves that we could do anything we wanted in Unity if we found the right tutorial.  The kids were confident they could learn whatever they needed to do in Unity.  That was what I was after.  They were not afraid to learn on their own.  One of the kids asked if the class could do some Python programming.  (Be still my heart.)  I had not planned to do Python with this group until next year.  Next year they would be eligible for the dual-credit from the University but I figured why not, we can always quickly repeat what we do this year next year and then go on to bigger and better things.  Now this group is a bunch of programming geeks.  They like coding and tinkering with computers.  I had done a little Python with them in a brief programming language parade earlier in the year and they have coded in Scratch and Small Basic.  The group understands the fundamentals of coding so this should not be a great problem.

There is a problem.  They are doing the projects at home for fun.  They are looking at the book (“How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 3 Documentation” by Wentworth, et al.) out of class.  What I had planned to do in two or three class periods is taking less than one.  I had a whole class lecture laid out on doing the program in outline form and some kind of pseudo code before sitting down to type.  I started in on my talk and one of the kids holds up a piece of paper with a program outline.  “We did that last night.”  Smart kids can really mess with a schedule.  What am I supposed to do?  Ah, the burdens we teachers bare.  I will suffer along no matter what the hardships.

Anyway we have started on the first major programming project.  Major in the sense it is not one of the assignments in the book (none of which I had assigned but they were doing them for fun so I did not need to assign them) and requires assembling knowledge from several chapters to do the project.  The project uses turtle graphics to draw a circular pattern of bricks.  Initially the variables are the distance from the center to the inner edge of the first row of bricks and the number of rows.  Later we make the brick dimensions variables.

I have done this project for years.  It is my test project for a language with drawing capabilities.  It is not a complex project but it tests multiple programming ideas: user input, modularity, parameters, loops, program organization and, most important of all, thinking before typing code.  It is also expandable.  Color the bricks, use a shape other than a rectangle for the bricks (this can be really tricky with some interesting math depending on the shape), draw the bricks in a spiral, and so on.  I typically have the kids complete the project in the language we are working in then tell them to do it in two different languages.  I give them a list of languages I know will work.  They have to find the resources to learn the language and learn the language well enough to do the project.  Since this is not a project I have seen a solution for yet on the internet they usually have some good hair pulling time involved.  Good stuff.

The challenge for this class, at least as I see it at the moment, is seeing how far and long I can drag out this project.  June is a long ways away and at the speed these kids are moving I have to have enough challenges laid out for them to last until the end of the school year.

Ah, the burdens we teachers bare (or is it bear?).  Thank goodness for beer.

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And Magic Occurs

February 8, 2018

We use Powerschool for out grades and attendance.  Part of my job is maintaining the updates and general odds and ends software like this requires.  Well yesterday I tried to install an SSL certificate on it so a piece of third-party software would work.  I got the certificate from GoDaddy and found the documentation to install it on Powerschool’s site.  I am good to go.  Shut down PS, go through the process of importing and checking the right boxes, startup PS.  No startup.  Hummm.  Restart the server.  No startup.  Undo what I did. No startup.  Usually PS take about two minutes to startup.  I wait for thirty minutes several times.  Nope.  It is 6:30.  Nuts.  Dinner calls and I head home.  I start a help ticket with PS support before I leave thinking I will call then in the morning.  I leave PS on so I will have the error messages available in the morning.  I get an email in the morning from PS support saying they see PS is running.  If there any further issues contact them.  I get on line and sure enough PS is up and running.  I get to school and the PS is really working.  The PS monitor that shows the status says it is not.  I close the monitor screen and reopen it and the yellow button turns green.  This is a live monitor.  It should not do that.

I have no idea what happened.  Overnight the software fairy waved her wand and made PS actually fix itself.  As Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I still have to get that SSL certificate installed but I think I will wait for a break.

Teaching with Videos: For better or for worse

February 5, 2018

(OK, I admit “teaching” with videos is an inappropriate use of the word “teach”.  It should be more like “have students try to learn with videos”.  Even that is a bit weak.)

