Computer Science for Teachers

 If you hailed from India and you were born in the early 1980s, I am sure there was a time in your life when a computer for you, was that white big monitor with a huge CPU by its side and a keyboard placed in a ‘computer lab’ which was always air-conditioned and only those privileged students who opted to learn Computer Science could lay hands on them. I wasn’t in that cohort which chose to study Computers at that time.  So, the need to understand the power of these gentle machines was always strong all through my life. Now, when a professional development course on “Computer Science for Teachers” came my way, I just grabbed the opportunity.  Opportunity knocks only once!

What did I learn here?

I have learned a bit of programming here and there during my student life. It had been a tiring job. Let me tell you why. If one misses a semicolon, adds extra space, or misses some “keywords in the programming language, it would just give one result – syntax error! It was not surprising that most of my time then went in perfecting my syntax and I gave less importance to the logic behind writing a computer program.

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Twenty-five years later, a lot of things have changed. Google, in collaboration with MIT’s Scratch team has brought out a user-friendly programming app called “Scratch”. In it, you have a ‘sprite’. Nope, not the drink. It’s an inanimate object. Now, to animate the sprite and make it do what you want, you will have to choose the right instructions from boxes and place them in a meaningful and logical order. One can make the sprite do simple things like moving across the screen, to make complex games like the one created by my colleague, Glory.  This might involve working with multiple sprites, backgrounds, inserting sounds, and working with shapes/ objects to decide if the ‘ball’ has entered the goal!

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Click here to play the game Glory has designed and here to understand the code she had used to create this awesome game.

Scratch takes programming to a different level as it can be shared in the public domain and anyone can take a program and make it better – of course, after giving credit to the person who had originally created the program. This automatically brings in a lot of learning and also a scope to build on existing ideas and make the final product better and better with every collaboration. Scratch also successfully manages to take away the difficulty of typing in codes and all the programmer’s energy is focused on using the different tools logically to make the outcome better.

Why should Teachers learn how to program?

  In the beginning of this essay, I had mentioned that computers were these graceful machines sitting comfortably in air-conditioned rooms. Today, computers have morphed themselves in all shapes and sizes that devices like your washing machine to the famous self-driving Tesla have computers in them. In a few years from now, every device will have an in-built computer and these devices will be able to communicate with each other through the internet. Computers will play a role in every aspect of our lives. Just like how reading and writing has made people literate and have liberated them to a large extent, your ability to tell computers what you need will enhance your ability to make these machines work for you exactly the way you want them to.

  According to Associate Professor (Pittsburgh University) Annette Vee, also the author of Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing if a person is not computer literate, they will have to rely on others to help them navigate their lives. She even goes to the extent of calling programming “re-coding literacy”.  She also airs the views of two experts, Yasim Kafai, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Quinn Burke, Assistant Professor of Education at the College of Charleston in her book. They say that teaching young people introductory programming isn’t about helping them to become computer programmers, but to help them become more creators and consumers of digital media.

As teachers play a significant role in shaping the future of young people, it becomes imperative that we don’t just understand how to program computers but also be good at it. This is not just to facilitate learning for our students but also to enrich our own lives too and thereby stay relevant in the future. Among many cultures, ‘Toys(computers) for Boys and Dolls for girls’ is still a common practice. We as teachers should ensure that this disparity ends and ensure computer education is for all.

Is CS for Teachers just a four-week programme?

  On paper, yes. But, in spirit, learning is forever. It is an ongoing process. So, would Mr.Mick facilitate learning for us in the coming months and years…? Maybe, or maybe he doesn’t need to. This is because we got introduced to multiple online communities which would serve as learning portals. An informal place where we can learn more is the Scratch website itself. One can take the most complicated scratch game and take time to understand the codes involved in making it what it is. There are scores of YouTube pages which will help one understand how complicated tasks can be achieved using some simple programming hacks. Commenting below these videos will start conversations with the creator of the video or other viewers, both of which will facilitate discussions and further learning. One can, therefore, create a map for her/his learning, treat learning as an adventure, and ‘visit’ every place they want to go on their map.

We also explored online learning communities in our own subjects and found some valuable ones. Since I teach Chemistry, I have given some links to some good Chemistry online communities.

Nature – Online Community – Connect to people who work in your areas of interest.

Stack Exchange – Chemistry – Ask any question, and get an answer from an expert.

Roshan Thomas,
Chemistry Teacher

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