Learning to Think Like a Computer

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A kindergartner organizes blocks into a sequence of commands at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University. CreditCharlie Mahoney for The New York Times

In “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” the course he helped conceive for nonmajors at the University of California, Berkeley, Daniel Garcia explains an all-important concept in computer science — abstraction — in terms of milkshakes.

“There is a reason when you go to the ‘Joy of Cooking’ and you want to make a strawberry milkshake, you don’t look under ‘strawberry milkshake,’ ” he said. Rather, there is a recipe for milkshakes that instructs you to add ice cream, milk and fruit of your choice. While earlier cookbooks may have had separate recipes for strawberry milkshakes, raspberry milkshakes and boysenberry milkshakes, eventually, he imagines, someone said, “Why don’t we collapse that into one milkshake recipe?”

“The idea of abstraction,” he said, “is to hide the details.” It requires recognizing patterns and distilling complexity into a precise, clear summary. It’s like the countdown to a space launch that runs through a checklist — life support, fuel, payload — in which each check represents perhaps 100 checks that have been performed.

Concealing layers of information makes it possible to get at the intersections of things, improving aspects of a complicated system without understanding and grappling with each part. Abstraction allows advances without redesigning from scratch.

It is a cool and useful idea that, along with other cool and useful computer science ideas, has people itching to know more. It’s obvious that computers have become indispensable problem-solving partners, not to mention personal companions. But it’s suddenly not enough to be a fluent user of software interfaces. Understanding what lies behind the computer’s seeming magic now seems crucial. In particular, “computational thinking” is captivating educators, from kindergarten teachers to college professors, offering a new language and orientation to tackle problems in other areas of life.

This promise — as well as a job market hungry for coding — has fed enrollments in classes like the one at Berkeley, taken by 500 students a year. Since 2011, the number of computer science majors has more than doubled, according to the Computing Research Association. At Stanford, Princeton and Tufts, computer science is now the most popular major. More striking, though, is the appeal among nonmajors. Between 2005 and 2015, enrollment of nonmajors in introductory, mid- and upper-level computer science courses grew by 177 percent, 251 percent and 143 percent, respectively.

In the fall, the College Board introduced a new Advanced Placement course, Computer Science Principles, focused not on learning to code but on using code to solve problems. And WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, is using National Science Foundation money to help develop a program for 3- to 5-year-olds in which four cartoon monkeys get into scrapes and then “get out of the messes by applying computational thinking,” said Marisa Wolsky, executive producer of children’s media. “We see it as a groundbreaking curriculum that is not being done yet.”

Computational thinking is not new. Seymour Papert, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and an M.I.T. professor, used the term in 1980 to envision how children could use computers to learn. But Jeannette M. Wing, in charge of basic research at Microsoft and former professor at Carnegie Mellon, gets credit for making it fashionable. In 2006, on the heels of the dot-com bust and plunging computer science enrollments, Dr. Wing wrote a trade journal piece, “Computational Thinking.” It was intended as a salve for a struggling field.

“Things were so bad that some universities were thinking of closing down computer science departments,” she recalled. Some now consider her article a manifesto for embracing a computing mind-set.

Like any big idea, there is disagreement about computational thinking — its broad usefulness as well as what fits in the circle. Skills typically include recognizing patterns and sequences, creating algorithms, devising tests for finding and fixing errors, reducing the general to the precise and expanding the precise to the general.

It requires reframing research, said Shriram Krishnamurthi, a computer science professor at Brown, so that “instead of formulating a question to a human being, I formulate a question to a data set.” For example, instead of asking if the media is biased toward liberals, pose the question as: Are liberals identified as liberal in major newspapers more often or less often than conservatives are identified as conservative?

Dr. Krishnamurthi helped create “Introduction to Computation for the Humanities and Social Sciences” more than a decade ago because he wanted students “early in their undergrad careers to learn a new mode of thinking that they could take back to their discipline.” Capped at 20 students, the course now has a waitlist of more than 100.

