What’s the fuss with coding?

The fuss about coding has grown exponentially in the past year. Having watched this space for years, I’ve certainly noticed the increased interest to expose kids to coding. Industry has been pouring resources into it, with huge initiatives and funding coming from Google, Microsoft and more besides. There is a national curriculum for it and most Australian states have adopted it….not in NSW though, the state where I teach. Media, print and online, regularly features this, too; often, about having a shortage in IT skills.  I can also see the increase in teaching coding in many schools.

Hey, one could almost think teaching and  learning to code is trendy.

But, there is always the niggling question, “Is it for everyone?”

I wonder now whether everything in various school subject curricula was subjected to such scrutiny. And if not, why not?

Is it really for everyone?

Firstly, I’d like to make a distinction between computational thinking (CT) and coding. Google’s resources on CT are quite extensive and accessible. As a problem-solving process, it is easy to see why it could be adapted across all disciplines including humanities. Some could even argue it looks like critical thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach critical thinking in school?”

Further, algorithms – or step by step instructions – are present in every subject. Google is right to say it is relevant across all disciplines. Quite often, however, algorithms are taught as given, e.g. using formula. And why not? It is an efficient way of disseminating human knowledge developed over time. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

Algorithms in the CT sense is less prescriptive. Creative thinking could be incorporated as well.  Can you imagine asking “should we teach creative thinking in school?”

I heard Dr James Curran refer to CT as a process for answering “What can we automate?”  I think this really promotes a mindset leaning towards efficiency as well as innovation, a premise that things could be better and we can use digital technologies to actually make it happen….and scale it, relatively quickly and cheaply. That’s incredibly empowering!  But, it’s the sort of thing that is best experienced vs merely talked about. This echoes elements of design thinking. Can you imagine asking “should we teach design thinking in school?”

Big jump there, i.e. I joined CT with coding – using digital technologies, software programming in particular, to create solutions.;  automation via giving computers detailed instruction.

Algorithms can be viewed as just an idea. It can be represented in many ways. As a teacher, making thinking visible – i.e. ascertain students are learning – is a challenge.  In Information Software & Technologies (IST), one of the subjects I teach, algorithms can be presented as pseudocode and flowcharts.

What of coding then?

Coding can actually help refine algorithms. Sometimes this is done via affordances of programming languages such as more sophisticated built-in functions and data structures.  Often, the refinements are done as one delves deeper into solving the problem and one thinks of more possibilities or cases or scenarios.

In a nutshell, CT promotes development of algorithms and with coding, it is made visible and refined.

Is it for everyone?

I am biased and I think everyone should experience what CT and coding are like. In the same way that I think everyone should experience what creative thinking, critical thinking, design thinking – and way many more ways of thinking like systems thinking, mathematical thinking, etc (see what it’s like in schools now?).  For me, it’s beyond being trendy or shortages in skills or future job opportunities or anything like that or being great at it or even being interested in it. How do you know unless you try?

If you’re a teacher, student, parent or really anyone just wondering what the fuss is about, it’s best to experience it.  Have a go. There are lots of resources out there. One of my favourites is the NCSS Challenge – and we’re a week in.  :)

Here are some for starters:

Feel free to add your thoughts and resources in the comments below. Thanks.

 

 

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Can you imagine?

Little did I know that my post “Have wings, will fly” would turn out to be prophetic. The wings helped inspire a cross-curricular collaboration between 5 year 9 classes to create a spectacular exhibition inspired by VIVID Sydney.

I used the wings as a prop for a friendly challenge of ‘Can you imagine….us having our own version of Vivid?’ very early in the school year.

Not only did we imagine, we made it happen. By we, I don’t mean just the teachers but especially our students and with support from the school community. This was no mean feat and here are just some of what I’m really proud of:

  • 2 9DT teachers and myself wrote our course programs and assessment tasks to suit
  • Going on an after-school excursion and not losing any kid
  • Collaborating with other teachers and members of the school community – we’ve never done anything of this scale
  • Staging an exhibition, including an opening night where we got Vivid designers talk to students (thanks to Joachim Cohen from Intel for helping make this happen).  Harmanto Nguyen- Toy Shadows and Simone Chua – Affinity were awesome and I got to showcase our students work to them, too
  • Having students that are proud to share their work publicly (here’s our YouTube playlist)
  • ultimately, making real that which we imagined

A bit more background info: 9DT-Textiles designed and created garments as well as accessories with soft/textile circuits. 9DT-Rigid materials designed and created light installations for outdoors. 9IST designed and created digital movies/animation using iconic buildings as their canvases. 9PDM captured light photography.

A bit more detailed info on my IST project for those who may want to build on the idea.  This was a PBL on the Digital Media topic, specifically movie and animation. The challenge was to “create an illusion of movement” using frame-by-frame animation. Working in groups to create a movie 2-4 minutes long, each student has to create 30-45 second segments which should include at least 15 seconds of frame-by-frame animation; the rest could be video.

