SIGCSE 2002 Conference

Getting UpDated At the SIGCSE Conference

March 16, 2002

If nothing else, the world's largest conference for Computer Science Educators tugged and prodded its participants into getting online with the latest and greatest hype, software and books. In addition to the Conference Proceedings, I returned home with ten new textbooks and gobs of software.

MicroSoft gave me (and every teacher there) original copies of Professional ($1300), their mother of all development environments that supports interlocking use of objects created in any of an increasing number of programming languages. MicroSoft also gave every teacher an original copy of their new XP Professional operating system ($350). Borland was equally generous in giving everyone their new C++ development IDE, Builder 6.0 Professional ($1000). Wiley gave everybody a software package called Program Live ($125), a Java programming software learning environment and companion textbook. Monash University distributed oodles of CD's with it's latest version of it's BlueJ 1.1.6 (FREE!!), integrated Java environment specifically designed for introductory teaching. Borland also gave us all trial editions (expires after 60 days) of JBuilder, Delphi, and Kylix.

I was expecially pleased with the textbooks. Five of the books were by the Deitel father and son team from Prentice Hall. It is my sincere opinion that they publish the best learning packages for independent learning on the market. Their material is authorative (correct!), colourful, visual, and readable. Their kinetic pedagogy that they call "live code" allows the learner to see the results instantaneously. I now promote the use of their material among colleagues and students because, quite bluntly, I am fed up with teachers and students being burdoned with error laden manuscripts being hurried to market. When we find something that our classroom experience shows it to be superb, I think we have a duty to promote it.

That said, I obtained several copies of Cay Horstmann's Java books on the recommendation of my room mate whose opinion of Horstmann was extremely high.

I have already given each of these books the once over and plan to peruse them very carefully in the next few months. I keep them in my classroom so that my students may also peruse and use them. I have come to the opinion that new learning materials, be they books or software or other, ought to first be exposed to the trials of real, live students before class sets are ordered. Our students are, after all, our target audience!

Using LEGO Minstorms Across the Computer Science Curriculum

March 16, 2002

I experienced much more from the SIGCSE (Special Interest Group for Computer Science Educators) Conference than I reported on March 5 (see below). Since then I have graded thousands of pages (literally!!) of IB dossiers. They were wonderful and I shall report on them when all are in after early April.

I think that the single most exciting computer science area today is robotics. No longer are input and output defaults a keyboard and monitor. For decades industrial robots have relieved humans of tasks that are mind-numbing boring. Robots have made it possible to raise quality control to heights unfathomable with human labour. Now, with products such as LEGO's MindStorms, robots becomes a "toy" to learn with in homes and schools.

The LEGO MindStorms session was full and I was thirteenth on the waiting list, but Frank Klassner, one of the organizers, consented to letting me "watch" since an alternative session conflicted with a session that I was already enrolled in. I am deeply ingratiated to Frank for letting me watch.

The session begins. All participants have a computer. They are in pairs. Each pair will share access to a LEGO MindStorms robot kit. An organizer explains that the LEGO kit is used in their courses because of its affordable price. It is $200 U.S. or $300 Canadian. I purchased the most recent version (with USB ports) in Calgary in mid-March, 2002 from Toys-R-Us for $299 + GST. (It was a birthday present for my youngest son, Gordon. Shades of déjà vu: he loved LEGO when he was younger. Unlike earlier models that only had a serial port to connect to a PC and hence consumed batteries in rapid fashion, the new model draws power through USB ports and thus does not need batteries when thus tethered to a PC. It may still run under battery power when not tethered to a PC through a USB port, of course.

A couple of the nicest guys that I met at the Conference let me share their workshop experience. David Valentine from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania is in the forefront and Chuck Leska in the background. Here we see David illustrating the handbook that comes with the kit.

David and Chuck busily put various parts of the kit together. The three hour workshop just flew.

Ah!! The robot is assembled. It's a beauty, isn't it?!! The RCX brick (the yellow chassis) has 3 input and 3 output ports, but only 2 motors. The motors are controlled through gearing ratios via a transmission. You can buy extra parts ... for more moola, of course.

Frank recommended that you also buy the angle sensor (aka rotational sensor) in addition to the kit (about $19 Amnerican dollars) because you can put an axle in it. It clicks and counts the clicks. This allows you to measure distance, speed and whether the robot is making forward progress.

Version 2.0 (the kit used in the workshop and which I purchased) has 32K (as in kilobytes ... not megabytes!), 16K of which is consumed by firmware. The LEGO kit comes with a graphical language that is limited because of the firmware. You can use other languages with the LEGO kit.

  • LeJOS - can program the RCX brick in Java from Windows or Linux.
  • NQC - The "Not Quite C" language runs on every platform. It is based on the original LEGO.
  • LISP - runs on a PC but not a MAC OS.
  • LEGO-OS - replaces the firmware. It is like Linux or UNIX. It pretends that it is an OS.

LeJOS is Java for the RCX. It piggybacks on the back of a Java compiler. To use it, you must therefore first install Java on your PC and then install LeJOS. Instead of running "Javac", run "LeJOSC".

All good things must end, and so it was at a very late hour that one and all left the SIGCSE Friday night workshops and bussed their way back to the hotel. The workshops were held in the computer labs of the University of Kentucky.

SIGCSE Conference 2002 Great

March 5, 2002

I attended the SIGCSE Conference in Cincinnati from last Wednesday until last Sunday ... five incredibly hectic days of listening and discussing and observing and mingling. It was great to interact with over 1100 other computer science teachers that teach much the same content that I do. I took my wife's digital camera and captured some of the more photogenic highlights that I experienced while there. Unfortunately I don't have pictures of other highlights which consisted primarily of brilliant and exciting ideas relished through presentations of papers.

Roomies Jonathan Stevens of Metuchen, New Jersey (left) and Gerry Donaldson of Calgary, Alberta

My favourite session involved using toys such as children's stacking cups and Lego© blocks to teach algorithms, data structures and math concepts. It was presented by Joe Hollingsworth of Indiana and Wayne Heym from Ohio.

Everybody was given a set of children's coloured stacking cups from a nearby dollar store.

Joe Hollingsworth demonstrates sorting items (coloured stacking cups) in an array of cells (numbered soap dishes).

Wayne Heym demonstrates a binary tree structure (made of PVC pipes) and the data items of each node (numbered cardboard pieces attached to the binary tree (pipes) with velcro). Joe indicated that you could also use "kinex" or tinker toys to build a binary tree!

Joe and Wayne claimed that using toys is especially effective when used with a partner as one student demonstrates an algorithm (eg. selection sort) to another student. We did that and it was fun!

Joe and Wayne demonstrate the use of a "sorting box". You actually don't know if sorting is happening ("black box"). You start with "insertion" and move to "extraction".

Wayne demonstrates a "partial map" (aka "dictionary", aka "symbol table"). It has a domain (items) and a range. The operations are "add a pair" and "remove a pair". You can't have two different range values for the same domain, like you can't have two people with the same Social Insurance Number. Use snack bags to represent an "ordered pair" and ... see graphic below.

Joe demonstrates using a big zip lock bag holding a "partial map".

I Will Attend the SIGCSE 2002 Conference
February 24, 2002

I will attend the SIGCSE 2002 Conference in Cincinnati during February 27 through March 3, 2002.

Click here to see a pdf file of my Personal Conference Schedule.

SIGCSE is the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education. The ACM, or "Association for Computing Machinery", is the world's oldest educational and scientific computing society. It was founded in 1947. The ACM presently has over 80,000 members worldwide.

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