Just as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is drafted to explain politics and business, Dr. Wing argued for broad use of computer ideas. And not just for work. Applying computational thinking, “we can improve the efficiencies of our daily lives,” she said in an interview, “and make ourselves a little less stressed out.”

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In his computer science course for nonmajors at the University of California, Berkeley, Dan Garcia wants students to understand why computers are “not magical.” In this exercise, students sort a deck of shuffled cards into ordered suits while being timed. They sort solo, then in pairs, then fours, then eights. But more people don’t always make it go faster. Amdahl’s law offers an equation to show that even with many computers tackling a problem, the time to complete the task does not decrease linearly. There are bottlenecks.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Computing practices like reformulating tough problems into ones we know how to solve, seeing trade-offs between time and space, and pipelining (allowing the next action in line to begin before the first completes the sequence) have many applications, she said.

Consider the buffet line. “When you go to a lunch buffet, you see the forks and knives are the first station,” she said. “I find that very annoying. They should be last. You shouldn’t have to balance your plate while you have your fork and knife.” Dr. Wing, who equates a child filling her backpack to caching (how computers retrieve and store information needed later), sees the buffet’s inefficiency as a failure to apply logical thinking and sequencing.

Computational thinking, she said, can aid a basic task like planning a trip — breaking it into booking flights, hotels, car rental — or be used “for something as complicated as health care or policy decision-making.” Identifying subproblems and describing their relationship to the larger problem allows for targeted work. “Once you have well-defined interfaces,” she said, “you can ignore the complexity of the rest of the problem.”

Can computational thinking make us better at work and life? Dr. Krishnamurthi is sometimes seduced. “Before I go grocery shopping, I sort my list by aisles in the store,” he said. Sharing the list on the app Trello, his family can “bucket sort” items by aisle (pasta and oils, canned goods, then baking and spices), optimizing their path through Whole Foods. It limits backtracking and reduces spontaneous, “i.e., junk,” purchases, he said.

Despite his chosen field, Dr. Krishnamurthi worries about the current cultural tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, better than that gained in other fields. Right now, he said, “we are just overly intoxicated with computer science.”

It is certainly worth wondering if some applications of computational thinking are trivial, unnecessary or a Stepford Wife-like abdication of devilishly random judgment.

Alexander Torres, a senior majoring in English at Stanford, has noted how the campus’s proximity to Google has lured all but the rare student to computer science courses. He’s a holdout. But “I don’t see myself as having skills missing,” he said. In earning his degree he has practiced critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and making logical arguments. “When you are analyzing a Dickinson or Whitman or Melville, you have to unpack that language and synthesize it back.”

There is no reliable research showing that computing makes one more creative or more able to problem-solve. It won’t make you better at something unless that something is explicitly taught, said Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who studies computing in education. “You can’t prove a negative,” he said, but in decades of research no one has found that skills automatically transfer.

Still, he added, for the same reasons people should understand biology, chemistry or physics, “it makes a lot of sense to understand computing in our lives.” Increasing numbers of people must program in their jobs, even if it’s just Microsoft Excel. “Solving problems with computers happens to all of us every day,” he said. How to make the skills available broadly is “an interesting challenge.”

“It’s like being a diplomat and learning Spanish; I feel like it’s essential,” said Greer Brigham, a Brown freshman who plans to major in political science. He’s taking the course designed by Dr. Krishnamurthi, which this term is being taught by a graduate student in robotics named Stephen Brawner.

On a March morning at the Brown computer science center, Mr. Brawner projected a student’s homework assignment on the screen. Did anyone notice a problem? Nary a humanities hand was raised. Finally, a young woman suggested “centimeters” and “kilograms” could be abbreviated. Fine, but not enough.

