Saturday, October 31, 2015

The "Epic" that was VCE Algorithmics, 2015

In two days, the first batch of VCE Algorithmics students will sit their final exam. While I am nervous about the content of the exam, I am already proud of what my students have learnt and achieved over the year. As the delivery of the course gives way to the nervous waiting we're all experiencing this weekend, I thought it important to reflect on the last 12 months.

VCE Algorithmics (HESS) is a "Higher Education Scored Study", the only one in the Victorian Certificate of Education. It is a very ambitious introduction to computer science and carries significant university credits at Melbourne and Monash. The study design reads like a computer science course in "the Analysis and Design of Algorithms". Every university has its equivalent of such a course, usually in the second year of a CS degree!

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A visual introduction to algebra

Having introduced many students to algebra, I have always wanted to find a way to make it "make sense". One year, I met two researchers from the University of San Diego, Dr Ferdinand Rivera and Dr Joanne Rossi at a conference in Greece(*). Their presentations and later conversations I had with the two of them, especially an electronic correspondence with Dr Rivera, changed my practice completely.

This is a recorded description of this approach that was presented to the staff of Avila College in December 2014.

If you wish, you can download my article, Thinking Visually About Algebra, from the website of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers Inc.

(*) Psychology of Mathematics Education 33.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Problems that do not compute

Today, my task was to convince my students that there are problems which computers cannot solve in a practical time, say a year or a few years! It was meant to be an informal introduction to the concept of the limits of computation and we did it by exploring two specific problems: The towers of Hanoi and the Travelling Salesman.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Isaac Asimov on education and the Internet!

Yesterday, I listened to this excerpt of an interview with Isaac Asimov on Radio National's Future Tense program page. It is characteristically prescient:
Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries ... If there's something you're interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else ... you ask and you can find out and you can follow it up and you can do it at your own speed, at your own home, in your own time, then everyone will be interested in learning.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

What do Australian parliamentarians, the BBC, President Obama and have in common?

They all want school-aged students to learn to write computer programs, sometimes referred to as “coding”. This has become a feature of many modern curricula worldwide, from Estonia to the UK and now Australia. The questions I would ask myself as a teacher and a parent are: Why and how? This is my attempt at answering these questions together with a few others.
What is computer programming?
Computer programming is the act of giving instructions to the computer in order to fulfil a particular purpose. For instance, we can write a computer program that checks if a certain number is prime. We can also write computer programs that draw shapes or play music.

"Powerpuff girl", generative art by D.J. and L. P.

Year 10 Big Ideas in Computer Technology

Never give up, keep trying

Yesterday, 3 students and I left Avila College early in the morning to attend and speak at the annual conference of Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria, DigiCon15. We were there speak about our experience in the first year of VCE Algorithmics.

Our session was straight after morning tea. We spoke to a group of teachers considering offering the subject at their respective schools. I presented my experience as a teacher and the students told of their own joys and struggles with the content of this very ambitious course.

The common themes in what all four of us said were: Great content and lack of resources. The teachers in attendance left with a better idea of the work involved in teaching the subject: I told them it would take over their lives in the first year. I was not exaggerating!

The most important part of our presentation came at the end, when the audience had 15 minutes to ask us questions. Most of these were directed to the students and they answered them brilliantly. One answer that stuck in my mind came in response to the question: "What is the best advice you could give to prospective students?" They said: "Never give up, keep trying. The problems are hard but you get a great feeling when you solve them." These are the very students for whom this course was designed.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

5 weeks of VCE Algorithmics

All holidays, I was anticipating the start of the Algorithmics class. In my last post, I mentioned that we were 7 in the class but now we're 8. What happened was that two students went to the NCSS Summer School and fell in love with computer science. One of them was already enrolled and the other decided to join. Now, the number of year elevens has increased to 5, joining 2 year twelves and me.

Each week, the students complete a series of exercises. They are at different stages in their transition to "algorithmic thinking" but they're all making progress. We have solved puzzles and learnt about queues and stacks. More on these later.

So, what has it been like teaching this course? The briefest statement I can make is: "It's a lot of hard work but totally worth it!"