Each group had a tab in the class OneNote where all deliverables were outlined, whether or not they were part of the assessment for reporting. They had to document target audience and purpose, concept maps, storyboards, etc. I created the Project Schedule for the class and gave mini deadlines (activity and time chunking is a good strategy to help manage projects spanning an entire term as well as help identify students who are at risk of non-submission). This shared space facilitated seeing what others are doing and thus, peer feedback, both written and oral. The quality of the end result is testament to the validity of this practice.

There are the obvious option topic outcomes involved in designing, producing and evaluating. This included a variety of data manipulation techniques including the use of layers, masks, garbage matte, transparency adjustments, special effects, etc. There are also core topic outcomes relating to project management, communication techniques, career options and issues.

At the end of the project, I also did a structured review using peer instruction or think/pair/share with answers written in the class oneNote (shared notes, yes?).  Here are the questions we worked through (I had more as we discussed):

  1. Define:
    1. Animation
    2. Frame rate
    3. Morphing
    4. Warping
  2. Was your animation mostly cel-based or path-based? What’s the difference between the two?
  3. What file types were used for your project? What software programs created them? Can read them?
  4. What factors affect the file size of finished movie?
  5. Contrast embed and link?
  6. Define keyframe
  7. Was the storyboard helpful? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  8. Which communication technique proved most useful for you – verbal, written, graphical and visual? Provide detailed example.
  9. Rate your contribution to the group on a scale of 1 – 5, 1 being ‘meh’ to 5 ‘rock star’. Justify your rating detailing your criteria and detailed example.
  10. What advice would you give to next year’s 9IST if they were to do this project?

I think the structured post-project review was really helpful to assess learning, clarify misconceptions, fill gaps and revise course content using personal experiences. It’s a great way to end a PBL unit.

At the end of this review, I showed this path-based animation created using Scratch and character/costumes drawn by one of my students (check out Group 4). This not only helped compare/contrast cel-based vs path-based, it also served as a relevant segue into the next topic, Software design and programming :)

Long post I know but it barely scratches the surface of what this experience has meant to me.

If you have a similar story or feel inspired to initiate a cross-curricular collaboration, please leave a comment or relevant link.

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Cherishing the cliché

Happy Mother’s day.

I’ve long viewed this day as a cliché and the commercialisation of it irks me. Still, my family  celebrates it every year and it’s a lovely family day for us. Here’s the thing, as years pass…as I get older, I’m learning to cherish this day when motherhood is celebrated.

After all, what a privilege! I have 2 lovely daughters, 2 lovely human beings. I learn so much from them and they challenge me to be a better person. It’s a tough gig  but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

mothersday2015

I’ve been lucky, too, to have a mother who I’m sure was born a generation too early! I’ve learned heaps from her directly and vicariously…and that includes the love of learning and reading and crafting and volunteering and giving and mother-ing and so on.

What’s more, my social media is full of well wishes to the many mothers I know. This has made me realise that not only do I have wonderful kids, I’m also surrounded by amazing women who have raised wonderful kids as well as many friends raised by wonderful women. Now, there’s a happy thought!

None of us will be here without a mother.

So cliché or not….

 

I cherish this day then, not just for the wonder and privilege of being a mother but for all the mothers, including my own, as well as would’ve been, would-be, can’t be and don’t-wanna-be mothers.

More and more, I view mother’s day as a celebration of women.

Is there a ‘happy women day’? Maybe there should be.

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Mindfulness

I’ve been wondering about how I could incorporate more well-being stuff into my classroom. A chance conversation (as seems to be the norm on Twitter) yesterday with an esteemed tweep, @lasic, was the catalyst to trying mindfulness in the classroom. Tomaz suggested smilingmind as a resource. (Yes, check it out).

I signed up and tried the first edu session for 16-22 year olds with my 10 IST class today (last period)  – a bunch of really lovely girls who are used to me saying, ‘let’s try something new’….aside, it’s really wonderful to have a class like that!

This was also a good opportunity to get started with using discussion forums, a feature available in our Sharepoint-based virtual classrooms. Another aside…Whatever else people may say how outdated forums are, the reality is that it is used in universities. I figured, my students should at least be exposed to it and see how it compares to other forms of asynchronous conversations.

Straight after the 5-min activity, they were given another 5 minutes to reply on the forum. I asked them whether or not it was worthwhile to have mindfulness activities in the classroom and why. Here are some of the responses:

Yes. So that I can be motivated to do it because I want to keep my mind happy.

[Yes]…because it relaxes the mind and in turn, the person, which makes it easier for the person to complete meaningful work and also to complete it more diligently.

Yes…because I feel that a student is more likely to concentrate with full focus in class once they have centred their thoughts and relaxed from thinking about all the problems they may be going through…

I think it depends on the subject as some subjects are not relevant to this

Maybe we should at times to rest our mind from other things we do at school.