Mr. Brawner broke the silence and pointed out long lines of code reaching the far side of the screen. With a practiced flurry, he inserted backslashes and hit “return” repeatedly, which drew the symbols into a neat block. It may all be directions to a machine, but computer scientists care a great deal about visual elegance. As Mr. Brawner cut out repeated instructions, he shared that “whenever we define a constant, we want that at the top of our code.” He then explained the new assignment: write a program to play “rock, paper, scissors” against a computer.

Mili Mitra, a junior majoring in public policy and economics who sat with a MacBook on her lap, would not have considered this class a year ago. But seeing group research projects always being handed off to someone with computing knowledge, she decided that she “didn’t want to keep passing them along.” She has learned to write basic code and fetch data sets through the internet to analyze things she’s interested in, such as how geographic proximity shapes voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly.

Despite finding interactions with a computer much like “explaining things to a toddler,” Ms. Mitra credits the class for instilling the habit of “going step by step and building a solution.” She admits to being an impatient learner: “I jump ahead. In C.S. you don’t have a choice. If you miss a step, you mess up everything.”

Just as children are drilled on the scientific method — turn observations into a hypothesis, design a control group, do an experiment to test your theory — the basics of working with computers is being cast as a teachable blueprint. One thing making this possible is that communicating with computers has become easier.

“Block” programming languages like Scratch, released by the M.I.T. Media Lab a decade ago, hide text strings that look like computer keys run amok. That makes coding look less scary. Instead of keyboard letters and symbols, you might select from a menu and drag a color-coded block that says “say ( ) for ( ) secs” or “play note ( ) for ( ) beats.” The colors and shapes correspond to categories like “sound” or “motion”; the blocks can be fit together like stacked puzzle pieces to order instructions. Students use this to, say, design a game.

One need not be a digital Dr. Doolittle, fluent in hard-core programming languages like Java or Python, to code. Block languages cut out the need to memorize commands, which vary depending on the computer language, because the block “is read just the way you think about it,” Dr. Garcia said. Students in his Berkeley course use the block language Snap! for assignments — he doesn’t teach Python until the last two weeks, and then just so they can take higher-level courses. “We tell them, ‘You already know how to program,’ ” he said, because the steps are the same.

Computer Science A, which teaches Java, is the fastest-growing Advanced Placement course. (The number of students taking the exam in 2016 rose 18 percent over 2015 and nearly tripled in a decade.) But professors complained that “Java was not the right way” to attract a diverse group of students, said Trevor Packer, head of the A.P. program, so a new course was developed.

The course, Computer Science Principles, is modeled on college versions for nonmajors. It lets teachers pick any coding language and has a gentler vibe. There is an exam, but students also submit projects “more similar to a studio art portfolio,” Mr. Packer said. The course covers working with data and understanding the internet and cyber security, and it teaches “transferable skills,” he said, like formulating precise questions. That’s a departure from what the College Board found in many high schools: “They were learning how to keyboard, how to use Microsoft applications.” The goal is that the new course will be offered in every high school in the country.

President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative, officially launched last year, resulted in educators, lawmakers and computer science advocates spreading the gospel of coding. It also nudged more states to count computer science toward high school graduation requirements. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia now do, up from 12 in 2013, according to Code.org. It’s what Dr. Wing had hoped for when she advocated in her 2006 article that, along with reading, writing and arithmetic “we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.”

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After arranging blocks into a sequence of commands, kindergartners at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School scanned the bar codes on the blocks into their yellow robot. It obeyed their commands.CreditCharlie Mahoney for The New York Times

In an airy kindergarten classroom at Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, in the Tufts University Department of Child Study and Human Development, children program with actual blocks. Marina Umaschi Bers, a child development and computer science professor, created wooden blocks that bear bar codes with instructions such as “forward,” “spin” and “shake” that are used to program robots — small, wheeled carts with built-in scanners — by sequencing the blocks, then scanning them. Each “program” starts with a green “begin” block and finishes with a red “end.”