I am teaching a couple of programming classes using videos.  One class is learning Unity using Patrick Felicia’s series “Getting Started with 3D Animation in Unity” (https://learntocreategames.com).  $15 for a series of good video lessons.  They are pretty straightforward tutorials.  Patrick also writes a series of books on Unity.  I own his book series and have found it very usable.  I am also teaching an independent study for non-programmers.  The course is a dual-credit with the University of Montana and is intended for students with little to no programming experience and who may be looking at going into education.  Again the course is based around a series of videos or on-line tutorials.

I have used videos before (what teacher has not) but never to this extent.  I am learning some things.  First, no matter how focused or entertaining, programming videos are great for curing insomnia.  After about 15 minutes of listening and following directions, I am ready for a good nap.  The kids are good for about 15 minutes then they lose all focus.  Is it the video format or just the tutorial format that is the culprit?  I have to say videos are worse than text.  When using a book or text format I have a tendency to try things to see what happens.  I tinker.  I tell the kids to tinker.  If it blows up it is easy to go back a page or two and start over.  Videos just do not seem to give that feeling of flexibility or experimentation.  Going back in a video to find where you deviated is just not as easy as it is in a text document.

Second, it is hard to decide how far the kids should be at a certain time.  If the student misses a step in the tutorial process it could take them a while to figure out what went wrong.  Some students are interested in the material and enjoy building the project in the video.  Others are not as motivated and have a tendency to lose focus and wander into YouTube.  I cannot get too excited at students that do this because I do the same thing.  With Unity there is also the occasional technical issue.  Fummph, and something weird happens.  Start over from the last save.  (If they saved.)  Now that student is doing catch-up.

Third, and perhaps the most important to me, videos make really poor reference materials.  It is simply not practical to “thumb through” a video to refresh on something you have forgotten.  Last year I had an independent study student transcribe a Unity video tutorial to text.  He typed out the voice instruction and edited it so it made sense in text format.  He did screen shots of the video and of the Unity screen to use as graphics in his text document.  This translation took a lot of time but the result was great.  The text document is much more useful than the video. I also like something in an editable format (paper or digital) so I can add comments.

So now some of the “solutions” I have come up with to help alleviate some of the problems.

First, do not be a taskmaster.  The kids cannot sit there for 50 minutes (in my case 90 minutes) and watch these things.  It is simply not possible for the normal human being.  Let them wander every now and then to break up the monotony.  Have a game day every now and then.  If your schedule is so tight that there is no room for some days away from the videos then you have a problem.  Loosen up and let the kids have some fun.  Remember, this is a game making course so there should be time for some games.  I also deviate from Unity every now and then.  Alfred Thompson had a post on the FizzBuzz problem.  We took a day off from Unity and discussed this problem.  No programming language, just an algorithmic approach.  If the kids know a programming language have them refresh their memory by actually coding the problem.  I could not do this because I have one student who is pretty light in the language area.

Second, set some goals.  “By this date you should be able to do this with your character.”  Be flexible because it is computers and kids, weird things happen.  Since I only have four students they are all working in my smallish office.  I can see where they are and listen to what they are doing.  If I was in a bigger lab I would be sure to wander a lot, look over shoulders and keep a close eye on progress, taking a break from videos for a while, and totally gone into Never-never Land.

Third, reference materials.  I do have some print Unity books and the translated video available but the best reference I have by far is the students themselves.  I have four students in the class.  If one of them cannot get something to work at least one of the others can see the problem.  Collaboration is king.

Fourth, dual monitors.  The kids must have a dual monitor setup, one for the video and one for the software.  I have done videos in a lab.  I made sure there were enough computers so each student had two computers.  Without dual monitors progress is massively slow.

The biggest thing I am learning from this video learning/teaching experience, in this particular instance, is that using a lot of videos or a video curriculum is a pain in the rear.  This is not a labor saving invention.  You cannot just say “here, watch these” and walk away and expect good results.  Sometimes the video skips over something without enough detail.  There is very little “why” particular steps are done.  Overcoming the “bored to the point of brain dead” requires extra resources and planning.

