Saturday, March 9, 2013

SIGCSE 2013 Conference Report, Day 3

(Day 1) (Day 2)

I had toyed with the idea of skipping the morning session to have breakfast with a friend, but it turns out he had a coauthored paper being presented. I didn't go to his session, but I ended up at the "Computational Thinking" session. Am I glad I went! The session was well-attended considering that Nifty was going on at the same time, and that's always a big draw. What was most exciting about this session was that each presentation was given by a senior researcher. I don't mind grad students giving papers—in fact, it's critical that they learn to do it. It just happened that these papers were all given by very bright researchers, and they had both good insights and good responses to questions.

Alexander Repenning talked about the sustainability of K-12 interventions; that is, how well do they continue once the researchers leave the scene? His results were promising, and his research group is trying to tackle a very difficult problem of scale. As part of his presentation, he included an infographic that took Csikszentmihalyi's Flow diagram and injected Zone of Proximal Development into it, wedging ZPD between "Flow" and "Anxiety." I asked for a clarification, which prompted him to explain fundamental definitions of Flow and ZPD—probably helpful for others to frame the question, but not really addressing my concern. I am not sure that these two theories live in a planar embedding on the skill/challenge axes. If one considers points moving through the Flow space over time (adding time as third dimension), I suspect ZPD would embed into upper-right arcs. I need to think about this some more. Repenning suggested that his group has some methods for tracking student projects through this two-dimensional space, and that it is useful; I should follow up with him to see how they're doing it. I had never really thought of combining Vygotsky and Csikszentmihalyi in this way, but I still have some doubts about the simplicity of the proposed overlay.

The next presentation in this session was given by Yasmin Kafai, who spoke about the social aspects of computing. I got several references from her talk that I should investigate, including Samba Schools and Scratch, Jr. During Q&A, I asked her about her thoughts on the relationship between social learning and individual grading a la GPA and NCLB. She thought for a moment and suggested that badges-for-learning is a valuable effort in this direction. I like this model of badges as a wedge, a way of getting leverage into an otherwise closed system.

The third presenter was David Touretzky, who reported on an effort to teach kids computational thinking with a fast-pased introduction to Kodu, Alice, and Lego NXT. One interesting result was that, in this intensive one-week introduction, the robots took the cake. Touretzky is a robotics researcher and so certainly is not unbiased, but knowing kids... yeah, programming robots would be pretty cool. An interesting aside: Touretzky mentioned that if he could only teach two computational tools to someone, they would be state machines and trees. A beautiful choice, I say—not sure I could do any better.

My talk was in the next session. Although it was called "Capstones," only the first presenter talked about capstones. I am sad to report that my presentation was very sparsely attended. There were less than ten people in the audience besides the other presenters, maybe less than five. At some point, you just try not to count. I find this sad, because I really loved this work and writing this paper, and I know that hearing papers presented is often an inspiration to read them and incorporate their ideas.

On the positive side, I think it was well-received. During Q&A, all the questions were really about the VBC experience, not the assessment model I presented. Someone asked about how well the arts and humanities students adopted the agile methodology, and I explained how it helped to give them an early win, so that they could understand how and why Scrum operated. Another asked about how the relationship with the Children's Museum related to the initiation and execution of the project, and afterwards, he and I had a good discussion about the pros and cons of no-cost student projects with non-profits. In the coding of sprint retrospectives, I used the terms Collaboration, Community, Support, and Learning; one attendee explained after the talk that she thought "Support" meant something completely different until I talked through it. This was great feedback, since the terms only really made sense to me, and her recommendation—"Resources"—really was better than mine.

The lunch was good aside from a rotten tomato in my salad. Since I was the only person out of 1300 attendees who had a sour face and left the room, I think I had the only one, which is not a bad rate. Jane Margolis talked about diversity, it being the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Unlocking the Clubhouse. She mentioned that she had expected to give a rather somber presentation until about six weeks ago, but that now we have exciting news such as President Obama's advocacy of teaching computing to everyone and the phenomenal success of the video. The numbers for diversity are still low, and she pointed to the dangers of growing too fast in the wrong ways: if we don't take this opportunity to grow Computer Science for all, we risk staying in the shallow end of diversity. In particular, she pointed out how several of the video celebrities came from privileged backgrounds, which could enforce the idea that programming is some kind of inborn skill as opposed to learn. Also, she pointed out that the video talked mostly about programming as if it were the goal, ignoring the years of work by the CS Education community in getting people to understand that computing and computational thinking are not only realized through programming.

I typed this day's report from the airport, where I await my on-time departure. Many flights have been cancelled and postponed due to inclement weather, but I think these are mostly smaller planes. Now it's time for me to enjoy a few more minutes on the ground before packing up. Thanks for reading! I already have a few ideas for papers for SIGCSE 2014 in Atlanta...


  1. Did Jane talk about retention? Based on my own experience working with many computer science majors from underrepresented groups, that is the key issue. We have no problem attracting them, but getting them through the major successfully is a huge issue. Incidentally, although I loved the video, it is not something that would "speak" to our students.

    1. She didn't talk about retention explicitly that I remember---only implicitly through the dangers that underrepresented groups assume they don't have innate abilities that others appear to have, but in fact are an effect of privilege. Her main focus was on attracting underrepresented groups in the first place, showing them in high school and earlier that this is something they can do. This was balanced against a rallying cry for we CS educators to consider what we really value: Computer Science for All, or preparing a pipeline of the privileged (an alliterative paraphrasing).