Coding for the youngest students has become the trendy pedagogy, with plentiful toys and apps like Dr. Bers’s blocks. Dr. Bers, who with M.I.T. collaborators developed the block language ScratchJr, is evangelical about coding. Learning the language of machines, she said, is as basic as writing is to being proficient in a foreign language. “You are able to write a love poem, you are able to write a birthday card, you are able to use language in many expressive ways,” she said. “You are not just reading; you are producing.”

Peer-reviewed studies by Dr. Bers show that after programming the robots, youngsters are better at sequencing picture stories. Anecdotally, she said, when they ask children to list steps for brushing teeth, they get just a few, “but after being exposed to this work, they’ll have 15 or 20 steps.”

Dr. Bers embeds computing in activities familiar to young children like inventing stories, doing dances and making art. At the Tufts school on a recent morning, children puzzled over a question: How does a robot celebrate spring?

“He’s going to dance, and then he will pretend that he is wet,” offered Hallel Cohen-Goldberg, a kindergartner with a mane of curls.

Solina Gonzalez, coloring a brown, blue and red circle with markers, peered soberly through pink-framed glasses: “He just does a lollipop dance.” Solina’s partner, Oisin Stephens, fretted about the root beer lollipop drawing she had taped to a block. “The robot won’t be able to read this,” he said. (It’s an invalid input.)

As they lurched around the carpet on their knees, the children executed computer science concepts like breaking instructions into sequenced commands, testing and debugging. One team used “repeat” and “stop repeat” blocks, forming a programming “loop,” a sequence of instructions that is continually repeated until a certain condition is reached.

Why Kids Should Make the Video Games They Love to Play

Mindshift

Screen grab of a coin collecting game created by a middle school student using Gamestar Mechanic.

When educator Lynn Koresh hears from kids that they want a career doing something with computers, she asks, “To do what with computers?”

Adults often encourage kids to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, and computing classes are usually a first stop. But Koresh knows it’s the real-world applications of computational thinking and coding language skills that bring such knowledge to life.

She reasoned that most middle school students are already playing video games and might respond well to a unit on how to design, create, test and promote video games. Along the way, she’s also teaching them about digital citizenship and entrepreneurship.

“I wanted to give kids exposure to what it means to have a career using computers,” said Koresh, technology coordinator at Edgewood Campus School in Madison, Wisconsin.

She gave students the task of designing a game using Gamestar Mechanic. It’s a Web tool that helps kids create games. Before any programming begins, students talk about their games, set objectives and start storyboarding on paper. They think about the game’s avatars and how the game mechanics will work. Koresh shared her experience teaching this class at the Games Learning Society conference in Madison.

As students develop their games, they test them on one another throughout the semester. Koresh has found kids often give short and positive feedback, making it challenging to learn enough to improve the game. She says the kids respond this way mostly because they’re concerned for their friends and worry that they’ll get a bad grade, even though that’s not the case.

“You have to get specific enough so they don’t say, ‘It’s good, I liked it.’ You have to force them to take a stand.”

To help improve the process, she has reframed the questions around student game critiques in a consumer-oriented way, such as, “Would you pay 99 cents for this app? Would you give it three stars or four stars?”

To help them become more critical thinkers, the students read product reviews on blogs and business sites to learn about features that might improve the user experience. In the process, Koresh hopes the kids learn to be selective digital consumers and do research before making purchases or trusting a source.

It’s also an opportunity to talk about a person’s digital footprint and the types of comments, images and videos that can come back to haunt someone.

“If you put it online, it should be worthy of other students, grandma, everyone seeing it,” said Koresh.

Once the games are completed, the middle school students have three seconds to pitch their game to fourth-grade players in the form of a slide on a computer screen. Since time to persuade the audience is limited, much like in real life, game designers have to “sell” their game with one compelling slide. Students have to be selective about which elements of the game to highlight. Creating the slide is also an opportunity to talk about marketing.

