Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Education Can Be Recreation This Thanksgiving

Chances are, you're going to have a hard time trying to avoid technology this Thanksgiving... so why not surprise your family by embracing the robotic uprising this year, rather than trying to prevent it?
Computer Science Education Week is the second week of December, and Thanksgiving week will make a fantastic preview for the hundreds of lessons that have been tailored for the experience.
In general, there are two categories of computer science opportunities that are being made available to the public. First, an unprecedented number of free, self-guided online tutorials have been hand-crafted for those seeking a one hour computer science preview. Among those, you'll see new twists on old favorites, such as Codecademy, and exciting new experiences like Blockly. There are even options with catchy jingles, like the Javascript Road Trip. Any of these would be memorable moments to gather  your family around the computer for.
But what about the families that don't revel in the thought of staring at a computer screen for an afternoon of giving thanks?  There is an option for you, too!  Offered among the many one hour tutorials is a category dubbed "Unplugged."  These options are based on arts, crafts, and playtime. One of the most popular unplugged activities is easily played together with as few as two people, and as many as a school-full.  Utilizing only plastic cups and paper, My Robotic Friends was created to teach the important concepts behind computer science in the form of a cup stacking game. It's a fun and addictive experience that can be played with all ages at the same time.
If you feel like you've heard about Computer Science Education Week and An Hour of Code before, it's probably due to the passion and outspoken relentlessness of organizations such as Code.org, who are striving to make this CSEd Week the biggest one so far. As of this week, their determination has paid off, with over 3 million students pledging to participate in at least one hour of code between December 9th and December 15th, 2013.
What will you pledge to do once the turkey has been eaten?

Follow Kiki Prottsman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kiki_lee
As seen in the Huffington Post on 11/26/2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Looking Back

When I started Geek Groupies back in 2008, I had no idea where I would be just five short years later. Back then, I didn't have much faith in my ability to persevere through adversity.  Heck, even the name of the blog "Geek Groupies" indicates that I felt like more of an observer on the geek world than part of it myself.  Now, here I am, a computer science instructor at the University of Oregon, and the Executive Director of Thinkersmith, a non-profit that teaches computer science to people as a creative art form.
Looking back over my previous posts, it's amusing to see what little bumps and discoveries I had in the beginning.  It's also sad to see that the biggest lags in posts came during times when I was experiencing so much growth.  I wish I had taken the opportunity to document my personal journey, rather than neglecting to share information during my days of stress and deadlines.  I'd like to think that this will inspire me to write more now, but knowing how difficult eighty hour weeks have been, I find it hard to imagine that I'll put off bed for thirty more minutes to record a thought or two.  Even still, now that the seed has been planted, I believe I'll make an effort.

A quick note about the present. Thinkersmith has taken off, almost faster than I can keep up.  I have team members now, and some of those team members even manage other team members!  We still do camps, classes, and workshops locally, but we have also developed a curriculum that others can use anywhere in the world (some of those lessons have even been translated into other languages by government agencies!)

Our curriculum was so well received that Thinkersmith was asked to join Code.org in the task of developing a K-8 computer science curriculum intended to be distributed worldwide by 2014 at no cost to schools! Of course we said yes.  The better part of my Sept/Oct/Nov was dedicated to this feat, and we're starting to see the finished result of months of trial and toil.

There's so much more to share, but I'm going to have to do it bit by bit.  If you're interested in what goes in to starting an international phenomenon, stay tuned!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Debating Higher Ed in Computer Science

Cartoon Girl by PippySqueaks

It's a constant battle. I hear people say it over and over again.

"In order to be a great programmer, you need a Bachelor of Arts degree."

The argument is that computer science is a discipline.  It's not a vocation.  One must study for years, learn all of the picayune details, develop mastery...


First, let me address the concept of a well rounded education.  I'm a fan.  Understanding a little about a lot of things is the key to understanding a lot about any one thing.  The premise that you must have a B.A. degree to achieve that is B.S..

To be clear, I think that the arts should be involved in every aspect of teaching from Kindergarten right on up through a Post-Post-Uber-Doc.  Learning to transform highbrow ideas into paintings, music, and poems forces you to process them and digest them, not just regurgitate them at testing time.  Plus, there's the added bonus that Americans have a somewhat inherent belief that there is no "wrong" in art.  Art is individual.  It's a process.  And as such, exploring scary things by way of an art project can take some of the fear of failure away.

That alone is not enough to accumulate a $40,000 debt in the name of your "future".

