ISTE, Python and Robots

June 28, 2011

Monday I was at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Philadelphia to give a version of the same talk I gave at PyCon in March, talking about my experiences teaching Python using the combination of Scribbler robot and Fluke bluetooth board developed by Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr. I think the talk went reasonably well – 50 or so attended, and they laughed in the right places, which is my main criterion for success. I also got to say hi to a few old acquaintances and even meet a couple of new faces with Python edu-sig connections.

Although I was talking about a class I’d taught, and combining robots with Python, the other point that I hope the audience also got was the need to make programming classes relevant, real, interesting, and above all, darned cool. As anyone who’s heard me talk about it knows, I’m happiest teaching project based courses where we’re free to pursue interesting topics as they come up. Writing a chat bot in Python, plotting the Mandelbrot set in Java, or trying to crack passwords in C, it’s the joy of tackling a hard problem and doing something really exciting that has driven all of my best classes.

It doesn’t have to be robots, or necessarily Python, but if kids don’t leave a programming class feeling they’ve truly done something pretty amazing, I think we’ve missed the boat. That feeling I think is key to getting a more diverse group of kids into the field (yes, I mean girls, but others as well) and it should be within reach – there’s so much amazing stuff they can do.

I’m not alone in this thinking, of course. Many of the edu-sig gang have done great work in this regard, including Jeff Elkner, Kirby Urner and Brian Brumley, and many others. But we’re too few, and too spread out. In general, the state of secondary and middle school programming instruction in this country reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke about the Jewish ladies at the resort, “The food is so awful here…”  “Yes! And such small portions!” We have to keep working on that from all sides.

I was also surprised to find that I was the only Python related talk at all of ISTE. I’m afraid the joke is right – if it doesn’t cost money, it gets no traction at ISTE. Similarly, there were only a few other open source related talks, a sad decline from my first couple of years at ISTE (then NECC) as the Python presenter at the start of the Open Source Pavilion. Then it looked like open source software might make a real dent in one of the most commercialized conferences I’ve ever attended. I could seriously say that I went to preach Python and open source at NECC because that’s where the unconverted were. Well, the unconverted are still there, and more numerous than ever, I’m afraid.

Still, there were some encouraging notes. Out of the 50 or so who attended my talk there was one gentleman who was trying to get programming classes offered by his school, and who thought that Python and robots might actually be the way to persuade his administration to try it. Another was reworking an established program to include more Python as the capstone language, because, as he put it, “all the colleges are switching to it”. I truly hope he’s right on that one.

Finally, thanks to my employer Zoro Tools ( for giving me the time to go make the presentation – go buy something
from us – we sell nearly everything. 😉

And even greater thanks go to the Python Software Foundation Board for supporting my trip. My rather quick departure from Canterbury for had left my travel to ISTE unfunded, and the PSF stepped in to help me for the second time. That’s probably something that the PSF should brag about somewhere – what other open source programming language’s foundation has cared enough about education to send someone to speak at big conferences like ISTE? If others have, good for them, but I’m thinking it’s pretty rare.

One of the Biggest Challenges in Teaching Programming

May 26, 2007

It’s not what you think. It’s not “when do you introduce objects?” Nor is it “which language?” or even “which approach?”

Nope. As a teacher for all these  years I’ve found the hardest thing about teaching programming is coming up with the right problems. Lets face it – the bulk of problems and examples in almost all programming texts are just awful. They tend to be simpleminded, boring, obscure, or just plain lame. We’re all sick of the dreaded “hello world” first program. When I titled my last PyCon talk “Goodbye hello world” I got a reasonably full room, probably largely because of the title.

Not that I’m free of blame either. I’ve assigned the various calculators, cash registers, math functions, etc. right along with everyone else. Because they need to do something and it’s hard to come up with problems that are at the right level of difficulty, illustrate the concept being taught, and are interesting, engaging and fun.  So we just do the best that we can and hope to get through before the boredom sets in.

Of course, I’m being a bit sneaky here. I’m hoping someone will read this post and refute me by posting a bunch of boffo exercises. That would really teach me… 😉

I have found a few problems/projects that I thought did work well, so let me get the ball rolling:

  • Conway’s Life – great for several things, including 2-D arrays, simulations and timesteps, even objects. Kids can find it fascinating and every time I assign it, at least one kid gets completely wrapped up in it.
  • graphics and animation – in Python the Livewires library makes animation pretty easy, and kids have enjoyed making things move around the screen. They also are learning looping and branching at a minimum, but they don’t seem to notice.
  • turtles – replacing “hello world” with some simple turtle graphics has also worked well. And the sequence of movements makes the idea of a program as a sequence of instructions clear from the beginning.

‘Learn Python’ Launches

May 26, 2007

Welcome. This is the inaugural post for a collection of odds and ends (probably mostly odds) relating to the process of learning (and teaching) Python. I’ve been programming for 20 years and teaching programming for over half that time, and a proponent of Python since 2000. I’m also working on an upcoming book on Python for a well-known series by a well-know tech publisher. (More of that later )

My hope is that this blog will generate some discussion and that it will be useful both to the readers and to me. There is a movement in education circles called “Writing Across the Curriculum” which talks quite a bit about the benefits of “writing to learn”. If nothing else, that should work.