[Edu-sig] more follow-up re Pycon / EduSummit

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Tue Jun 28 03:19:21 EDT 2016

Greeting AJG --

The background image in your blog shows what look to
be emulated TI calculators on every student's screen,
and I was wondering if the nSpire CAS TIs you mentioned
using were actually emulated, yet licensed on a per seat
basis which is why they needed to be donated.

Apologies for my ignorance about the current state of
the calculator market.

My own trajectory through high school was discovering
programmable calculators as an extracurricular hobby.

My good friend's dad, a civil engineer, had an HP65 and
my friend and I could do little programs that even "rolled
the stack" as an operation.  With parenthesis free reverse
polish notation (no equals key either) we had a strong
sense of what a stack was, sorta FORTH-like.

As long as computers were big and expensive like we
had at the university, I could understand why we weren't
sharing programming with the high schools.  The IBM
370 I was sending my programs to (PL/1, FORTRAN,
Snobol, APL) was huge, had its own building (shared
with a 360 as I recall).

The Unix PDPs scattered about were also plenty
expensive.  I asked for play time on those and as this
institution pampered undergrads, I was given some.

However, around the time of the PC revolution in the
1980s, even before the Open Source / Free Software
revolution, pre GNU / Linux, I started getting more
skeptical that scientific calculator era standards were

The screens were so tiny and what about 3D?

Programming is really more interesting but the
calculator languages were so black boxy and tied
to the one device....

We I do appreciate about the scientific calculator is
who much they densely pack in to a tiny box.

Going over each key, explaining what it does, is all
by itself the basis for a good course.

But that wasn't usually the approach taken.

Only a few keys would be explained, their meanings
leaked out in dribs and drabs over the years.  Not so

Like with any subject, sticking to the standard timeline
can lead to high levels of frustration.  One must undertake
to study to on one's own to move ahead at one's own pace.
One may wish to go faster or slower, and also take
detours, explore tangents.

Anyway, I'm preaching to the choir here aren't I?

By the time we get to Linux and Freedom Toasters in
the Republic of South Africa [1], I'm getting closer to
flabbergasted that we're still clinging to the graphing
calculators throughout high school. I'm beginning to
sense I'm a stranger in a strange land.

By this point in 2016, yet more years later, I'm rather
uncomprehending of the status quo, which seems
somewhat bizarre to me, like the Mad Hatter's tea
party in Alice and Wonderland.

For example, I can't make head or tail of why the US
Common Core is saying to ignore the "hex rails" our
"decimal trains" actually run on.

The bias against doing programming to learn math,
when even decent scientific calculators could do that,
comes across as foreign.  I have to conclude the
high school culture is not one I particularly understand,
having left the high school math teaching profession pre
hypertext and even pre Internet for most intents and
purposes (I had a guest account with the New Jersey
Institute of Technology on something dialup).

In the year since, I have field tested numerous courses
with real high and middle school aged guinea pigs (willing
and eager), mostly with a nonprofit called Saturday Academy,
but these were not for state credit and of a somewhat
experimental nature.

As a parent volunteer, I was permitted to teach an all 8th
grade Python-based course at Winterhaven, our "geek
Hogwarts" in Portland, and some of the content I covered
is summarized here:


I'd summarize some of the "lessons learned" (such as
to balance technical content with lore, storytelling) and
take these on the road to Pycons and OSCONs, most
concertedly to Chicago, the city of my birth.

I'm less in on the conference circuit these days (I didn't give
any talks at this year's Pycon and missed OSCON, though I
did help screen the latter's presentation proposals).  As
Nicholas noted at the eduSummit, I continue actively
posting to edu-sig here at least, one of my main haunts
for some decades.

Speaking of Nicholas Tollervey, I was at PDX Code Guild this
evening for Flying Circus night, and for the first time really
had a chance to dive in to his slim volume Python in Education,
Teach, Learn, Program (O'Reilly)

https://flic.kr/p/JA7ene (book cover)

The book shares in some detail about the hardware devices
we could be sharing with more students, in addition to running
Python in the cloud and/or on desktops / laptops and/or on
Android / iOS (again, I'm not myself very tolerant of tiny
screens and keyboards for writing / reading code).

https://flic.kr/p/Jx87k5  (Raspberry Pi)
https://flic.kr/p/Jx85V1  (MicroPython board)
https://flic.kr/p/Jx85tj  (Microbit)

The shift in emphasis to devices such as these seems to
already be a fait accompli in many education systems.

The main argument against joining the trend seems to be
the nature of the tests themselves, which are defined around
using a calculator.

Isn't that the tail wagging the dog though?

I mean I do appreciate test driven development, but passing
unit tests that might as well have been written in the 1980s
seems too much like living in a time warp to me i.e. it's
anachronistic.  I'm glad other front lines teachers are thinking
something similar.


[1]  http://www.freedomtoaster.org/
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