Over the course of my education, I have accumulated a debt greater than the annual GNP of some countries. I, however, still see it as a great value, because I learned a lot about myself, the world, and the way that networking gets things done.  I am 100% certain that without my college experience (independent of my college "education") my life would not be anywhere near as cool as it is today.

To sum it up:  For me, higher ed was vital. Being well-rounded is important, but college won't do that for everyone. Computer science is tough, but it can be made much easier (easy enough, in fact, for a toddler).  And for heaven's sake, you don't need to spend $20,000/year to get a job as a Software Engineer.

Start here free.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Do Your Colleagues Think You are "Tech Dumb"?

Do Your Colleagues Think You Are 'Tech Dumb'?

Posted: 02/05/2013 3:24 pm

There are several digital faux pas that grate on the nerves of people who are comfortable with 21st century computer skills. In fact, you may not even know that your coworkers perceive you as a digital idiot, because common courtesy prevents them from calling you out on your naiveté. If you're interested in protecting your reputation as an innovator, keep reading.

It's very common to look at a popular stream on a social networking site and see at least one entry where the commenter has posted in either all or inappropriately-mixed caps. Many times this is unintentional. If you have accidentally typed an entire post or email using the wrong capitalization convention (which typically should be sentence case) don't just shrug your shoulders and click send! The rest of the world sees that as a big, bold sign of ignorance. Take a moment to run your text through a case changer before you post.
If, on the other hand, you have created your message in all caps on purpose for the emphasis of yelling, you should most-likely delete the post altogether and try again when your medication kicks in. After all, trolls are the epitome of Internet stupidity.

2)  One Finger Typing
Nothing says "noob" faster than having someone in your office while you peck out an email with your pointer finger. Invest in your reputation by spending an hour on a keyboarding tutorial such as TypingWeb, then promise yourself you will practice proper typing from that point forward -- not even letting yourself resort to Hunt & Peck for rapid emails.

3)  Sending MS Word Documents When Formatting Matters
An increasing percentage of the population is putting trust into Apple, Google Docs, or OpenOffice. Gone are the days that you can assume that your audience will be using the same word processor as you do. If the format of your document matters, create a PDF. You don't have to use expensive software to transform your document, you can use a simple online converter, such as easyPDFcloud.

4)  Sending PDFs When Collaborating
PDFs are wonderful when you don't know what technology is being used on the other side of the email pipeline, but when you're working with a group to edit a document, they just aren't flexible enough. Google Docs is an extremely powerful tool for people who need to work together to get a document out the door... and it's free!

5)  Ignoring Hot Keys
Most operating systems provide a list of hot keys (or keyboard shortcuts) which allow you to easily do common tasks, without the overhead of moving your cursor to the menu bar. Microsoft and Apple both provide detailed lists of the shortcuts for their software. It's worth taking fifteen minutes to learn a few of these so that you can easily find a word, select-all, or copy and paste without losing your place.

Read this list over again and if any of these items apply to you, spend some time making these issues obsolete.  A little knowledge goes a long way!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Art of a Well-Rounded Education

Last week, I went to the local middle school to guest-teach a lesson on computer science to a group of 6th graders.  My particular brand of computational thinking education is very hands-on, relying on craft projects and games to illustrate key ideas. Imagine my surprise when the students flew through the lesson on algorithms, but got tripped up tying knots!

As the lesson came to an end, the teacher thanked me for coming and said in a hushed tone, "This was good for them. They need more practice using their hands.  Most of my students can't even cut out shapes with scissors these days."

Floored by that revelation, I decided to compare notes from other groups.  Sure enough, in short experiments, knot tying was a hurdle for kids grades K-8.  It's not just in my part of the world, either.  Back in March, a British survey claimed that school children are excelling in technology and lacking in common life skills.  Many believe that this is due to a decrease in time during the school day for subjects like art and music. This phenomenon has been studied and documented, defended and dismissed, but I continue to maintain that the rise of one specialty does not have to oust traditional talents.

My solution is simple and approachable.  Some call it Blended Learning, but really it's a common sense approach toward maintaining handicraft through education.  Just like I encourage my sons to "read the book" before they see a movie, I encourage students to experience concepts through real-life exercises before they play with technical simulations.  Tie knots.  Fold origami.  Play with Legos.  These things can teach you about anything from mathematics to programming to African savannas.  Best of all, it appeals to additional learning styles which aren't satisfied by purely audio or visual cues.

Amazing Paper Airplanes
This is not to say that the responsibility falls squarely on the schools.  The most promising approach is really to integrate these types of projects into fun activities at home and outside of school hours.  Encourage your children (or your friend's children) to make paper airplanes!  Use them to learn about aerodynamics.  That's fun at any age.