“It’s great you’ve made something, but how do you get other people to use it?” Koresh asks her students. They get a good idea about how well their ad has worked based on the number of plays their games receive.

As for whether parents object to kids spending more time on video games, she says they have been supportive of STEM activities and pre-coding skills learned in game design. Koresh has found the time students spent on the games, both inside and outside class, has helped them think about coding as an extracurricular activity. Girls who have created games in her class have gone on to enter STEM design competitions.

Here are some of the ads Koresh’s students created that link to their games:

Dive, Dive, DiveCoin Collecting Game Dive Dive Dive

Those Mondays
Those Mondays game

Plague DustersPlague Dusters

Jewelbots is a smart bracelet designed to get girls coding

TheNextWeb

 by OWEN WILLIAMS Tweet — July 12, 2015

Jewelbots hopes to bring the old-school friendship bracelet into the iPhone age and teach girls to code with its smart jewelry.

The team behind the Kickstarter project — which has already raised double the $30,000 goal — has built an open-source wearable for teen and tween girls to encourage them to learn coding through basic logic.

The bracelets have four LEDs, a vibration motor and Bluetooth connectivity. They connect with each other to form a mesh network, which means a phone isn’t required to communicate with friends.

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Out of the box, a Jewelbot can detect nearby friends and send secret messages, but with simple logic and a few taps it can be extended to do a lot more.

Extending the bracelet is straightforward, using a smartphone and a “if this then that” style workflow. It can be programmed, for example, to light up when a specific friend is nearby.

The bracelet can also be plugged into a computer via USB and developed on directly to create further extensions, using the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE).

The developers designed the project by working with groups of teen girls, who gave feedback on aesthetics and functionality.

The team has created two phases of prototypes already and plans a final round before testing and manufacturing begins later this year.

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Jewelbots is the brainchild of CEO, Sara Chipps, and COO, Brooke Moreland, who set out to “inspire a deep curiosity and lasting love for computers and programming” using the devices.

The pair say they hope to get girls to “[open] their minds to science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] at an age when many lose interest.

I love the idea of Jewelbots. It’s a tangible way to pique girls’ interest in coding and offers a path to getting them hooked. I know from first-hand experience that there’s nothing quite like coding something that can be touched and used in the real world.

The company also hosted ‘Bring Your Daughter To Hack‘ Events in New York and San Francisco las month, where kids were able to build their own wearables.

A single Jewelbot starts at $59 with a pack of two costing $89. They won’t ship until March 2016 and reward tiers are limited, so you’ll have to get in fast if you’re interested.

Learning Algebra Through Making Video Games

The Modesto Bee
BY NAN AUSTIN NAUSTIN@MODBEE.COM
04/02/2015
Characters scurrying around homemade video games are taking Mountain View Middle School students to the next level – in algebra.

Eighth-grade math teacher Carrie Silva uses Bootstrap, an algebraic video game programming tool, to imprint such concepts as the Pythagorean theorem and how to calculate a slope. Wednesday, parents got to see what their kids dreamed up and put in virtual motion.

“He’s been talking about this since the open house,” said Rebecca Mendoza. Her son dived into the project, she added. “It was a lot of work.”

Angel Mendoza created a hot-pursuit game in which police chase a “loser” thief – “still living with his mom at 47” – and a bag of money. Angel liked having a stealth math lesson embedded in the game Silva used. “She made it really fun,” he said.

To shift his game pieces into action, Angel had to give them coordinates to move between. In regular math class, plotting points on the x axis and y axis is taught with a lecture. In programming, that algebraic mapping system is a tool in play, navigated with precision and hours of unnoticed practice.

“It taught them the distance formula, which is huge in eighth grade. They learned domain and range, understanding functions. This just took functions to a whole new level,” Silva said.

She found the Bootstrap site while researching new lesson plans for Common Core’s integrated approach to math. Starting in sixth grade, the state standards mix geometry, algebra and trigonometry through increasingly complex problems, rather than having separate years for each. The change means students can tackle real world problems in class, not just worksheets, and made the programming exercise a good fit.

