Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Right-Brained Computer Science Fair

Once again it's the season of the Pennsylvania Middle School Computer Science Fair. Here are some of this year's top awards:

1st Place - Logo Design

2012 middle School Computer Science Fair logo symbolizes the integration of technology in our lives and features a Quick Reader ta to the fair's website for smart phone users.

1st Pace - Desktop Publishing

Inspired by Laura Crawford's books on New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago, this children's book features cheery postcards written by a young girl during a trip to Philadelphia. Each page features a popular designation in our city for families. Look closely and you'lll notics that the names of Amy's friends help the reader to spell Philadelphia--Penelope, Holly, Iris, Belia, Alexis, Danny, Ella, Lisa, Pam, Holly, Isaac, and Alex. Quick Reader tags are included to give the reader with a smart phone internet access to each destination's website.

1st Place - Digital Video

This jazzy music vieo is in appreciation of Philadelphia as a popular designation for families with teenagers. The vieo features an original score, choreography and lyrics sure to please teens as well as their parents.

1st Place - Multimedia

This mutimedia project is about the history and impact of volunteerism. The project features the efforts of the University of the Sciences, families and other organizations to transform a trash-filled vacant lot in West Philaelphia into the Lower Mill Creek Garden. With 3,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia alone, the impact of a community-building beautification project could have a significant impact on our city.

1st Place Web Page

Pollution Solution is a website designed to motivate young adolescents to take better care of our environment making small changes every day.

2nd Place - Graphic Design

Based on the organization Tree Tenders in Philadelphia, this project features a complete marketing package of logo, leterhead poster and business cards for a fictional organization, "Earth Strength." The theme of the design is to inpire community members of support tree-planting projects, which will improve the beauty of our city, and enhance the environment.
Not a single category, it would seem, for actual computer programming. No sense that computer programming involves anything more that the consumption and marketing of computer technology. No sense of the tremendous analytical skills that go into the coding that makes all the rest of this possible.

And yet another area that has been hijacked away from the most left-brained of our students.

Perhaps there's some virtue in this contest, but could we possibly call it something other than a "Computer Science" fair?

And could we possibly have a city-wide Computer Science Fair that's actually worthy of the name--i.e., one that showcases the work of those who do actual programming? I'm thinking, in particular, of autistic spectrum students like J, who spent about an hour writing up a program in Python that lists all the different ways to create a given amount of money using pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters:

def coins():
    num=input('Enter the number: ')
    a = 0
    b = 0
    c = 0
    d = num
    e = num/10 % 1
    f = num/10 - e + 1
    g = 0
    h = num
    i = num
    j = num
    k = num
    while a < k/25 - (k/25 % 1) + 1:
        while b < j/10 - (j/10 % 1) + 1:
            while c < i/5 - (i/5 % 1) + 1:
                print "quarters: " + str(a) + " dimes: " + str(b) + " nickels: " + str(c) + " pennies: " + str(h)
                h = h - 5
                c = c + 1
            i = i - 10
            h = i
            b = b + 1
            c = 0
        j = j - 25
        h = j
        i = j
        a = a + 1
        b = 0
while 1==1:

No one showed him how to do nesting while-loops, or even suggested this strategy to him: a novice programmer, he wrote this code all by himself.

The reason I keep harping on this is that it's in output like this where I see J's potential for earning a living, for feeling happy and productive, and for giving something back to the world.

Wouldn't it be nice if today's schools gave young programmers like J even a fraction of the recognition they give our young graphic designers and desktop publishers?


John said...

I am proud of your son! Though, more descriptive variables and comments could have helped someone else read it early in the morning. If he starts writing a lot of code he might want to start commenting it (it doesn't need to be flowerly language) or using variable names that self comment, so he can easily understand his older code.

About the main point; I am getting used to the idea that people don't see computers like a lot of us do. Computer graphics are neat, even awesome... but databases and recursive functions and statistical software allow us to multiply our reasoning abilities and consider datasets previously inaccessible to humans.

People like to reduce things to a pretty large epsilon. "Spreadsheets and databases involve me entering data, and the pummeling unsuspecting clients to submission with charts, so they are the same thing!"

And to those who know what spreadsheets and databases are, its like someone saying "All of 4 dimensions of spacetime exist on a single, easily broken piece of cotton string" How can you possibly say it? Well they interact (barely) with the technology in similar ways. They know a spreadsheet is not photoshop.

I suggest your son check out MIT's 6.00 course ( or via itunes.) it'll augment his experimental approach to python, without going all dogmatic on him.

Plus if he really gets how recursion works, he might gain a model of how to moderate his behavior using simple rules that break down a hard problem (cleaning a room) into an easy one (cleaning part of a room, then another part, then another part.)

He might like the not perfect, but better than nothing analogy of metacognition as an understanding of one's programming and how to program oneself.

Then you could also teach him about developmental psychology?

(Btw, I am not trying to understate his autism, or suggest a "cure" or any other really simplistic or short sighted things. I am making a guess that as he accumulates models of how other things work, he might be interested in how he works, and become an active participant in raising himself.

those people who process things in a way sometimes labelled psychonormal can do this too, but are often too distracted by social concerns and their erroneous belief that they understand things already.)

Oh, I left off.. I am proud of you too! I wish my parents had taken such a cognitive and thoughtful role in my education.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, John!!! for your very thoughtful and helpful response. I'm taking your suggestions very much to heart and will report back as things progress. A computational approach to all subjects, including one's own personal psychology, is very much what AS kids like J need.

" I am making a guess that as he accumulates models of how other things work, he might be interested in how he works, and become an active participant in raising himself. " --very nicely put!

Anonymous said...

How about a new name for that event: the Philadelphia Marketing Fair?

LexAequitas said...

I wonder how many art fairs are called "Chisel and Paint" fairs? Or how many architecture competitions are dominated by decorative sculpture and interior design?

Garth said...

I take it there are no computer science teachers in that city? If I were I would be very embarrassed.

Doug Blank said...

Do you have a link to this event? I would like to be able to contact those involved.

Katharine Beals said...

Try as I might, I haven't been able to find a link. All I have is a hard copy of the prizes that came home in my son's backpack. So another disturbing thing about this fair is how poorly publicized it is.