[Edu-sig] using Python as a calculator

Helene Martin lognaturel at gmail.com
Sun Apr 11 06:25:34 CEST 2010

(Speaking as a high school teacher with ~120 students in 3 different
levels of computer science courses in a public school in Seattle)

I guess my point is that computer science in general and programming
specifically have so much opportunity to be exciting for both the
majority of students who are burned out on "traditional classes" as
well as the minority of students who "know they likely won't be taken
seriously if they boast of math skills and yet evidence no ability to
think like computer scientists" (come on, that requires a high level
of intellectual sophistication and is REALLY rare).  I think we need
to exploit that opportunity to its full potential.

I steer away from purely math-oriented examples because they alienate
the majority of my students.  It's a tricky balancing act and I
certainly can't claim to have figured it out.  Selfishly, I'd like to
see the brilliant minds in this group sharing examples or ideas that
the average 13-18 year old would find exciting and worthy of further
exploration.  For example, a while back, Gregor Lingl shared a Turtle
Graphics example in which a turtle performs a random walk collecting
"coins" as it goes.  There are lots of interesting mathematical
concepts to discuss in there and it requires students to use a lot of
programming tools and ideas but it also has a "cool" factor.
Furthermore, the basic idea is reasonably simple to understand and to
see a use for (we can simulate other kinds of real-world situations,

I agree that we as educators are not entertainers and that learning is
important for the sake of learning but at the same time, we need to be
careful not to on one hand deplore the fact that students aren't
taking computing courses while on the other creating courses which are
dry and esoteric.

Again, I don't claim to have figured it out.  I say all this but at
the same time, I'm wary of courses which expose students to computing
applications without giving them many skills (programming/critical
thinking/math/algorithmics) or which rely entirely on one application
space (animation, games, personal robots, whatever) to be "sexy" and
capture students' attention.

I suppose it's all about goals.  One potential goal for using Python
in teaching is to reinforce and develop mathematical reasoning skills
and it seems like that's the focus of a lot of the people on this
list.  I believe that's a worthy goal and I try to accomplish some of
that in my courses as well, but it's not my primary goal.  I guess my
primary goal is to encourage students to see software as something
they can be a part of rather than simply as something they consume or
are forced to live with.  I don't have a ton of concrete ideas on how
to do that -- I think I've somehow crafted successful courses on
intuition more than anything else and can't really formally express
what I'm doing yet -- but I really do see it as a very different goal
that leads to very different types of courses.

And maybe I'm the only one who sees the majority of examples and ideas
on this list as esoteric!  It's something I often find myself thinking
so I thought I'd try to describe and explain a bit of my discomfort.
Not sure I really expressed myself very well -- sorry!


On Sat, Apr 10, 2010 at 4:06 PM, kirby urner <kirby.urner at gmail.com> wrote:
> On Sat, Apr 10, 2010 at 9:23 AM, Helene Martin <lognaturel at gmail.com> wrote:
>> I humbly disagree that this is the right place to start.  I teach
>> students with diverse backgrounds -- some extremely bright and others
>> really behind in school and using Python as a calculator is one thing
>> they would all agree is terrifically boring and not so compelling.
>> How many students have ever said "man, I really wish I had a trig
>> table right now?"
> Yes Helen, I really do understand this concern.
> It's a concern that somewhat worries me though.
> Maybe the problem is students aren't being paid to be there.
> Should we offer frequent flyer miles for assignments turned in?  On Delta?
>> I agree that one way to sell programming is to incorporate it into
>> math courses and maybe that kind of start is more appropriate there.
> Ah, now I see the problem.
> There's this notion of trying to "sell programming" whereas world class
> schools already mix computer programming with math.
> Speaking of which, check out this cool steampunk monitor:
> http://steampunkworkshop.com/lcd.shtml
>> It's not like I start with fireworks and fanfare but I'm thrilled to
>> see Turtle be fun and compelling for students of all levels.  Most of
>> them discover Python can do math when they try to see whether they
>> could pass in a scaling parameter and guess that multiplication is
>> probably an asterisk.  I mention order of operation and integer
>> division and we move on.
> My students know they likely won't be taken seriously if they boast of math
> skills and yet evidence no ability to think like computer scientists.
> Knowing how to program is just one of those "goes with the territory" kinds
> of skills associated with STEM.
> My bias derives from literature funded in some measure by
> DARPA-with-a-backwards-R -- for "radical"  (a CP4E commercial).
> Why is OLPC / G1G1 is so important:  to help kids elsewhere from suffering
> the same fate.
>> I enjoy reading this list and learn many interesting tidbits from it
>> but, as I think I've mentioned before, I often find myself chuckling a
>> bit.  A lot of what is said on here is so incredibly esoteric and far
>> from my students' realities!
> I teach Pythonic Math off and on through a nonprofit backed by Silicon
> Forest interests.
> The view of many Silicon Foresters is that the traditional math education
> being provided in high schools is simply a forced march in the wrong
> direction.
> My students have been highly diverse, including a Goth girl who hated school
> (wicked smart though), many with English as a 2nd language, many home
> schoolers.  Lots of disaffected, refugees.
> Those doing well on the calculator / calculus track may see no reason to
> leave The Matrix.
> Kirby

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