Week 1: Start of Class

The first day of class always brings a certain level of excitement, and January 3, 2011, start of UW’s Winter Quarter, was no exception. My classroom changed, and despite having checked online that it had an “electronic podium,” that is, the necessary A/V controls to conduct a class in the 21st century, I got to class to find a rat’s nest of cables and clickers in a “distance learning” lecture room designed about 1970. Failing to grock the setup quickly enough to deliver electronically – I’m not sure I would have ever gotten it – I resorted to a “chalk talk.” Not my plan, but stuff happens.

Narrative on Week’s Goals

The week’s plan, as described on the class Web site’s calendar page, is:

Week 1 Calendar entries

Week 1 Calendar: Lectures, Assignments, Due Dates

My over-riding goals for the first week were to set behaviors, to attract interest, and to demonstrate the spread of activities that will characterize the whole class. Specifically,

Lecture 3 Jan: A standard overview lecture in which the course is described, including the fact that most of the information is on the Web page, http://www.cs.washington.edu/education/courses/cse120/11wi/. In terms of setting behaviors, I emphasized my responsibilities to the students and theirs to me.

Assignment 01: “Play” (== program) Lightbot 2.0 through the introductory exercises http://armorgames.com/play/6061/light-bot-20 and the first 3-4 recursion exercises.

Lab 4 Jan: This first lab had two very different goals. The first was for the students to write an essay on “Their Values and Why They’re Important”. The motivation for doing this comes from an article in Discovery Magazine about results from a University of Colorado study on raising women’s scores in introductory physics classes:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/25/15-minute-writing-exercise-closes-the-gender-gap-in-university-level-physics/

(Thanks to co-piloter Beth Simon for calling attention to this article!) Having no idea if it would contribute to a successful class, but not seeing any way in which it could be harmful, I assigned this as the first activity in the first lab. The other part was to learn about FTP and file servers in the .washington.edu domain.

Lecture 5 Jan: Having played Lightbot 2.0 the class was ready for a lecture on what programming is. Many features of programming – you’re commanding an agent and you must think from its point of view – are evident from the experience and are easily highlighted as a result. The crescendo of the lecture was a discussion of functional abstraction, a topic that I regard as “hard to get across” in the Fluency class, but building on Lightbot, it was now straightforward to introduce. We’ll be back to it in the future.

Assignment 02: Revise the Lightbot game to use symbolic instructions rather than icons, and solve a few new problems. This is an off-line exercise and required the students to examine the correctness issues by hand.

Lab 6 Jan: The plan for this lab was to review FTP (a notoriously difficult concept in my experience) and to practice using FTP by posting a prepared Web page. The Web page, which was XHTML, is set up to be a portfolio of their class work. We don’t do HTML, but I wanted to make the point that there is nothing mysterious about computing and even things you have no real knowledge of can make a certain amount of sense if you just take a look and use your head. Students modified the page to reflect their persona, rather than my example persona.

Lecture 7 Jan: “The glorious story of the triumph of 0 and 1” was the topic, and it emphasized digitization going back to Hollerith. Using the technology as the theme, the lecture covered “game changing” milestones in computing: machines processing digital information, computers, transistors and ICs created with photolithography, personal computers, Internet, WWW. At the end we discussed various manifestations of digital information, ranging from “sidewalk memory” to the encoding of a CD ROM.

Assignment 3: Continuing the symbolic form of the Lightbot game, students developed named functions (Lightbot 2.0 has only two functions F1 and F2) to solve (off-line again) small problems. The end goal was to solve one of the exercises from the first assignment, but directing the Lightbot to do a Moonwalk after completing each intermediate goal. [As TA Brandon pointed out, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk is not part of the life experience of these students.]

And How Did It Work?

Overall, I believe the first week went great! Starting with Lightbot 2.0 was extremely successful (co-Piloter Jody Paul also used it to good effect)! The students universally like it, and said how enjoyable it was in their end-of-the-week After Image survey. For me it is convenient way to get students into programming quickly. In terms of setting behaviors, I think we did fine there, though we stumbled on Thursday.

Monday’s lecture was an unplanned chalk talk, and in retrospect, I think that may have been better. It allowed a much more informal discussion of the course. We introduced ourselves, saying a few words including a favorite food. (I got my first laugh when I said I liked fresh anchovies on potato chips, which wasn’t a joke, but the truth; the closest anyone came to eating anchovies was one woman [HAC] who liked Caesar salad dressing … I’ve got a lot to teach!) One caveat about the chalk talk style is that I don’t think the verbal presentation was sufficient for the two slides: My Responsibilities To You, and Your Responsibilities To Me.

The first assignment’s Lightbot 2.0 contributed to teaching computational thinking in one unexpected way. If computational thinking is summarized as the habits of mind of computational thinkers, then one habit must be a confidence and willingness to figure things out on your own. Lightbot was assigned without introduction. Many students reported in the reflective survey afterward of having been very confused initially, then figured things out thanks to the tutorial nature of the game, stumbled in some places, but pushed forward, completing all of the requested work and finding it enjoyable; nearly all did at least 3 recursion problems. What a fun setting to be successful at figuring things out. Though I didn’t recognize this feature quickly enough to reinforce it, I would next time.

Tuesday’s 15 minute, “My values and why they are important” writing exercise produced a few unexpectedly thoughtful essays, which were fun to read. Whether the exercise will affect the students in any way is unknowable. Curiously, all students included (and usually started off with) the importance of family. When I (verbally) introduced the assignment, I mentioned that value first, though I mentioned a couple of others. Family is important for most people, of course, but its universality and first place setting caused me to wonder if somehow giving the assignment had affected the result.

Wednesday’s lecture on the basics of computing, including remarks on functional abstraction, was rewarding to give, and held the students full attention. Apparently many mentioned it positively in the After Image survey.

Thursday’s lab, which was to be a review of FTP followed by students using FTP to post a pre-written “portfolio” Web page (which they customized for themselves), was not that successful. My original intent – to get them to deal with code they didn’t understand much about, but by looking at it closely, be successful at modifying it for their purposes – was not the problem. They all did that.

The problem was that many students got lost in the weeds – the problem had too many components. I had them modify the page using a text editor (Notepad++) rather than WYSIWYG facilities, they were to import a picture to use on the page, they needed to make 4-6 modifications to the page, and (it was an FTP exercise) there was the usual confusion about where is the file I’m looking at. Add to this an unknown “gotcha” involving how UW allocates Web space to “plain” students vs “employee” students, and you have a mess. None of this was beyond them, and more than 3/4 of the students were successful, but I want to avoid chaos so early in the term. It’s still a good lab (I’ll do it again), but it’s probably the wrong day for it.

Friday’s lecture was strong, though after Wednesday, my expectations were too high. Students were for the most part engaged. On impulse I picked apart the information content in the “one if by land, two if by sea” signaling mechanism used in Paul Revere’s ride, and quickly realized not all students are familiar with it. (It’s still a good example, but the point arises one week later, so I won’t do it again.)

The week ends with students filling out the After Image survey in which they report on the material they found most engaging and interesting, what was difficult or frustrating, and any other comments that they want to make about the class. These have been structured to be anonymous to me, but Susan reads them and gives me an anonymized summary. Like me, the students enjoyed the first week.

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