If you think that coming up with hands-on activities for your geography lesson, astronomy class, or book club is too difficult, hop on over to Pinterest.  Excellent teachers are pinning examples of hands-on curriculum all the time.  Don't see anything specific to your particular subject?  Send a tweet to me at @kiki_lee and I will personally help you find well-rounded activities for your kiddos.

As published in the Huffington Post on 10/19/2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is STEM, Anyway?

Professionals who spend any time in academics or grant-writing may have noticed that 2012 has become the year of STEM.  More precisely, it has become the year of talking about STEM.  That buzzword has been flying around so aggressively that it is now common to the vocabulary of educators from kindergarten through graduate school.  With such excitement surrounding that acronym, it has begun to leak out into every day society, and people all over America are starting to ask, "What the heck is STEM, anyway?"

Technically speaking, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.  That definition doesn't even begin to do it justice.  Those of us who live STEM, have realized that the vision conjured up by those words are nowhere near indicative of the excitement those subjects invoke.  Unofficially, STEM is the declaration that we, as a population, need to bring creativity, passion and art to our academics. The STEM movement is a progression toward blended learning and teaching students how to integrate the scientific method into their everyday lives.  It's the passionate manifesto that computational thinking needs to begin right along side shapes and phonics. STEM is the realization that math is embedded into the beauty of a daisy and the functionality of the placement of its leaves. 

Even as the President's Council highlights the "need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade", congress is prepared to cut funding for science and technology in schools.  This is extremely surprising, considering that 93% of parents believe that STEM education should be a priority in the United States.  

With 51% of parents believing that our schools are failing to make STEM education a priority, a handful of organizations have taken it upon themselves to pick up the slack.  National entities like Change the Equation are developing resources to entice students and educators to look further into the amazing opportunities that STEM provides.  Individuals like Vi Hart are using YouTube to illustrate just how romantically hysterical the mathematical universe can be.  Role Model networks like FabFems are providing support for women and non-traditional individuals who are often dissuaded from the STEM disciplines when they are left wanting for professional exemplars. Local organizations like Thinkersmith, are taking programs directly to their neighborhood schools, to alleviate the cost and subject-fear which typically snip STEM lessons from the classroom.

Now that you know what STEM means, I invite you to learn more about the many exciting and inspiring methods that can be used to pique interest in these careers again. Help us banish the negative connotations surrounding these subjects. The fight is far from over, but the fact that you know what STEM means is a positive indicator that we are taking steps in the right direction.  

Find a STEM Organization in your area by searching the NGCP Program Directory.

First published on 10/5/12 in Huffington Post.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Going Gaga Over Gaga

Having been overweight my entire life  (sometimes slightly, sometimes morbidly) it's no surprise to me that fat is unacceptable.  What does come as a surprise, is how crazy acceptance of people can be.

Recently, Lady Gaga came out as having been anorexic/bulimic for the majority of her life.  For that, she's accumulating much support over the Twittersphere and throughout other forms of social media.  This comes after a large amount of criticism over her 25 pound weight gain.

It shocks me that a lady who has been adored for her Caution-Tape swimsuits, Kermit Coat, and  Meat Gown would suddenly fall out of favor after a couple of months of eating at her father's Italian restaurant.  It's as if the public is saying "You're great just the way you are...as long as you're not fat."  What's more, their reaction to her bulimia bombshell seems to say "We support you in your food issues, as long as they threaten to kill you from being too skinny, rather than too fat."

None of this is news to me.  I've been in awe this way before.  This lesson goes back to my days in Second Life.  Back when I was a super-fat housewife, I used to spend a lot of time in that virtual world. It struck me that everyone was so accepting of all of the various avatars.  We had extremely popular admins who were furries, robots, aliens, monsters, zombies, and vampires.  We had huge parties surrounding pirates, emos, goths and Slime-heaps.  Amazingly, it didn't matter what you were in Second Life, you would be embraced...unless you were a fat woman.  That's right.  Obese male avatars were never questioned, but obese females were avoided, chastised and ridiculed.  If you add a couple of "pounds" to your female avatar's waist slider, suddenly you're interrogated with such gems as "Why don't you just make your middle a little smaller?" or "You know you can make yourself taller, right?" and "Why would you come to a virtual world and make yourself fat??"

I recognize that being overweight is unhealthy.  I know that striving for exercise and good eating habits are the best practice, but I don't think I'll ever get over the Zombie > Slime-Heap > Meat Dress > Overweight Woman hierarchy.