TITLE: SIGCSE Day 1 -- Innovating our Image AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 17, 2008 4:18 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

[A transcript of the SIGCSE 2008 conference: Table of Contents]

Owen Astrachan and Peter Denning I ended the first day by attending a two-man "panel" of NSF's inaugural CISE Distinguished Educational Fellows, Owen Astrachan and Peter Denning. The CDEF program gives these two an opportunity to work on wild ideas having the potential "to transform undergraduate computing education on a national scale, to meet the challenges and opportunities of a world where computing is essential to U.S. leadership and economic competitiveness across all sectors of society." A second-order effect of these fellowships is to have a soapbox (Denning) or bully pulpit (Astrachan) to push their ideas out into the world and, more important, to encourage the rest of the community to think about how to transform computing education, whether on the CDEF projects or on their own. Owen went first. He opened by saying that the CDEF call for proposals had asked for "untested ideas", and if he couldn't propose one of those, well... I've mentioned his Problem Based Learning learning project here before, as part of an ongoing discussion of teaching that is built around real problems, projects, and meaningful context. Owen's talk described some of the motivation for his project and the perceived benefits. I'll try to report his talk faithfully, but I suspect that some of my own thoughts will creep in. When we talk to the world as we talk among ourselves -- about choices of programming language, IDE, operating systems, ... -- we tell the world that tools are the coin of our realm. When an engineer comes to us and asks for a course using MATLAB, we may be 100% technically correct to respond "Python is better than MATLAB. Here's why..." -- but we send the wrong message, a damaging message, which makes it the wrong response. We can engage those folks better if we talk to them about the problems they need help solving. In many ways, that is how computing got its start, and it is time for us again to look outside our discipline for problems to solve, ideas to explore, and motivation to advance the discipline. Increasingly, outside our discipline may well be the place for us to look for learners, as fewer folks express interest in computing for computing's sake and as more non-computing look for ways to integrate computing into their own work. (Like scientists and even artists.) That is one motivation for the PBL project. Another was the school Owen's children attend, where all learning is project-based. Students work on "real" problems that interest them, accumulating knowledge, skill, and experience as they work on increasingly challenging and open-ended projects. Problems have also driven certain kinds of scientific professional education at the university level for many decades. For the first time in any of his talks I've seen, Owen took some time to distinguish problem-based learning from project-based learning. I didn't catch most of the specific differences, but Owen pointed us all to the book Facilitating Problem-Based Learning by Maggi Savin-Baden for its discussion of the differences. This is, of course, of great interest to me, as I have been thinking a lot in the last year or more about the role project-based courses can play in undergraduate CS. Now I know where to look for more to think about. As a part of eating his own dog food, Owen is trying to ratchet up the levelof dialogue in his own courses this year by developing assignments that are based on problems, not implementation techniques. One concrete manifestation of this change is shorter write-ups for assignments, which lay out only the problem to be solved and not so much of his own thinking about how students should think about the problem. He likened this to giving his students a life jacket, not a straitjacket. I struggle occasionally with a desire to tie my students' thinking up with my own, and so wish him well. Where do we find problems for our CS majors to work on? Drawing explicitly from other disciplines is one fruitful way, and it helps CS students see how computing matters in the world. We can also draw from applications that young people see and use everyday, which has the potential to reach an even broader audience and requires less "backstory". This is something the elementary patterns folks have worked on at ChiliPLoP in recent years, for example 2005. (Ironically, I am typing this in my room at the Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center, as I prepare for ChiliPLoP 2008 to begin in the morning. Outside my window is no longer rainy Portland but a remarkably cold Arizona desert.) Owen said we only need to be alert to the possibilities. Take a look at TinyURL -- there are several projects and days of lecture there. Google the phrase dodger ball; why do we get those results? You can talk about a lot of computer science just by trying to reach an answer. After telling us more about his NSF-funded project, Owen closed with some uplifting words. He hopes to build a community around the ideas of problem-based learning that will benefit from the energy and efforts of us all. Optimism is essential. Revolutionizing how we teach computing, and how others see computing, is a daunting task, but we can only solve problems if we try. Denning took the stage next. He has long been driven by an interest in the great principles of computing, both as a way to understand our discipline better and as a way to communicate our discipline to others more effectively. His CDEF project focuses on the different "voices" of computing, the different ways that the world hear people in our discipline speak. In many ways, they correspond to the different hats that computing people wear in their professional lives -- or perhaps our different personalities in a collective dissociative identity disorder. Denning identifies seven voices of computing: the programmer, the computational thinker, the user, the mathematician, the engineer, the scientist, and the "catalog". That last one was a mystery to us all until he explained it, when it became our greatest fear... The catalog voice speaks to students and outsiders in terms of the typical university course descriptions. These descriptions partition our discipline into artificial little chunks of wholly uninteresting text. What makes these voices authentic? Denning answered the question in terms of concepts and practices. To set up his answer, he discussed three levels in the development of a person's understanding of a technology, from mystical ("it works") to operational (concrete models) to formal (abstractions). Our courses often present formal abstractions of an idea before students have had a chance to develop solid concrete models yet. We often speak in terms of formal abstraction to our colleagues from other disciplines. We would be more effective if instead we worked on their problems with them and helped them create concrete results that they can see and appreciate. One advantage of this is that the computing folks are speaking the language of the problem, rather than the abstract language of algorithms and theory. Another is that it grounds the conversation in practices, rather than concepts. Academics like concepts, because they are clean and orderly, more than practices, which are messy and often admit no clean description. Denning asserts that voices are more authentic when grounded in practices, and that computing hurts itself whenever it grounds its speech in concepts. His project also aims to create a community of people around his ideas. He mentioned something like a "Rebooting Computing" summit that will bring together folks interested in his CDEF vision and, more broadly, in inspiring a return to the magic and beauty of computing. Let's see what happens. I heard several common threads running through Astrachan's and Denning's presentations. One is that we need to be more careful about how we talk about our discipline. Early on, Denning's said that we should talk about what computing is and how we do it, and not how we think about things. We academics may care about that, but no one else does. Later, Owen said that we should talk about computational doing, not computational thinking. These both relate to the intersection of their projects, where solving real problems in practice is the focus. -----