[Edu-sig] Significant drop in CS interest in high schools

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Fri Aug 28 08:10:55 CEST 2009

On Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 10:11 PM, Helene Martin<lognaturel at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Our user group PPUG has kept bringing up Sage (the free Python
>> product) and the Sage community as one to get work with.  But our
>> ranks include mostly family guys or up and coming private sector,
>> precious few in the teaching professions.
>> As you say, there's a big cultural disconnect between what goes on in
>> the classroom and what goes on in a Python user group -- and that's
>> wrong, why waste so much time on a wild goose chase (chasing the
>> specter of maths gone by).
> Collaboration is always expensive so sometimes it just feels easier to
> pursue an idea in isolation.  I'm definitely guilty of that myself.

And sometimes that's a good thing, as that's what artists call
artistic control e.g. none of the great poems were written by
committee (I might be challenged on that, but it sounds right to say).
 You need that unifying vision.

But then I think you need exposure to other artists to keep it fresh
and relevant.

So probably a mix of collaboration and solo work is the best in many
cases.  Observing Portland's music scene, I'm seeing much to confirm

> I'm aware of Sage but I don't think I'll be using it, at least for
> this first year.  It sounds like I'm taking a decidedly less
> mathematical approach to teaching Python than you and probably a lot
> of people would prefer.  In my mind, the goal initially is to get
> students -- and not just the AP kids -- curious enough to use
> programming as a way to express themselves and dare to try things they
> don't know will work.  For a lot of kids, math is not going to be the
> hook but interface design, data visualizations, automated music
> generation and other such things might be.  I'd like for them to think
> of Python (or JavaScript or Processing or Java) as another great tool
> they can use to pursue whatever goals they have.
> There's a delicate balance to strike between academic content and a
> good hook, though.  It remains to be seen whether I can strike it
> properly.

Yes, I'm all for hooks, proving up front that this stuff is going to kick ass.

My classes have tended to be purely elective, outside regular school,
on Saturdays, for a fee, and not for academic credit (except that
around here, Saturday Academy certificates are valued, a real asset on
college admissions forms, plus there's the internship program).

So I've had to work extra hard to make my classes exciting.  That's
meant showing some cartoons and then talking about ray tracing as a
way to make frames of film (render farms give us more frames at a
time).  They watch short movies like 'Warriors of the Web' and 'Code
Guardian' as specimens, then turn to a simpler workbench where we use
Python with POV-Ray.

We also talk about lore quite a bit i.e. what is the history of open
source, where did Linux come from, who is Richard Stallman, what is
GNU?  I've been known to screen excerpts from 'Revolution OS' which
starts from the birth of Linux through the first dot com boom, so
dated, but still interesting.

This more math-centric approach I'm talking up on this list
(edu-sig at python.org) is more in the storyboard phase i.e. it's an
attempt to break away from the pattern of an elective subject that
needs to rely on just word of mouth.

We're hoping to shift more of the computer stuff into the math domain
because that's where you get the required credits.

If our digital math track includes enough calculus (among other
things), it could probably completely replace that analog math track
though all four years of high school.

Once kids have a test of learning math in conjunction with ray
tracing, making colorful polyhedra spin in a VRML browser, they don't
easily go back to the old formats.

>> It's the same scene of being surrounded by high tech, kids full of
>> hope, and schools in the dark ages.
>> Our Hillsboro Police Department (next to Intel) was really tired of
>> getting asked to bust kids chops for software piracy, ripping off
>> music (this was Napster's golden year) and when they found about about
>> FOSS they went apeshit, going "why do we have to play the mean guy
>> enforcer when we could be having fun watching these kids develop
>> cyberspace skills and not end up career criminals?"
>> So HPD opened a Linux Lab right there in West Precinct (hand-me-down
>> Compaqs running Red Hat).
>> Me 'n Jerritt (with linuxfund.org back then) were two of the teachers,
>> contracted through saturdayacademy.org.
>> But guess what:  teenagers don't really think of a police station as
>> being congenial to their way of life, so the marketing was a real up
>> hill battle.
>> Also the premise was born or desperation:  schools so not doing their
>> jobs that the police needed to step in as digital math teachers, when
>> they're supposed to be running forensics labs.  Like how twisted is
>> that?  George Heuston, the brains behind this project, along with his
>> chief, was unusually ahead of the pack in his thinking (quite a
>> resume, FBI, NORAD... I don't know the half of it I'm sure).
> This is a really interesting anecdote.  It's really disappointing to
> think that the police force would be more aware of the need for
> technology education than schools!  I wonder whether I could get a
> digital forensics expert to talk about his/her work.  I bet that would
> be interesting to kids.

We have these Science Pubs around Portland, sponsored by the science
museum and the leading brew pub chain.

The crime lab police woman was tremendously popular, in part because
there are so many forensics shows on TV these days.


George Heuston did more digital forensics i.e. analyzed hard drives
recovered from crime scenes.  I think these would be dynamite speakers
as well, in a science pub or even math pub context.

>> Garfield High in Seattle?  Where my mom went as a kid?  And Jimi Hendrix?
> The one and only!


Glad to be on your Ning thing, thanks for inviting me!


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