“The best part was them being excited about the math and wanting to get the math so they could make their games,” she said. State testing on the new math program has not started in the Chatom Union School District, but Silva said she believes the kids will do well.

“They’re already using academic vocabulary. They’re throwing all those words around, where before I had to force them to use it. It’s like programming made it cool,” she said.
“I love the use of academic language,” said Chatom Superintendent Cherise Olvera after an in-depth student explanation of graphing coordinates.

“Coordinates,” “quadrants,” “scale,” “dilation,” “x axis” and “square root” flew without students giving them a thought, except to check if they had lost their parents in the math. There were a few blank looks, but the smiles stayed firmly in place.

“I’m glad they had this and we’re seeing the video games together,” said mom Liz Erb. “They all did great. Mrs. Silva kept them interested and it was good.”

Principal Monica Schut said the program got students excited about math. “They really see the connection between doing work in class and in the real world,” she said.

Students, showing their projects in groups of two or three, said the games gave them a new appreciation for the multilevel, 3-D masterworks they buy.

“This took us two weeks,” said Allison Nunes, pointing to her group’s simple game in which character “Grandma Foster” chases an object, “Sir Fluffy” the cat, across a road while avoiding a car, the game’s danger.

All the games had much the same format: character, object and danger moving around a small playing area. In the student-created games, Chuck Norris rides a sea turtle into battle against North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and a hippo chases a zebra to get a magic apple, but there is nothing silly about the algebra.

Math homework makes more sense because of what he’s learned in programming, said eighth-grader Davis Vieira. “It seems a lot easier because of what we have to do in the game,” he said.

See the games at http://mrssilva8.weebly.com/projects.html.

Read more here: http://www.modbee.com/news/local/education/article17261747.html#storylink=cpy

The Value of the Designer Who Codes

Inc.com

There’s a new breed of tech experts out there, and they’re poised to take over design and engineering at the most innovative of start-ups.
Quora leadership team, from left: Charlie Cheever, Rebekah Cox, and Adam D’Angelo.

“Well, it’s a start, but basically it stinks,” said Steve Jobs, telling early Apple engineer Chris Espinosa exactly how he felt about the company’s first calculator application.

Iteration after iteration, Jobs continued to be dissatisfied with the calculator. Espinosa continued to code, slowly inching his way to perfection. But nothing was quite right. In a flash of both brilliance and perhaps frustration, Espinosa put together a visual builder that let Jobs design the calculator himself by changing the thickness of the lines, the size of the buttons, the shading, and the background, without doing too much technical tinkering. He dubbed it “The Steve Jobs Roll-Your-Own Calculator Construction Set.”

After about 10 minutes, Jobs had dialed in to his perfection. This version of the calculator application was shipped with Mac OS for 15 years.

This was a story about two people. But imagine how powerful it would be if it were about one. What if the design vision of Steve Jobs could be in the same brain as the engineering excellence of Chris Espinosa?

It’s no mistake that this is very much the sort of thing that is most valued within the most effective software teams in Silicon Valley. Let’s call it “the designer who codes.” This is the sort of person can build exactly what he knows people need, with an aesthetic that compliments its use, with no back-and-forth.

Silicon Valley start-up Quora does it this way to great effect. They take the process simplicity to the next level. Every person on lead designer Rebekah Cox’s team is also an engineer. The design doesn’t happen in Photoshop. It happens in the text editor, in code.

“Knowing the technology better means more productive arguments when there are disagreements because everyone speaks the same language,” says Cox.

They’re not the only ones. Unsurprisingly, Facebook (where Cox started her career as a product design lead) has been running its design team in the same way for years. Unlike most software companies where day-to-day and detailed product decisions are made by product managers with business backgrounds, Mark Zuckerberg’s design team is his imperial guard. They work closer to him than any other discipline in the company.

