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2010 September 30

New design for non-major programming class

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A couple of weeks ago in his Computing Education Blog, Mark Guzdial posted about the pilot versions of a new AP course CS: Principles.  If I understand it correctly, this is intended to be a lower-level course than the current AP Computer Science class.   You may remember that the College Board used to offer two computer science tests: A and AB.  The more difficult AB test was discontinued after the May 2009 offering, because too few students were taking the test for the College Board to make a profit.  Now they are planning to try again, but with a new test that is at a lower level than the current AP CS test, rather than higher.

Mark lists the 5 pilot versions of the courses:

Note that three of these pilots are using Scratch (or BYOB), which would be my first choice for a first-programming language. Another uses Python, which is not a bad choice for a first text-based programming language. I’m less fond of Alice, though it is good for making a transition to Java later. I have no experience with Excel: I find spreadsheet programming “languages” to be cryptic and difficult to debug, so I stay away from them.

The CS: Principles class seems to be a good high-school level programming course, though less rigorous than the Dr. Scheme-based class that my son took in 8th grade.  I’m not sure why AP is pushing it as an advanced-placement course, though, as that implies that it is a college-level course.  Consider the outcry if they decided that AP Calculus was too tough, and eliminated AP Calculus BC in favor of AP Algebra.

2010 September 29

Biostatistician vs. lab researcher

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 05:32
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I found this crudely produced animation of a dialog between a biostatistician and a lab researcher painfully funny:

The technique used to produce it, a text-to-movie site called, provides 13 scenes with 1 or 2 “actors” in each.  This video used the “Pawz” setting.  I have not set up an account to make my own movie, so I don’t know how easy it is to control things like the timing and camera angle.  The blurbs on the web site indicate that they have some automatic settings, which you can override, but the more manual controls may only be on the downloadable version of the software.  I have no interest in that software since it is Windows-only.

2010 September 28

Generic science journalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:55
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Want to be a science writer for a major media outlet?

Martin Robbins shows you how in this parody of the standard science news article.

Dot Divas

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:25
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A few weeks ago, I posted about the Nerd Girls TV show that is attempting to make engineering seem cool to teenage girls.  Now I’ve heard of another attempt to make computational sciences seem cool for the same audience: Dot Diva.  According to the web site

The Dot Diva / New Image for Computing (NIC) initiative is sponsored by WGBH, one of the oldest and most accomplished producers of public media, and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s oldest and largest educational and scientific computing society.

Dot Diva’s mission is to create an exciting and positive image of computing for high school girls. Our nationwide survey revealed that not only do the majority of girls think of computing as “boring” and “hard,” but they believe it fails to deliver two crucial benefits: “working with others” and “making a difference in other people’s lives.” Our ultimate goal is to transform this negative perception.

While that sounds like a worthy pursuit, I couldn’t find any content on the Dot Diva website.  There was some fluff: “What is a Dot Diva?”, a very small resource list, some PR that looked like ads for vaporware, and a rather stupid video.  If this attracts intelligent women into computation science, I’ll be very, very surprised.  I think Nerd Girls is more likely to work, and I was not greatly excited by its chances.

2010 September 27

On-line learning not a big win

The University of California administrators have been pushing full-speed ahead for on-line learning, in the hopes of eliminating those pesky faculty and buildings.  Meanwhile MIT has been doing a courageous experiment in putting materials for most of their courses on-line at MIT Open Courseware.  Stanford has been doing a smaller-scale experiment with Stanford Engineering Everywhere.  I’ve blogged about both of these projects before (here and here), because I think that they may be valuable to gifted high school students.

But are they working?  Does anyone really want on-line education from a top-rank university enough to pay for it?  Are people snapping up the freely available material from MIT and Stanford?  The Computing Education blog points out that statistics are available from MIT at  They get a lot of traffic (7 million page hits a month, 41% from USA and Canada), but visits average only 7 page views (or 9 pages and 9 minutes, depending which set of statistics you look at—they have new stats every month).  Fewer than 4% of the MIT faculty participating report any drop in in-person attendance in their classes (so the on-line content is not replacing people’s desire to go to classes in real life).  Quite a bit of the use is by educators, who then use the content in their own face-to-face classes.

Given that a typical course is 30-to-35 hours, and the average connection is only 9 minutes, there aren’t really such a huge number of courses being delivered (about 6000–7000 courses a year, probably about 1000 complete ones and lots more short visits and partially completed courses).  If that is all you can get for a completely free system, how much demand is there going to be for an expensive UC system?

It has been pointed out that only a few of the MIT Open Courseware classes actually have any useful content in them: most are just PowerPoint slides or cryptic lecture notes.  I wonder what the statistics are on people actually viewing full video of lectures.  I know that I don’t have the patience to sit through an hour-long video of a lecture, even though I have no trouble going to live lectures that long several times a week.

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