Inexperienced programming teacher should not use a video curriculum like this.  There are just too many unexpected consequences.  Videos are a great tool but they will not do the trick as the only tool.  A good amount of experience is needed to make them a really usable tool.

I will continue to use videos to learn and teach, after all, there are just too many good ones out there, but trying to build a whole course around them is not the way to go.

New semester, new course.

January 13, 2018

Thursday was the end of the semester.  Nobody failed.  Close but they made it.

So far I have three students signed up for the new CSCI 100 course spring semester.  Thank goodness.  I have been spending a lot of time building and testing the course.  I would have been majorly bummed if I had done all that work for nothing.  The course is tailored for students interested in going into education.  I figure if the university will not promote CS for education majors I might as well do it.  This is a dual-credit course so the kids will get college credit for it.  Courses for future teachers need to be broad, both in languages and concepts.  In Montana a new teacher rarely has a well-defined CS program to step into if they are hired to teach a CS course, so they have to know how to find course material and be able to learn a language/IDE quickly.  Depth is not critical for a beginning teacher, especially when the time involved to acquire depth is not justified by the hiring opportunities, that will come with time.  Being able to build something, possibly from scratch, is what I consider the primary skill for a new CS teacher.  The CSCI 100 course is intended to be a show-and-tell, here are a number of ideas that can be used to build courses.  The students that have signed up for the course have little to no CS or programming experience so the material is very basic.  These are not students who are interested in teaching upper level CS (at least not at the moment) but hopefully they will get enough out of this course to be able to do an introductory course and have enough background to get a CS program started in a school.  It will also hopefully give them enough to help in a school with a developed CS program.  There is the little detail of getting certified for CS in Montana.  The only way is with business degree or a CS degree.  (Business degree?  I am still stumped by that one.)  This is at least a step for these kids.  They can put “Computer programming course” on their resume.

It has been so long since I have taught non-computer geek students that this might be a bit of a challenge.  I know the rate at which geeks learn programming but total rookies, especially non-techie rookies, will be interesting.  I have planned due dates for assignments but to tell the truth I am just not sure how realistic those are.  The three students, all girls, are bright but I am not sure about their enthusiasm.  I will have to decide how strict I am going to be on those due dates.  Since these girls will be working without a lecture period (this is sort of an independent study since the period they are signed up for is the same period I teach Algebra 2 to three math underachievers) I will have to keep a sharp eye on how they are or are not struggling.  There is also the factor of teaching girls CS.  Women learn differently than men.  (This is a statement made with thirty years of teaching behind it.  There is undoubtedly research out there proving and dis-proving this statement.)  I have not taught mainstream girls in many years.  I have had a female student for the last three years (she is a junior now) but she is an uber-geek with an IQ that is just scary and is probably going to major in a computer field.  I just stay out of her way.  I am not worried about teaching these girls, it is just something I need to pay attention to in regards to my teaching style.  I am teaching two sophomore computer geek boys CS at the moment.  I do not think how I deal with those boys will work with three senior girls.  Chuckle.

This course is taking me well out of my comfort zone.  Non-techie girls in a course I have not tested on students.  It is going to be fun.

Beginning with App Inventor

December 18, 2017

In the process of writing the curriculum for the CSCI 100 course I have to learn a few odds and ends.  One new to me odd thing is App Inventor.  I had looked at App Inventor previously but not to the point where I could teach it.  I worked through the App Inventor site tutorials (Beginner, PaintPot and Mole Mash).  Pretty easy.  I figured I better find something a bit more challenging.  Nothing super fancy but enough to explain a bit more about the IDE and programming techniques.  Google to the rescue.  I found one PDF tutorial that had excellent graphics and readable text.  After spending 10 minutes of confusion I discovered that there is a big difference from App Inventor v1 and v2.  Using a v1 tutorial when coding with v2 is not a good thing.  After a few minutes of digging through YouTube I found David Wolber’s eight part series “Code “Pong” with App Inventor II”.  The tutorials are straightforward and I would categorize them as excellent.  I have learned one really important thing from working in App Inventor.  This will not be a revelation to those that work in drag and drop regularly.  That important thing is have a really big monitor.  DnD blocks take up room.  Yes, they do collapse but then they have to be expanded to see what is in there when you forget 5 minutes later.  Doing App Inventor on a 13-inch laptop would require young eyes.  I have a 29-inch monitor.  I am good.