The powerful fusion of great design, great engineering, and real authority in the hands of those people, results in magical user experiences. As we have seen over and over again, this simple dynamic creates truly great products.

Is Google’s “Made with Code” program getting more girls into tech?

By now, it’s no secret that tech has a gender problem. Recently, the same press that once lauded Silicon Valley’s meritocracy has taken a more sordid view of the same landscape. Or maybe it’s just a more honest one which admits that although hiring more women yields higher profits, minimal progress has been made.

Earlier this year, Google announced that more than four-fifths of its American workforce is male. It also pledged to donate up to $50 million to nonprofits that aim to close this gender divide.

How is that money being put to use?

Coding party Is Googles Made with Code program getting more girls into tech?

Three months later, several U.S. national nonprofits have received grants from Google’s Made with Code initiative. In the U.S. capitol, Girls Inc. of theWashington, DC Metropolitan Area is one of them. They received $2,500 from their national affiliate to host 100 local girls at coding parties across four DC wards by December 31, 2014.

Their aim is to excite girls about what they can create with code, at an age when they are most likely to start abandoning STEM subjects in school. This involves teaching them what code can do – or, more specifically, what code can build that they might not have thought of.

“So far, we have hosted four coding parties serving 50 girls total,” Christina Brown, program coordinator at Girls Inc. DC, told The Next Web. “Three more hosting parties have already been scheduled to take place between the rest of September and the month of October.  We are hoping to schedule at least one more in the month of October.  We have partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington to host coding parties to introduce their girls to the world of code as well.”

girls coding Is Googles Made with Code program getting more girls into tech?

After a series of icebreakers and team building activities, girls at these parties make their own projects that range from JPEGs and avatars to music beats and jewelry.

“During the Coding Parties, we coded bracelets on madewithcode.com,” a 12-year-old participant named Calder explained via Girls Inc. DC.  “We also coded avatars and some musical beats.  I learned that code is used for a lot more than just computer websites and apps – it is used for music, jewelry, clothing, and so much more.”

But what happens once the parties end? Are they enough to spearhead further action?

Denese Lombardi, Executive Director of Girls Inc. DC, is well aware that inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers involves more than one-off events. It’s why she offers their girls options to learn more about these subjects during the nonprofit’s after-school programs. These programs, as well as the Made with Code parties, are an extension of a six-week summer camp that is hosted in partnership with Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu and Lockheed Martin.

And the nonprofit also offers SHE-E-O Career Days, where their girls “speed network” with women in STEM careers. Thus far, more than 100 girls have networked with women at companies like Cisco, NASA, Exxon, and more. Girls Inc. DC says they are thrilled to be working with Google, and hope Made with Code can be the catalyst for more direct mentorship.

In the meantime, Girls Inc. DC is focused on its Crowdrise campaign to buy an onsite 3D printer. Lombardi says the campaign will run at least through the end of 2014. She hopes that an on-site printer will allow their girls to see the instant results of their work, and continue coding/creating.

After all, there’s no national shortage of princesses – but there is a national shortage of engineers.

Purpose is the key to Computer Programming

Annie Murphy Paul, The Brilliant Blog

Why does this matter?

Teachers are often called upon to answer this question about an academic subject, and computer science instructors may face this demand more frequently than most. Learning to write lines of code can seem, to many students, like a pointless exercise in tedium.

But a few professors of computer science have a compelling reply at the ready. They are participants in the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project, known as HFOSS—or, more grandly, Software for Humanity. Why does this matter? these professors might respond. Because it’s helping to feed needy people in Haiti, or to deliver supplies to earthquake survivors in China, or to manage the medical care of malaria victims in Rwanda.

These are all actual real-world humanitarian missions that have benefited from computer programming services provided for free by students engaged in an HFOSS project. Started in 2007 at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and now operating at a dozen East Coast colleges and universities from Maine to Washington, D.C., the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software project brings together students eager to solve real-world problems with social service agencies desperate for their help.

