Team presents at MassCUE 2015 conference

The CS Pathways team members at MassCUE, October 21, 2015. L-R: Erin Natale, Dawn Munro, Akira Kamiya, Denise Salemi, Molly Laden, Lori Blank, and Fred Martin.
The CS Pathways team members at MassCUE, October 21, 2015. L-R: Erin Natale, Dawn Munro, Akira Kamiya, Denise Salemi, Molly Laden, Lori Blank, and Fred Martin.

The CS Pathways team delivered a successful presentation, Middle School Project-Based Computing, at the MassCUE 2015 conference at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA on October 21, 2015.

The session immediately followed the opening keynote, and more than 40 conference-goers attended.

The presentation was organized by Akira Kamiya, who led the session itself. Molly Laden, Fred Martin, and Everett teachers Denise Salemi and Dawn Munro also contributed.

The session covered the goals of the project, provided an overview of the curriculum, and offered live demos of student work from Ms. Salemi’s and Ms. Munro’s spring 2015 classes.

A copy of the presentation slides and other handouts from the session are available.

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CS Pathways summer camps were a huge success!

We hosted 72 Everett and Medford middle school students for our 2015 CS Pathways summer camps!

The camps were held July 6 through 10, at Medford High School and Everett High School.

At Medford, project teacher Mike Scarola was joined by PhD candidate Mark Sherman, along with Jessica Hamerly (Medford Public Schools) and Damian DeMarco (Revere Public Schools) in leading the session. UMass Lowell undergraduate Katherine Brunelle assisted.

At Everett, project teachers Denise Salemi and Dawn Munro were joined by Prof. Fred Martin in leading the session. UMass Lowell undergraduate Qiana Curcuru assisted.

Akira Kamiya, the project’s Teacher Learning Center Director, made sure all of our technology worked as smoothly as possible.

The Everett Independent published a lovely article about the kids’ work.

Thanks everyone!

Three pairs in Azita’s class begin their final apps

Azita, at Andrews Middle School in Medford, is nearing the end of her Middle School Pathways curriculum. Students yesterday did their usual free-typing exercise for the first five minutes of class, then they either continued with a tutorial of their choice (one with a similar functionality to their own intended app) or, just jumped into programming their app itself. Azita typically projects the day’s agenda onto the whiteboard:

azita-agenda

Her students – using the pair programming approach – are at varying stages of producing their final apps. One team is working on a game where the user can help elderly people cross the street. Here is their app layout so far:

crossing-street-design

And here is the beginning of their code:

crossing-street-code

Another is working on an extension of the Digital Doodle app, where you can import a picture of your friend’s face, trace over it, and then remove the picture to reveal a Picasso-esque drawing. It’s like a drawing-helper app. Maybe we will see some similar things come out of Debbie’s art/technology classes over at McGlynn Middle School.

Another team found an image from an amusing potato meme online, and used it to test out loading pictures into components. This evolved into an idea for a fitness app, where the user’s avatar begins as a “couch potato” and turns into a stalk of asparagus once they finish their workout.

potato-design

The user will click a button, which triggers a text-to-speech function that gives an instruction to start walking. Then it sets a timer to count down the seconds, and ultimately change the potato image into an asparagus image.

“Okay, to de-potato-fye yourself please start walking at a moderate pace for 10 minutes.”

The pair can’t stop giggling! While they are having fun with the sometimes unexpected path of their creative process, their main focus is getting the timer function to work. Here is their code so far:

potato-code

The MSP curriculum with Azita’s class has certainly flown by! Other students are excited to incorporate the tablets’ GPS functionality into their apps. Stay tuned – more to come.

Transitioning from tutorials to building unique apps

Mike is about two-thirds finished with the curriculum for his two eighth grade classes at McGlynn Middle School in Medford.

On today’s agenda, the students continued to develop their programming skills with tutorial apps, and also brainstormed ideas for developing their own, unique ones.

I. Finishing up the tutorial apps

The students have been working on different tutorial apps at different paces.

One pair worked on extending “Two Things,” an app that features a picture of an elephant and a picture of a monkey, plus buttons to play their corresponding animal noises. This app requires one sound to pause when another one starts playing – a slightly more complex feature than introductory text-to-speech apps, which play sounds all the way through.

At first, the students struggled with the idea of nesting one logic statement within another in order to detect state – and how, exactly, these statements get ordered. We decided that sometimes, it helps to say the logic out loud in English before trying to fit the blocks together on the fly. The students nearly had this code block working (changing the if-statement to an if-else statement)… when the bell rang!

if-else-almost-finished

Another pair had extended their Digital Doodle app to include more colors:

doodle-more-colors

Excited to get things bouncing around the screen, they moved on to the Mini Golf tutorial. Another pair had similar excitement with the Space Invaders tutorial – but kept getting frustrated by red triangles, which indicate errors in the code. We talked about the importance of resolving bugs as you go, instead of letting them accumulate.

warning-messages-spaceship

II. Developing unique apps

The other part of Mike’s lesson was to get the students thinking about the meaning behind their Martin Luther King app tutorial. What sorts of apps could they create that would be meaningful and helpful to their own communities? Students wrote their ideas on the board over the course of the classes.

8A-themes    8B-themes

Most of these ideas related to their own interests and hobbies:

  • a tutorial app that would help someone maintain/fix a motocross vehicle
  • a tuning fork app that can help musicians tune their violins and cellos
  • a drawing app that will help basketball coaches explain plays to the team
  • a fill-in-the-blank grammar game that will help children learn the parts of speech

Next class, the students will vote on which ideas they like best, and will begin developing their own unique apps.

A simplified MoleMash

The MIT MoleMash tutorial for App Inventor introduces several best practices.

But sometimes “best practices” distract novices from what they really need to understand.

MoleMash means to introduce these particular big ideas:

  • sprites—which can move around and react to being “touched”
  • the random function, and using it to move a sprite by setting its X and Y coordinates
  • keeping a score variable, and incrementing it.

But the tutorial obscures these ideas by forcing you to learn other stuff:

Subprocedures. The code to move the mole around is put into a subprocedure.

  • But it’s only two lines long. We don’t need a subprocedure for this.

Positioning the mole by querying the canvas for its dimensions, constructing them as a ratio, and scaling it to the full canvas size by multiplying by the “random fraction” primitive. Seriously? I can barely understand this.

  • Let’s just hard-code some X and Y limits. It’s easier to explain to kids this way.

Concatenating label text with a numerical value. The approach for keeping score uses both a label to hold the word “Score” and a global for keeping track of the score number. Then, to update the score, the label “Score” plus the number value are concatenated.

  • Let’s just put a number only in the text label. Then we don’t need a separate global, and we can increment the label’s text directly.
  • Also there’s no need for an UpdateScore procedure.

With this simplified MoleMash, the entire code is this:

Code for simplified MoleMash.
Code for simplified MoleMash.

This is far, far simpler than the MIT code.

Notice that the bounds of the random X and Y coordinates are 1 to 100. These are the default parameters of the “random integer” block when you pull it out of the palette.

This means that the mole will only jump about in the upper left corner of the canvas. That’s fine! Kids can figure out on their own how to expand the range.

For beginners, it’s better to use concrete values than abstract functions.