DnD is a bit of a shift.  I think it is slower than text programming.  You have a lot of mouse work which is slower than typing (even my typing).  Also the overall setup is just so different.  Creating variables, building If statements and the general flow of the code is very different.  Not bad, it just takes a shift in the way to read code.

Would I want to produce a professional level app in App Inventor?  Nope but then that is not its intent.  Is it a good way to learn and have some fun writing simple apps?  For sure.

I now need to write something semi-original (no YouTube) to truly test how hard it is to chase down coding issues.

Don’t need no silly CS degree or background

December 13, 2017

Someone just sent me the link to Pythonroom.com, an online curriculum for Python.  The claim by Pythonroom is “Pythonroom lets anyone teach computer science.”  You mean I spent all those years learning pedagogy, multiple languages, hardware, software, binary numbers, programming logic and so on for nothing?  Shucks.

Building a new CS dual-credit course

December 11, 2017

I offer dual-credit courses for juniors and seniors.  These are fully accredited courses from University of Montana that I teach on my high school campus.  The kids are fully registered UM students and will receive a UM transcript.  The kids get the grade on their transcript that they get in my course.  No big final like an AP course.  It is a nice setup for them and me.  My course simply has to fit the broad requirements of the UM course.  I do not have to use the UM book or follow the exact UM course plan.  At the moment we offer four dual credit courses: Pre-calc, Stats, CSCI 100 (general credit) and CSCI 135 (CS credit).  The CSCI 100 used to be an intro to Python course with the CSCI 135 being a hard-core Java course.  The university just revamped these two courses.  The CSCI 100 is now a programming survey course, seven “languages” in the semester, and the CSCI 135 is a Python course.  Changing the CSCI 135 was not a big deal for me.  I just renumber my CSCI 100 course to CSCI 135.  My old CSCI 100 Python course was a year long so I did more than the university’s old CSCI 100 by a long shot.  My course now matches their new CSCI 135.  Sweet.  The university’s new CSCI 100 on the other hand will be a completely new course.  I talked to the CSCI 100 instructor (a friend of mine) who rebuilt and teaches the course.  His course consists of these seven topics:

  1. Code.org – fundamentals of DnD programming
  2. Scratch – simple coding in DnD
  3. Studio Code – mobile apps
  4. Alice – stories and interactive animations
  5. HTML – a basic web site
  6. Processing – visual programming
  7. Python

He also sent me his assignments for the semester.  After a quick look I decided his material would be perfect for the seniors looking at an education degree and have no programming experience.  Not so perfect for those of my students who have taken any programming from me or looking at going into CS.  A bit too basic.  I like the concept of the course, hitting a number of topics lightly so students have a starting point at building a tool set for programming.  I just have to redesign the course so it fits my knowledge set.  I do not know any HTML (something I should fix some day), Code.org is a bit too simple, most of my students will have seen Scratch, I am not sure what Studio Code is and I have a better idea for Processing.  OK, so I need to rewrite 90% of his course.  Not a problem, I have ideas for substitutes.

Here is my altered CSCI 100 that suits my skill set and hardware availability:

  1. Code.org – just so the students can see Code.org
  2. App Inventor – build an Android app
  3. Micro:bit – make music with DnD
  4. Alice – build a scene from Shakespeare
  5. Small Basic – intro to a simple line code language
  6. Arduino – line code and hardware (Processing is the IDE Arduino uses)
  7. Python – back to micro:bit along with some pure coding projects

Nothing earth shaking there.  I think I am hitting all the bases for a good cross section of programming tools and still providing enough rigor to justify 3 college level credits.  I have eighteen weeks to cover this material.  With some heavy math and some head scratching logic here is my time schedule:

(We have block periods so classes are 90 minutes every other day.)