In Haiti, a nonprofit organization called ACDI/VOCA uses an app developed by student coders to track data on recipients of food rations. In China, volunteers assisting the victims of an earthquake were managed via a computerized system programmed by college students. And in Rwanda, doctors employ an electronic medical record system, created in part by U.S. undergraduates, to monitor the spread of malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. The HFOSS project has been likened to the well-known charity Habitat for Humanity—except that, instead of building houses for the needy, participants are building computer programs for use in situations where information is the scarcest and most precious resource.

One of the goals driving the project is to draw a more diverse group of students to computer science—young people, including women and minorities, who might find the prospect of helping people in need around the globe more appealing than learning programming for its own sake. Another aim is to counter misconceptions about what computer programmers actually do. Participants learn that “programming is part of a complex, team-oriented, creative process,” writes Ralph Morelli, a professor of computer science at Trinity, in an article he authored with other colleagues involved in the project. “The HFOSS development process has no room for lone programmers working in isolation.”

Students who volunteer their efforts also gain real-world experience that is likely to make them more attractive to employers —experience that is often hard to come by in academic settings. Take the Sahana project, for example. Sahana is a disaster management system used in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides and other catastrophes to coordinate information about survivors, volunteers and supplies. HFOSS students write sections of code that update, adapt and expand on the current system, but in accordance with the standards set out by the students’ “client,” the Sahana Software Foundation. All student-produced code is reviewed by the Sahana team before being incorporated into the system. Documentation must be provided and deadlines met in a large-scale international collaboration, similar to the ones computer science graduates will likely encounter in the workplace.

Students may even forge contacts with industry professionals. Consultants fromAccenture, the management consulting and technology services firm, serve as volunteer mentors and advisors to students working on HFOSS projects. (Funding for the HFOSS program comes from a grant from the National Science Foundation.)

But the most unexpected benefit of helping to create “software for humanity” is that it likely improves students’ learning. An emerging body of research demonstrates that students who find meaning and relevance in their studies are more engaged and motivated to master the material. Students must recognize the value of academic work themselves, however—it can’t simply be pointed out by an instructor.

In fact, a teacher’s heavy-handed emphasis on the relevance of students’ coursework can even backfire. Several studies have found, for example, that informing students that the study of mathematics will be important to their futures actually underminesinterest in math among students who weren’t very interested in math to start with, or who have doubts about their competence in math.

A more effective approach is to “encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of course material to their lives,” writes Chris S. Hulleman, a research associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, in a 2010 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Hulleman and his coauthors found that a writing exercise in which students were asked to apply the material they were learning in their math or psychology courses to their own lives increased their interest in those subjects. The effect was strongest among students who had low expectations for their performance in math or psychology, or had performed poorly in these subjects in the past.

Other research reports that even when academic work is boring, providing a “pro-social, beyond-the-self-oriented purpose for learning” helps students to persist in the face of boredom, and can even help them raise their grades. “When tasks are likely to be experienced as tedious or uninteresting—as many repetitive, foundational, skill-building math and science tasks are in the U.S.—it can be helpful to focus on creating meaning,” writes Angela Duckworth in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. (Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is most famous for having demonstrated the importance of “grit” to academic success.)

In the case of building “software for humanity,” the relevance and purpose of the work hardly needs pointing out. Students can see how their experience working on real-world programming projects will benefit them when it’s time to apply for a job in the field. And HFOSS participants are well aware that their efforts are contributing to a cause bigger than themselves. When instructors supply a satisfying answer to students’ pressing question—“Why does this matter?”—engagement, motivation and persistence take care of themselves.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Is a sense of relevance and purpose the key to engagement, motivation and persistence? Please share your thoughts on my blog. And if you’d like to browse past issues of The Brilliant Report, click here.

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Annie
Annie