Saturday, November 7, 2009

Alice: the flexible tool for teaching programming.

This last Tuesday the Skyline High School was the featured school in the Colorado In Sync Expo in Longmont.

As you can see, there were four of the best MESA Intro to Programming students there to show off their skills to anyone who was interested.

Skyline is undergoing an interesting transformation as it is being remodeled and re-vamped to provide more resources and space for the schools two independant initiatives for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and VPA (Visual and Performing Arts).

Right from the start I knew that the STEM and VPA spheres would overlap. In fact, if I had to poll my programming students and Computer Club members, I'd say they'd be split about 50-50 between choosing STEM or VPA if they had to choose just one. Luckily, Computer Science at Skyline has been able to walk that fine line between science and art. Because the Comp Sci department is not funded by outside interests (like many CS programs that exist in the business departments of other schools), the department has had the freedom to make choices based soley on the interests of the students involved. For this reason, Open Source applications are used exclusively, including Python, Java, BlueJ, GIMP, Oregano, and, of course, Alice.

This year has been quite a year already in the Intro to Programming classes. When students are allowed to freely explore ideas, some unexpected uses of applications can be discovered. This is very apparent in how Skyline is using the Alice environment to extend computer science beyond the usual territory of learning to program. When you look at Alice creations examples online, you see that they tend to ... well ... look like Alice programs. This Fall, however, many of the creations I'm seeing are making me say things like, "You did THAT in Alice?!"

After corresponding with the Alice team at Carnegie Mellon University, I've decided to showcase these creative ideas and send them to Don Slater, from the core Alice team. Haven't decided yet where to post these for the public to see, but when I do (and I'll ask Don for advice on this), I'll put a link here. Hopefully you too will say, "Wow...that's done with Alice?!"

Of course this is just confirmation that Alice all along has been a great tool for teaching programming and comp sci. I think most people never really push a tool to it's limits, finding new ways to use that tool to create beautiful and expressive works of science AND art.

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