  1. Course set up and Code.org – 1 week
  2. App Inventor – 2 weeks
  3. Micro:bit – 2 weeks
  4. Alice – 2 weeks
  5. Small Basic – 2 weeks
  6. Arduino – 2 weeks
  7. Python – 4 weeks

That gives me 3 weeks of slack in there.  This seems like a lot of time but I know from experience that spring semester is pure hell on the seniors.  Sports, senior projects, college visits, extended spring breaks and general weird events really cut into the spring semester.  If I see extra time looming there are several other topics I can pull up in a hurry; Unity, Code Combat, or just flesh out some of the previous topics that were of special interest.

My biggest issue will be to have good assignments ready to go.  Some, maybe all, of the seniors will be doing this course independent study or with minimum supervision.  I have to have things laid out for them in a manner that will minimize confusion.  In a classroom setting confusion is minimized on the fly, no so with independent study.  So for this first offering I am being very select as to who I allow take the course.  I need the students that can think for themselves, not get hung up when something does not work out perfectly and give helpful feedback.  I have already eliminated one prospective student.  She asked if the course was going to be hard because she did not want any hard courses her senior year.  Good luck in college.

I really hope I can get five or six students to sign up for the course.  I think it will be a fun experience for them and for me.

How PD should be done.

November 28, 2017

“The best PD is when you get a bunch of teachers together (with at least a few strong in content and experience) and just let them talk shop.”

Mike Zamansky – http://cestlaz.github.io/posts/election-day-pd-2017/

 

The weekend before Thanksgiving was spent in a room with about twenty experienced and neophyte programming teachers.  There were a couple of high-speed college CS professors present.  There was also a teacher from a local junior college who used to work for NASA doing photo interpretation of the Mars Rover pictures using Python to do color filtering.  Really high-speed.  These two days were by far the best professional development days I have ever had.  The experience talked about experiences, the neophytes asked questions on “how do I …”.  We compared notes.  We talked CS philosophy, pedagogy, apps, hardware, PD training needs, and what we needed to do in order to solve the problems of the world.

Absolutely the best CS PD and learning experience.

No, I do not want to go back to the 4th grade

November 21, 2017

I have done three Mondays of my little coding club.  One more to go.  Next time I do this it will not be 4 – 8 grades.  It will be 6 – 8.  Teaching 4th graders is not in my skill set.  The diversity between them is too great for me to manage.  Some cannot add 90 + 90 and get 180.  Others do understand what 180 means in the sense of angles and turning a turtle.  Some cannot understand there is no “down” turtle movement to make the turtle go towards the bottom of the screen.  Others are showing the 7th and 8th graders how to do things.  Last post I mentioned teaching them the x,y coordinate system.  Nope, I will pass.  Some will have no problems, others need to be a bit older.  Their brain is not wired enough to do the task.  I have high school students this way but I know how to handle the issue at that age, not at the 10 year old age.

It is necessary to do something at this level to understand the issues that building and teaching a CS curriculum K-12 presents.  Anybody who says they have developed a good 4th grade curriculum has either written something to cover kids with abilities from 2nd – 8th grade, or they have no idea what they are talking about.  My wife was an elementary and middle school teacher.  I knew the range she dealt with in a single class.  Knowing and doing are two vastly different things.

I need to go back to the 4th grade

November 7, 2017

I started an after school coding course for 4 – 8th grade using Small Basic yesterday.  I am learning a lot.  I am learning that 4th graders do not have x,y coordinate knowledge yet.  Opps.  That is going to make any fancy turtle graphics a bit of a challenge.  The solution?  Teach 4th graders x,y coordinates.   They seem pretty game.