[Yes]…to enable us to clear our thoughts…and concentrate more in class

This is a good class of happy and engaged students. Today, they were all ‘happy’, relaxed, inquiring, more daring, less afraid to ‘fail’. Being on my 2nd year with this class, trust me when I say there was a different and even more positive vibe in the classroom.

It’s too early to tell whether or not it is worthwhile to do mindfulness activities in the classroom. Previous readings on the topic and my gut feel from today is that yes, it will be. It certainly helped me focus, which on a busy and full teaching day, is quite amazing and pleasantly surprising.

As with anything, if this is to happen at all, it’s got to be given time and space. I think I can afford to give it 5 minutes in an 80 minute lesson. No? If this has a consistent effect, I think the 5 minutes is time well invested not just in well-being but in learning. We did it at the start of the lesson. I may experiment with timing and try midway or even towards the end. *watch this space*

Have you tried mindfulness activities in the classroom?

How did you do it?

Would you recommend it and why?

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Have wings, will fly

the beginnings

Ever since I saw the Lilypad Arduino at a CS4HS workshop at UNSW, I was quite taken by the possibilities for making wearable technology – blending my 2 current teaching foci of computing and textiles. We got our own kits as well as primers at the CS4HS workshop and I was buzzing with excitement about it at school. My TAS boss was just as thrilled, seeing more STEM opportunities particularly for HSC  D&T MDPs and set me off on a mini-shopping spree at Sparkfun electronics.  I showed some of these goodies to the 2 HSC DT classes and even though many were excited about the idea, only 1 actually considered creating wearable technology. Still, there’s 1!!!

Of course, there’s a wide gap between possibilities and reality and I soon had to face up to creating a prototype. At which point, busyness, end-of-year exhaustion and so on got in the way of inspiration. I had none!

project 1

Fortunately, an opportunity – need, even – came up with a fairy party (for an 18 year old, no less) and the birthday girl (a daughter’s friend) was keen to have some electronics on her costume.  This was the simplest of circuits using only a battery pack and a string of LED lights. We didn’t use all 10m of it so I’ve got a bit left over which can be used when I can get the right resistor for it. Really basic stuff but the lights blink so it looked cool.

project 2

Getting a little bit more confident about playing with e-textiles, I decided to make fairy wings for my daughter who’s attending the party as well. I made the wings based on this tutorial. This shows that I’m really an electronics n00b because I wasn’t really thinking about the wires used which really made designing/sewing the circuitry more complicated than necessary, i.e. I had to avoid the wires (conductive, yes?). Anyway….

Another thing that made it a bit harder for this n00b was that I wanted a row of lights to light up. All the beginner tutorials I looked at only had 1 light. You know the feeling when you don’t know enough to even ask Google? Yes, that. Anyway, I finally stumbled on a basic explanation of parallel and series circuits and I was on my way (btw, this circuit tutorial from Sparkfun is even better; I wish I saw it earlier).  Basically, I wanted a couple of parallel circuits (+ to +, – to -) for a symmetrical design.

The materials I used were all Lilypad stuff from SparkFun: SimpleSnap, SimpleSnap protoboard, 2 rainbow LED strips and conductive thread. I also used the FTDI from my original ProtoSnap kit to program the system; it doesn’t come with the SimpleSnap.

I had trouble positioning the protoboard on the wings as I wanted to make it ‘easy’ to access the negative (-) pin on both sides. I also wanted to eventually add sensors using the analog input pins. I had so many questions on how to assemble my circuits and in the end, decided for a prototyping approach. That is, I sew one circuit on, program and test. Sew another circuit on, program and test. etc. This worked and got me going. There’s a lesson right there!

When stitching, I avoided the wires on the wings by positioning them at the back and “crossing” them at the front (the intervening textile layer is enough). There are other ways, I was told, but this worked enough for me. I also learned that I don’t have to stitch all the way to the (-) pin except for the first one, i.e. The (-) circuit is one “circle” in and of itself. One of the tutorials suggested to sketch the stitching or circuits first, i.e. plan. In hindsight, I really should have. There’s a lesson right there, too!

Stitching the circuit was an exercise in balancing form and function. Stitches had to work to operate the lights as well as look good. To work, I had to ensure there’s enough contact with the right pins as well as avoid crossing over existing circuits and the wireframe of the wings. I also had to tidy up lose ends which could accidentally touch another circuit.

I kept the programming simple as the party was looming and I had no time to learn enough C to make it more fancy. I wanted a finished product!

Attaching the wings to the costume and covering the main board proved challenging as well. I guess, I really didn’t think through the details of the final design from the beginning. There’s a lesson right there yet again!

However, it all came together in the end and the wings worked…and it was an amazing fairy party. I also have a working prototype to show students as well as play with. What was a mere possibility months ago is now an evolving reality. 

I’ve learned so much. I have wings. I will fly:-)

click photos to enlarge – you’ll have a closer look of the pins used…and my sewing

wings2 wings1 faery faeries

wings video (mov)

(video of wings – mov)

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